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Better Pascal than Pascal Bruckner

While defending the fundamentals of a free society, such as freedom of expression, with an iron will, we also need a large tolerance for cultural diversity. By Timothy Garton Ash

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash of propagating a form of multiculturalism that amounts to legal apartheid. His fiery polemic has unleashed and international debate. Here Timothy Garton Ash defends his position. By now Ian Buruma, Necla Kelek and Paul Cliteur have also stepped into the ring. Read all their contributions here.

"Tous errent d'autant plus dangereusement qu'ils suivent chacun une vérité, leur faute n'est pas de suivre une fausseté, mais de ne pas suivre une autre vérité." Pascal, Pensées

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies "Timothy Garton Ash" and "Ian Buruma" but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. I list below some of his misrepresentations and inaccuracies, with a few weblinks for the curious.

Pascal Bruckner speaks in the name of the Enlightenment, but he betrays its essential spirit. The Enlightenment believed in free expression, without taboos. Because I disagree - courteously, precisely and giving clear reasons - with the views of a woman of Somalian origin, Bruckner does not hesitate to imply that I am a racist (he calls me "an apostle of multiculturalism," then describes multiculturalism as a "racism of the anti-racists") and a sexist ("outmoded machismo", "the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes"). This is exactly the kind of blanket disqualification that he himself criticised in an article in Le Figaro entitled "Le chantage a l'Islamophobie," (reprinted from Figaro here) deploring the way any critic of Islam is (dis)qualified as an Islamophobe racist. Except that here he is the blackmailer. Voltaire would be ashamed of him.

Truly grotesque, to the point of self-parody, is this passage: "The positions of Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash fall in with American and British policies (even if the two disapprove of these policies): the failure of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their wars against terror also result from their focussing on military issues to the detriment of intellectual debate." Never mind that I have been an outspoken serial critic of the Bush (and Blair) approach on precisely this issue. For Bruckner, white is black and words mean what he wants them to mean. Objectively, comrades, TGA agrees with Bush. Izvestia under Stalin would have been proud of his dialectical argumentation.

Bruckner says I'm an "apostle of multiculturalism." Evidence, please? (For some of what I have written on this subject, see the texts accessible at the Guardian.)

He says I say Ayaan Hirsi Ali's attitude is "irresponsible". Where? (For my expressed admiration for the brave stand she has taken, see both the text of my New York Review essay and my article in the Guardian.)

He says I back up my argument with "the fact that this outspoken young woman belonged in her youth to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt." I don't, and I have no evidence that she did - in Kenya, where she then lived. What I say is "having in her youth been tempted by Islamist fundamentalism, under the influence of an inspiring schoolteacher." My source for this: Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

He suggests I construe a symmetry between her and Muhammad Bouyeri, the killer of Theo van Gogh. Nothing could be more ridiculous.

He says that "she - like the French philosophy professor Robert Redeker who has also been issued death threats on Islamicist websites - has to endure the ridicule of the high-minded idealists and armchair philosophers." Here is what I wrote in defence of Redeker.

As for "armchair philosophers," Ian Buruma makes the point that Buruma and I actually go and listen to the people we're writing about, while Bruckner theorises from his Parisian fauteuil. My New York Review article was based partly on an investigative reporting trip to the impoverished housing estates of Seine Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, as well as on extensive reading and checking my facts. If that is "Anglo-Saxon" I'm proud to be Anglo-Saxon. But I don't think it is. It's just elementary intellectual good practice.

Incidentally, I wonder how much time Pascal Bruckner has spent in the unhappy outskirts of his own city? Or does he merely deduce what he calls "the superiority of the French model" from first principles? It may not work in practice, but it works in theory, so that's alright.

He says my reporting "demonstrates a Francophobia worthy of Washington's Neocons." How? Where? For further evidence of my Francophobia, see my articles here, here and here.

The pity of all this is that there is a vital debate to be had here - one on which the future of free societies in Europe will depend. The truth, apparent to those of us who live in the reality-based community, is that neither the extreme version of live-and-let-die separatist multiculturalism that Ali saw and rightly criticised in Holland (and that has also been seen in some British cities) nor the secularist republican monoculturalism preached by Bruckner and (partly) practised in France have succeeded in enabling Muslim immigrants and their descendants to feel at home in Europe - let alone, to identify themselves as European citizens. Nor has the German, Spanish or Italian way. The serious debate is about which elements from each approach can best be combined to make that happen. And what else can we do in that direction, for example by telling a new European story - one about Europeans coming from very different pasts but heading towards a shared future based on common goals.

Having commented in my New York Review essay that "I regard it as a profound shame for Holland and Europe that we could not keep among us someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali" I went on to suggest that her approach "is not showing the way forward for most Muslims in Europe, at least not for many years to come. A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic. If the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European." I continue to insist that this is an obvious truth, and an important criticism of the position adopted by both Ali and Bruckner.

While defending the fundamentals of a free society, such as freedom of expression, with an iron will, we also need a large tolerance for cultural diversity, the essential insights of Isaiah Berlin's value pluralism, and an acknowledgment that religious believers can at the same time be reasonable persons and good citizens. In short: less Bruckner, more Pascal.

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony's College. His latest book is "Free World".

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