07/02/2007

The dogmatism of Enlightenment

I admire the achievements of the Enlightenment as much as Professor Cliteur appears to do, but I also believe that one of its greatest achievements is the rejection of dogmatism, of any kind. By Ian Buruma

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 unleashed an international debate. By now Timothy Garton Ash, Necla Kelek and Paul Cliteur have all entered the ring. Read their contributions as well as Ian Buruma's initial response here.

It is the fate of certain books, like certain phrases ("fascism", "Orientalism", "multiculturalism", "racism"), to be used as bludgeons to beat up people whose views one dislikes. These verbal sticks often bear little or no relation to their original meanings, or, in the case of books, to what their authors actually wrote. I suppose I should feel flattered that "Murder in Amsterdam" is gradually turning into such a book.

Professor Cliteur wishes to beat up nihilists, postmodern cultural relativists, and multiculturalists, and uses my book as his bludgeon. I can only assume he has actually read it, but his version is certainly not mine. Nowhere did I suggest that the ideals of the Enlightenment are no better than radical Islamism. My descriptions of Theo van Gogh's killer and his murderous ideology make it quite clear what I think of religious extremism. Either Professor Cliteur is incapable of grasping a complicated argument, or he wilfully misreads my book in order to classify me as a "post-modern relativist."

Since I have the highest opinion of Professor Cliteur's intellectual capabilities, I can only assume that the latter must be true. One example of his methods should suffice to make the point. I wrote that young European Muslims are sometimes fatally attracted to radical Islam, because of their cultural dislocation. Feeling neither at home in the traditions of their fathers, nor in the societies of their European homelands, they seek the "purity of modern Islamism", which "has been disconnected from cultural tradition." It is indeed a universalist creed, just as belief in the fundamental values of the Enlightenment are. Thus what we see in Europe is "not a straightforward clash between culture and universalism, but between two versions of the universal, one radically secular, the other radically religious."

To read into this that I believe them to be the same, or that one is no better, or worse than the other, takes extraordinary intellectual sloppiness or remarkably bad faith. I admire the achievements of the Enlightenment as much as Professor Cliteur appears to do, but I also believe that one of its greatest achievements is the rejection of dogmatism, of any kind. It is possible to be dogmatic about ideas that are not in themselves bad. Certain ideologues, in the US as well as in Europe, were convinced that invading Iraq with American troops was the best way to establish a democracy in the Middle East. To point out the fallacy of this kind of dogmatic leap of faith is not to say that Saddam Hussein's Baathism, or Sunni Jihadism, are the same, or as good as liberal democracy.

Professor Cliteur holds so dogmatically to his idea of secularism and the Enlightenment that any accommodation towards religious faith, specifically towards Islam, is tantamount to appeasement of religious extremism, or a form of self-hating nihilism. My objection is not to the Enlightenment as such, but to the ideological zeal of some of those who believe they are acting in its defence. If we wish to isolate and defeat religious extremism, we must must have mainstream European Muslims as our allies. The rather crude polemics spouted by Professor Cliteur will not be of much help in this endeavor.


Ian Buruma
is a Dutch-born historian and journalist. He is currently the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. His latest book is "Murder in Amsterdam".

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