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A reply to Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash

Pascal Bruckner pens some final remarks on the multiculturalism debate.

Any polemic has the potential to enlighten, even if it ruffles feathers. The polemic I penned for and with my comments on Ian Buruma's book "Murder in Amsterdam," and which has provoked so many passionate reactions in the US, Europe and right across to Israel and the Middle East, seems very revealing in this respect. Allow me to backtrack. In a brilliant book on the end of tolerance in the Netherlands and the murder in Amsterdam of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Moroccan extremist, the Anglo-Dutch intellectual Ian Buruma traced the career of the Somali-born Dutch member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself menaced by death threats. Buruma's portrait is of formidable ambiguity. It celebrates her courage so as better to deplore her blindness and fanaticism on the question of human rights, both of which led her astray in her struggle against religion. Under the guise of an objective reportage, Burma pronounces mezza voce a veritable condemnation. Moreover, supported by Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma has come out in support of the highly controversial Tariq Ramadan, who in the New York Times of February 4, 2007 (online here at the International Herald Tribune) he casts as the sole serious dialogue partner of reformist Islam.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that in certain countries Islam is becoming Europe's second religion. As such, its adherents are entitled to freedom of religion, to decent locations and to all of our respect. On the condition, that is, that they themselves respect the rules of our republican, secular culture, and that they do not demand a status of extraterritoriality that is denied other religions, or claim special rights and prerogatives such as unisex swimming pools and separate gym or other classes. A tense international context surrounds this problem. Today a fundamentalist wave is bearing down on Europe, seeking to re-Islamise the Muslim communities accused of tepidness, and ultimately to place our entire continent of infidels under the law of the Prophet. This proselytism is carried out by all kinds of revanchist groups, the Saudi Wahhabists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, all of whom rival each other in zeal. The birth of an enlightened European Islam takes on importance in this context, one which can serve as a model for Muslims all over the world.

I repeat: two directions lie open to us here. The first, inspired by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, stresses strict differences, basing itself on the respect for religious adherence. Here multicultural Canada is the key reference. The other, more French in inspiration, is based on an equally strict separation of church and state, and the subordination of beliefs to civil law. Even if both models are currently undergoing a crisis, as Timothy Garton Ash rightly notes, it seems to me that in all respects the principle of secularism remains the best compass.

Modern France was formed in the struggle against the Catholic Church, and remains extremely sensitive to religious fanaticism. And I maintain that Jacques Chirac, supported by the commission headed by Bernhard Stasi, was right to put a law to parliament on the banning of religious symbols in school and public administrations. This initiative passed easily, with few opposing voices. Supporters included a majority of French Muslim women keen to safeguard their emancipation, among them Fadela Amara (news story), founder with Mohammed Abdi of the association "Ni putes, ni soumises" in the suburbs (more here).

"In conflicts between the weak and the strong, liberty helps suppress the weak, while the law protects them" said Abbé Grégoire at the time of the revolution. It's so true that many English, Dutch and German politicians, shocked by the excesses that the wearing of the Islamic veil has given way to, now envisage similar legislation curbing religious symbols in public space. The separation of the spiritual and corporeal domains must be strictly maintained, and belief must confine itself to the private realm.

It's not enough to condemn terrorism. The religion that engenders it and on which it is based, right or wrong, must also be reformed. Can one understand the Inquisition, the witches burned at the stake, the Crusades and the condemnation of heretics without referring to the dogmas of Roman Catholicism? The time has come to do for Islam what was done for Christianity as of the 15th century: by bending it to modernity and adapting it to contemporary mentalities. It is too often forgotten that the fight against the Church in Europe was one of outrageous sectarianism, with unheard of violence on both sides. Cathedrals were burned; priests, bishops and nuns were hung or guillotined; the clergy's goods were confiscated. But in the end this fight liberated us from the tutelage of the cassock, radically limiting ambitions on the part of Rome and the various Protestantisms to direct the social order and govern not only people's consciences, but also their bodies. There is no reason why Islam, as soon as it enters the Occidental democratic sphere, should escape secularism and enjoy a favour that is denied to other confessions.

This is why I continue to prefer the position of Ayaan Hirsi Ali over that of Tariq Ramadan, even now that he has become a friend of tolerance and a prophet of anti-capitalism. In his laudatory portrait of Ramadan - that borders on hagiography despite minor reservations - Ian Buruma still manages to reveal some worrying traits in his new champion. I will refer to only one. While propagating the feminine sense of shame and recommending that Muslim women should abstain from shaking men's hands and using mixed swimming pools if they wish, Tariq Ramadan states that for his part, he does shake women's hands. Yes, you read it right: in 2007, a self-styled "progressive" Muslim preacher who has received the support of the entire French extreme Left for his anti-liberalism, pushes audaciousness to the point of admitting that he shakes women's hands. He should be named secretary of state for the condition of women!

In his response to my essay, Ian Buruma argues for Islamic hospitals on the grounds that there are Christian and Jewish hospitals. Similarly, he justifies beaches reserved for Muslim women with the existence of nudist beaches, passing the difference off as a matter of taste. Necla Kelek has rightly pointed out that Islamists aim to establish an out and out segregation of men and women right across society, in medical care, in leisure and education, and so to install a regime of voluntary apartheid within open societies. The problem with this defence of multiculturalism in the name of tolerance is clear: it leads to the end of the common world. The right to difference gets us very quickly to the difference of rights, with which believers may be preserved from contamination from impious – and so impure - ideas and behaviour.

I read with pleasure in The Guardian of 15 March, 2007 that Timothy Garton Ash joins me on one crucial point, when he writes "We are making a fatal mistake by ignoring dissidents in Islam." I must add that the alternative is not exhausted in the debate between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan. In North Africa, the Middle East, Iran and France there are numerous theologians, mosque directors and Muslim intellectuals - such as Abdelwahab Medeb, Fouad Laroui, Malek Chebel, Mohamed Arkoun, Latifa Ben Mansour, Soheib and Ghaleb Bencheikh to name just a few - who have proposed veritable reinterpretations of the Koran, so as to counter the influence of extremists.

I would like to remind readers of what I consider an essential work: "Qu'est-ce qu'une revolution religieuse" (what is a religious revelation? - Paris, Albin Michel, 1982) by the Iranian thinker and specialist on Suffism and Hinduism Dariush Shayegan. In it Shayegan shows that Khomeni's takeover in Tehran led to the "ideologising of tradition," that is the subjection of divine relation to philosophies of history, and ultimately the drying up of Muslim culture. Our media are often all to slow to pick up on innovative thinkers like Shayegan.

It seems to me a blatant error to start talking with conservatives just because they don't openly call for the holy war. This amounts to renouncing reform of Islam, provided Muslims renounce violence. But preferring modern fundamentalism to terrorism runs the risk of having both: orthodoxy and extremists, men with beards and kamikazes, seditious preachers and bombs, plague and cholera. After all, the obscurantist regime in Saudi Arabia didn't prevent the emergence of Al Qaeda.

This position, dictated by fear and short-term preoccupations, was taken by the English Labour government - even they now question it. And it was taken by Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior, when he supported letting the fundamentalists of the UOIF (Union des organisations islamistes de France, very close to the Muslim Brotherhood) join the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman. What's at stake here is the possibility that Islam could engage - like Rome at the time of Vatican II - in a true aggiornamiento, and take a critical look at itself and its 14 centuries of history, in particular at its relationship to violence and its desire for universal domination. Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma will I'm sure agree that the fight against fundamentalism can lead nowhere without the participation of the Muslims themselves, because they are the principle victims. It is the most lucid and the most moderate among them who are now offering their assistance. The matter is too serious for us to mistake either our method or our allies.


Pascal Bruckner, born in 1948, counts among the best-known French "nouveaux philosophes". He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes. His works include The Temptation of Innocence - Living in the Age of Entitlement (Algora Publishing, 2000), The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt (The Free Press, 1986) The Divine Child: A Novel of Prenatal Rebellion (Little Brown & Co, 1994) Evil Angels (Grove Press, 1987)

Translation: jab.

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