Buruma again

More on Buruma. Because after another, slower reading I think the disagreement is not so elusive or subtle after all. There are some things he says that I disagree with quite strongly – though there are other places where it’s the implications of what he says (whether he’s aware of them or not) that I disagree with.

For instance, I wasn’t decided enough about that concluding sentence: ‘A free-spirited citizen does not tolerate different customs or cultures because he thinks they are wonderful, but because he believes in freedom.’ That’s a terrible assertion, because it is so wide open; it could mean anything. ‘Different customs or cultures’ could mean any damn thing, including the most awful tortures and oppressions. Well meaning liberals like Buruma have got to stop saying things like that! Because things like that just provide cover for people who want to go on exploiting or denying rights to or bullying people they always have exploited or bullied – it is their custom. It provides cover to archbishops who want to exclude gays from adoption on no rational grounds, it provides cover to people who want women to self-obliterate.

So let’s get this straight. I don’t in any blanket sense ‘tolerate’ any and all ‘different customs or cultures.’ It depends on which different customs or cultures we’re talking about.

Buruma does proceed to say that in the next paragraph, to be sure, but in doing so he simply contradicts the too wide-open claim he has just made. Why did he make it that way then? I’m seriously curious about that, because it seems so obviously too sweeping. Why would he want to say something obviously too sweeping? To show his heart’s in the right place?

At any rate, after he’s noted that ‘honour killings are murders,’ he goes on to say ‘But these are matters of law enforcement.’

No. I disagree. I disagree utterly. Maybe this is one place where we have a real, substantive disagreement as opposed to one over wording or rhetoric. I completely disagree that honour killings and violence against women and FGM are matters of law enforcement and nothing else (Buruma doesn’t say ‘and nothing else’ but that ‘But’ carries that implication). They are very much also matters of thought, consciousness, awareness; of consciousness raising. It’s much much better (I’d have thought this was obvious) to educate or persuade everyone (yes, everyone) into habits of mind such that they simply don’t think women are supposed to be beaten or genitally mutilated or forcibly married or murdered. The reasons are too many and obvious to enumerate. People who really think they ought not to do those things are less likely to do them than people who merely think they are illegal. And then life in general for women and even for men is a lot happier and more trusting when neither party expects the other to attack it. In short, there is nothing good to say about honour killings or violence against women, so why would it not be part of the agenda to persuade everyone to think so? Saying ‘But these are matters of law enforcement’ seems to deny that.

But if Islamic reform is the goal, then such denunciations are not the best way to achieve it, especially if they come from an avowed atheist. Condemning Islam, without taking the many variations into account, is too indiscriminate. Not every Muslim, not even every orthodox Muslim, is a holy warrior in spe. Isolating the jihadis and fighting their dangerous dogmas is too important to be dealt with by crude polemics.

This may be another substantive disagreement. Buruma there seems to be arguing that it’s only the holy warriors and the jihadis who are the problem. But it’s not. The problem is that Islam does have particular rules or laws relating to women, gays, ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates’ among others. Not just some Islam, but Islam itself. It’s not ‘indiscriminate’ to say that – again, check out the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights.

Bruckner mentions the opening of an Islamic hospital in Rotterdam and reserved beaches for Muslim women in Italy. I fail to see why this is so much more terrible than opening kosher restaurants, Catholic hospitals, or reserved beaches for nudists, but to Bruckner these concessions are akin to segregation in the southern states of America, and even Apartheid in South Africa.

Well, that’s quite a failure. Bruckner is right. These concessions are akin to southern segregation because – yo, Mr Buruma! – segregation is what they’re about. An Islamic hospital is ‘Islamic’ primarily via sexual segregation of doctors, nurses and patients. Reserved beaches for Muslim women are – hello? – segregated beaches. They are, indeed, a form of apartheid, of apartness.

So there it is; I think Buruma is mistaken about some things, and I think he argues his case by avoiding specificity at crucial points; I really dislike that tendency. By all means disagree with me (as plenty of people do in comments), but I think I do spell out what I’m saying. I intend to anyway. Let me know if I’ve obscured anything.

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