Finding Forster

Finding Forster

Mini Teaser: The antiliberal defenders of civilization—resisting the Ground Zero mosque—are wrong. Liberalism still offers the best hope for combating extremism.

by Author(s): Ian Buruma

Given the traditional animosity of radicals, from all political extremes, toward liberals, it is not surprising that Gingrich and his ilk have found allies among people who used to be proudly on the left. On the “Muslim problem,” the Left and the Right often see eye to eye. As the former-left-wing-journalist Christopher Hitchens put it to me: “The fascists are the only ones who are right about the Islamic threat to Europe.”

Quite clearly, the stakes are high. The murderous attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, commuter trains in Madrid, a discotheque in Bali, a Dutch filmmaker, the London Underground and more were carried out in the name of the Muslim faith. There are revolutionary ideologues all over the world prepared to kill and die for a utopian Islamic state. And Iran, aspiring to be the dominant Islamic power in the Middle East, might be close to developing a nuclear bomb.

None of this can, or should, be dismissed. Even a small number of terrorists can do untold damage. But is it true that liberals, calling for moderation, individual liberty and tolerance, are inadequate to face this challenge? Is a more radical form of heroism required? Is the threat of Islam to Western liberties so severe, for example, that the individual freedom to wear a veil should be sacrificed to the unity of social and cultural values within Western borders? Does the tolerance of religious orthodoxy spell surrender to a new form of fascism? Are liberal moderates “useful idiots” helping our enemies destroy Western values, Enlightenment principles or the West tout court?

I believe that a liberal approach to Islam and Islamism is best, for both tactical and philosophical reasons. Tactically, it would be a disaster to view the problems posed by Muslim radicalism in the West as a “clash of civilizations.” The only way to fight the violent extremists, for whom their religion is a revolutionary ideal, is to keep law-abiding Muslim citizens firmly on the side of liberal democracy. If we decide that we are, in the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “at war with Islam,” we force allies and potential allies into a corner, creating more sympathy among alienated Muslims for the extremists. Philosophically, every person’s right to free thought and expression must be defended, and that includes the right to think in ways we might find distasteful, even abhorrent.

The line must be drawn where behavior is in breach of the law. The French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy takes the view that citizens need not share the same values in pluralistic societies, but must abide by the same laws. Honor killings, even if justified by cultural or religious mores, cannot be tolerated. Nor can incitements to violence. But the wish to ban the building of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero, and to compare the peaceful, law-abiding Sufi Muslims who want to build it with Nazis, is illiberal, foolish and, in terms of defending our freedoms against extremists, counterproductive.

Radical populists of the right, in Europe as well as the United States, claim that orthodox Muslims threaten our Western way of life, not only because of their different notions about social and sexual behavior, but because of their assaults on free speech. These assaults are aided and abetted by liberals who tolerate intolerance and fail to criticize Muslims with sufficient zeal. Freedom, to the anti-Muslim populists, means freedom to be as offensive as one likes about Islam. Any hesitation in this regard is quickly denounced as a form of appeasement.

It is true that Muslims, like many believers, can be touchy when infidels attack or mock their faith. And intimidating critics of Islam is clearly a threat to free speech. So here, too, the law should apply. Death threats and other forms of violent intimidation are against the law and should be punished. But as long as people refrain from threatening or using violence to impose their views, they should be tolerated. Does this mean that freedom of speech means the freedom to offend? In terms of the law, especially under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the answer is yes. The liberal answer is more complicated. Since tolerance goes with moderation, as well as individual freedom, a certain degree of restraint is sometimes essential to maintain a civilized society. People may be legally entitled to claim that all Jews are greedy, and all blacks lust-filled criminals at heart, but in polite society they would not do so.

Toujours, pas trop de zèle, therefore, is still the best guideline, especially at a time when hatred is being spouted with ever-greater intent to cause offense. The legacy of Forster is still to be preferred over the legacy of Ehrenburg. Whatever threats might yet come from radical Islamism, domestic or foreign, their impact will be made far worse by crass polemics against the faith itself, or by calls for heroic gestures in the war of civilizations. As always, I believe, the most effective defenders of liberal democracy are the liberals themselves.


Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His latest book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents (Princeton University Press, 2010).


1 Frances Stonor Saunders, “What Have Intellectuals Ever Done for the World?,” The Observer, November 28, 2004.

2Le salaud lumineux (Paris: M. Lafon, 1990).

3 Aurel Kolnai, The War Against the West (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1938).


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