Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

My first thought, on picking up the latest book by Ian Buruma, was that it is a very slim volume to bear the weight of so heavy a title. I was surprised, too, that Buruma should choose to devote five pages out of a mere 125 of text to a summary of Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis's 1927 satire on evangelical preachers.

Interesting though it is, one wonders if Princeton University Press would have allowed a writer of lesser renown to approach his subject in such a leisurely manner. Some Considerations With Regard to Religion and Democracy, or another variant of the titles favoured by the Enlightenment philosophes whom Buruma goes on to discuss, might have been more appropriate.

This is not to say that Buruma does not address some very important questions here. It is just that his explorations of the avenues and
alleyways of the first and second "great awakenings" in America, of Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Burke and Jefferson, lack the narrative urgency that the title might lead one to expect.

In the second of three chapters, Buruma turns to Asia, though he declares that he will confine himself to the two countries he knows best, China and Japan. (To omit India and Indonesia - respectively the world's largest and third-largest democracies, and both highly religious countries - is unfortunate.) He poses a potentially interesting question: whether, far from the Chinese being custodians of the godless state par excellence, "the split between spiritual and secular authority, which occurred in Europe", ever took place in China. One would happily settle down to spend several hours discovering what so noted a Sinophile has to say about that. Alas, six pages later, we have already finished with Mao and his heirs, and have landed in Japan.

It is in the final chapter, "Enlightenment Values", which Buruma introduces by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's doubts over the compatibility of democracy and Islam, that he really hits his stride. "Democracy is . . . neither new nor strange to many Muslims," he writes, pointing out that so many of the "values that we have come to take for granted", and that we equate with those of a west supposedly at odds with Islam, have been only recently acquired; and that in most of the predominantly Muslim countries where we observe autocratic rule, the dictatorships have been secular and deeply opposed to Islamism.

Buruma swipes away the nonsense spouted by those who claim to worry about "Eurabia": "To those who fear the 'Islamisation' of Europe, it is forever 1938." He also notes the shameful manner in which many who professed to be proud defenders of the western liberal tradition forgot themselves when the Rushdie controversy blew up, quoting Hugh Trevor-Roper's appalling assertion that he would "not shed a tear, if some British Muslims, deploring Mr Rushdie's manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them".

The problem Buruma correctly identifies is that those leftists who might once have exhibited what he calls "old third worldist instincts" - and who, shocked by the illiberal behaviour of British Muslims who burned Rushdie's books, regarded this as the beginning of a new Kultur­kampf - went on to "show the typical zeal of conversion, a zeal compounded by a sour sense of betrayal".

I could go on and on about this final third of the book, about how welcome are Buruma's observations, such as that "all major religions are fundamentalist in the sense of claiming absolute truth", into which category should fall, too, the "civil religion" of hardline French secularism; and how sensible is his conclusion that "as long as people play by the rules of free speech, free expression, independent judiciaries and free elections, they are democratic citizens, whatever they choose to wear on their heads". Sadly, I lack the space to do so.

I do not imagine, however, that Buruma was so confined by his publisher. Perhaps he did not have the time, what with holding a chair in three different disciplines, each of which one would have thought sufficient to keep several tenured professors busy. That would be a pity, for the problem with this book is not that it attempts to say too much, but that it is far too short.

Buruma has an enjoyable style and deserves credit for venturing into choppy waters where efforts are made to accommodate apparently contradictory beliefs, rather than sailing on the beguilingly calm seas of fundamentalist principle. I would gladly continue that journey with him if he ever turns this book into a 600-page doorstopper. As it stands, it may be a useful introduction for students too idle to work through a long reading list. For the rest of us, Taming the Gods is little more than a tantalising brochure.

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents
Ian Buruma
Princeton University Press, 142pp, £13.95

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.