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.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.