Limits of Tolerance

Ian Buruma’s new book, Murder In Amsterdam, is a chronicle of the killing of Theo Van Gogh by a Dutch Islamist, and an examination of its effects on the political and social scene in the Netherlands. Christopher Caldwell’s review in the New York Times reveals some interesting details, but unfortunately also lapses in the usual ridiculous exaggerations one has come to expect:

Buruma interviews two charismatic reformers: van Gogh’s collaborator Hirsi Ali and the Iranian-born legal scholar Afshin Ellian. Both believe that nothing short of dragging Islam through the wringer of skepticism and ridicule, as Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers did Catholicism, will suffice to disarm potential militants like Bouyeri. But Buruma is skeptical. He suspects that many of those who invoke the Enlightenment are merely defending a conservative order. “Voltaire had flung his insults at the Catholic Church,” he writes, “while Ayaan risked offending only a minority that was already feeling vulnerable in the heart of Europe.”

That is unfair. Voltaire did not risk, with his every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantaneously with people who aspired to assassinate him. We need a much more flexible definition of the word “minority” in a world thus networked.

The vast majority of the “billion enemies” that Caldwell is talking about here have no clue who Ayaan Hirsi Ali is. She may be famous in the Netherlands, Somalia, and in conservative circles here in the States, but that does not mean she is elsewhere in the Muslim world. In addition, most of the “billion enemies” he imagines do not yet have ready access to the Internet (must one mention the higher priorities of food, clean water, and health care?) It is doubtless that Hirsi Ali has enemies, but claiming that she risks having 1 billion of them, i.e. the entire body of Muslims, is beyond ridiculous.