MWF report: Ian Buruma’s alternate keynote address

Ian Buruma presents as a conventional man. He took the stage of the Melbourne Town Hall wearing a brown suit jacket, grey shirt, navy trousers and black lace-up shoes. But if you glanced at his ankles, you’d notice a flash of fire-engine red socks.

It’s an interesting touch for a man who leaves me with the impression that he’s one of the most sensible speakers I’ve heard in a long while. Which may sound dull, but it’s not at all – quite the opposite. Buruma is not ‘sensible’ as in safe, or careful not to take risks. He’s ‘sensible’ in that he makes logical, clear-headed sense, speaking about a topic that many find it difficult to be clear-headed about.

He started off by referring to the explosion in ‘instant experts’ on Islam after 9/11. ‘I cannot completely exclude myself from this category,’ he admits, to wry laughter. The work that lands Buruma in this category is Murder in Amsterdam, an absolutely brilliant – and gripping – book in which he tackles the thorny issues of post-9/11 politics, Islam and freedom of speech, through the lens of one shocking, high profile case.

ian Ian Buruma signing in the Town Hall foyer after his alternate keynote speech.

Deliberately provocative filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist for a film he made with anti-Islam, Somali-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was raised as a Muslim and sought asylum in Holland after her family forced her into an arranged marriage. Her experience of life in a liberal western democracy caused her to gradually question, then reject, her faith. The film dramatised what Ali interpreted as Islamic abuse of women by projecting carefully chosen verses from the Koran over images of naked female bodies. In his book, Buruma talks to key players in the affair, including Ali, and investigates the incident from all angles – not to make a political point, but to look for answers.

Modestly, Buruma didn’t talk about his book directly, but about the issues it explores. After 9/11, Islam – and Islamic immigrants – was feared as posing a threat to ‘liberal values’. He cited the example of Dutch politician, Fritz Bolkestein, famously declared that ‘some values, such as the separation of church and state, or gender equality, are non-negotiable’.

‘Values are always being negotiated,’ argued Buruma. ‘The wearing of the headscarf is one example. I can’t see it as something that will bring Western civilisation down. Even clerics who won’t shake hands with a woman should be tolerated. I don’t think we should get hysterical about things like this. I think one can tolerate groups of people who do not conform to the rules that govern our society, so long as they don’t try to impose them on society, or have that as a goal.’

Buruma said he ‘draws the line’ at violence, and used the rule of thumb that ‘if there is a difference between law and custom, the law must prevail’.

‘We cannot expect to live in a society where everyone has the same rules and values.’

He talked about Salman Rushdie’s creed, that you can criticise the belief but not insult the believer. In other words – argue with Islam, but don’t denounce Muslims. Though he agreed with this in theory, Buruma pointed out that this isn’t always possible to follow. ‘To a true believer, this distinction doesn’t exist. It’s part of your identity, part of who you are.’

However, he concluded, ‘a liberal democratic society can demand that they learn to live with this distinction.’