In Our World Are Not
The Result Of Religion
By Karen Armstrong & Andrea Bistrich
14 November, 2007
Karen Armstrong was a
Catholic nun for seven years before leaving her order and going to Oxford.
Today, she is amongst the most renowned theologians and has written
numerous bestsellers on the great religions and their founders. She
is one of the 18 leading group members of the Alliance of Civilizations,
an initiative of the former UN General Secretary, Kofi Anan, whose purpose
is to fight extremism and further dialogue between the western and Islamic
worlds. She talks here to the German journalist, Andrea Bistrich, about
politics, religion, extremism and commonalities.
9/11 has become the symbol of major, insurmountable hostilities between
Islam and the West. After the attacks many Americans asked: "Why
do they hate us?" And experts in numerous round-table talks debated
if Islam is an inherently violent religion. Is this so?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Certainly
not. There is far more violence in the Bible than in the Qur'an; the
idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated
during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, it was Western Christians
who were fighting brutal holy wars against Islam. The Qur'an forbids
aggressive warfare and permits war only in self-defence; the moment
the enemy sues for peace, the Qur'an insists that Muslims must lay down
their arms and accept whatever terms are offered, even if they are disadvantageous.
Later, Muslim law forbade Muslims to attack a country where Muslims
were permitted to practice their faith freely; the killing of civilians
was prohibited, as were the destruction of property and the use of fire
The sense of polarization
has been sharpened by recent controversies — the Danish cartoons
of the Prophet Muhammad, over the Pope's remarks about Islam, over whether
face-veils hinder integration. All these things have set relations between
Islam and the West on edge. Harvard-Professor Samuel Huntington introduced
the theory of a "clash of civilizations" we are witnessing
today. Does such a fundamental incompatibility between the "Christian
West" and the "Muslim World" indeed exist?
The divisions in our world
are not the result of religion or of culture, but are politically based.
There is an imbalance of power in the world, and the powerless are beginning
to challenge the hegemony of the Great Powers, declaring their independence
of them-often using religious language to do so. A lot of what we call
"fundamentalism" can often be seen as a religious form of
nationalism, an assertion of identity. The old 19th-century European
nationalist ideal has become tarnished and has always been foreign to
the Middle East. In the Muslim world people are redefining themselves
according to their religion in an attempt to return to their roots after
the great colonialist disruption.
What has made Fundamentalism,
seemingly, so predominant today?
The militant piety that we
call "fundamentalism" erupted in every single major world
faith in the course of the twentieth century. There is fundamentalist
Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Confucianism,
as well as fundamentalist Islam. Of the three monotheistic religions-Judaism,
Christianity and Islam-Islam was the last to develop a fundamentalist
strain during the 1960s.
a revolt against secular modern society, which separates religion and
politics. Wherever a Western secularist government is established, a
religious counterculturalist protest movement rises up alongside it
in conscious rejection. Fundamentalists want to bring God/religion from
the sidelines to which they have been relegated in modern culture and
back to centre stage. All fundamentalism is rooted in a profound fear
of annihilation: whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, fundamentalists
are convinced that secular or liberal society wants to wipe them out.
This is not paranoia: Jewish fundamentalism took two major strides forward,
one after the Nazi Holocaust, the second after the Yom Kippur War of
1973. In some parts of the Middle East, secularism was established so
rapidly and aggressively that it was experienced as a lethal assault.
The fact that fundamentalism
is also a phenomenon in politics was stressed only recently by former
US president Jimmy Carter when he voiced his concerns over the increasing
merging of religion and state in the Bush administration, and the element
of fundamentalism in the White House. Carter sees that traits of religious
fundamentalists are also applicable to neo-conservatives. There seems
to be a major controversy between, on the one hand, so called hard-liners
or conservatives and, on the other, the progressives. Is this a typical
phenomenon of today's world?
The United States is not
alone in this. Yes, there is a new intolerance and aggression in Europe
too as well as in Muslim countries and the Middle East. Culture is always-and
has always been-contested. There are always people who have a different
view of their country and are ready to fight for it. American Christian
fundamentalists are not in favour of democracy; and it is true that
many of the Neo-Cons, many of whom incline towards this fundamentalism,
have very hard-line, limited views. These are dangerous and difficult
times and when people are frightened they tend to retreat into ideological
ghettos and build new barriers against the "other". Democracy
is really what religious people call "a state of grace." It
is an ideal that is rarely achieved, that has constantly to be reaffirmed,
lest it be lost. And it is very difficult to fulfil. We are all-Americans
and Europeans-falling short of the democratic ideal during the so called
"war against terror."
Could you specify the political reasons that you identified
as the chief causes of the growing divide between Muslim and Western
In the Middle East, modernization
has been impeded by the Arab/Israeli conflict, which has become symbolic
to Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists and is the bleeding
heart of the problem. Unless a just political solution can be found
that is satisfactory to everybody¸ there is no hope of peace.
There is also the problem of oil, which has made some of these countries
the target of Western greed. In the West, in order to preserve our strategic
position and cheap oil supply, we have often supported rulers-such as
the shahs of Iran, the Saudis and, initially, Saddam Hussein-who have
established dictatorial regimes which suppressed any normal opposition.
The only place where people felt free to express their distress has
been the mosque.
The modern world has been
very violent. Between 1914 and 1945, seventy million people died in
Europe as a result of war. We should not be surprised that modern religion
has become violent too; it often mimics the violence preached by secular
politicians. Most of the violence and terror that concerns us in the
Muslim world has grown up in regions where warfare, displacement and
conflict have been traumatic and have even become chronic: the Middle
East, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir.
In regard to the
Arab-Israeli-conflict you have said that for Muslims it has become,
"a symbol of their impotence in the modern world." What does
that really mean?
The Arab-Israeli conflict
began, on both sides, as a purely secular conflict about a land. Zionism
began as a rebellion against religious Judaism and at the outset most
Orthodox rabbis condemned Zionism as a blasphemous secularization of
the Land of Israel, one of the most sacred symbols of Judaism. Similarly
the ideology of the PLO was secular-many of the Palestinians, of course,
are Christian. But unfortunately the conflict was allowed to fester;
on both sides the conflict became sacralized and, therefore, far more
difficult to sort out.
In most fundamentalist movements,
certain issues acquire symbolic value and come to represent everything
that is wrong with modernity. In Judaism, the secular state of Israel
has inspired every single fundamentalist movement, because it represents
so graphically the penetration of the secular ethos into Jewish religious
life. Some Jewish fundamentalists are passionately for the state of
Israel and see it as sacred and holy; involvement in Israeli politics
is a sacred act of tikkun, restoration of the world; making a settlement
in the occupied territories is also an act of tikkun and some believe
that it will hasten the coming of the Messiah. But the ultra-Orthodox
Jews are often against the state of Israel: some see it as an evil abomination
(Jews are supposed to wait for the Messiah to restore a religious state
in the Holy Land) and others regard it as purely neutral and hold aloof
from it as far as they can. Many Jews too see Israel as a phoenix rising
out of the ashes of Auschwitz-and have found it a way of coping with
But for many Muslims the
plight of the Palestinians represents everything that is wrong with
the modern world. The fact that in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians could
lose their homes with the apparent approval of the world symbolizes
the impotence of Islam in the modern world vis-à-vis the West.
The Qur'an teaches that if Muslims live justly and decently, their societies
will prosper because they will be in tune with the fundamental laws
of the universe. Islam was always a religion of success, going from
one triumph to another, but Muslims have been able to make no headway
against the secular West and the plight of the Palestinians epitomizes
this impotence. Jerusalem is also the third holiest place in the Islamic
world, and when Muslims see their sacred shrines on the Haram al-Sharif
[the Noble Sanctuary, also known as Temple Mount]-surrounded by the
towering Israeli settlements and feel that their holy city is slipping
daily from their grasp, this symbolizes their beleaguered identity.
However it is important to note that the Palestinians only adopted a
religiously articulated ideology relatively late-long after Islamic
fundamentalism had become a force in countries such as Egypt or Pakistan.
Their resistance movement remained secular in ethos until the first
intifada in 1987. And it is also important to note that Hamas, for example,
is very different from a movement like al-Qaeda, which has global ambitions.
Hamas is a resistance movement; it does not attack Americans or British
but concentrates on attacking the occupying power. It is yet another
instance of "fundamentalism" as a religious form of nationalism.
The Arab Israeli conflict
has also become pivotal to Christian fundamentalists in the United States.
The Christian Right believes that unless the Jews are in their land,
fulfilling the ancient prophecies, Christ cannot return in glory in
the Second Coming. So they are passionate Zionists; but this ideology
is also anti-Semitic, because in the Last Days they believe that the
Antichrist will massacre the Jews in the Holy Land if they do not accept
Do you think the
West has some responsibility for what is happening in Palestine?
Western people have a responsibility
for everybody who is suffering in the world. We are among the richest
and most powerful countries and cannot morally or religiously stand
by and witness poverty, dispossession or injustice, whether that is
happening in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya or Africa. But Western people
have a particular responsibility for the Arab-Israeli situation. In
the Balfour Declaration (1917), Britain approved of a Jewish homeland
in Palestine and ignored the aspirations and plight of the native Palestinians.
And today the United States supports Israel economically and politically
and also tends to ignore the plight of the Palestinians. This is dangerous,
because the Palestinians are not going to go away, and unless a solution
is found that promises security to the Israelis and gives political
independence and security to the dispossessed Palestinians, there is
no hope for world peace.
In addition, you have stressed the importance of a "triple
vision"-the ability to view the conflict from the perspective of
the Islamic, Jewish and Christian communities. Could you explain this
The three religions of Abraham
-- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- can and should be viewed as one
religious tradition that went in three different directions. I have
always tried to see them in this way; none is superior to any of the
others. Each has its own particular genius; each its own particular
flaws. Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God and share the
same moral values. In the book A History of God, I tried to show that
throughout their history, Jews, Christians and Muslims have asked the
same kind of questions about God and have reached remarkably similar
solutions-so that there are Jewish and Muslim versions of the incarnation,
for example, and very similar notions of prophecy. In The Battle for
God, I tried to show how similar the fundamentalist movements are in
all three faiths.
Jews, however, have always
found it difficult to accept the later faiths of Christianity and Islam;
Christianity has always had an uneasy relationship with Judaism, the
parent faith, and has seen Islam as a blasphemous imitation of revelation.
The Qur'an, however, has a positive view of both Judaism and Christianity
and constantly asserts that Muhammad did not come to cancel out the
faiths of "the People of the Book": you cannot be a Muslim
unless you also revere the prophets Abraham, David, Noah, Moses and
Jesus-whom the Muslims regard as prophets-as in fact do many of the
New Testament writers. Luke's gospel calls Jesus a prophet from start
to finish; the idea that Jesus was divine was a later development, often
misunderstood by Christians.
Unfortunately, however, religious
people like to see themselves as having a monopoly on truth; they see
that they alone are the one true faith. But this is egotism and has
nothing to do with true religion, which is about the abandonment of
Too often it seems
that religious people are not necessarily more compassionate, more tolerant,
more peaceful or more spiritual than others. America, for example, is
a very religious country, and at the same time it is the most unequal
socially and economically. What does this say about the purpose of religion?
The world religions all insist
that the one, single test of any type of religiosity is that it must
issue in practical compassion. They have nearly all developed a version
of the Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not have
done to you." This demands that we look into our own hearts, discover
what it is that gives us pain and then refuse, under any circumstances,
to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion demands that we "feel
with" the other; that we dethrone ourselves from the centre of
our world and put another there. This is the bedrock message of the
Qur'an, of the New Testament ("I can have faith that moves mountains,"
says St. Paul, "but if I lack charity it profits me nothing.").
Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, defined the Golden Rule
as the essence of Judaism: everything else, he said, was "commentary."
We have exactly the same teaching in Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism
and Buddhism. I have tried to show this in one of my most recent books,
The Great Transformation.
The traditions all insist
that it is not enough simply to show compassion to your own group. You
must have what the Chinese call jian ai, concern for everybody. Or as
Jewish law puts it: "Honour the stranger." "Love your
enemies," said Jesus: if you simply love your own kind, this is
purely self-interest and a form of group egotism. The traditions also
insist that it is the daily, hourly practice of compassion -not the
adoption of the correct "beliefs" or the correct sexuality-
that will bring us into the presence of what is called God, Nirvana,
Brahman or the Dao. Religion is thus inseparable from altruism.
So why aren't religious people compassionate? What does that say about
them? Compassion is not a popular virtue. Many religious people prefer
to be right rather than compassionate. They don't want to give up their
egos. They want religion to give them a little mild uplift once a week
so that they can return to their ordinary selfish lives, unscathed by
the demands of their tradition. Religion is hard work; not many people
do it well. But are secularists any better? Many secularists would subscribe
to the compassionate ideal but are just as selfish as religious people.
The failure of religious people to be compassionate doesn't tell us
something about religion, but about human nature. Religion is a method:
you have to put it into practice to discover its truth. But, unfortunately,
not many people do.
Islam and the West
ideas of justice and democracy in the Middle East, British foreign correspondent
of The Independent, Robert Fisk, says: "We keep on saying that
Arabs ... would like some of our shiny, brittle democracy, that they'd
like freedom from the secret police and freedom from the dictators-who
we largely put there. But they would also like freedom from us. And
they want justice, which is sometimes more important than 'democracy'".
Does the West need to realize that Muslims can run a modern state, but
it is perhaps not the kind of democracy we want to see?
As Muslim intellectuals made
clear, Islam is quite compatible with democracy, but unfortunately democracy
has acquired a bad name in many Muslim countries. It seems that the
West has said consistently: we believe in freedom and democracy, but
you have to be ruled by dictators like the shahs or Saddam Hussein.
There seems to have been a double standard. Robert Fisk is right: when
I was in Pakistan recently and quoted Mr Bush-"They hate our freedom!"-the
whole audience roared with laughter.
Democracy cannot be imposed
by armies and tanks and coercion. The modern spirit has two essential
ingredients; if these are not present, no matter how many fighter jets,
computers or sky scrapers you have, your country is not really "modern".
The first of these is independence.
The modernization of Europe from 16th to the 20th century was punctuated
by declarations of independence on all fronts: religious, intellectual,
political, economic. People demanded freedom to think, invent, and create
as they chose.
The second quality is innovation
as we modernized in the West: we were always creating something new;
there was a dynamism and excitement to the process, even though it was
But in the Muslim world,
modernity did not come with independence but with colonial subjugation;
and still Muslims are not free, because the Western powers are often
controlling their politics behind the scenes to secure the oil supply
etc. Instead of independence there has been an unhealthy dependence
and loss of freedom. Unless people feel free, any "democracy"
is going to be superficial and flawed. And modernity did not come with
innovation to the Muslims: because we were so far ahead, they could
only copy us. So instead of innovation you have imitation.
We also know in our own lives
that it is difficult-even impossible-to be creative when we feel under
attack. Muslims often feel on the defensive and that makes it difficult
to modernize and democratize creatively-especially when there are troops,
tanks and occupying forces on the streets.
Do you see any common
ground between Western world and Islam?
This will only be possible
if the political issues are resolved. There is great common ground between
the ideals of Islam and the modern Western ideal, and many Muslims have
long realized this. At the beginning of the twentieth century, almost
every single Muslim intellectual was in love with the West and wanted
their countries to look just like Britain and France. Some even said
that the West was more "Islamic" than the unmodernized Muslim
countries, because in their modern economies they were able to come
closer to the essential teaching of the Koran, which preaches the importance
of social justice and equity. At this time, Muslims recognized the modern,
democratic West as deeply congenial. In 1906, Muslim clerics campaigned
alongside secularist intellectuals in Iran for representational government
and constitutional rule. When they achieved their goal, the grand ayatollah
said that the new constitution was the next best thing to the coming
of the Shiite Messiah, because it would limit the tyranny of the shah
and that was a project worthy of every Muslim. Unfortunately the British
then discovered oil in Iran and never let the new parliament function
freely. Muslims became disenchanted with the West as a result of Western
foreign policy: Suez, Israel/Palestine, Western support of corrupt regimes,
and so on.
What is needed from
a very practical point of view to bridge the gap? What would you advise
our leaders-our politicians and governments?
A revised foreign policy.
A solution in Israel/Palestine that gives security to the Israelis and
justice and autonomy to the Palestinians. No more support of corrupt,
dictatorial regimes. A just solution to the unfolding horror in Iraq,
which has been a "wonderful" help to groups like Al-Qaeda,
playing right into their hands. No more situations like Abu Ghraib or
Guantanamo Bay. Money poured into Afghanistan and Palestine. A solution
to Kashmir. No more short-term solutions for cheap oil. In Iraq and
in Lebanon last summer we saw that our big armies are no longer viable
against guerrilla and terror attacks. Diplomacy is essential. But suspicion
of the West is now so entrenched that it may be too late.
ANDREA BISTRICH is a journalist based in Munich, Germany.
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