September Issue 2009

By | People | Q & A | Published 15 years ago

“Terrorists may cite scriptures when they commit atrocities, but they usually quote out of context” — Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong has dedicated her life to the study of religion, both from inside the walls of a convent during her seven years as a Catholic nun, and as an author of more than 20 books on the world’s faiths from Islam to Buddhism and the best-seller, History of God. Armstrong left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. In 1982, she wrote a book about her seven years in the convent, Through The Narrow Gate, that angered and challenged Catholics worldwide. Her recent bookThe Spiral Staircase discusses her subsequent spiritual awakening after leaving the convent, when she began to develop her iconoclastic take on the great monotheistic religions.

Her examination of the commonalities of the world’s faiths has brought Karen Armstrong to her current project: the Charter for Compassion. She hopes to make religion a force for good with this charter. “Faith is not about achieving a set of ready-made answers,” says Armstrong. “No one can have the last word about God, and opinions can be entirely egotistical. Faith is about trust and compassion, which is the most important thing in the world. Compassion is the ability to dethrone your own self, to put aside egotism for others. Every single religion, every faith, insists on that compassion.”

She hopes that the charter “will provide an opportunity for people that I and others meet across the world to join up and reclaim their faith, which they believe has been hijacked.” It is being contributed to by people across the world. In February, a council of sages — a multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders — among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Baroness Julia Neuberger, will use these findings as the basis to put the charter together.

The council will guide the writing of the final charter, but the process is open to submissions from anyone, anywhere who has an interest in the founding guidelines laid out below:

The charter does NOT assume that:

  • all religions are the same
  • compassion is the only thing that matters in religion
  • religious people have a monopoly on compassion

The Charter DOES affirm that:

  • compassion is celebrated in all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions
  • the golden rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group
  • therefore, in our divided world, compassion can build common ground

Last year Karen Armstrong received the $100,000 TED prize, presented at this international conference of experts in the fields of technology, entertainment and design for her efforts on behalf of the Charter for Compassion. You can find out more about the Council of Sages and offer your own thoughts at the Charter for Compassion web site.

Q: How did the idea of a charter for compassion come up?

A: For many years now, in my studies I have found that I have been drawn increasingly to the notion of compassion, not just because it is something that appeals to me personally, but because all the major traditions stress that it is the core of religion and the test of true religiosity. And yet I was struck by how seldom we hear religious people talking about it. At this dangerous juncture of our history, we need compassion as never before.

Q: You have asked for stories of compassion to be submitted, which will serve as a base for crafting the charter. Why has the charter been designed to be inclusive and participatory?

A: The point of the participatory nature of the charter is to hear the people speak, instead of simply issuing a directive from above. As for making it inclusive, I would have thought that was obvious. Whatever our differences, men and women of religion share the same compassionate ethic. This is something upon which we can work together — in spite of the current religious strife.

Q:  If all religions are compassionate in nature, why is there so much terror in the world in the name of religion?

A: Most of the terror that troubles us at the moment is politically motivated. Terrorists may cite scripture when they commit atrocities, but they usually quote their scriptures out of context — omitting the other numerous verses speaking of the duty of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. Terrorism has taken root in regions where conflict and warfare have become chronic, and where people have lost faith in the ordinary political processes. Violence affects everything that we do and when it becomes endemic, it influences our ambitions, dreams, fantasies — and our religion.  The terror may be religiously articulated, but the motivation is political.

There are a lot of unscrupulous westerners, who argue that “Muslim terrorism” is the problem of “Islam itself.” They do this in order to stir up Islamophobia in western countries. But Robert Pape, the author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism, says: “The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide campaign — more than 95 percent of all the incidents — has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.” But because religion is so often associated with cruelty and terrorism in people’s mind, it becomes all the more important to counter this by stressing the importance of compassion and change the conversation.

Q: If all religions believe in compassion, why is it necessary to sign a charter on the subject?

A: Religious people of all persuasions may believe in the golden rule, but they are not acting upon it. If they were, the whole world would be full of Christians who love their enemies, never judge other people and turn the other cheek when attacked. And the world would also be full of Muslims who do not build private fortunes, share their wealth fairly, and there would be no poor or oppressed people in Muslim countries. Religious teaching is never just a theoretical matter. It always requires action. That is very clear in the Quran.

Q: How do you respond to those who claim that the charter elevates the role of compassion from just one facet of religion to its very purpose or source?

A: Basically, the compassionate ethic is not just a bright idea of my own. All the major religious sages have said that compassion and the golden rule are the core of religion. Confucius said that the golden rule was the “single thread” that ran through all his teachings and pulled it all together; he made it clear that ren (“human heartedness; compassion”) was a transcendent value that brought you into the realm of holiness. Rabbi Hillel said that the golden rule was the Torah and that everything else in the Torah was “only commentary.” Jesus said that the golden rule was the most important of the commandments; he also said that only those who fed the hungry and visited the sick and those in prison would come into the Kingdom; it was not enough simply to call upon him as “Lord.” In a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “None of you can be a believer unless he treats others as he would wish to be treated himself.”

The Quran makes it crystal clear that it is not enough to have faith: the true “believer” is one who performs the “works of mercy” (salahat). The charter does not say that the golden rule is the purpose or source of religion. It says that compassion is the test of true religion and that it is the practice that brings us to God.

Q: How was the Council of Conscience chosen?

A: First, we asked for recommendations from the general public and from the TED community. Then we asked our partner organisations to recommend people of compassion. We issued a list of criteria for council members. And the same names kept recurring. But we wanted to make sure that we had a balance — of religions, ethnicities, regions and gender. It wasn’t easy. These people are busy; some got the emailed invitations in their spam; but eventually we got together a wonderful group of people. We are now delighted, for example, to have Tu Wei Ming to represent the Confucian and Chinese perspective and are trying to get an Iranian Councillor.

Q: Will the charter, which will in essence be crafted by people who already believe in Confucius’s golden rule, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you,” really make a difference in a world in which inter- and intra-faith strife is rife? Isn’t the charter just preaching to the converted?

A: If all the people in the world who “already believe” in the golden rule acted on this principle, the world would be an entirely different place! The charter is not just a theoretical statement but a summons to action. It requires people to change their lives; turn their lives around. Many of the people who already believe in the golden rule are not “converted” in this sense. They may “believe” in the golden rule, but are quick to condemn other people, without evidence; they speak unkindly of other nations or ethnicities — or of annoying colleagues or family members. True conversion to the golden rule cannot be a matter of notional assent. Confucius said that the golden rule must be practiced “all day and every day.” It means that at every moment we have to put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes, look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance, to inflict that pain on anybody else — whoever he or she may be. It means that every time we are tempted to make an unpleasant remark (about a sibling, an ex-wife, or a country with which we are at war), we should ask ourselves how we would feel if this were said of ourselves and refrain. If we did that on a daily, hourly basis — all day and every day — we would transcend the selfishness that holds us back from God. It is not just a matter of “Doing your good deed for the day.” The world faiths all insist that it is not enough to confine your compassion to your own group. You must have concern for everybody, for the stranger, the foreigner, for other “tribes and nations” — even for enemies. So no, it is not just a matter of “preaching to the converted.”

Q: One criticism of the charter, and I quote, is that “[Armstrong] talks about how the problem with modern religion is a lack of discussion and reliance on religious leaders to think for us, and then proposes a charter to be signed by religious leaders!” Please comment.

A: The council was never supposed to be composed of religious leaders. As we crafted it with TED, we went public and invited the world to contribute to the charter online. And many thousands of people did sign on to the website and added their thoughts to the draft charter, and the council members took all these suggestions into account when crafting the charter. The idea was that this should be a grass roots movement, a popular demonstration of the widespread desire for compassion that I, for one, have encountered in my travels around the world. And yes, we hope that many religious leaders will sign the charter. The idea is to give them a little nudge in this direction and bring it to the centre of their attention. We also hope that many secular leaders, thinkers, philosophers and poets will sign it. But signing does not stop at adding your name to a document. We also need to make the compassionate voice of religion audible in order to counter the voices of extremism.

Q: How will the charter be launched in Pakistan and the world?

A: We are hoping to launch the charter in November of this year in seven major cities worldwide. And certainly one of them will be in Pakistan. We are still in the planning stage of the launch, but we are thinking of a simulcast press conference in the seven cities; these cities will have to sign up to an interfaith programme and the charter will be inscribed on a brass plaque put up in a synagogue, temple, church or mosque, simultaneously. There will also be sermons preached on the charter all over the world. We are sending out a DVD with leading clerics preaching about compassion in all the major faiths and languages as a model.

Q: Will the charter make a difference in a country like Pakistan?

A: I hope so! But it will not happen overnight. Compassion is not a popular virtue because it is difficult. We are selfish beings. It is not easy to love others as we love ourselves or our own. If deflates our egotism and sense of righteousness. It is hard for us in our modern societies to practice compassion: it is difficult to reconcile with the capitalist ethos. We have to work at compassion — and work very hard if we want to turn our world around.

Q:  Do you think that the law of ‘an eye for an eye’ rather than ‘turn the other cheek’ provides a theological base for renouncing compassion towards an aggressor?

A: I think the Quran says that this kind of retaliation was permitted in the Torah, but that “he who shall forgo it out of charity will atone better for some of his past sins” (5:45). And Jesus makes the same point. “It was said of old: eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well” (Matthew 5:38).  The “eye for eye” ethic was part of the old tribal ethos. It was essential in the time of Jahiliyyah because life in the desert was tough and the tribal leaders had to be ruthless to ensure the survival of their group. But later, the faiths moved beyond this.

Q: Is the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ compassionate? The Quran says that that it is permissible to take a life for a life in order that there may be an end to strife, thereby hinting at its compassionate side. [“O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. In the Law of Equality there is (saving of) Life to you, o ye men of understanding; that ye may restrain yourselves” 2:178-9].

A: In 2:178, the Quran is trying to limit the savage ethos of the Jahiliyyah. Retaliation must be strictly confined to those who had actually perpetrated the atrocity — an advance on the old vendetta, which permitted revenge against any member of the killer’s tribe (e.g. 4:90). And yes, the Quran says that during hostilities Muslims must fight with steadfastness, in order to bring the conflict to a speedy end, but it adds that the moment the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their arms (92:193-94). They must accept any offer of a truce, whatever conditions are imposed, even if they suspect the enemy of double-dealing. And although it is important to fight persecution and oppression, the Quran constantly reminds Muslims that it is much better to sit down and solve the problem by courteous discussion (e.g. 8:62-63). The Quran constantly insists upon the importance of mercy and forgiveness, even during armed conflict (e.g. 3:147-48).

Q: Is the charter religious or secular in character?

A: The charter is primarily religious. Religions should be making a major contribution to the chief task of our time: to build a just and decent society where people of all nations and persuasions can live together in harmony and respect. But all too often religion is seen as part of the problem. I felt that all religions should recall the prime duty of compassion, which so often gets pushed to the sidelines during times of conflict, and make it a luminous, imperative force in our divided world.

Q: Finally, you state “Do we need God and/or religion to be compassionate? Of course not. That is why we hope that atheists and agnostics, instead of berating religion (a policy that, as history shows, tends to make religious movements more extreme), will also sign up to the charter, working alongside the religious for a more compassionate world.” If we do not need God or religion to be compassionate, where does compassion, or any other innate human attribute, such as love or conscience, come from?

A: I was simply trying to point out that sometimes secular people, who do not believe in God, behave more compassionately than many religious people. That is a sad truth. Religious people can sometimes sound very uncompassionate. For example, Jesus told his followers not to judge other people, but all too many Christians constantly make unfair judgments about others, people of other faiths, or other nations. So I was simply making the point that religious people do not have a monopoly on compassion. Religious people should be more compassionate than non-religious people, but unfortunately this is not always the case. We should not be triumphalist about this but regard it as a challenge. People of the Abrahamic faith believe that God is the creator and so see innate human qualities — such as compassion, conscience — as implanted by God. But other people of faith — Buddhists, for example — do not have this concept of a Creator God, so they will regard these innate qualities differently, and in our pluralistic world, we should be sensitive about this.