November issue 2006

By | People | Q & A | Published 18 years ago

“Religion can be abused like any other human activity”

– Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong, perhaps best known for her best-selling book, A History of God, is more than an inspirational speaker. More and more, in a world torn by ethnic and religious strife, she has come to symbolise the voice of reason and tolerance.

Once a Roman Catholic nun, she now professes to be what has been described as a freelance monotheist. She studied English Literature at the University of Oxford and taught at the University of London before becoming a full-time writer and broadcaster. She has recently revised her biography of the Prophet Muhammed and published it under the title, Muhammed: a Prophet for our times. In view of her influential work on Islam and fundamentalism, she has been appointed to the United Nations initiative, “The Alliance of Civilisations.”

Interestingly, she has become a spokesperson for the enlightened view of Islam and has spoken out in no uncertain terms against the Islamophobia that gripped the West in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7.

Her reputation more than preceded her when the Aga Khan University invited her to deliver a lecture on the topic “What is Religion?” in its special lecture series in November. Not only was the main lecture hall full to overflowing an hour before the lecture was scheduled to begin, but there was standing room only in three other halls where the lecture was relayed by video link.

An impassioned speaker, she claims that all the major world religions have the quality of compassion as their guiding light, and that it is to compassion that we must turn to save the world from what could be an impending catastrophe.

A: It is something human beings do. It’s in our nature. As soon as we became human, we started to create religions, at the same time that we started to create art. The two are connected because we are creatures that seek meaning in our lives. Cats and dogs, as far as we know, don’t spend much time agonising about their condition. We do, and we are disturbed by injustice and natural disaster.

We find it very difficult to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality and are pulled very easily into despair. Art and religion are ways that we have used to help us against all the evidence to the contrary, that there is some significance and ultimate value in our lives.

The human mind has experiences and ideas that go beyond what we can grasp with our intellect, a sense of transcendence. We used to think that science would answer all those questions and clear everything up. In fact, science has really produced just a new set of mysteries. In modern cosmology, for example, scientists talk in mystical terms about black holes and big bangs.

I think the profound unanimity underneath all the obvious differences between the world religions shows that this is built into the structure of our humanity. People have found when they live in a certain way, they inhabit their humanity more fully.

Q: You find a lot of common terms and beliefs among Islam, Christianity and Judaism. So why the terrible division?

A: I think these divisions are political. I really do. Religion can be abused like any other human activity, and it’s like any art form. It’s difficult to do it well and too easy to make a mess. Take cooking, for example. I can’t cook. I’m very bad at it, but what I am doing is cooking. And there’s a lot of bad religion around at the moment, fed by festering political problems and an imbalance of power in the world. There is resentment and grievance on one side, a sense of power mixed with guilt on the other. None of this makes a very happy situation in many parts of the world where violence and warfare have become endemic, in Palestine for example, or in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Violence and warfare affect everything that we do. If you go up to Gaza, and every day you see tanks on the street, houses being bulldozed, this is going to affect everything. Violence and warfare affect our dreams, our relationships, our ambitions and aspirations, and our religions too. In these areas, religion has got sucked into festering politcal problems and they have become part of the problem.

Q: What is bad religion? How do people who practice this kind of religion get so involved with it?

A: I did write a book about the phenomenon that’s called fundamentalism. Many of these movements are actually political movements, forms of nationalism. I include America here and the old 19th century European idea of the nation state, which is not one of the world’s great ideas. It caused two major world wars. Even Europe is going away from it now, trying to build a federal Europe as it were.

However, people need some kind of identity marker. A lot of these movements say we have got a different way of being whatever we are, Pakistani or American. Many of them are militantly patriotic. Certainly, the Christian right in the United States, which wants America to be a sort of Christian nation or a secular nation, has a very dedicated campaign to bring that about.

Similarly, there is Zionism in Israel. It was once simply unthinkable that orthodox Jews would see Zionism as religious. In the beginning of the 20th century, it was an errant act, a rebellion against religious Judaism. In the Islamic world, too, people are going back. Because secularism has been imposed so rapidly in these parts of the world, inevitably, it has often been perceived as violent, intrusive and damaging to religion. And then there is a riposte. There is a great sense of unease and malaise.

People look for certainty from religion, mistakenly in my view, because religion does not give certainty.

Q: What is good religion?

A: I think religion is at its best when it asks questions and at its worst when it answers them, especially when you think that God is on your side. As we know throughout history, this has led to all kinds of atrocities.

Q: You talk about secular fundamentalists…

A: Yes, especially in England, which is a very secular country, where people often have a very bigoted or militant view about religion, as some religious people have about secularism. They want to get rid of religion, they say it should be stamped out, forbidden by law; they say there should be no religion taught at schools, no faith schools; and they say cut off state support for churches, this kind of thing. It’s really extreme, and it expresses a great unease, really. No one is forcing you to be religious these days. What they don’t realise is that this is counter-productive. In England, we have got this big fuss on the issue of the veil.

Q: What is your view on that?

A: I wrote a piece in the Guardian last week. Basically, I compare my own experience with the current debate. For years, as a young girl, I was heavily veiled as a nun, and nobody ever told me to take the veil off. Paradoxically, even though there were many aspects of convent life that I did find repressive, the veil was actually quite liberating. I was 17 when I became a nun and left when I was 24. I didn’t fuss about my hair, my make-up and my clothes. I would be fine now if I was still a nun in a veil (laughs) without the junk that women deal with.

Furthermore, I pointed out that in every place that I can think of, where the veil has been forbidden, women have wanted to put it on in greater numbers than before. If we look at Iran, under the Shah for example, he forbade the chaddar. Iranian women used to go through the streets in Western dress and as soon as they got to the university campus would put on the chaddar.

Also, Anwer Saadat of Eygpt. They had taken the veil to disassociate themselves from secularist regimes, and so, it is counter-productive. In every case where people have tried forbidding the veil, it does not make for greater integration, but for more division.

Q: It’s also a cultural thing in some countries, how you dress.

A: I’ve pointed out too, that until the British arrived in places like India and Egypt and started saying how abominable the veil was, it wasn’t a hot issue.

Q: After the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, there is a kind of phobia concerning Islam and Muslims.

A: You think you are making headway, then something happens like those Danish cartoons or all this business about the veil, and out it comes again, and we walk back to the beginning. It’s like snakes and ladders, you remember that game? Suddenly you think you’ve arrived and then you get bitten by the snake and you go right back to the beginning. I think it is an ingrained fear, it goes right back to the time of the Crusades in the West. And it is linked, deeply entwined with anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews.

Both the Jews and Muslims were victims of the crusaders. Islam, like Judaism, became the shadow-self of the West.

What alerted me to this was what happened in the 1930s — the death camps. Hitler could not have done that had there not been a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism, which translated into weird folk-beliefs and made it very easy to manipulate.

Q: What you’re saying is a bit scary in the current climate…

A: It alarms me, all the rhetoric coming out of Washington, this talk of Islamic fascism. We shouldn’t talk about Islamic terrorism. When the IRA were bombing London overnight, nobody ever asked me if I was a moderate Catholic. We never called it Catholic terrorism. We should make it a point of not linking the two in people’s minds. It is not Islam which is producing this, these are highly politicised groups.

Just last night at dinner, someone was saying to me that the Quran is very, very violent if you compare it to the Bible. I said, “Have you read the Bible recently? It is filled with massacres, the first part of it, and even the New Testament. The Book of Revelations has some very nasty bits in it indeed. There is a lot of anti-Semitism in it.

This is an example of bias, and so it’s very difficult. People are annoyed when you explain these things, because it’s part of their identity now. In their view, Islam has become undemocratic, crudely incapable of democracy, capable of implicating women, violent.

They do not look at any of the problems in the Muslim world that made it difficult to modernise in a colonial guise, which held it back. The modern spirit has two main components and the modernisation process in Europe was very violent and awful. Nevertheless, there were two characteristic threats running through the time. One was modernity, with declarations of independence on all fronts. On the religious front, independence from the Roman Catholic church, intellectuals demanded freedom from church hierarchies so that they could pursue their ideas and inventions. In the United States, there was political declaration of independence a typical modernising document.

The second characteristic is innovation. For many Muslim countries, innovation and the new modern economy came not with independence but with dependence and colonial subjugation. It didn’t come with innovation, because we are so far ahead that it led to imitation instead.

We still are taught that democracy came easily in the west, but we had to demand and fight for it. We fought free and got empowered. But if I was in Iraq at the moment, I wouldn’t feel free or empowered. Democracy is really a part of modernity. It comes with a modern economy, when modernisation has proceeded to a certain point.

Q: And is there any relationship with religion?

A: No, not at all. Christianity has a lot to say, such as everyone is equal and none of you should be Lord. That did not stop Christians from creating autocratic monarchies in the past. Christianity said give away your possessions, don’t build yourselves treasure on earth, give it all to the poor, don’t have a job, be like the birds of the air and lilies of the field, have no care for tomorrow. Capitalism is an extraordinary development in that context. And if Christianity could do that to capitalism, then for Islam to embrace democracy could be child’s play. There is much more compatibility there. But it’s not about religions, it’s about states of societies.

The West has supported autocratic regimes in Iran or Pakistan, and even in Saudi Arabia as well as Saddam Hussein. To say that we believe in freedom and democracy, but here is your dictator, this has made democracy seem like a bad joke.

Q: What is the concept behind the Alliance of Civilizations?

A: The concept was created by the Prime Minister of Spain, who came into power after the Madrid bombings. He went to the United Nations and said he wanted to create a body to give practical guidelines to member states to stop the build-up of extremism, tension and hatred. Instead of a clash of civilizations, let us see how we can create an alliance.

There are 20 of us in what is pompously called the high-level group. We have been meeting over the past year or so to prepare a report. We were told it was not going to be another talk show where we came to listen to beautiful statements and share our insights, but there had to be some practical recommendations.

Rev. Desmond Tutu is there, because of his business with reconciliation and all these years under apartheid. The former president of Iran, Khatami, is there. There is also the Prime Minister of Senegal, the foreign minister from France. There are many members from Latin America, China, Russia and Nafis Sadik from Pakistan. Not religious people, particularly.

My job, maybe, is to talk about the religious context, to bring that into the equation. We have made recommendations about education and immigration policies and media.

Q: Do you think the space for free speech and debate is shrinking, even in the UK?

A: There is a difference of emphasis. Europeans have a much better grasp of the politics of the situation. A professor in the United States asked me, “Where did the Palestinians come from?” I looked at him and said, “From Palestine, of course!” He said, “Ahh,” as if they landed up from the desert or something.

The British are absolutely obtuse about religion. The Americans have a better understanding of religious issues, but are hopeless on matters of politics.

And yes, there is a great fear that freedoms are shrinking. I don’t feel the pressure in the UK, but in the United States, it’s really quite difficult. I spoke to some congressmen after 9/11, a think tank, and they were saying, “Well, you see, Miss Armstrong, we don’t have a state religion here. I said, yes you do, it’s called patriotism. America is sacred and any criticism of America or the administration is seen as blasphemy.

Q: Do you see the cartoon controversy as an issue of free speech?

A: The cartoon controversy was fuelled on both sides by extremists. There were secular fundamentalists, with in-your-face, one-sided, free speech. That same newspaper refused to print a caricature of Jesus. In this climate it is particularly dangerous.

Q: Do religious leaders have a responsibility in the face of conflict?

A: Absolutely, they do. Religious leaders are like politicians rooting for their own party. They will not say that the other party has good points too, or that it’s absolutely fabulous.

We need to look into our own traditions, to delve into them in a meaningful way. What the world needs is not another quarrel about whether women should be priests or some other such distraction. We need to return to the core, which is compassion, and that is a universal quality of the human spirit