feel of religion
by Omayma Abdel-Latif
4 - 10 July 2002
[section in red specifically
relates to Palestine]
A former Christian nun and author of books on
many of the world's religions including Islam, English writer Karen
Armstrong spoke to Omayma Abdel-Latif in London about Western views
of Islam, the mood after 11 September and her hopes for better relations
between Islam and the West.
"What more concessions should the West make to Muslims? When
should we draw the line and stop sacrificing our ideals?" The
question was posed by a young Englishman at the end of a lecture
on "Understanding Islam" at Oxford University's Institute
for American Studies in England. While the question revealed many
Western concerns and assumptions, as well as the extent to which
an anti-Islamic mood has prevailed in the West since the attacks
on New York and Washington on 11 September last year, the answer,
however, was quick. "Muslims did not ask us to give up our
ideals and values. On the contrary, it is the West which does not
honour these very ideals when dealing with Muslims and Islam,"
said the lecturer, Karen Armstrong, a Catholic nun turned Christian
After studying English at Oxford, Armstrong became a nun, and 17
years later she left her convent and wrote a book called Through
the Narrow Gate (1981), an account of her years spent there. This
was followed by further books, including The First Christian, Tongues
of Fire, The Gospel According to Woman, Holy War and Muhammad. In
1993 she published an important work on the three monotheistic religions
called The History of God: From Abraham to the Present. This sold
well and was followed by another best-selling book, Muhammad: a
Biography of the Prophet in 1996.
In Armstrong's view, what 11 September revealed was "a new
awareness" striking at the integrity of Western culture and
its value system. "We were posing as a tolerant society, yet
passing judgment from a position of extremes and irrationality,"
the 58-year-old Armstrong told the Weekly in an exclusive interview
at her house in London.
Since the attacks, Armstrong has been on mission in the United
States and South America lecturing on Islam. It has not been an
easy task. "September 11th has confirmed a view of Islam that
is centuries old, which is that Islam is inherently violent and
intolerant of others," she said, going on to offer a first-hand
account of the situation in the United States nine months after
"The events have been a great shock to the Americans, and
they are now in a state of numbness and depression," Armstrong
explained. "There is still a lot of hostility and anger directed
against the Muslim community there. There is, however, some reason
to believe that a change in the American perception is not impossible."
"On the East Coast where I spent most of my time, people descended
en masse on the bookstores and took off the shelves everything they
could find about Islam. While some did this to confirm old prejudices
and fears -- depending on who you choose to read -- the majority
was keen on learning about Islam." In fact, Armstrong's own
handbook, Understanding Islam, has sold more than a quarter of a
million copies on the East Coast of the United States alone. And
many of the questions posed to Armstrong during her lecture tour
reflected not only a sense of wanting to know more about Islam,
but also how deeply rooted were media representations of Islam in
the American psyche.
The key question would be, "why do they hate us?" Armstrong
said, followed by others, such as: "What do Muslims think of
Christians and Jews? Is Islam an inherently violent religion? Why
do we always hear bad rhetoric about Christians? What about women
in Islam? Is Islam against modernity?"
In responding to such questions, Armstrong walks a fine line between
deconstructing long- held stereotypes while at the same time not
becoming apologetic. She noted that there are differences in the
way her views are received in the US and in Europe. "One of
the good things about the Americans is that they do like to know,"
she says. "There is earnestness about them that one does not
observe in a European society such as Holland, for example. They
are open to criticism in a way that does not exist in Europe, where
people assume they know it all."
At the age of 19, Armstrong joined a Catholic convent, staying
there for 17 years before deciding to leave in order to study the
world's monotheistic religions, beginning with Islam. Does she think
that the religious establishment in the West -- ie the churches
themselves -- are responsible for Western hostility to Islamic culture?
"Anti-Islamic doctrine is in-built in the Western ethos that
was formulated during the Crusades," she says. "This was
the period when the Western world was re-defining itself. The 11th
century marked the end of the Dark Ages in Europe and the beginnings
of the new Europe. The Crusades were the first co-operative act
on the part of the whole new Europe, and the whole crusading ethos
shaped the psyche of the key actors performing at this crucial time."
"Islam was the quintessential foreigner, and people resented
Islam in Europe much as people in the Third World resent the US
today. One could say that Islam then was the greatest world power,
and it remained so up until the early years of the Ottoman empire.
Muslims were everywhere in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, South-
East Asia, China. Wherever people went, there was Islam, and it
was powerful, and people felt it as a threat."
The period of the Crusades was a crucial historical moment during
which the West was defining itself, and Islam became a yardstick
against which it measured itself. "Islam was everything that
the West thought it was not, and it was at the time of the Crusades
that the idea that Islam was essentially a violent religion took
hold in the West. "Europe was projecting anxiety about its
own behaviour onto Islam, and it did the same thing too with the
Jewish people," Armstrong said.
Even in non-religious societies such as England, Armstrong believes
that prejudice against Islam remains, saying that "I think
it is in-built into people that Islam is a violent religion."
These hostile feelings were given a new lease of life during the
colonial period, Armstrong believes, since many of the colonised
countries were Muslim countries, and the colonial powers saw in
them what they regarded as 'backwardness', attributing this to Islam.
Although she feels that university campuses are almost the only
places in the US where big questions are asked, Armstrong says that
the events of 11 September divided US academics into two camps.
The first camp, led by Martin Kramer, head of the Near and Middle
East Studies Institute in Washington DC, accused Armstrong, together
with academics such as John Esposito, head of Islamic-Christian
Dialogue at Georgetown University, of 'duping' people into believing
that Islam was not a threat, an argument Kramer claimed had been
proved wrong by the attacks. Only a few weeks after 11 September,
Kramer wrote an article, Ivory Towers Built on Sand, in which he
put the blame squarely on academics for failing to predict the atrocities.
Armstrong explains how the media in the US attempted to silence
opposing voices after 11 September. For example, she had been commissioned
by the New Yorker magazine to write an article on Islam, but the
article was killed and the magazine published one by the academic
Bernard Lewis instead.
"They thought I am an apologist for Muslims, because my article
was about the prophet as a peacemaker, and this did not suit their
agenda as much as Lewis's did. Both Lewis and Kramer are staunch
Zionists who write from a position of extreme bias. But people need
to know that Islam is a universal religion, and that there is nothing
aggressively oriental or anti-Western about it. Lewis's line, on
the other hand, is that Islam is an inherently violent religion,"
Earlier, in the mid 1980s, Armstrong was
commissioned by Channel Four television in Britain to make a documentary
about the life of St. Paul. This required visits to the Holy Land
and to Jerusalem. However, when Armstrong went to Israel and saw
the kind of racism against Arabs that dominated Israeli society,
she realised that "there was something fundamentally wrong"
going on in Israel.
"I was deeply shocked that people could
call other people 'dirty Arabs' when some 30 or 40 years before
they had talked in Europe about 'dirty Jews'. I was struck by the
inability of the Jewish people to learn from past sufferings, but
of course it is human nature that suffering does not make us better.
The problem with Israel now is that it cannot believe that it is
not 1939 any more; the Israeli people are emotionally stuck in the
horrors of the Nazi era," she says.
Could it be that this is an Israeli ploy
to manipulate public opinion? Armstrong answers that "I don't
think that this is the case at a profound level. Of course, there
are politicians who will use this, but I think there is a profound
inability among Israelis to believe that they have left the past
behind. They still regard the present as a period of Jewish weakness,
when in fact it is a period of Jewish power."
"The West has to share a responsibility
for what is happening in the Middle East. If it had not persecuted
the Jews, there would not have been the need for the creation of
the State of Israel. The Muslim world did nothing to the Jews, and
the Palestinians are paying the price for the sins of Europe. Therefore,
a solution has to be found because there will be no peace in the
world without one. But if Israel has America behind it, it does
not have to worry about what the rest of the world thinks. This
gives a sense of omnipotence. At the moment there is no hope; they,
the Israelis, can do what they want because America will always
support them. I wish Europe would play a better role, but Mr Blair
is running after Mr Bush like a poodle."
Armstrong believes that the Israeli occupation
is responsible for the kind of violent resistance it meets from
the Palestinians. "The resistance will be as ruthless and violent
as the occupation is," she says. "Every occupation breeds
its own kind of resistance." Armstrong believes that the phenomenon
of the Palestinian suicide bombers has more to do with politics
and hopelessness than it does with religion. "I don't think
people sit at home and read the Qur'an and say, yes, I must go and
bomb Israel. This is not how religion works, and I see just absolute
hopelessness when people have nothing to lose. Palestinians don't
have F- 16s, and they don't have tanks. They don't have anything
to match Israel's arsenal. They only have their own bodies."
"Violence of any sort always breads
violence, and the occupation itself is an act of extreme violence,
domination and oppression. The way things have been moving has been
aggressively against the Palestinians."
While she believes that there has been a
shift in the way British public opinion views the Palestinian struggle,
she warns that the killing of civilians could create a backlash.
"In the news coverage after every suicide bombing you see Israeli
mothers with their children talking in plain English about their
sufferings. One does not get to see the same sufferings of the Palestinian
mothers and their children, though they are the weaker party in
Armstrong thinks that charges of anti-Semitism
in Europe play into the hands of the Zionist lobby in America because
"this will discredit anything Europe says. They say Europe
is anti- Semitic because for the first time Europe is becoming aware
of the plight of the Palestinians. It is part of a campaign to discredit
European input in any future peace process."
Turning to the recent rise of the extreme right in European politics,
Armstrong feels that this has been more hostile to Europe's Muslim
population than it has to European Jews.
However, she says, "I think it has to do with race rather
than religion, especially in Britain where people are uninterested
in religion. The riots in places like Bradford, for example, had
to do with race. In Northern Europe, there is very little interest
in religion, or knowledge about religion. It is not the case here
that people are fired with religious zeal when they go after Muslims,
since they are not interested in religion at all. In America, on
the other hand, people are interested in religion and want to know
what Muslims believe. Here, they don't care; they simply don't want
Muslims in their country. They want a white England for white English
"We have to take the extreme right- wing groups very seriously,"
she says. "This is the European form of fundamentalism; because
we don't express discontent in a religious form it comes out in
a right-wing way. It's the desire to belong to a clearly defined
group combined with a pernicious fear of the other -- a sense of
pent-up rage and disappointment with multi-cultural society giving
way to this kind of emotion, which feeds into fundamentalism."
Armstrong's Muhammad: a Biography of the Prophet has sold millions
of copies since it appeared in 1996, and she has become used to
accusations of being "an apologist for Islam", while not
taking much notice of such rhetoric. "It is very nice that
people think that the book was written by a Muslim," she says,
"but what a religious scholar tries to do is to enter into
a religion by a leap of the imagination, in order to understand
not just the beliefs, or the history and doctrine, but also the
underlying feel of the religion, and I try to do this with all religions
and not just with Islam. I did the same when I wrote the history
of Judaism, and I am doing the same now that I am writing a biography
of the Buddha."
Armstrong is currently also working on a history of the period
from 800 BC to 200 AD when many great world faiths came into being.
"Europe," she says, "is about the only place where
religion does not matter much. People in Europe might need to rinse
their minds of all their bad and lazy theology. People in Europe
have not yet asked the big questions about religion; they have tried
get rid of primitive forms of religion, but very often what we see
in the churches today is exactly the kind of religion that these
people are trying to get rid of... Jesus would be horrified by the
practices of the church today. I would love to show him around the
Vatican, when Christians cannot even share a church together. He
would be appalled, much as Mohamed would be appalled if he knew
that September 11th was done in the name of Islam."
How does she think that the Western world and Islam can come together?
Is there any common ground between them?
Armstrong believes that both sides should try and deal with the
extremism in their midst. "The West, like it or not, is a fact
of life," she says. "Muslims should try to use the media;
they have got to learn to lobby like the Jews, and they have got
to have a Muslim lobby, if you like ....this is a jihad, an effort,
a struggle, that is very important. If you want to change the media,
then you have got to make people see that Islam is a force to be
reckoned with politically and culturally. Have a march down the
street at Ground Zero in New York, call it 'Muslims against Terror'.
They need to learn how to manage the media and how to conduct themselves
in the media."
"Similarly, the West has got to learn that it shares the planet
with equals and not with inferiors. This means giving equal space
in a conflict such as that between Israel and Palestine. It doesn't
mean just using governments to get oil: you promote Saddam Hussein
one day, and the next day he becomes public enemy number one. The
West promoted people like the Shah of Iran simply because of its
greed for oil, even though he had committed atrocities against his
own people. There should be no more double standards, because double
standards are colonialism in a new form. Western people have also
got to disassociate themselves from inherited prejudices about Islam."
"Muslims can run a modern state in an Islamic way, and this
is what the West has got to see... There are all kinds of ways in
which people can be modern, and Muslims should be allowed to come
to modernity on their own terms and make a distinctive Islamic contribution