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The feel of religion

by Omayma Abdel-Latif
4 - 10 July 2002

[section in red specifically relates to Palestine]

Karen Armstrong

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 theologian.

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 attacks.

"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," she said.

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 the conflict."

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 people."

"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 to it."