Divisions in our world are not the result of religion
by ANDREA BISTRICH
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.
ANDREA BISTRICH: 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 in warfare.
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.
Fundamentalism represents 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
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 the Shoah.
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-ŕ-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 baptism.
Do you think the West has some responsibility for what is happening in
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.