Karen Armstrong: “There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity”
The terrorist attacks in Paris rendered her new book Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence suddenly and tragically very urgent. In over five hundred pages Karen Armstrong, once a nun and the respected author of bestsellers like A History of God and The Case for God, answers the question whether religion is the principal cause of violence. A conversation about Islam and terrorists, Western responsibility and the world in which we live.
By Lizette Thooft
It is not a merry book, Karen Armstrong’s newest: blood flows freely over the pages, metaphorically speaking. In detail she describes the violence that has always been inextricably associated with the development of nation states and cultures. But it is a necessary book, a kind of reality check. For it is high time we realize how much each and every civilization is rooted in submission and exploitation, including ours. High time to hear this voice.
Karen Armstrong enters the hotel lobby with a firm pace – a small, elegant woman with a blonde lock of hair that keeps falling in front of her eyes. And a ready laugh, despite the gloomy subject. Let’s start with the million dollar question.
Is there any difference between Jesus and Muhammad in terms of violence – or in other words, how do you explain that most terrorism now is inspired by the Islam?
“Terrorism has nothing to do with Muhammad, any more than the Crusades had anything to do with Jesus. There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity. All religions have been violent, including Christianity. There was nothing in the Muslim world like antisemitism: that is an import of the modern period. They got it from us. The missionaries brought it over. And then came the state of Israel. Judaism has become violent in the modern world, thanks to the nation state.”
But then what is the cause of Muslim terrorism? In the book you write that Muslims have been introduced to modernity in a more abrupt way…
“A more violent way. When George Bush and Tony Blair went into Iraq they thought that modernity would take everyone into democracy straight away. That is not necessarily the case. It worked for us, because democracy was good for industry. Freedom, which we hear so much about at the moment, was essential to our economy as much as to anything else. For people have to have the freedom to innovate, to keep the country productive. But in those countries modernity came with colonial subjugation. There was no self-determination. In Egypt there were seventeen general elections between 1922 and 1952, all won by the Wafd Party, which was only allowed by the British to rule five times. Democracy was a bad joke.
Secularism was introduced by these army officers, with great violence: the clergy had their stipends confiscated, they were shot down, they were tortured to death. The Shah shot hundred unarmed demonstrators in a holy shrine in Iran because they didn’t want to wear western clothes. And we in the West have consistently supported rulers like Saddam Hussein who denied their people any freedom of expression. All this has helped to push the Islam into violence. When people are attacked, they invariably become extreme. But only a tiny proportion of them actually agree with terrorism: 93% answered ‘no’ to the question in the Gallup poll whether the 9/11 attacks were justified. And the reasons they gave were entirely religious. The seven percent who said ‘yes’ – the reasons they gave were entirely political.
My message is not that religion has nothing to do with violence. It has always been implicated in it, and trying to take religion out of politics and warfare would have been like taking the gin out of the cocktail. It is inextricably intertwined. Until 1700 nobody thought of separating religion; it permeated the whole of life. And still people who have not had our particular modernization find that an arbitrary distinction. Because matters like justice, the plight of the poor, suffering – these are political questions. And they’re matters of sacred import.
So Jesus would have had no time for people who said their prayers and neglected the plight of the needy or the oppressed. But we sort of separated it off. That separation was important for us, and in many ways it was good for religion, because it freed it from the violence of government.”
The conclusion upon reading this book is: all civilization is rooted in violence.
“That is so for the vast majority of the history of civilization. Without the oppression of people by aristocracy we would never have the science and arts upon which we depend. It was the economy to make peasants work and take their surplus and keep them at subsistence level. Also to keep the population down. It’s a terrible thing.
We look at civilization as what started in Athens. But the Parthenon was built on the back of the Greek island, all the other Greek cities – it was built on their taxes. So it was free for some but not for others.
It is still like that today. No state can dispend its army. It is still going on. But there were always people who stood up and said: ‘This is wrong.’ And that has been as much a part of religion as any Crusade or Jihad.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in a newspaper that now is the time to be clear about Muslim terrorism being part of the Islam. Should she read your book?
“I shouldn’t think she wants to. She’s married to that dreadful man, Niall Ferguson, who was the architect of the Iraq war. And what a disaster that was. That was a great help to Al Qaida.
This attack on the magazine wasn’t simply inspired by fanatical devotion to the prophet. It wasn’t just purely religious: again, politics is essential. Al Qaida is deeply political. This was a strategic attack on a sacred symbol. Free speech is for us a sacred symbol of our western civilization, as sacred to us as the Prophet is to them. And they want us to be outraged. They’ll love that. And they’ll be thrilled by the new edition with the Prophet on the cover. Because this will lead to new recruitings. I’m not saying that it was wrong to do that, but they will use it. This is all very politically organized.”
What should have happened?
“I don’t know! But I think one of the things we should do is mourn their dead too. Not long ago 165 Pakistani children were shot by the Taliban. Two thousand villagers in Nigeria were slaughtered by Boko Haram. But we’re not marching for them. So the impression we give is that we just don’t care, that their lives are not so valuable to us. So I think we must take notice that we’re not the only ones being killed by extremists. Far more Muslims are dying.”
Are terrorists primarily traumatized?
“Some of them are, and some of them are plain wicked. Osama bin Laden was a plain criminal. But there is also great fear and despair among them. There have been surveys done by forensic psychiaters who interviewed people convicted of terrorism since 9/11. They interviewed hundreds of people in Guantanamo and other prisons. And one forensic psychiater who is also an officer of the CIA – so he is no softie like me! – concluded that Islam had nothing to do with it. The problem was rather ignorance of the Islam. Had they had a proper Muslim education they wouldn’t be doing this. Only 20% of them has had a regular Muslim upbringing. The rest are either new converts – like the gunmen who recently attacked the Canadian Parliament; or non-observant, which means they don’t go to the mosque – like the bombers in the Boston marathon; or self-taught. Two young men who left Britain to join the Jihad in Syria ordered from Amazon a book called Islam for Dummies. That says it, you see.
People go there out of a sense of meaninglessness. It was interesting listening to the Parisians speaking about this. Several of them said: Look, we have not sorted out these suburbs, where there is despair and no hope. We had a wake up call when there were riots and we didn’t do anything about it. This is festering. People don’t feel at home in our societies. Their lives will have some meaning when they get out there. Here there is no way out. And the French government is hostile towards any religious expression. That makes people edgy. So there is a sense of despair. I was talking to one of our leading historians a couple of months ago and he said that the chief thing that has always driven young men to war has always been boredom. Tedium. And that is something that in our societies we have to take very seriously, just as much as we take free speech seriously. Misery and a sense of no hope, especially with the economy going down. We’ve got to remember how privileged we are. I’ve become aware, because of my travels and my studies, of how privileged I am. And that comes with responsibility. If you’ve been given a good hand, you must do something good with it.”
Reading the book I realized: what a river of blood and tears is running through our world history.
“And misery and oppression, and injustice. Great injustice and we are still unjust. Because we talk about our Enlightenment as if the Messiah came down… And it was great, it was very important for us. But look at the Founding Fathers of the United States, who said that all men are created equal: they had no problem owning African slaves. Liberty was only ever for Europeans. And it stil is like that, because of the greed for oil. We give huge support to the Saudis, who give their people no human rights.”
There’s this blogger Raif Badawi threatened with cane beatings every Friday… (In the meantime Badawi’s case is under revision, ed.)
“We don’t mind about him as long as we get our oil. There is Amnesty International, yes, but we have to keep reminding people. We have to be consistent.”
Wasn’t it depressing for you to write this book?
“Yes, but there is also the other part. People like Confucius talking about the Golden Rule, Jesus, Paul who tries to… people keep trying. And we need to create an alternative voice that is as strong, that is based on reality but also on justice.”
And now we need to do that without religion?
“Well we can… Your country is secular but the Unites States aren’t secular. When I lecture there and talk to people the response is quite different: they don’t want to do without religion. They’re said to be the second most religious country in the world, after India. But do create a secular form of it, seeing the sanctity of every human being. Each human being is precious, inviolable and must not be tampered with. Whether that interferes with our economy or not.”
So you are saying that religion is a scapegoat?
“We’re piling all the violence of the 21st Century on the back of religion, sending it away, saying we have nothing to do with religion. While we still have to deal with the political situation. The supermarket attack in Paris was about Palestine, about Isis. It had nothing to do with antisemitism; many of them are Semites themselves. But they attempt to conquer Palestine and we’re not talking about that. We’re too implicated and we don’t know what to do with it.
It would be naive to think we’ll ever have a world without war. But I wrote this book because I am filled with a sense of dread as to where we’re going. We have created bombs that can wipe out the world, and it is accepted in international law that if your nation is threatened it is acceptable to fire off a nuclear weapon, even if that will certainly mean the destruction of your own nation. This is a suicidal deathwish. So similarly the suicide bomber that goes in knowing that he or she will die, is a primitive form of that.
It won’t be long before Al Qaida or one of these groups gets hold of a nuclear device. The situation is so dangerous that we are forced to open our eyes and see what’s going on. And that is not about religion, Islam or otherwise.”
But many people believe that, still: the followers of Wilders, Marine le Pen…
“One of the problems of the nation state has always been its inability to tolerate minorities. That has been the cause of some of the worst crimes of the 20th Century, the Holocaust for example. Because of the emphasis on language and culture that comes in the nation state the nation becomes the supreme value.
Nationalism is not helping us realize that we live in a global world. Now we can’t afford to think only for our own country – the world is not like that anymore. We’ve created a global economy and we’re so connected that if a market falls in one part of the world, the stocks fall all around the globe the same day.”
Not to speak about the climate…
“Yes, we share that predicament. And now we see that what happens in Paris today will have repercussions in the Middle East, and back again. We’re linked politically. And our histories are intertwined. We British particularly bear a big responsibility for what has happened in the Middle East. And India and Pakistan. Take the frontier lines of those postcolonial states, how they were drawn with such cynicism and opportunism. And how much violence that has led to.”
You write, surprisingly, that the Shariah has been an impulse for peace…?
“We demonize the Shariah. But why they’re so keen on it in the Muslim world, is because traditionally it was a counterbalance to the tyranny of the state. It was the law of God but it was saying that nobody has the right to tell anybody what to do. Because each person is sovereign and responsible to God alone. No government could rule by that, but they had to acknowledge that this was the word of God. They have developed their own version of the Shariah. But the passion for it was not one for cutting off hands.”
And shutting up women?
“The women thing is a problem worldwide. One of the hallmarks of modernity has been the emancipation of women. And so when people are angry about modernity and modernisation they go back and… You have it in christianity too, you’ve got christians in the Southern States of the US who say that women should stay in the home. The Catholic Church say women can’t be priests. And similarly in Judaism too.
And one of the things in the Muslim world is that rulers are often floundering, they don’t have much popular support. If they make draconian rulings that keep women under control, they please the men.
But the Muslim feminists will transform Islam. From the inside.”
Lisette Thooft is a journalist. For more information: www.lisettethooft.nl.