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The other

by Jaap den Haan Saturday, Sep. 22, 2007 at 7:41 AM

Karen Armstrong, the British theologian and author of numerous books on the great religions, has advanced the theory that fundamentalist religion is a response to and product of modern culture. A Catholic nun for seven years, she left her order while studying at Oxford University. She is one of the 18 leading group members of the Alliance of Civilizations, an initiative of the former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, with the purpose of fighting extremism and furthering dialogue between the Western and Islamic worlds. Andrea Bistrich interviewed her for Share International.

Share International: 9/11 has become the symbol of major hostilities between Islam and the West. After the attacks many Americans asked: “Why do they hate us?” And experts in numerous roundtable talks debated if Islam is an inherently violent religion. Is it?

Karen Armstrong: 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.

SI: Despite such interdictions in the Qur’an some Muslims have become murderers. How can people be religious and yet be willing to blow themselves up and kill others in the name of Allah ?

KA: To kill a single human being violates the principles of every single religion, including Islam. Terrorism is an unreligious act. Muslims have repeatedly disowned the terrorists, but this is rarely reported in the Western media. Terror is a political act, which may use (or abuse) the language of religion, but it absorbs some of the nihilistic violence of modernity, which has created self-destructive nuclear weapons and still threatens to use them today. An important survey showed that every single suicide bombing since the 1980s was politically rather than religiously motivated: the main grievance was the occupation by the West and its allies of Muslim lands.

SI: The sense of polarization has been sharpened by recent controversies – the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, the Pope’s remarks about Islam, the issue of face-veils and whether they hinder integration. Harvard-Professor Samuel Huntington introduced the notion of a “clash of civilizations”. Are the “Christian West” and the “Muslim World” fundamentally incompatible?

KA: The divisions in our world are not the result of religion or 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.

SI: What has made fundamentalism so apparently predominant today?

KA: The militant piety that we call “fundamentalism” erupted in every single major world faith in the course of the 20th 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 counter-culturalist protest movement rises up alongside it in conscious rejection. Fundamentalists want to bring God and religion from the sidelines to which they have been relegated in modern culture back to centre stage. All fundamentalism is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation; whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, fundamentalists are convinced that secular or liberal society wants to wipe them out. This is not paranoid: 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.

SI: The fact that fundamentalism is also a phenomenon in politics was stressed 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 traits of religious fundamentalists are also applicable to neo-conservatives: “... they are led by authoritarian males who consider themselves superior to others; they believe the past is better than the present; they draw distinctions between themselves, as true believers, and others; those who oppose their position are seen as evil; ... their self-definitions are narrow and restricted; they isolate themselves; ... they view negotiation and efforts to resolve differences as signs of weakness ...”, Carter writes.

There seems to be a major conflict between, on the one hand, the hard-liners or conservatives, and on the other the progressives. Is this a typical phenomenon of today’s world?

KA: The United States is not alone in this. 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 hardline, 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.”

SI: Could you expand on the political reasons causing the growing divide between Muslim and Western societies?

KA: 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, 70 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….

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