Karen Armstrong, British scholar of comparative religion, finds that there is a long and inglorious tradition of distorting Islam in Europe. She criticises the notion that Islam is essentially more violent than Christianity and speaks about the genesis of Western disdain for the Arab world. Interview by Claudia Mende
Ms Armstrong, in an article for "The Guardian" you wrote that the barbaric violence of IS may be "at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain". Would you write that again now, after the Paris attacks?
Karen Armstrong: Yes, most certainly. If the attack on "Charlie Hebdo" was indeed inspired or backed by al-Qaida, it was politically as well as religiously motivated. In Paris, it attacked the sacred symbol of modern secular Western civilisation: freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was an Enlightenment ideal; it was essential to capitalist society that people were free to innovate without being suppressed by the restrictions of Church, class or guild. In Paris, the terrorists were saying in effect: "You attack our sacred symbol (the Prophet Muhammad); then we will attack yours! Now you see what it feels like."
But what does this have to do with Western disdain?
Armstrong: The Prophet has been caricatured in the West as a violent, epileptic, lecherous charlatan since the time of the Crusades in the Middle Ages; this distorted image of Islam developed at the same time as our European anti-Semitism which caricatured Jews as the evil, violent, perverse and powerful enemies of Europe.
So yes, the attack on the magazine was in part a product of Western disdain. The attack on the Jewish supermarket was directed against Western support for Israel. Here too, there is an element of disdain: there has been little sustained outcry against the massive casualties in Gaza last summer, for example, which seems to some Muslims to imply that the lives of Palestinian women, children and the elderly are not as valuable as our own.
Where do you see the roots of this disdain?
Armstrong: The Enlightenment ideal of freedom was, in practice, only for Europeans. The Founding Fathers of the United States, who were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, proudly proclaimed that "All men are created equal" and enjoyed the natural human rights of life, liberty and property. But they felt no qualms about owning African slaves and driving the Native Americans out of their ancestral lands.
John Locke, the apostle of tolerance, wrote that a master had "absolute and despotical" rights over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time. This continues: many of those who marched for freedom of expression in Paris were leaders of states that have supported regimes in Muslim majority countries that denied their subjects basic freedoms; Britain and the US, for example, continue to support the Saudi regime. Again, a disdain: our freedom is more important than yours.
Shouldn't we also look at certain Qur’anic verses and their interpretation throughout history to explain the phenomenon of Islamist terror?
Armstrong: "Throughout history", these Qur’ranic verses have not inspired terrorist activities. Any empire depends upon force; this is true of the Indian, Chinese, Persian, Roman, Hellenistic and British empires and it is also true of the Islamic empires. Furthermore, until the modern period, Islam had a far better record of tolerance than Western Christianity. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, they slaughtered the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of the city in a massacre that shocked the Middle East, which had never seen such unbridled violence. And yet it was 50 years before there was any serious Muslim riposte. There is more violence in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament than there is in the Qur’ran.
Most Christian theologians would disagree.
Armstrong: Those theologians who claim that there are no passages in the New Testament like Qur'an 2.191–93 have perhaps forgotten the Book of Revelation, which is the preferred text of many Christian fundamentalists who look forward to the battles of the imminent End Time that will destroy the enemies of God. They interpret these texts literally and quote them far more frequently than the Sermon on the Mount. The aggression towards the enemy commanded in Qur'an 2:191 concludes: "If they cease hostilities, there can be no further hostility." (Qur'an 2. 193). No such quarter is allowed those who fight the Word of God in the battles of Revelation.
Why is this never mentioned in debates on this subject?
Armstrong: One might argue that this book is uncharacteristic of the New Testament as a whole, but exactly the same can be said of the "sword verses" of the Qur'an. Even Jesus, who told his disciples to love their enemies and turn the other cheek when attacked, warned his followers: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace I have come to bring but the sword." (Matthew 10: 14). All scriptures have violent passages that can be quoted out of context, given undue importance, and made to cancel out the irenic teaching that inspires all faiths at their best.There is a popular understanding that Islam has violence incorporated into its beliefs from the very beginning. What do you think?
Armstrong: This popular belief originated at the time of the Crusades, when it was Western Christians who were attacking Muslims in the Near East; it may reflect a buried anxiety and guilt: Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies not to exterminate them. The conviction that Islam had always been a religion of the sword was promoted by learned monks during the twelfth century: they were projecting their concern about their own behaviour onto their victims.
But what about the beginnings of the Islamic empire?
Armstrong: In the early years, while the Muslims were an embattled minority in Mecca, the Qur'an forbade them to retaliate and attack their aggressors. But when they were forced by intensified persecution to flee Mecca and found an infant state, the Muslims, like any state-builders, had to fight, and the Qur'an endorses this. But military historians tell us that Muhammad (Pbuh) and the first caliphs are almost unique in building empires more by diplomacy than by violence: Muhammad (Pbuh), by uniting the Arabian Peninsula, which had previously consisted of warring tribal societies, and imposing the Pax Islamica there; and the first caliphs, the Rashidun, in the cultivated lands of the Middle East.
Another difference between East and West is the lack of separation between state and religion in the Arab world. Why does secularism have such a difficult stand?
Armstrong: The secularism that developed in the West during the eighteenth century was a radical innovation. Before the modern period, religion permeated all human activities because people wanted to make their lives significant. The idea of "religion" as a personal, private quest essentially separate from all other pursuits was unknown in pre-modern Europe as well as in the rest of the world. No other culture has anything like it. Words that we translate as "religion" (such as "din" in Arabic or "dharma" in Sanskrit) refer to an entire way of life. Trying to take "religion" out of politics would have been as difficult as taking the gin out of a cocktail. This was not because they were too stupid to distinguish two entirely different activities but because such questions as the plight of the poor, the maintenance of public order and public security, and justice were matters of sacred import.
So secularism is perceived as an essentially Western concept?
Armstrong: It is a Western innovation; we were able to develop it under our own dynamic and not at somebody else's behest. It was essential to our modernisation and many therefore found it liberating. But in the Arab world, it was merely a foreign import; it was imposed by colonial powers and came with political subjection rather than political freedom. When the colonialists left, it was often imposed so cruelly that it seemed positively evil.
When Ataturk secularised modern Turkey, he closed down all the madrassas. His policies of ethnic cleansing forever associated secularism with the violence of the Young Turks, a secularist group who had seized power in Ottoman Turkey and committed the Armenian massacres during World War I. These rulers wanted their countries to look modern (that is, European), even though the majority of the population had no familiarity with Western ideas.
What about Egypt, the motherland of Islamism?
Armstrong: After an attempt on his life in 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser incarcerated thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the innocent along with the guilty minority. Most were imprisoned without trial for doing nothing more incriminating than handing out leaflets or attending a meeting.
One of them was Sayyid Qutb. As he saw the Brothers being beaten, tortured and executed in this vile prison and heard Nasser vowing to secularise Egypt on the Western model and confine Islam to the private sphere, secularism seemed a great evil. In prison he wrote "Milestones", the "bible" of Sunni fundamentalism, the work of a man who has been pushed too far and was executed, at Nasser's special request, in 1966. The other Brothers were radicalised in these terrible prisons; when they were released in the 1970s, they took their extremism into the mainstream.
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