Internationally acclaimed author Karen Armstrong, renowned for her work on Islam and comparative religions, was recently in Karachi in connection with her activities related to the Charter for Compassion. Charter for Compassion is a document that “urges people and religions of the world to embrace the core value of compassion.” It was unveiled by Karen Armstrong and the ‘Council of Conscience’ on November 12, 2009. Charter For Compassion International is an organisation that supports the Charter and its Pakistan chapter was launched in 2011.
Eos sat down with the writer and former nun to discuss a range of topics including violence, religion, politics as well as the rise of nationalisms across the globe.
What brings you to Pakistan?
Karen Armstrong talks about religion, politics and the rise of nationalisms across the globe
Basically, of all the many centres in the world where the Charter [for Compassion] is being implemented, Karachi and Pakistan are way ahead of everybody else. I’m eager to see it all first-hand and tell the world about it. This country is right on the cusp of so many of the problems that [are] tearing our world apart, and the fact that here you have a compassionate initiative that is really practically embraced, not just in a sentimental half-hearted way or in a myopic way … I think it’s magnificent and I wanted to see it, so here I am.
Fundamentalism and violence inspired by religion or supposedly inspired by religion are all around us. But you’ve argued in Fields of Blood that secular regimes in the 20th century have spilt massive amounts of blood. Your thoughts on that?
We talk about religion but throughout history the biggest killer of civilians has always been the state — in the way they’ve treated their peasants, the lower classes, and in warfare. The British, I have to say, in our colonial years, when we invented the machine gun, there was a terrible agreement in Europe that we wouldn’t use it on other Europeans. But we were quite happy to turn it on the people of Africa.
We have to get this religious thing into perspective. We never go to war for a single reason. Historians of warfare tell us that there are multiple factors involved — economic, territorial. Similarly today these young people who are committing terrorist acts, they often know very little about religion. [They] have a whole lot of angst and fury raging up in them and see this as a vehicle. It’s very important that we look clearly at where the problem is and don’t simply dump it all on religion where we don’t have to think about it, about how we might have contributed to these problems.
Q: I’d like to ask you about the offensive caricatures and films popping up every now and then. In the West it’s argued that it’s a freedom of speech issue. But Muslim societies view it very differently. What’s the best way to deal with these situations?
A: If you take the Paris disaster, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, what you had here was a clash of two sacralities. Al Qaeda, which claimed that attack or supported it in some way, what they were saying is that, look, if you attack our sacrality, we attack yours, which is free speech. That has assumed sacred value in the West. But we have to look carefully at our own sacrality.
If you remember, after that attack there was a march through Paris with all the political leaders marching arm in arm, in defence of free speech. I was enraged to see people like my own prime minister, — at that time David Cameron — marching arm in arm with a pious grin on his face, for free speech when for over a century Britain has supported regimes in Muslim-majority countries that allow their people no freedom of expression at all. That doesn’t go unnoticed.
What was riling me during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was that, quite rightly, we brought our own soldiers who had died home and honoured them. But there was no public outcry against the quite unacceptable civilian casualties, people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our concern stops with us. Free speech may be alright for us but not for everybody; in our colonies we didn’t allow it. At the moment we’ve got this terrible Brexit problem in the UK. It’s an absolute disaster. But the outcry is ‘let’s make Britain great again’. And I always say, for God’s sake, no. We should really educate the British people about what really happened when Britain was great.
In many parts of the West the number of believers is shrinking, with many people describing themselves as ‘cultural Christians’. How do you explain this phenomenon?
It varies. In the US, they are very religious. It’s the biggest market for my books, crowds come up, there’s a passion for it. The UK is one of my worst markets. I come here [Pakistan] and people greet me so warmly. My friends aren’t remotely interested in the Charter of Compassion or anything of that sort.
What about former communist states?
It’s coming back. You go to Russia … the Russians have always been a very religious people. I’m not sure the British ever were. With things like the Crusades — not that this was a very marvellous event in our religious history — the French, the Belgians and the Germans were in it from the start. But the British didn’t want anything to do with it until it was obviously trendy and they joined in with Richard the Lionheart in a rather half-hearted way.
In Islam what I admired about the Quran was its pluralism, its endorsement of other faiths. In Judaism what I admired was [that] endlessly you never stop asking questions. But I think these atheists have gone quiet recently.
I see religion as an art form — it always expresses itself best in terms of art. My new book is called The Lost Art of Scripture because scripture is an artistic genre. Religion is an art form that the British never quite got hold of.
Some self-declared atheist and secular writers have given you a lot of flak for your work, for being ‘soft’ on Islam. Your thoughts on that.
Well, I would say they are hard on Islam. And unjust and ignorant about it, to be honest. I understand them because for years I hated religion myself. When I left my convent I wanted nothing to do with religion ever again. My first books were very, very hostile to religion because I’d been injured by it. When I started studying other faith traditions I began to see what my own Catholic tradition had been trying to do at its best.
In Islam, what I admired about the Quran was its pluralism, its endorsement of other faiths. In Judaism what I admired was [that] endlessly you never stop asking questions. But I think these atheists have gone quiet recently. I know Richard Dawkins, for example, has got thoroughly sick of the whole thing.
Basically there’s a certain ignorance. But we can’t afford to look at any major human enterprise with contempt, because this is how you injure people’s sensibilities. I abhor any terrorist act by [whomever] it is committed. But to dump it all on Islam without seeing how we may have contributed to this situation is simply irresponsible.
Considering there’s so much chaos out there today, some of it being blamed on religion, some on nationalism, do you think the so-called Clash of Civilisations theory has become a self-fulfilling prophesy?
I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a disease of nationalism. The nation state is a fairly new discovery. It was impossible to create a national spirit before you had widespread media. How could anybody living in northern Scotland feel they had anything in common with people living in London? There would be no communication.
Lord Acton, a British historian in the late 19th century, said that the nation state had one terrible flaw, that the emphasis in the nation state on ethnicity, culture and language would make it very difficult for people who did not fit the national profile. In some cases, he said with chilling accuracy, they would even be enslaved or exterminated. That proved to be true in the 20th century. Not long after he wrote that the atheistic Young Turks massacred over a million Armenians to create a purely Turkic state. There was the Holocaust and in the 1990s there was Bosnia.
I got into this business of writing about Islam because of the Salman Rushdie crisis. I was horrified by the fatwa from the Iranian government, but I was also horrified by the way the great and the good in the UK — novelists, philosophers, politicians — were coming out in the press and saying that Islam was an evil and bloodthirsty religion. I remember thinking we’ve learnt nothing since the 1930s. This is how Hitler began, with a media campaign. We can’t afford to make inaccurate generalisations about a whole people. That’s when I decided to write my book about the Prophet [PBUH]. I thought I would educate my people. Most of them knew nothing about the Prophet. Nothing at all. There’s a lot of self-righteousness, insufficient knowledge.
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 7th, 2018