Divisions In Our World Are Not the Result of Religion
By Karen Armstrong & 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.