Sunday, February 3, 2008

Politics divides religions

Politics divides religions

It is a enligthening to read Karen Armstrong's speech below.

It is the insecurity of individuals that seeks security by controlling, robbing and forcing others to be powerless, as such threat-less. If the moderates of the world can give security to these cranky babies, we probably can mitigate some of the chaos. The Neocons are the extremists wearing different religious robes, and are good in imagining that fear and pre-empting it, facts don’t matter to them.

We need leaders who can work to mitigate conflicts and nurture goodwill for the good of all humankind, not because it is a noble thing, but because it makes good common sense.

Bush seems to have passed on that Neocons torch to John McCain, the average American is not interested in war and chaos. When I get a chance, I would ask Senator McCain to earn his presidency through giving hope and not frightening us.

We, the moderates can never be like them, reason matters to us, respect for life matters to us, peace matters to us and the truth matters to us.

Mike Ghouse

Karen Armstrong, world-renowned scholar and author of several books on religions, talks to 'The News'
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Shahina Maqbool


Politics, coupled with egotism and sectarian attitude, is the evil genius that creates divisions among religions of the world. It is the task of any ideology - be it religious, liberal or secular - to create global understanding and respect. Islam has a very strong pluralistic element in its scriptures. Most of the world religions stress the importance of compassion, not just for your own people, but for everybody. And that is the voice we need today, because any idealism that breeds discord, disdain, or contempt is failing the test of our times.

These views came from Karen Armstrong, world-renowned scholar and author of several best-selling works on religions. Born in 1944, Karen is based in London and is currently visiting Pakistan on an invitation from The Aga Khan Foundation. She is here to deliver a series of lectures as part of the numerous events being organised to commemorate the golden jubilee of the 'imamat' of His Highness The Aga Khan - the spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims.

In an exclusive interview with 'The News' here on Saturday, Karen, who professes to be a freelance monotheist, shared her views on world politics, democracy, sectarianism, Sufism, the commonalities among religions, and the concept of pluralism in Islam. Although shaken by the news of one of her best friends' diagnosis with cancer, she was gregarious during the tete-a-tete at the Serena lobby. This is what she had to say:

Question: How would you describe your transition from a Roman Catholic nun to a student of modern literature at Oxford, a broadcaster, and eventually a renowned scholar on world religions?

Answer: Basically, I always wanted to be an academic. I wanted to teach English literature in a university, but that didn't work out for a variety of reasons so I found myself in television. It was when I went to Jerusalem to make a documentary series on early Christianity that I encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time. While studying the two religions, I started discovering other resonances that I had not found in my Christian background. There were lot of things about other religions, and from that point onwards, I started developing, what I call 'triple vision,' which is looking at those three monotheisms as one religion that went in three different ways.

Q: In one of your proclaimed television series, 'Varieties of Religious Experience,' you interviewed people subscribing to various beliefs? Could you throw some light on that experience?

A: I hated it. I don't like interviewing people, plus the British public is not interested in religion anyway. However, the experience was important for me because in order to prepare for the interviews, I had to do a lot of study - that is when I developed interest in comparative religions and started my research.

Q: You maintain that polarisation of the world has resulted from mutual suspicion while ground realities have something else to say. We have glaring examples of armed invasions and abuse of human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Kashmir. And now, Iran, Syria and even Pakistan are thought to be next in line.

A: Yes, I fully agree with that statement. Before the 20th century, there has long been a suspicion in the West about Islam; it dates right back to the 12th century - long before 9/11, and long before Iraq and Iran were nations even. It is a long-based prejudice. But certainly there are political factors also, and I would constantly assert that the causes of the trouble are political. On 'The Alliance of Civilizations' - the United Nations initiative that had to diagnose the causes of extremism - we agreed that imbalance of power and bad policies were the root cause of polarisation, which meant that western people had supported bad rulers like Saddam Hussain or the Shah of Iran to get to oil; Israel and Palestine are other examples. I would blame politics to be the key.

Q: The western media is playing a negative role by portraying Islam as a violent religion? Is there any way this can be curtailed?

A: I don't know how it can be curtailed because the press is free. The western media isn't all monolithic - I think in the UK, we have a more balanced media. For example, on the issue of Palestine, some of our major newspapers are very sympathetic to the Palestinians while others like 'The Telegraph' are much more sympathetic towards Israel, so you have a balanced perspective.

But you don't have so much in the United States. And I think that in Europe, there is a much greater understanding of the political situation than there is in the United States. A lot of Americans are not interested in what goes on in the rest of the world. But having said that, Europe isn't perfect because they are obtuse about religious issues - they think religion is rubbish. They regard religious unrest with disdain and Islam is blamed for being religious. They would be equally hostile to Christianity in that respect.

Now what can we do to curtail this? You cannot tell the media what to say - not in the West - and if we did, there would be an absolute uproar and it would be counter-productive. What we are doing at the Alliance for Civilizations is that we have just created a Rapid Response Group so that a team of us is present right across the world in various countries, and when something like the Danish cartoons happens, the United Nations will point to the media so that they know that there is someone who they can talk to and whose view should also be represented.

Q: There is a general tendency to highlight the differences between religions and to conceal their commonalities. What is the most striking commonality between religions of the world and what role have your best-selling books played in bringing these into sharper focus?

A: That has been my major objective in recent years. For example, my last big book, 'The Great Transformation,' which dealt with all world religions - not just Judaism, Islam and Christianity but Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., - explains that, at the core of all religions, is the insistence on compassion as the main virtue; the golden rule: 'Don't do to other people what you would not like them to do to you.' You find that in Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Monotheisms. They also say that compassion is not just a test of true religion but is also the way we get to God. By leaving yourself behind and putting another person in the centre of your world, you experience transcendence, and that is the message of the religions.

Unfortunately, compassion is very demanding. It demands that you put yourself to one side, and a lot of religious people don't want to be compassionate - they prefer to be right! They feel puffed up, and pleased with themselves, and pomposity comes into them. This is ego, and ego is what holds us back from the divine. And this is what the great traditions all insist upon, at their best.

Since the 20th century, we have learnt much more about religions of the world than was ever possible. Better communications and improved linguistic skills are also having an effect. It doesn't get the headlines so much as the sectarianism, the violence, the Sunni, the Shia and the Islamophobia, but it is happening. A lot of western Christians - even in America - are very, very enthusiastic about Rumi. They read Rumi and are astonished to hear he is a Muslim. More Christians read the Jewish Philosopher Martin Boober than Jews; and Jesuit Catholic priests are going to study meditation with Buddhist monks. So people are quite naturally and spontaneously reaching out for that nourishment to more than one faith, in a way that was unthinkable before.

This is as big and important a development religiously, as terrorism, that grabs headlines. But it is changing our attitude for it is because of this development that we can never look at either our own, or other peoples' religion, in the same way. And we have learnt the profound unanimity of the religious crest worldwide.

Q: Islam has, among others, two widely practiced sects Sunnis and Shiites, each strictly adhering to its own interpretation. Interestingly, while all of them unite shoulder-to-shoulder during Hajj, they restrain themselves to their own mosques. Why is it so?

A: Egotism. Everyone thinks theirs is the right way. It is natural for there to be different sects; we have them in Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, because a tradition must - if it is a lively one - be flexible and be able to appeal to people in all kinds of loops and abilities. Until the 16th century, Shiites and Sunnis got along very well. Shiaism was a mystical movement, a private movement, and one that was very close to Sufism in spirit. Politics is the evil genius here. When you have the Safavid Empire and the Ottomon Empire - one Shiite, one Sunni - and they are in competition for territory, that's where sectarianism comes in. Politics also plays a similar role. For instance, in Iraq, Saddam Hussain furthered the divide between Sunnis and Shiites by privileging the Sunni minority. That created antagonism. Politics is usually the course of it, plus the egotism and sectarian attitude which you find in all religions; the concept of 'we are right, you are wrong' is responsible.

Q: You talk about the need for creation of a tolerant global community? How doable is this in a world that has turned into a hotbed of sectarian conflicts?

A: Yes, we have to create a tolerant global society otherwise we are not going to have a viable world to hand over to our children. It has to be doable. Even though the present situation looks hopeless at the moment - I am not a cock-eyed optimist, in fact I am more inclined towards pessimism in my own personal view - but we have to try and make it doable.

It is the task of any ideology, any movement at all - whether it is religious or a secular one - to create global harmony, understanding, and respect, not tolerance. I don't like tolerance because the word suggests putting up with somebody. Appreciation of difference and respect is what religions teach. Islam has a very strong pluralistic element in its scriptures. Most of the world religions stress the importance of compassion, not just for your own people, but for everybody. And that is the voice we need now because any idealism that breeds discord, disdain, or contempt - whether it is secular, liberal or religious - is failing the test of our times.

Q: What role can the Muslim intelligentsia and the civil society play in promoting interfaith harmony? In a city called Antalya in Turkey, you have a mosque, a church and a synagogue located next to each other. Do you consider that to be an effective step in that direction? What practicable measures can be taken to promote religious harmony?

A: I think we all need to look back at our own traditions before we point a finger at other people and say, 'You get your act together.' In the past, Muslims had created pluralistic societies where Jews, Christians and Muslims were able to live together. It wasn't Shangrila but it was much better than anything we have got, say, in Jerusalem, today. It has been done in the past. Look at Spain, for example. Under Islam, it was by far the most tolerant country in Europe, but never been anything like it again. But that was normal in most of the world - people did live together because pluralism is part of the Middle East. But now, because people feel under threat, they are all defensive.

We need to look back into our traditions, and the intelligentsia can play an important role by getting another story out there that religion isn't about hate; look, our tradition does this, and that. And it's all there; you don't have to make it up.

Q: Is the separation of religion from politics practicable in the context of Islam?

A: It has worked very well for us in the west, and one of the reasons for that is that when we did mix religion and politics during our modernisation period, it was a horror. There were terrible wars of religion in the 17th century that left 35 percent of the population dead. This was one of the great catastrophes of European history, and it was that experience which made the enlightenment - people said, 'No, we'll keep politics out of religion.' Now, we had a long time to develop institutions - we didn't have to do it overnight.

In the Muslim world, secularism has been introduced far too rapidly. When Kemal Ataturk secularised Turkey, he closed down all the madrassas and pushed the Sufis underground; the Shah of Iran used to make the soldiers go out with their bayonets, taking off the women's veils and ripping them into pieces in front of them. In this context, secularism seems like an assault upon religion - it is too quick, and this has given it a bad name.

If you look back at the period under the Abbasids, they separated religion and politics. The court lived by different ethos - the 'adaab' - which was an aristocratic ethos and quite different from Islam; much more graded. Look at the number of wives the 'sultans' had; this has no relation to the four allowed in the Quran. Then the ulema and the Shariah began a protest against this.

Politics is a very dirty business - it is very difficult to apply the high ideals, and very often, religion remains in a state of prophetic protest against it. But at the same time, I don't think it is any good forcing secularism or democracy on to people - we in Europe came to it very slowly. We had time to make these new ideas our own, and there was time for these new ideas to trickle slowly down naturally to all levels of the population. It has to be a natural process. You cannot go out and impose democracy with a gun - it would be like going to war for democracy — it’s a complete nonsense. Democracy has to come from the people. They must feel free, and if I were in Iraq, I wouldn’t feel free at the moment.

Q: How do you see Sufism promoting pluralism and tolerance in a society which is diverse in terms of its religious, sectarian and ethnic composition?

A: Sufism, in the past, has been a very outstanding example of appreciation of other world traditions. It started getting a bad name in the 19th, 20th centuries because people got involved in showing that we are as rational as the West. Everybody started downplaying their mystical traditions to show that they were just as philosophical minded and rational as the West; that Islam is a rational religion, etc. But I think not everybody can be a mystic. Mysticism is a talent that some people have; I don’t have it. I have never been able to meditate very well. I am not a mystic. In fact, I am someone who has been trained for ballet dancing, for example, and failed to get into a ballet company. But when I watch a ballet performance, I can understand what they are doing and appreciate it perhaps. We need to look at the ideals of the Sufis — they weren’t just people locked in prayer or whirling around in an ecstasy — most of them were working in the society for justice. There was always a social concern too, and that is very important.

Q: Some schools of thought see Sufis and shrine organisations as civil society organisations providing relief to those oppressed by the state or the society while others consider them as manifesting a spiritual phenomenon only? Do you think shrine organisations have a role that transcends spiritual purification?

A: Sufi outreach usually included a very strong social outreach, always in the past. A sufi became a sufi because he was appalled by the injustice in society. So, it is not just a question of making a few social reforms; it has to come from deep within, and mysticism goes right down into the unconscious, if you can really do it.

Q: How many books do you have to your credit? Are you currently also working on one?

A: I am not sure - they must be about 20. Two of these were biographies of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH); others include ‘Islam, A Short History;’ ‘A History of God; The 4000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam;’ ‘The Battle for God;’ ‘Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths;’ ‘Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World;’ and most recently, ‘The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.’

My next book will be titled ‘The Case for God.’ It looks at some of the modern atheists; the movement of atheism; and how the present-day atheism is due to bad modern theology. The book will be with the publisher by September 2009.

1 comment:

  1. If you’re interested in Karen Armstrong, you might want to look at her latest interview on Pakistan, Islam and secularism in the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld --