Quest for peace
- From: ** <**@.org>
- Date: Wed, 04 Jul 2007 07:57:43 +0800
Quest for peace
Jacqueline Ann Surin, Husna Yusop and Dorothy Teoh
To neo-conservatives, she's an "apologist for Muslims". But to some Muslims,
she's unqualified to speak about Islam because she's not Muslim. Malaysia, on
its part, has banned three of her books. That's not stopping religious
historian, author and commentator Karen Armstrong from promoting interfaith
dialogue and understanding through her books and lectures. The former Catholic
nun, most famous for her book A History of God, speaks to JACQUELINE ANN SURIN,
HUSNA YUSOP and DOROTHY TEOH while on a visit to Malaysia as a speaker for a
Wisma Putra conference and a youth dialogue earlier this month.
theSun: We understand this is your first visit to the region, and your first
ever to Malaysia?
Armstrong: Yes, that's right.
What kinds of questions about religion have you been posed here, that have been
common questions that have been raised for you in the West?
Well, most of them really are much the same about the nature of religion, and
the place of belief in religion. Why religious people are not compassionate when
all the religions teach us about compassion. That kind of thing.
Would you say that of all the major religions of the world, Islam is currently
the most misunderstood?
Yes, I would.
How did this happen, you think?
Well, the West has found it always very difficult to understand Islam.
Islamaphobia dates right back to the time of the Crusades when we tended to
project worries about our own behaviour unto Islam.
And so, it was in the West at a time when the Crusaders were fighting a brutal
holy war against Muslims in the middle East that they said that Islam was a
violent religion of the sword, projecting their worry and anxiety about their
own unreligious behaviour unto the Muslims. And that's been a common pattern.
The Muslims, and the Jews, became the shadow self of Europe. The opposite of
everything we thought we might be or hoped we weren't.
And recently, the terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam have tended
to confirm that view.
Seeing as this misunderstanding about Islam is so historically rooted, what ways
can we employ to correct this misrepresentation?
Well, I think what would be helpful would be if Muslims undertook a
counter-offensive, and started to project the peaceful image of Islam more
energetically. Trying to find a more imaginative and creative way of expressing
You can't just take it for granted that people will see that (the peaceful image
of Islam). You need to display it, if you like, as spectacularly as the
terrorists have demonstrated something inaccurate about Islam.
I think I read in one of your interviews, you suggested that Muslims should
actually march down the streets of New York, saying 'Muslims for Peace'.
Yes, that's right. And that was after 9/11 when I suggested that American
Muslims organise a march going down to the World Trade Centre. That sort of
thing. It's for you to decide how to do it. But, I think, some such initiative
would be helpful.
Sept 11 was a milestone of sorts in that it reinforced the common Western
assumption that Islam is a violent religion. It's been six years since Sept 11.
Do you think enough has been done to repair the damage done to the image of
No? And the hostility towards Islam, in the West, is still as evident today as
it was before?
Yes. Because there have been other events since Sept 11. There have been the
Bali bombings, there've been the London bombings, there've been the Danish
cartoons with the violent Muslim riposte there.
And on both sides, the relationship between Islam and the West is being forged
by extremists. In the Danish cartoon crisis, the secularists who were publishing
those cartoons again and again and again were secular fundamentalists who were
aggressively pushing free speech 'in your face', as it were.
And certainly on the other side, the Muslims who were tearing down embassies and
resorting to violence were also extremists. Polls taken during this crisis
showed that 97% of the Muslim youth questioned, for example, even though they
were offended by the cartoons, were horrified by the violence.
And similarly, Danes who were questioned at the same time were supportive of the
ideal of free speech but were very distressed that the cartoons had created this
crisis and had given this degree of offence.
Thus, all you heard about in the press were the extremes. And I think the media
bears a responsibility here. After all, Muslims going peacefully along to pray
at the mosque isn't really news.
No. It doesn't make the headlines.
It doesn't make the headlines. And the media does tend to thrive on the more
dramatic forms of events.
So, on both sides, you have extremists hogging the headlines, and in a way,
framing the debate.
Yes. The middle ground gets left out.
And their voice is not heard...
Is not heard.
....in the public discourse.
No, it isn't. So, therefore, it would be good if peaceable Muslims could find
some ways of capturing media attention.
Hence, coming back to your suggestion about the need to be more imaginative and
Have you seen examples of how groups have been creative or imaginative?
Not really, not in this field. But other people may have.
Is it because with religion, it's particularly difficult to talk about it in the
public sphere, when religion and faith for a lot of people, is a very private
I don't think it's just a matter of talking about it. I think it's a matter of
demonstrating it in some way. In events like the march I suggested. That kind of
In one interview that you did for your book Muhammad: A Biography of the
Prophet, you said that the Prophet 'must be one of the greatest genuises the
world has ever known, both spiritually and politically, yet he was also a genius
at humanity'. Do you think enough people - Muslims and non-Muslims - understand
I think there's a lot of ignorance about the Prophet in the West. And that's why
I wrote my book. It was for Western people.
Originally, my objective was to talk about the Prophet's life in a way that
Western people could understand. But the behaviour of the Prophet could, for
example, give Muslims some idea of how to deal with this problem of apostacy
that you have here at the moment.
The Prophet wanted there to be no compulsion in religion. When one of his
companions converted back to Christianity, for example, the Prophet accepted it;
there was no question of putting the man to death.
There is also the famous story about him standing up respectfully when the body
of a Jew was being taken out to burial in Medina.
But unfortunately, there is a tendency, especially when people feel under
attack, for those who feel particularly threatened, to become hardline.
Maybe the situation is different because at that time during the Prophet's time,
their original religion was not Islam. So, they converted to Islam and then they
converted out of the religion. But in Malaysia, Malays are born Muslims. So,
maybe the situation is different.
I'm sure there's a difference. But the question I was asked was do Muslims
understand the humanity of the Prophet. And the Quran says quite clearly there
must be no compulsion in religion. No coercion. People must not be forced
against their will. So, that's something for people to consider, too, I think.
So, in our country, where most of us believe that Muslim apostates should be
sentenced to death, what do you think about that?
I think it's upsetting. As I said, I don't think this was the sort of way the
Prophet behaved. That was the question I was asked.
So, it would then suggest, just from this little bit of conversation that we've
had, that Muslims themselves maybe do not understand the genius that Muhammad
Unfortunately, in most religions, very few are able to live up to their
founders, who were men and women of spiritual genuis.
I don't think many Christians live up to Jesus. Many Buddhists are unable to
live up to the Buddha.
Because these were figures of towering spirituality and insight, and most of us
cannot reach this extraordinary standard. They are models, archetypal figures
for us to imitate, and we always fall short.
Ok, related to that whole discussion about apostacy, in Malaysia, the punishment
for apostacy can range from a fine or enforced rehabilitation right up to death,
even though death hasn't yet been enforced. Why do you think Muslims have this
kind of reaction when one of them chooses to leave the faith? Just because it's
very clear in the Quran, as you've said already, that there is no compulsion in
religion, and nowhere in the Quran does it stipulate that death is the
punishment for apostacy and you would think that for something as drastic as
that, it would be clearly stated in the Quran.
So, why this kind of adverse reaction, and it's not just in Malaysia, obviously.
It's happening in other Muslim countries as well. Leaving the faith is seen as
something which is criminal even.
And I think this came in long after Muhammad had died. This would also have been
true in pre-modern Europe, too. If you had apostatised from Christianity in the
Middle Ages, you would have been punished and ostracised, too.
Similarly, in early modern Europe, if you were the 'wrong kind' of Christian,
you would be very likely to be put to death. Christ would have been appalled at
But in a medieval polity, when religious allegiance was identical with
allegiance to the state, apostacy became treason, punishable by death. But in a
more secular world, that's more difficult to understand.
So, do you see this period where there are a lot of acts of violence that
suggest that Muslims feel very threatened, do you see this as just part of a
process (to grapple with modernity)?
No, I don't think we can ever say that deliberate violence is just part of a
process. That suggests that people have no free will about committing these
atrocities. That's clearly not the case.
But we have to remember that our modernity has been very violent. We are
killers. As a species, we kill. We kill each other. And our superior technology
has enabled us to kill with unprecedented efficiency and on a scale that was
Between 1914 and 1945, 70 million people died in Europe as a result of armed
conflict. We've also created nuclear weapons that would enable us to wipe out
the entire human race.
We've killed in concentration camps in unprecedented numbers. Violence has
permeated all kinds of spheres. There's violence at a football match, for
example. The United States is a very violent country, where it is too easy to
buy guns, so we have seen these terrible school shootings.
So, we shouldn't be surprised that violence has also permeated religion,
especially in regions which have been given over, for decades, to armed
conflict. In the Middle East, for example, there has been almost continuous war
and conflict for almost a century. And so, too, in Afghanistan, which was the
theatre of a cold war battle, and then was just abandoned to become a lawless
place ruled by warlords.
If you are born in Gaza, you will see tanks on the street every day, soldiers
with guns, suicide bombings, houses being demolished by bulldozers and people
carted off to jail. Such violence will infect everything - your dreams, your
fantasies, ambitions, and relationships. In such regions, religion gets sucked
into the conflict and becomes a part of the problem.
You've often been accused by the West for being 'an apologist for Muslims'. How
do you respond to such criticisms?
Well, first of all, I'd say that people who say that need to understand the
English Language. An 'apologist' is not someone who apologises in our sense. An
'apologia' is a rational explanation and an 'apologist' is somebody who gives a
rational explanation of an event or a phenomenon.
At a time like ours, when there is so much irrational bigotry around, I think
that is an important corrective to give a reasoned explanation of the religion
of Islam, which is so often misrepresented.
People who object to my work are usually offended because they have an ingrained
view of what Islam is, and they don't like hearing that undermined in any way.
That is because hostility towards Islam is so central a part of the Western
identity: we've long used Islam as a kind of foil against which we measure
So when this negative image of Islam is undermined in any way, people get upset
because they feel that their own identity is in peril. It is also true that many
of the people who make these accusations are hand-in-glove with the
neo-conservative administration in Washington which have a particular political
agenda and it suits them very well to say that Islam is a violent and dreadful
And your books then become a counterweight to the demonisation of Islam.
That's it, yes. Like John Esposito's books do in the same way.
He's banned here as well, by the way. (Esposito's What Everyone Needs to Know
About Islam is banned in Malaysia under the Printing Presses and Publications
I know, I know [laughs].
So, you're in good company.
I know I'm in good company [laughs].
Ok, but at the same time, you're a white woman who is a kafir who writes
authoritatively on Islam.
Excuse me, I'm not a kafir. Jews and Christians are people of the Book, and are
not kafirs. It is inaccurate and unQuranic to say that they are kafirun. I would
describe myself as a hanif.
In the Quran, a hanif is one of the followers of Abraham, people who surrendered
to God before Jews, Muslims and Christians formed separate sects.
But do you get called a white woman who isn't a Muslim and what right do you
have to write about Islam?
Oh, yes. Somebody said that the other night at the conference (the International
Conference on Islam and the West: Bridging the Gap from June 15 to 16, organised
by the Foreign Ministry's Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations)
I heard about that. And what is your response to that?
Well, I think Islam is a religion, a phenomenon that anybody can study. Why
shouldn't I study it just because I'm not a Muslim?
I study Buddhism. The Dalai Lama doesn't tell me I mustn't write about the
Buddha. I've written about Confucius. Leading Confucians are quite happy with
what I've said about Confucius.
You teach rabbis.
I teach rabbis.
And you're not a practising Jew.
And they like it that I write about Judaism, and understand Judaism because the
discussions I have with them, say about Christianity, are therefore more
The only way we're going to make any progress in this distressing conflict is if
we learn about one another.
And, frankly, I wouldn't have to do this if Muslims did more to explain their
faith. It is exhausting to be continually on the road; right now, I have a bad
cough and cold, which I caught on the plane coming over to Malaysia, and I could
now be sitting happily at home, writing about quite different topics. Believe
me, I have other things I'd rather do, you know.
So, it would be great if some of you people would also go on the road and do
this instead of leaving it to people like me and John Esposito [laughs].
So, if the gentleman the other night wouldn't mind doing a little more work to
propagate a more peaceful image of Islam himself, then John and I could happily
But do you think this kind of labelling - on one hand you have the neo-cons
calling you an 'apologist for Muslims' and then on the other hand, you have
Muslims saying 'What right do you have to write about Islam?' - do you think
this kind of labelling is a way to exclude certain voices from the public
Yes, I do. And it's also very much against building bridges. How do we build
bridges unless people on both sides learn about each other?
And, it is only fair to note that Muslims in the West have told me that they've
only been able to teach their children Islam because of my books. These children
are Westerners, who have grown up in the United States or Britain and they don't
approach the text in the same way as their parents did in, say, Pakistan or
Saudi Arabia. They can't respond to the story of the Prophet when it is told in
the traditional way. It doesn't speak to them because they have absorbed other
norms. So because I am a Westerner, writing about Islam, Muslims tell me that my
books have enabled them to teach these young people.
Now, if these young people then also could start writing books about the
Prophet, or about Islam, and thus spread the good word, then again, there would
be no need for me to do all this. I wrote my book about the Prophet (Muhammad: A
Biography of the Prophet, 1992) way back at the time of the Salman Rushdie
crisis. (Editor's note: Rushdie's 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, sparked of
Muslim protests who deemed it blashphemous and led to Iranian leader Ayatollah
Khomeini issuing a fatwa the following year calling for his death. Several
attempts were made to murder Rushdie and he had to go into hiding under police
guard. Rushdie's recent knighting by the British government has led to renewed
condemnation and death threats from some Muslim states and groups.)
When the fatwa was issued against him?
Yes, because I was horrified by the way that British liberals, in order to
defend Rushdie's right to publish what he chose, segued from a criticism of the
fatwa to an out and out denunciation of Islam itself. And it seemed to me wrong
to defend a liberal principle by evoking a medieval bigotry.
So, I wrote my book about Muhammad initially for my own countrymen. (Editor's
note: Armstrong put aside writing A History of God when the fatwa was issued
against Rushdie in order to write Muhammad).
And if Muslims did this and were able to speak and write in an idiom that the
West could understand, then I wouldn't need to do it.
The Malaysian government has banned three of your books - A History of God,
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and The Battle for God for apparently being
"detrimental to peace and harmony" in Malaysia.
What are your thoughts on this, and have you been banned anywhere else in the
There are people who would love to ban me, such as the neo-conservatives Daniel
Pipes or Robert Spencer in the United States. I've also had threatening letters
from secularists in Britain for writing positively about religion in general,
and Islam in particular.
I can't think that I've actually been banned anywhere else but I may well have
been. But this seems ridiculous. I cannot see how these books are in any way
detrimental to peace. They're all about promoting peace and harmony, and banning
things is simply not helpful.
Do you think religion is necessary in this day and age?
Yes. Because people are religious. People are going to be religious whether the
pundits or the intellectuals think it's necessary or not.
In the same way, there are always going to be people who are dancers, singers or
In the middle of the 20th century, it was generally assumed that secularism was
the coming ideology. And that never again would religion play a major role in
world events. But now, there has been a massive religious revival in almost
every part of the world, showing that secularism has not fulfilled all the
promises that it made.
Of the major religions - Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism -
which do you think provides the most liberating messages of peace, justice and
They all do. They all do it in their own distinctive way. I don't see any of
these world religions as better than any of the others. Each has its own
particular genius and each its own particular vulnerabilities.
So, where do you think we can find the common ground to build interfaith
understanding and help to reduce ongoing conflict?
When you ask that, what do you mean? 'Where can we...?' Who is we?
'We' as in people. Humanity. Or adherents of the various religions.
I think there are various political problems that are fuelling this division. I
think that is crucial. And I think that a lot of the terrorism, for example, is
motivated by politics rather than by reading the Quran. I don't think people
read the Quran and say I must go and bomb a London bus. They decide to bomb a
London bus because of politics, because in Iraq, Palestine, all these
outstanding issues, and then pick out a few verses in the Quran which they see
as justifying their action. That's how it works. This is politics rather than
So, where can we start to build a common understanding?
In religious terms, I think, by stressing the elements that we have in common.
The religions all have in common a preoccupation with compassion. They all teach
that it is essential to feel with the other, to look out for others, to love the
stranger, to honour the foreigner.
When Muhammad conquered Mecca and invited the Quraish to enter Islam, he stood
beside the Kaabah and said, 'O Quraish, God is calling you from the chauvinism
of jahiliyyah with its pride in ancestors. But all men come from Adam and Adam
came from dust.'
He was thus insisting that the human race is one single family and that none of
us has much to be proud of.
And then he quoted God's words in the Quran: 'O people, we have formed you from
a male and a female and formed you into tribes and nations so that you may know
one another.' Not so that you may convert one another, or terrorise one another,
or conquer one another, or colonise one another, or kill one another, but so
that you may reach beyond tribal bonds and know one another.
I think that in its appreciation of other faiths and its inspired pluralism, the
Quran has a headstart on many of the other scriptures, for promoting a more
pluralistic vision of the world.
But that is not what we are seeing now.
When you talk about finding a room for the others in our minds, how do you build
a common understanding if they can't even find room for the other?
Yes, but not everybody is like that. The world is divided into those who find
the new pluralism inspiring and helpful and those who find it a threat.
And there is a division in all the religions, not just in Islam, on this matter,
as I have said earlier. And it is no good saying, 'Well, people must be forced
to become pluralistic!' because that will make them even more tense and worried.
The thing to do is gently to proceed forward. Those who have adopted this more
pluralistic vision - and many Muslims have done so - must proceed with bridge
building but they must also learn to appreciate the fears and anxieties that
underline the more hardline approach. Because when people feel threatened and
under attack, coercion will only make them more extreme.
You were a Catholic nun for seven years before you left the convent, and you
described yourself as being disillusioned and depressed, and you wanted nothing
to do with religion for a long time after that. What was it about Catholicism or
religion that you found objectionable?
It wasn't kind.
It wasn't kind?
Yes. And I think that the most important thing is compassion, is to be kind, and
the religion that doesn't project kindness, the Quran is always talking about
So is the Bible.
So is the Bible. 'Do not address the People of the Book except in the most
kindly manner.' Instead of fulminating about them for daring to mention a word
about Islam, speak in a kindly manner.
And I think, unless religious people exude kindness they have not understood
their religion. ... I met the Dalai Lama about 18 months ago. And he said, my
religion is kindness. That's it. To be kind at every moment of your life,
endlessly, all day and every day, becoming an image of gentleness and openness.
That is what religion is about because it forces you to reach out towards the
other - out of your own selfishness. Compassion requires you to put yourself in
the place of the other. And if a religion can't do that and becomes cruel and
aggressive instead, then, it has failed, I think.
So you didn't experience this kindness when you were a nun at the convent?
No, I didn't. I have written all about that.
Ya, in your biography.
It's not banned yet so you can read that one [laughs].
[Laughs] Not yet anyway, we never know.
Yes. Let's keep quiet about it [laughs].
Final question, how would you describe your religious beliefs today, if you
still subscribe to any?
I think 'belief' - I'm sorry to be pedantic about terms - but I think we spend
far too much time troubling about belief. This is a special problem for
But the Quran doesn't talk much about believing things. It talks about doing
things. Look at the five pillars of Islam - going on the hajj, fasting in
Ramadan, praying, doing things. And Jesus didn't talk much about believing
things. It was about being good, being kind, being thoughtful to others.
It's only since the 18th century, and that in the West, that faith has been
acquainted with believing, accepting certain propositions, certain ideas,
certain theological opinions.
The word 'belief' in English originally comes from the Middle English word
'beleven', which means to love.
And 'credo', the Latin for 'I believe', comes from the Latin 'cor do', (meaning)
'I give my heart.' And similarly, when Jesus says, 'You must have faith in the
New Testament', the Greek word is 'pistis' which also means commitment, giving
your heart to something. Not accepting certain ideas.
The Quran makes it quite clear that the kafirs had the right beliefs. As God
says to Muhammad, 'If you ask them who created the world, they will certainly
say, Allah.' The kafirun understood the theology. The problem was that they were
not doing anything about it. They were not accepting the fact that they were
creatures, owing everything to God, and behaved as though they were the centre
of the world.
So, I think that we spend far too much time saying, 'What do you believe?'
Beliefs make no sense unless you put them into practice. Religious doctrines,
religious teachings are a summons to action. And it is only when you put them
into practice that you realise their truth. The Quran won't be true to you,
unless you answer its call to justice, to doing good in society, to fasting and
praying. When you do these things, then you discover that the Quran has meaning.
But if you just read it as though it were an article in the newspaper, without
in anyway letting it affect your behaviour, it will remain something distant and
something that you can argue about but it won't become a vibrant truth in your
life and heart.
And similarly, in Christianity. The New Testament is all about following Jesus,
instead of being preoccupied with such questions as, 'Is Jesus the Son of God or
not?' How do we prove this? Do I believe it? In the New Testament, St Paul
quotes an early Christian hymn which says that Jesus was created in the image of
God, but that he did not hold on to this. But he became a humble person,
emptying himself of his self-importance, and even accepted a horrible death. And
because of this acceptance and self-emptying, God raised him up to a very high
level. Christians often claim that this text proves that from a very early date
in their history the early church believed that Jesus was the incarnate son of
But that is not what the text is about: it is a call to action. Paul introduces
this teaching by, saying 'You must have the same mind as Christ Jesus. You must
empty yourself of your self-importance.' If you don't do this, you won't
understand the meaning of the story of Jesus. It won't be a truth to you. You
have to be self-effacing, making others more important than yourself. Again, the
emphasis is on kindness. And unless you do this, you won't understand the truth
So, I am not fixated on the idea of belief. The Quran dismisses many of these
orthodox doctrines as zannah - self-indulgent guesswork, about matters that
nobody can prove one way or the other. Why quarrel about them as the Jews and
Chrstians did? It makes people quarrelsome, sectarian and unkind.
Nobody has the last word on God. Buddhism has no time for beliefs. The Buddha
had a monk who kept on pestering him about whether there was a God or not and
who had created the world; had the world been created in time or had it always
existed? As a result, this monk
wasn't getting along with his meditation and his ethical practice because he was
too busy worrying about these abstruse metaphysical issues. The Buddha told him
he was like a man who'd been shot with a poisoned arrow, but who refused to have
any medical treatment until he found out the name of the person who shot him and
what village he came from. And, the Buddha concluded, you'll die before you get
this perfectly useless information.
These things are fascinating and we can while away many happy hours discussing
these absorbing questions but they won't help you. Suppose you actually succeed
in discovering who created the world - what difference would it make to your
So, the point of Buddhism was to behave differently. Only then would a Buddhist
understand the nature of Nirvana.
So it is best to concentrate not on believing things but on doing things. My
prayer is my study. When I am at home, I spend the whole day immersing myself in
sacred texts. And very often, as I said yesterday, when I am studying these
things, I get moments of transcendence and awe and wonder and uplift.
Thus study is for me a form of spirituality that is easier than meditation and
yoga, which I have never been able to do.
And as for behaviour, I try to put the Golden Rule - do not do to others what
you would not like them to do to you - into practice all day and every day, as
Confucius advised his pupils. That is the essence of religion and it's a full
time job. And so, I try to concentrate on that.
Updated: 04:58PM Thu, 28 Jun 2007
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