Karen Armstrong, a historian of religion and founder of the Charter for Compassion, received Simon Fraser University’s Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue last week.
A decade after 9/11, the West seems more bitterly divided from the Muslim world than ever. In Afghanistan, there’s been a violent explosion of anti-Western sentiment after last month’s Koran burning at a U.S. base and the slaughter of 17 Afghan civilians by an American soldier two weeks ago. But this hatred is not confined to distant parts of the globe. We’re witnessing a surge of virulent Islamophobia in Europe, especially in the Netherlands and some parts of Scandinavia. And sadly, this seems to have crossed the Atlantic.
In 2002, a survey of Canadian Muslims by the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations found that 56 per cent of respondents had experienced at least one anti-Muslim incident in the 12-month period since 9/11. Mosques or mosque construction sites in Ottawa, Montreal, Hamilton, Waterloo and Vancouver have been targeted by vandals. In January, anti-Islamic graffiti were spray-painted on the walls of the Outaouais Islamic Centre in Gatineau, Que. – the third such attack in four months.
These hate crimes are committed by a small minority, of course. But unfortunately, on both sides of the divide, extremists set the agenda. The news media, for example, inform us of terrorist attacks but don’t give much coverage to those Muslim leaders who regularly condemn them. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted a massive survey representing the views of more than 90 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. When asked if the 9/11 attacks were justified, 93 per cent of respondents said they weren’t – basing their arguments on religious grounds. This finding wasn’t widely reported and could, therefore, make no impression on the widespread view that Islam is an inherently violent faith.
This belief is deeply engrained. It dates back to the Crusades, when Western Christians were fighting holy wars against Muslims in Syria and Palestine; their brutal ferocity stunned the people of the Near East. Even though Islam had a far better record of tolerance than Christianity at this time, European scholar-monks depicted Islam as a fanatical religion of the sword that was violently opposed to other faiths. They were, perhaps, projecting buried anxiety about their own behaviour onto their victims – Jesus, after all, had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them.
As Europeans fought their way out of the Dark Ages, Islam, a great world power that dwarfed Christendom for centuries, became their shadow self, arousing in them the same kind of complicated resentment as the United States inspires in some regions today – an image of everything that they were not (or feared obscurely that they might be). This distorted image of Islam became one of the received ideas of the West.
During the 12th century, anti-Semitism also became a chronic disease in Europe. It seemed absurd to the Crusaders to travel to the Middle East to liberate Christ’s tomb when the people who had killed Jesus – or so the Crusaders mistakenly believed – were alive and well on their very doorsteps. Those who couldn’t go on Crusade would often do their bit by attacking Jewish communities at home. Jews were said to kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzo at Passover. This image of the Jew as child-slayer, representing an almost Oedipal fear of the parent faith, persisted well into the modern period and regularly inspired pogroms in Europe. Without a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, the Holocaust would have been impossible.
We now know what can happen when unexamined prejudice is allowed free rein. 9/11 was a terrible crime. But if it has stained the reputation of Islam, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have equally tainted the image of the West. Islamophobia is also a violation of essential Western values: tolerance, liberalism and egalitarianism. Founded on fear and ignorance, it also flies in the face of Western rationalism. We have created a global market in which, whether we like it or not, we’re interconnected as never before. If we want a peaceful, stable and sustainable world, we have to learn to live with those we instinctively regard as “other.”
With historic background, Ms Armstrong makes the case, when and wherever she appears, in person or in writing, for tolerance, compassion and respect for the "other". It is her life's mission, after having spent her early years in a convent and departed from its repressive regimen.
However, the current culture is not only hostile to both Jews and Muslims, it is also hostile to moderates among the Christian denominations. Extreme sports, and their pushing the envelop to the limit, seem to have found application in our political rhetoric, in our economic competition, in our reductionism of much of our preoccupation with money and both the poverty of its absence and the affluence of its presence. If we are to listen in, or read into the tweets and much of the verbiage on the internet, we find language and attitudes that dramatically depart from the traditional heritage of the west....its tolerance, and its egalitarianism and especially its rationalism.
The pursuit of power, in personal, organizational and community terms, linked to the capacity to send messages of hate, contempt, bullying and innuendo to as many people as we wish has, it would seem, turned many individuals into "propaganda machines" of their own design.
It was George Orwell who reminded us that all literature is political. We are now living in a time when all digital communication is considered "political" whether that means ideological, or personally ambitious, or another attempt to convert the "other" to our beliefs, including our faith communities.
Islam and Christianity, both, are aggressive evangelicals. They openly state they want the world converted to their faith, believing as they do, that God, as represented by their approximation of Him/Her/It is the "right" definition.
And, it would seem, that while Ms Armstrong pleads, along with many others, for tolerance and for compassion and for respect, this undergirding ambition at the core of both Christianity and Islam to dominate the world continues to plague the planet and all of its people.
Of course, there will be those who will argue that both faiths have made significant contributions to the improvement of the lives of humans. And they will be right, insofar as their argument holds to the facts of education and the development of laws and political organization. However, it is the prosletyzing by the most ardent advocates for the Christians and the Muslims, and the black-white manichean view of their self-righteousness that the world cannot negotiate with, compromise with, nor even tolerate.
It is this religious superiority, this conviction that "what I believe" is "what everyone must believe" that compromises those in both faith communities who are ready and willing to accept differences, to educate their own about those differences, and to build bridges between the different faith communities.
Your scribe is equally uncomfortable with Rick Santorum's religiosity (he is an active member of Opus Dei and would abolish both contraception and abortion, as part of his presideny) as I am with the radical Imam who declares it his goal and the goal of Islam to evict the royal family from Buckingham Palace, leaving the Queen two choices: convert or leave the country.
It is the penetration into the public debates in all countries by people like these, inluding the recent killings by Maher of Jews in France, that continues the story of intolerance, disrespect and violence based on fear.
And the eradication of fear, at the heart of most faiths, is one of the most intransigent of human dilemmas. We are held in her grips, almost without even knowing the ferocity of those grips. We are afraid:
- of being rejected
- of failing
- of succeeding
- of having too little
- of having too much
- of knowing too little
- of knowin too much
- of being evil
- of not being good enough
- of going to Hell
- of not going to Heaven
- of world takeover by "alien" forces, be they Christian or Muslim
- of dying without reconciling with enemies
- of living without compassion and forgiveness
- of working against out best instincts
- of undermining the best instincts of our colleagues
- of belonging to the "right" faith
- of belonging to the "wrong" faith
- of living in the right part of town
- of living in the wrong part of town
- of losing our job, our reputation, our health, our faculties, our friends even our loved ones
- of being unacceptable to God
- of failing to do God's work while here
We cannot omit mentioning that too often, it seems, the most devoted adherent to a faith is also the most intolerant of others from different faiths. This irony undercuts both faith communities, and it does with with impunity. After all, who among a faith community is going to criticise its most ardent members, those who are doing more to raise funds, to study, to recruit and to pray and to reflect on their own spiritual life? No one.
And it is very often those at the front of the parade who demonstrate the very contempt and bigotry that runs deep in every faith community, even between members of the same congregation who find others, including their own clergy, as apostates to the faith, because they do not share a rigid and unwavering commitment to one tenet of the faith. Those ardent believers also seem to be the most frightened of losing their tight adherence to the faith, if someone, including a clergy, posits a different view from the one they espouse. And the conflict is renewed....almost eternally, certainly tragically and certainly not in the interests of tolerance of the "other".