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Bill Moyers interviews Karen Armstrong on NOW. 4.9.2004

BILL MOYERS: Running through so much news these days is the power of religion to shape politics. From Christian Evangelicals to Muslim fundamentalists, we keep being reminded that our notions of God have consequences, personally and politically.

These consequences keep Karen Armstrong studying and scribbling away. She's become one of the world's leading interpreters of comparative religion. A HISTORY OF GOD, THE BATTLE FOR GOD, ISLAM: A SHORT HISTORY all became bestsellers. Her latest is more personal -- an account of her own search as an inquiring soul with an active mind. It's called THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS. Welcome back to NOW.

BILL MOYERS: Why the title "The Spiral Staircase?"

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, in mythology, a staircase is often a symbol of a change in consciousness. And I took this image of the spiral staircase from T.S. Eliot's poem, "Ash Wednesday."

The first-- it's a sequence of poems about spiritual recovery, I think. And the first poem in that sequence is the spine of the book. It's a poem that has stayed with me throughout my journey. And Eliot of seems in some of these poems to imagine the poet going up a spiral staircase.

And of course it's a powerful image. Because even in my own life, I seemed to be going round and round and round, making the same mistakes, having the same failures, the same experiences - and seeming to make no headway. But in fact, even though you're going round and round, you are going upward. You are moving towards up, as I hope, towards the light or in the labyrinth, into the center of yourself. But I hadn't complete ...I was only on the first step of the way when I heard that poem and had begun to turn again, the staircase in Eliot's poem, the syntax itself twists round and round and repeats itself, just like a spiral staircase.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think we are programmed for belief? Do you think religion is an essential human activity?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, I do. We've done religion ever since we fell out of the trees and became recognizably human. We've--


KAREN ARMSTRONG: --done religion and works of art. We started creating rituals for ourselves. Neanderthal graves-- they're beginning to bury their people. Trying to-- we are meaning, seeking creatures. We are beings that fall very easily into despair if we don't find meaning in what we do.

And so that search for meaning is part-- we need it to make sense. We're also very conscious of our turbulent inner world. And the old mythologies, the old religions tell told us before Jung and Freud how to get inside the labyrinth of ourselves, how to fight our own demons and our monsters and snares. Now that doesn't mean we have to believe a whole lot of stuff. We've got into the habit of equating faith with believing 20 impossible propositions before breakfast.

BILL MOYERS: Well, how do you explain the fact that we seem today to be so torn apart by religious extremism, violence of every kind in the name of faith, of God.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, that's always been the case. There's just but now of course the stakes are much higher because people are using more dreadful weapons than they ever did before. What happens-- what has happened, I think, is that in area in countries where, regions, where there is prolonged endemic conflict religion has got sucked in a sort of vortex, a bad spiral as it were. And it has become extreme. It's become part of the problem. War--

BILL MOYERS: Infected.


BILL MOYERS: By the politics and violence of the--

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Of-- by the violence. Because after all, we worry about our children watching too much violence on television, and worry how that will affect their psyche, their souls. If you are living in a violent society, where bombs are continually dropping upon you, where there's shooting in the streets, where your whole life is suffused with violence and hatred, you're going to become your imagination is going to become ruined by this.

Just war affects everything that we do. It affects our dreams. It affects our art, our relationships. And it affects our religion. And that-- is what has happened. You see it clearly in the Islamic world, that most of the terrorism that is-- it-- expressing itself in such wicked and inhumane and cruel and terrible ways in these dreadful atrocities, has its roots in these regions of conflict.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that you wrote that book about Islam. And you've studied Islam more than almost any non Muslim who's been here. Do you think that they can create constitutions and a constitution in Iraq, for example, that would provides democratic protections for men and women when the Islamic Sharia Law, the law of the faith, is so powerful?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well I think you have to see that Sharia law began as a counter cultural protest against government. And it was not until the Ottoman Empire that it became the law of the land. And it was that was rather a controversial step.

So that's relatively late in the history of Islam, 16th Century. And, so it's not that Muslims can not live without Sharia law. It's that Iraq is a special case. Because Iraq is like one of these violent countries that has been brutalized by years of dictatorship, some of which we condoned. And then by warfare. Afghanistan is another case--


KAREN ARMSTRONG: --in point-- region just done over and ruined by decades of warfare. And so these countries are traumatized countries. And in order to be truly democratic, you have to feel free. You have to feel that your vote makes a difference. You have to feel, you have to know that you are in control of your destiny.

BILL MOYERS: So the constitution has to make sure the people feel empowered to use that--

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. And also, the constitution has to do it. But you've got to create the conditions where people do feel empowered and not colonized or dictated to by either a brutal dictator of their-- among their own people, or the-- you know by foreign invading powers.

So, this is a difficulty. But it's not right to say that Muslims are-- have a knee-jerk reaction against democracy. At the beginning of the 20th Century, every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West, and wanted their countries to look like Britain and France.

In the early 20th Century the Grand Mufti of Egypt-- a man called Muhammad Abduh, who hated the British occupation of his country, but admired the culture of Europe and was very much at home with Europeans-- he visited Paris. And came back to Cairo and said, "In France," he said, "I saw Islam and no Muslims. Here in Cairo I see Muslims, but no Islam."

In other words what he was saying that in our modern democratic societies, we were creating the kind of equality that the Koran was preaching, better than in the traditional countries. In the Shiite world in Iran-- in 1906, leading Mullahs campaigned with secular intellectuals in a revolution that demanded constitutional rights and a parliament.

But the British just two years later, I think-- discovered oil in Iran. And they weren't going to let the Muslims have their parliament. And they kept suborning it. And the Americans at that time took the British to task and said, "You stop rigging these elections and ruining this parliamentary experiment."

So that kind of thing has made democracy seem like a bad joke to many people. Plus, we've often in the West supported regimes, and is still supporting regimes--

BILL MOYERS: Saudi Arabia.


BILL MOYERS: --there--

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Except where there is--

BILL MOYERS: --breeding ground of--

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Exactly. Where there is no democracy. And when people are denied the right to express their extreme discontent in a conventional political way with an opposition party and in parliament etcetera, then they will the only place they can do that is the mosque. So that's been part of the problem, too.

You see when these mosques become just the focus of discontent, and where there's violence of all different kinds of violence-- state violence in society-- then-- you're then-- you're not going to get a healthy Islam or a healthy democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Isn't it true that whenever and wherever one of the world's great religions took root, women were pushed back down the stairs.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. This is absolutely true, that in the great flaw of these traditions has been the denigration of women. Wherever--

BILL MOYERS: Oh, you can't get away with just saying a great flaw. I mean-- --it's more than a flaw.


BILL MOYERS: It was it's an oppression.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Of course it's an oppression. And

BILL MOYERS: In yeshivas--


BILL MOYERS: -- madrasas, seminaries, monastic orders, college of cardinals-- all male clubs.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: When I say a flaw, it means that there is a great-- wound-- --going right the way--


KAREN ARMSTRONG: --through our religion that spoils, that ruins the integrity of these traditions. Even my friend the Buddha, threw a little tantrum when at the thought of letting women come into the Sanga, into his order.

He said they would fall upon the order like mildew on a field of rice. And the fathers at the church said some appalling things about women. And now with the world in turmoil and when the what the world needs to hear from religion is the compassionate message which the world needs compassion and at the moment -- what the church is doing arguing about whether women can be priests or--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but, before you came I was reading about the growing conflict in your own Anglican Church back in England about the ordination of women. I mean there's a movement that says if women are ordained, we are leaving the church--


BILL MOYERS: --and these--


BILL MOYERS: --included a lot of women.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, they do. And one of the dreadful things about this oppression of women has been that women take their own valuations. It's like people who've been colonized in developing countries, who begin to accept the colonists' denigration of themselves and their race.

Women have absorbed and internalized this picture of themselves as subjects. And yet so often these religions began with a positive message for women. Paul says, "In Christ there's neither male nor female. Just as there's neither Jew nor Greek slave nor free person." All those barriers have got to come down. Mohammad gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, that we wouldn't have in the West until the 19th Century.


Yeah. He preached the emancipation--


BILL MOYERS: --of women. And - the women who became his converts--

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Indeed. They were the some of the first people who came to Islam were women. In fact the first-- you can say that the first Muslim was a woman. That's Mohammad's wife who believed in the revelations that he had before he did himself.

BILL MOYERS: And Jesus, you know-- much talk in this country about the "The Passion" of late. But what most people forget is that Jesus had women disciples. And that the women stuck with him during--

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, exactly.

BILL MOYERS: --crucifixion. The men were off hiding somewhere.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The men were skulking and hiding. And it's the women who have the first news of the resurrection according to the gospels.

BILL MOYERS: I think the most exciting field of history in the Christian church today is in the first hundred to 150 years--


BILL MOYERS: --when the early-- they didn't even call themselves Christians. But the early followers of Jesus preached the revolutionary egalitarianism in which women were equal--


BILL MOYERS: --in every respect.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Exactly. And that was-- it was radical. But it wasn't long before they started reneging on that. You find it even in the New Testament in Timothy and Titus. Not written-- epistles to Timothy and Titus-- not written by Saint Paul, but written about-- as much as 60 years after his death.

BILL MOYERS: Paul has gotten blamed for it, right?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: But Paul is blamed for that. And there you've got women being submissive to their husband, etcetera. And this is not what Paul basically--

BILL MOYERS: You find it so deeply embedded in-- Augustine, the great-Saint- --of the church who told his priests to shun the company of- --women even if they were sick or in trouble. He said it is still Eve, the temptress, that we must beware of in every woman. And Aquinas saw women as biologically defective.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes, he was quoting Aristotle, who saw woman as a failed man. Basically that something would go wrong in the embryo-- to-- and produced a woman instead of a man. I mean this is all terrible stuff. And--

BILL MOYERS: Can a religion be spiritually wholesome if it treats--


BILL MOYERS: --women this way? It can't?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: No, it can't. And this has been-- and no, it simply can not. Because if half the human race is being denigrated and they're also wasting the insights of -- think of generations of millions of women who could've contributed to this.

Some of the most exciting work in Islam, for example, is being done by women theologians who are making their men folk look at the egalitarian message of the Koran.

BILL MOYERS: Don't you think we cross some divide when we looked in the river or looked in the stream or looked in the pond or looked in the mirror and saw ourselves as God? Are you familiar with that great chapter of Isaiah? You know where it says, "My ways are not your ways."

KAREN ARMSTRONG: "My thoughts are not your thoughts. For as high as the heavens are the above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts, my ways above your ways." It's-- should be written over every breaches--pulpit.


KAREN ARMSTRONG: Because so often we think that God's ways are our ways. God's thoughts are our thoughts. And we created God in our own image and likeness saying, "God approves of this. God forbids that. God desires the other."

BILL MOYERS: If he's my enemy, he must be God's-- --enemy? Yeah.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. This is where some of the worst atrocities of religion have come from. Because people have used -- to give a sacred seal of a divine approval to some of their most worst hatreds, loathings, and fears. Whereas to the great theologians what I found when I was studying for A HISTORY OF GOD the great theologians in all three of the monotheistic religions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim-- all insisted that yes, God was personal. But God went beyond the personal.

You shouldn't speak glibly about God. The- in Judaism you may not speak God's name as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is likely to be so limited as to be blasphemous. But God should challenge your assumptions not that-- you shouldn't imagine you've got Him in your pocket.

BILL MOYERS: Karen Armstrong. The book is THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS. Thank you for joining us on NOW.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Bill. Thank you. I've enjoyed it.

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