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Bill Moyers Interviews Karen Armstrong on NOW. 3.1.02

BILL MOYERS: She was a spark plug in my PBS series on Genesis, her books are best sellers, "The History of God", "The Battle for God", "Jerusalem". She's written a biography of Buddha, and a short history of Islam. Soon we'll have her new memoir of her life after the convent where she spent seven years as a nun. Joining me now is one of the world's foremost students of religion, Karen Armstrong. Thank you.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you Bill.

BILL MOYERS: If you were God, would you do away with religion?

ARMSTRONG: Well, there are some forms of religion that must make God weep. There are some forms of religion that are bad, just as there's bad cooking or bad art or bad sex, you have bad religion too. Religion that has concentrated on egotism, that's concentrated on belligerence rather than compassion.

MOYERS: And so much of religion has been the experience of atrocity.

ARMSTRONG: But then you have to remember that this is what human beings do. Secularism has shown that it can be just as murderous, just as lethal as religion. Now I think one of the reasons why religion developed in the way that it did over the centuries was precisely to curb this murderous bent that we have as human beings.

MOYERS: You get September 11th ... you get the Crusades, you get ... do you remember the young Orthodox Jew who assassinated Itzhak Rabin? I can see him right now, looking into the camera, and he says, everything I did, I did for ...

ARMSTRONG: For God.

MOYERS: ... for the glory of God.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes. Well, this is ... this is bad religion. Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it's the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, what's the point of having religion if you can't disapprove of other people? And sometimes we use religion just to back up these unworthy hatreds, because we're frightened too.

MOYERS: Fear?

ARMSTRONG: There's great fear. We fear that if we're not in control, other people will cut us down to size, and so we hit out first.

From the beginning, violence was associated with religion, but the advanced religions, and I'm talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, monotheism, the Hebrew prophets, they insisted that you must transcend this violence, you must not give in to this violence, but you must learn to recognize that every single other human being is sacred.

MOYERS: That's what we're taught when ... growing up, you know, Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. But as soon as they grow up, they go for each other's throats.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. And a lot of this talk about love and compassion can be on the rather sloppy level. Or rather easy, facile level, where compassion is hard. It's nothing to do with feeling. It's about feeling with others. Learning to put yourself in the position of another person. There were years in my life when I was eaten up with misery and anger, I was sick of religion but when I got to understand what religion was really about, not about dogmas, not about propping up the church, not about converting other people to your particular wavelength, but about getting rid of ego and approaching others in reverence, I became much happier.

But you have to go a long journey, a journey that takes you away from selfishness, from greed. And that leads you to value the sacredness in all others. I'm thinking of Abraham in Genesis — there's a wonderful story, where Abraham is sitting outside his tent and it's the hottest part of a Middle Eastern afternoon, and he sees three strangers on the horizon.

And now most of us would never dream of bringing a total stranger from the streets into our own homes, strangers are potentially lethal people. But that's exactly what Abraham does. He runs out, he bows down before them, as though they were kings, and brings them into his encampment, and makes his wife prepare an elaborate meal. And in the course of the ensuing conversation, it transpires quite naturally that one of those strangers is Abraham's God, that the act of practical compassion led to a divine encounter.

In Hebrew, the word for holy, kadosh, means separate, other. And sometimes it's the very otherness of a stranger, someone who doesn't belong to our ethnic or ideological or religious group, an otherness that can repel us initially, but which can jerk us out of our habitual selfishness, and give us intonations of that sacred otherness, which is God.

MOYERS: What happened in your case? You said that you came to this insight that you weren't a good person.

ARMSTRONG: After I left the convent, for 15 years I was worn out with religion, I wanted nothing whatever to do with it. I felt disgusted with it. If I saw someone reading a religious book on a train, I'd think, how awful.

I had no job at all, and I was asked to do a television series on Saint Paul, and I was working with an Israeli film company ...I went to Jerusalem. And there, very importantly, I encountered Judaism and Islam. And up until that point, my religious life had been very parochial, been very Catholic, and I'd never thought of Judaism as anything but the kind of prelude to Christianity, and I'd never thought about Islam at all. But in Jerusalem, where you see these three religions jostling together, often very uneasily, even violently, you become aware of the profound connections between them and it was the study of these other faiths that led me back to an appreciation of what religion was trying to do.

MOYERS: What appealed to you about Islam? Because in the context of 9/11 ... there's so much talk about Islam as a violent religion. We saw those suicide bombers, heard those suicide bombers invoking the name of Allah, saying they were doing this in the name of ... of God, and the name of their own faith. So you're saying, there are good things about this religion, that helped you rediscover your own spiritual journey.

ARMSTRONG: Ironically, the first thing that appealed to me about Islam was its pluralism. The fact that the Koran praises all the great prophets of the past. That Mohammed didn't believe he had come to found a new religion to which everybody had to convert, but he was just the prophet sent to the Arabs, who hadn't had a prophet before, and left out of the divine plan. There's a story where Mohammed makes a sacred flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount. And there he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past. And he ascends to the divine throne, speaking to the prophets like Jesus and Aaron, Moses, he takes advice from Moses, and finally encounters Abraham at the threshold of the divine sphere. This story of the flight of Mohammed and the ascent to the divine throne is the paradigm, the archetype of Muslim spirituality. It reflects the ascent that every Muslim must make to God and the Sufis, when I started talking ...

MOYERS: The mystical sect.

ARMSTRONG: The mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi movement, insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind.

MOYERS: How do you explain the hatred in the world of Islam toward the west, toward America in particular?

ARMSTRONG: Well, all fundamentalist movements, that's whether they're Jewish, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, all begin as an intra-religious debate, an intra-religious struggle.

Then, at a later stage, fundamentalists sometimes reach out towards a foreign foe and hence the Muslim feeling that American foreign policy is ... is holding them back.

MOYERS: Why do they think American foreign policy is the root of their ills?

ARMSTRONG: This was very much an Arab feeling. They feel that they are fighting a holy war ... that America fights Muslims, has killed Muslims, in Iraq, that America is still continuing to bomb Iraq ...

MOYERS: And yet in Bosnia, we went to the defense of Muslims there.

ARMSTRONG: Exactly, exactly. There's a running sore of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been festering for so long, and has become symbolic of everything that Muslims feel that is wrong with the modern world. Just as here, in the United States, fundamentalists have symbolic issues, abortion, and evolution, which they can't see rationally, but they've become symbolic of ... of the evils of modernity. The state of Israel, which meant that Palestinians lost their home, has become for Muslims a symbol of their impotence in the modern world.

It wasn't always like this. At the beginning of the twentieth century, every single leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the west, and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. Some of them even said that the Europeans, they didn't know about America yet, that the Europeans were better Muslims than they themselves, because their modern society had enabled them to create a fairer and more just distribution of wealth, than was possible in their pre-modern climates, and that accorded more perfectly with the vision of the Quran.

Then there was the experience of colonialism under Britain and France, experiences like Suez, the Iranian revolution, Israel, and some people, not all by any means, some people have allowed this ... these series of disasters to corrode into hatred. Islam is a religion of success. Unlike Christianity, which has as its main image, in the west at least, a man dying in a devastating, disgraceful, helpless death.

MOYERS: On a cross, crucified.

ARMSTRONG: The cross, crucified, and that turned into victory. Mohammed was not an apparent failure. He was a dazzling success, politically as well as spiritually, and Islam went from strength to strength to strength. But against the West, it's been able to make no headway, and this is as disturbing for Muslims as the discoveries of Darwin have been to some Christians. The Quran says that if you live according to the Quranic ideal, implementing justice in your society, then your society will prosper, because this is the way human beings are supposed to live. But whatever they do, they cannot seem to get Muslim history back on track, and this has led some, and only a minority, it must be said, to desperate conclusions.

MOYERS: You said once that you felt the fundamentalists were trying to restore God to the world.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, all fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.

MOYERS: They drag God back into the political world by denying democratic aspirations.

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

MOYERS: I mean, do you think democracy and fundamentalism are...can co-exist?

ARMSTRONG:Fundamentalists are not friends of democracy. And that includes your fundamentalists in the United States.

Every fundamentalist movement I've studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced at some gut, visceral level that secular liberal society wants to wipe out religion. Wants to wipe them out. Jewish fundamentalism, for example, came into being ... came really to the fore in a new way after the Nazi Holocaust ...

And some fundamentalists in the Muslim world have experienced secularism, not as we have, as a liberating process, but so rapid and accelerated that it's often been an assault.The Shahs of Iran used to have their soldiers go out with their bayonets out, taking the womens' veils off, and ripping them to pieces in front of them, because they wanted their society to look modern, never mind the fact that the vast majority of the people had not had a western education, and didn't know what was going on. On one occasion in 1935, Shah Reza Pahlevi, gave his soldiers orders to shoot at hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in one of the holiest shrines of Iran, who were peacefully protesting against western dress — obligatory western dress, and hundreds of Iranians died that day. Now, in a climate like this, secularism is not experienced as something benign, it's experienced as a deadly assault.

MOYERS: When fundamentalism experienced its rebirth in this country, a quarter of a century ago, political rebirth, it was because the federal government, the Internal Revenue Service had denied their parochial religious schools tax-exempt status ...

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

MOYERS: ... if they segregated.

ARMSTRONG: That's right.

MOYERS: And the fundamentalists became alarmed at that, and fearing that they were going to be annihilated.

ARMSTRONG: Exactly so. And similarly, in the famous Scopes Trial, which I think tells us a lot about the fundamentalist process in 1925, you'll remember, fundamentalists tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and there was a celebrated trial, in which the fundamentalists were really ridiculed in the secular press. After the Scopes Trial, after the ridicule, they swung to the extreme right, and there they've remained.

MOYERS: The inequality gap in this country is larger, I believe, than in any other industrial society.

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

MOYERS: What does that say about the most religious country in the world? And that's your definition. America's the most religious country in the world, and yet it's the most unequal economically.

ARMSTRONG: It's ... and this should trouble us all. It should trouble us all. Religious people should join hands, and fight for ... for greater equality. Try and see if you can introduce Christian, Jewish or true Muslims values into society. Not trying to force other people, but bringing to bear that respect for the sacred rights of others that all religions, at their best, three very important words, at their best, are trying to promote.

MOYERS: Where are you in your own journey? You're not a practicing Catholic, are you?

ARMSTRONG: No. I usually call myself these days a freelance monotheist. I draw nourishment from all three of the religions of Abraham. I spend my life studying these faiths, in a sense I'm still a nun. I live alone, and I've never married, and I spend my life writing and talking and reading and studying spirituality and God. And I can not see in essence any one of these three faiths as superior to any of the others. I suppose one of my hopes in life is to try to get Jews, Christians and Muslims to realize the profound unanimity, the unanimous vision that they share, and to join hands together to stop the kind of cruelty, violence and obscenity, moral obscenity that we saw on September the 11th.

MOYERS:Thank you, Sister Karen.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Bill.

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