EVENT: DINNER DISCUSSION WITH KAREN ARMSTRONG
THE RITZ CARLTON HOTEL
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 30, 2002
INTRODUCTION BY ABDERAHMAN SALAH ABDERAHMAN
Minister for Political and Congressional Affairs EMBASSY OF THE ARAB REPUBLIC OF EGYPT
Transcript by: Federal News Service Washington, D.C.
ABDERAHMAN SALAH ABDERAHMAN: Our gathering tonight is a result of an initiative undertaken by Arab diplomats who deal with the U.S. Congress. In reaching out to our friends on Capitol Hill we have decided to host a series of social events for congressional staffers who deal with foreign affairs. Recently we have decided to further develop this initiative and invite some members of Congress to those gatherings, along with representatives from the administration, the media and the think tanks.
Tonight we are overwhelmed by the very positive response illustrated by the distinguished presence of all of you who are in this room. We are particularly honored to have with us the following members of Congress, distinguished members from the administration and U.S. armed forces. Let me recognize at least some of them. Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon (applause), Congressman Howard Berman of California and Mrs. Berman (applause), Congressman John Cooksey of Louisiana (applause), Congressman James Moran of Virginia (applause), Congressman Henry Waxman of California and Mrs. Waxman (applause). And from the Navy, Rear Admiral Joseph Kroll (ph) Deputy Chief of U.S. Naval Operation and Mrs. Kroll (applause), and Rear Admiral James Stavridis and Miss Stavridis (applause).
Many Republican members of Congress would have joined us as well had it not been for the need to attend the Republican retreat. They are, however, well represented by many members of their staff, therefore we also feel proud to conform to the bipartisan aspirations of this city. We are also excited to have with us more than 50 congressional staffers and their spouses. To them I wish to emphasize that we value their friendship and appreciate their assistance in building bridges with their respective members of Congress. We are equally pleased to welcome many representatives of the major American and Arab media and think tanks in Washington D.C.
Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdelaziz, the Saudi Ambassador in Washington D.C. was supposed to introduce Ms. Karen Armstrong in his capacity as the dean of the Arab diplomatic corps and indeed the dean of the entire foreign and diplomatic corps in Washington, but he regretted because he is sick and he couldn’t make it. So I’m afraid I will do both jobs of delivering my welcoming remarks and introducing Ms. Armstrong.
But let me first try to divulge what is inside your small gift bag that’s at your table for those who haven’t gone through it yet because they have some interesting things that are very relevant to what we are discussing tonight. You will find a copy of Karen Armstrong’s book, “Islam: A Short History” personally signed by the author. She spent about three hours yesterday signing them for you, Also, a DVD of the PBS powerful production, “Islam: Empire of Faith,” and a booklet on the basics of Muslim faith and a video tape that contains a new adaptation of the 18th century classic on religious tolerance, Nathan der Weise by Ephraim Lessing. This has a brief story.
Set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, the play shows a Christian Knight Templar, Nathan the Jew and the great Muslim leader Saladin wondering which is the greatest religion. In his play Lessing brilliantly depicted the ridiculousness of religious bigotry. Two hundred years later, now, his message is still very relevant.
I have had the pleasure of cooperating with George Mason University’s Theater of First Amendment to enable as many people to enjoy this magnificent play and actually the author, the adapter, of this play is with us here, Paul D’Andrea .Our dream was only to have it on TV and now, as it is being produced for public television, we aspire to see it performed at the Library of Congress, and with a bit of luck and perhaps with your support, we might be able also to see it on Kennedy Center. So please watch it and let me know what you think.
The theme of our event tonight is enlightenment and Ms. Karen Armstrong is one of its best champions. Her presentation and our subsequent discussion could not have come in a more opportune time, for despite the fact that the whole world has been united in condemning the barbaric attacks that took place in New York and in Washington on September 11th, efforts by all of us are still needed to ensure that the war against terrorists should not be perceived as a war against Muslims or Arabs. Nor should it develop, albeit unintentionally, into a clash of civilizations.
The U.S. government has done a good job to avoid any such eventuality, and the American people have responded with great maturity and tolerance. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Arabs have rejected the terrorists’ call for inter-religious war. There were some sporadic voices, however, that were not satisfied with this successful, unified and universal stand against those terrorists. Some, out of lack of knowledge, went to the extent of blaming Islam. Others found in the violence created by the vicious terrorist attack against the U.S. an opportunity to spread suspicion and hatred and to divide the world into two antagonistic religious blocks, which is precisely what the terrorists are advocating. Fortunately these hate-mongers have so far failed in their unholy endeavor.
A process to develop better mutual understanding, in my opinion, is the best safety net against these conspiracies. This process is a two-way street or as Ms. Armstrong suggests in her writings, a three-way process. We should all work hard to improve our people’s understanding of each other’s cultures and religions, rectify any residual conceptions, and realize that sometimes words can kill as easily as bullets. The Egyptian parliament is now debating how religious discourse could be improved. Many distinguished Islamic scholars and political leaders all over the Muslim world have come out strongly condemning those who fan religious suspicion and hatred. In the last week alone, leading Muslim scholars were participating in several inter-religious fora in Egypt, United Kingdom and the United States.
Needless to say that we should all cooperate to take away from the hands of the terrorists a very effective weapon of using the grievances of the Palestinian people under occupation, stopping the violence by both sides, and going back to negotiations in order to end Israel’s occupation is the only way to deal with these grievances. And peace is the ultimate guarantee of security for both sides. I believe that members of Congress who traveled to the Middle East recently, and some of them are here today, can testify to the fact that the Palestinian suffering under occupation is the single most agitating in the minds of most people in our part of the world. Egypt will continue its cooperation with the United States and others to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. The United States continued engagement is a vital prerequisite for our endeavor’s success.
History is going to judge our words and deeds during these difficult times, as we must make difficult choices. And future generations will bear the consequences of both our words and out actions. It is up to all of us to prove that those who are predicting the clash of civilization are dead wrong. I have no doubt that our discussion will contribute to that end, which leads me to the second part of my job, which is to introduce Karen Armstrong, who’s really very close to most of our hearts here. I found out that she has not only me but many, many fans, in this room at least.
Karen Armstrong is uniquely qualified to speak on our subject of discussion tonight, “Islam and other Abrahamic religions: how have the three monolithic religions interacted over history up to the present time”. Her background has the right mix of professional and scholarly expertise. She has long been one of the foremost British commentators on religious affairs and has established a similar status in the United States, and now, I’m finding out, in the rest of the Western world and in the Muslim world.
Ms. Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. After leaving her order in 1969, she took a B.Litt. at Oxford and taught modern literature at the University of London. In 1982, she became a freelance writer and broadcaster. 1983, she worked in the Middle East on a six-part documentary television series on the life and the works of St. Paul. Ms. Armstrong teaches at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers and is also an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences.
Her published works include “Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World;” “Mohammed: A Biography of the Prophet;” “A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam;” “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths,” and that was actually the book that introduced me to Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God, Islam: A Short History,” which you have a copy of in your gift bag. She’s also a regular contributor of reviews and articles to newspapers and journals. Needless to say, Ms. Armstrong’s presentation will reflect her own views as an independent scholar, and are not necessarily endorsed by any of the governments represented here.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in welcoming a great historian and an enlightenment visionary, Ms. Karen Armstrong.
MS. KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you. It’s a great privilege to be with you tonight. These are, as you know, terrible times. We are afraid, our world has been shattered, it’s a time of great peril. I’ve been thinking in these days of that film, “A Man for all Seasons” about St. Thomas More, who stood up to King Henry VIII, refused to take the oath of supremacy and was killed, was executed.
There’s a scene in that film where Paul Scofield, who’s playing Thomas More, speaks to his daughter and is trying to explain to his daughter why he is taking this apparently ruinous course. And she says, “There is a time when a man holds himself in his hands as though he were holding a cup full of water in his hands. And if he lets his hands fall and he loses himself at that moment, he will never find himself again.” And I feel that we are -- all of us are, of whatever creed, whatever our nationality, are at such a juncture. As the minister was saying, history will judge us on what we do now. And it’s also a crucial time for religion.
I realize that Washington is a great political town and that I am faced with a room full of highly political human beings. I’m not a political being, I’m a sort of student of religion, I spend my days studying world religion. And so my perspective will probably be a bit different, but I think it’s very important that we now start to think about the religious impulse itself, the religious dynamic itself. In the middle of the 20th century it was generally taken for granted that religion would be confined to the private sphere, the secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major role in world events.
But in the second half of the 20th century, religion has come to the foreground again, and not all of it is good religion. Some of it is very bad religion indeed. But nevertheless, as I shall be saying later on in my talk, there are people all over the world who are demonstrating in one way or another that whatever the pundits think or whatever the intellectuals think they want to see religion reflected more clearly in their public life. And it’s very important that they live in a setting where the religion they come up with is healthy and good, and not one which it partakes of negativity, nihilism, despair and discouragement. This is a responsibility for us all.
So people want to be religious and what I’m going to talk to you tonight is about Islam. Originally I was asked if I would speak about the relations between Islam and Judaism and Christianity. But there were special requests coming through to the minister who said perhaps I could go a little more basic and give a more introductory talk about basic aspects of Islam. So I hope those of you who are knowledgeable will forgive me if what I’m saying is rather elementary.
But this is by way of an appeal. I am appealing to my fellow Westerners to not just tolerate Islam but to learn to appreciate it. It’s something that has happened to me over the years -- I’ve been studying Islam now for 20 years or so, among other religions, and it is the study of Islam and the study of Judaism which brought me back to a sense of what religion could be. It’s been very important in my own journey.
But this is an appeal. What I’m going to be talking about tonight is the ideal. And it is an appeal for Westerners to appreciate that ideal and see that it’s not just a question of putting up with Islam, but seeing that it’s good for the world if Muslims practice their religion well. It will benefit us all if Muslims practice their religion well. And it’s an appeal to Muslims too to remember these wonderful ideals and to let -- this is the Islam that the world needs right now, I think, the Islam that is tolerant and compassionate.
Every single major world religion has one essential criterion. Every single major world religion -- and here I don’t exclude the non-monotheistic faiths, such faiths as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. They all insist that the one test of any religious idea or any religious practice is that it issues in practical compassion. The New Testament is full of that insight. I can have faith that moves mountains, but if I lack charity, says St. Paul, it’s worth nothing. And any religion that departs from this essential ideal of compassion and benevolence and takes refuge even in mean-minded carping of others has lost the thread, let alone anyone who kills in the name of religion.
So that is the criterion of all faiths. It’s the one on which all, in various ways have come to see is essential to religion, and it is that which also is very strongly enshrined in Islam.
Now, so what is Islam? How did it develop? As you know, it developed when the prophet Mohammed brought the Koran to the people of what is now Saudi Arabia, the people of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz in the seventh century of the common era. At this point the people of Arabia felt they’d been left out of the divine plan. They knew that there were other world religions in the neighboring empires that were more advanced. They’d heard about Christianity and they’d heard about Judaism, but some of the Christians with whom they came in contact used to jeer at them and say that God hadn’t sent them a prophet and they hadn’t got a scripture in their own language.
There was great anomie and distress in the peninsula at this time and the Prophet, like we ourselves, was living in a very violent time. The tribes were caught up in an endless succession of war, vendetta and counter-vendetta, in an endless, ceaseless, pointless blood bath of raid, retaliation, active terror, retaliation, retaliation, counter-strike. And it was the Prophet, in his extraordinary career, who was able to bring peace to war-torn Arabia.
The isolation of the Arabs -- their feeling that they’d been left out off the religious map, ended in Ramadan in about the year 610 when Mohammed who’d been making a retreat on Mount Hiraa just outside Mecca, was wakened from sleep and felt himself enveloped in an overwhelming divine presence. He said it felt like an angel squeezing him. And he heard a voice saying, “Recite”. And he said, “No, I can’t. I’m not a reciter.” There were various soothsayers or fortunetellers who used to wander around jabbering incomprehensible oracles. And the Prophet did not want to be one of these kahin (ph), these soothsayers. He said, “I’m not a reciter.”
And he was enveloped again, “Recite!” And eventually when he felt he was at the end of his endurance he found the first words of a divinely inspired scripture pouring from his lips, and these were the first words of the Koran.
The Koran is for Muslims something of what Jesus is for Christians. The Koran is the word of God, as Jesus is the word of God, the revelation of God for Christians. And it is written in the most extraordinarily beautiful Arabic. It was a revelation. It was a moment when the word revelation means an unveiling, when a veil is torn away from before a reality that is always existed but we couldn’t see it clearly before, and it changes everything. I think September the 11th was a sort of revelation for us all that has changed the world and shown us things that we didn’t see clearly before.
The Prophet too had a revelation that night. But it’s very important that he never considered that he was now founding a new world religion called Islam to which everybody had to subscribe. The Prophet seems to have believed that he was bringing the religion of the one God to the Arabs who’d never had a prophet before. That this was the religion that God had sent to every single people upon the face of the earth. Every one had had a prophet. God had not left human beings without an understanding of the correct way to live.
And so this was now the Prophet’s scripture, the message to the Arabs. And Jews -- the Prophet did not expect Jews or Christians to convert to Islam unless they particularly wished to do so because they had received perfectly authentic revelations of their own. They were the Ahll Alkitab (ph) -- the people of the book. Or perhaps, as there weren’t many books in Arabia at this time, people who belonged to an earlier revelation. And so time and time again the Koran makes it clear that Mohammed and the Koran have not come to replace the great revelations made to Moses, to Jesus, to Abraham, that he is simply repeating to them the message that he has sent to human beings again and again.
What is this message? That humans beings must make a surrender -- that is the word Islam -- it means a surrender of their entire selves, body, heart, mind and soul to God. And they must also strive to create a just and decent society where all human beings are treated with justice and respect. Only in this kind of society can people make this existential surrender of their beings to God and it’s only when a society is run according to these lines that society will prosper.
The Koran constantly tells Muslims, “Be courteous to the people of the book. Say to them, ‘We believe that you believe. Your God and our God is one.’” So today there are Muslim scholars who say that had the Arabs and the Prophet known about the Buddhists and the Hindus, or the Australian Aborigines or the Native Americans, the Koran may well have praised these religious leaders too, because all rightly guided religion comes from God. The Koran constantly says it’s not teaching anything new. It’s simply as a reminder of things that everybody knows in their heart is true, that God created the world and that human beings must live according to this ethic of social justice. This is the way that humans -- then we become fully human. This is the way principles of human life -- and if we’re out of kilter with this, our society and we ourselves, will fail, will fall.
One of the first things the Prophet asked his converts to do was to pray originally three times a day, facing Jerusalem. They were at this point turning their backs upon the pagan practice of Mecca and reaching out to the holy city of the Jews and the Christians whose God they were now going to worship. Allah -- I know some people have asked about this and I know it sounds confusing that some people tend to imagine that Allah is the name of a separate God like Jupiter or Apollo, but the word Allah simply means God. And Allah was the high God of the old Arabian pagan pantheon. But there was a general move towards monotheism in the peninsula at this time and many of the Arabs had come to believe that Allah was also the God of the Jews and of the Christians, so much so that some of the Christian Arabs used to make the hajj to Mecca in honor of Allah alongside the pagans because they felt they were coming to the shrine of their God in this time.
So this act of prayer three times a day, this is originally -- and then later it would become five times a day. It was very hard for the Arabs who were a proud people who didn’t approve of kingship to grovel on the ground like a slave. But the Koran and Mohammed teaches that you have the characteristic posture of Muslim prayer which is a complete prostration. And which is designed, if done in the right spirit, day after day, to teach the human being at a level deeper than the purely rational and the purely cerebral what the act of surrender Islam to God entails. It means a laying aside of that prancing, posturing egotism which is the cause of so much of our problems and so much of our evil. When we ourselves feel in jeopardy, that’s when we tend to lash out and become violent or cruel, but to leave that posturing ego behind.
This is in line with all the teachings of all the great world sages that tell us that it is our egos, our selfishness, our greed, sense of self importance, what the Koran calls istakar (ph) -- self reliance, that holds us back from the sacred or from the divine. And there were other practices too that would later evolve. Islam is not a religion that goes in much for doctrines. It’s rather like Judaism in that respect. It is more a religion of practice. In fact the Koran has a slightly dim view of theological speculation which it sometimes calls zanar (ph), self indulgent guesswork, and it’s often outraged that people quarrel about these things that no one can prove one way or the other and split up the community of the one God into warrings and divisive sects.
But there are practices which if lived in a certain way will help people to make this surrender of their beings to God at the most profound level. These practices are to make the pilgrimage to Mecca -- which I’ll explain at some point in this evening why the prayers switched from Jerusalem to Mecca. It’s a very nice story and I hope I get to it in this sort of inevitably truncated talk.
So you make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime, if your circumstances allow. You fast during Ramadan and make a kind of retreat, really. It’s a time of purification, prayer, reflection and also you remind yourself by, as a sort of side issue, that when you can’t eat or drink whenever you choose, that this is what the poor feel all the time. So that every Muslim knows at gut level what it is to be hungry, what it is to be poor. And this should lead to a greater compassion and sense of responsibility for the poorer members of society.
One must make the shahada (ph), the affirmation of faith that there is one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet, not the only prophet, but Mohammed was truly a prophet of God. And this is taken very seriously. The ideal, the Muslim ideal of towhid (ph), making one, is very much based on their profound sense of the unity of God. There’s one God, Allah. And a Muslim must order his or her life so that priorities are set in order that God comes first and you don’t make other things in your life into gods. It doesn’t just mean bowing down in front of an idol. It means putting money, or ambition, or your career, or a pure ideology like nationalism ahead of your commitment to God. And if you manage to prioritize in this way you will achieve the ideal. You will achieve an integration of the entire personality in your surrender that will give you intimations of the unity which is God itself.
So these five pillars: prayer, fasting in Ramadan, declaring the unity of God, making the pilgrimage, and -- have I left one out? And five -- I must have mentioned them all by this time. This -- zakat (ph), indeed very, very important. Alms giving. Every Muslim must give from his or her income every year to the poor, so that the idea is that this is built into your everyday life. It’s not just dependant upon a generous whim, but it’s a regular commitment to the poor.
And the religion was originally -- one of the names for the religion was originally tazartrar (ph), a word that seems to have been related to zakat, that means by giving of yourself generously you will develop a courtesy and generosity and, as it were, chivalry of spirit that will lead you closer to the divine.
Well, it all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? So what about Jihad, then? What about the Jihad that we’ve been hearing so much about in recent weeks? Well, I said that the Prophet was living at a very, very violent time and he came by preaching this message of social justice and preaching this monotheistic message. He came into conflict with the people of Mecca and was soon engaged in an all out war with Mecca, especially after he’d abandoned -- he’d made the hegira from Mecca to Medina, abandoned his tribe apparently, a sacrilegious thing to do at this time when this tribe was a sacred value in pre-Islamic Arabia, and to leave your tribe and take up your abode, throw in your lot with people with whom you had no blood link was unthought of and it was absolutely shocking.
And the Meccans came after him, this was an all out war. Arab chieftains didn’t hang around in the pre-Islamic period, and if they won a battle they were not expected to leave survivors. And so Mohammed and his Muslims were fighting for their lives, and for about three or four years faced the prospect of extermination.
Now, therefore in the course, some of the revelations that came to the Prophet at this time are concerned with the conduct of armed conflict, conduct on the battlefield. And the Koran develops a theory of the just war, very similar to our Western ideal of a just war. Aggressive warfare is always wrong. A Muslim must not take the initiative in warfare. The only war that is permissible is a war of self-defense. War is always an awesome evil, says the Koran. But sometimes -- it’s not a pacifist religion -- sometimes it might be necessary to fight to prevent yourself from being wiped out or to fight against the kind of injustice and persecution that the Muslims had suffered at the hands of Mecca and to preserve decent values in rather the same way as the Allies in World War II felt it was necessary to fight against Hitler who was threatening to obliterate what we knew as civilization.
So the Prophet was engaged in this defensive Jihad, but the word Jihad does not originally primarily mean holy war. Its primary meaning is struggle, effort. Muslims are enjoined to make an effort, a struggle, a mighty endeavor on all fronts, intellectual, spiritual, social, ethical, and sometimes it might be necessary to engage in a war. And the spirit of this Jihad of this is very well encapsulated in an important and oft quoted hadith (ph), tradition or maxim uttered by the Prophet Mohammed, who, while returning from a battle, he said to his followers, “We are returning from the lesser Jihad, that is the battle, and going towards the greater Jihad, that is the much more important, definitive and decisive effort to reform our own society and our own hearts and make our own society and our own deeper inner selves pliant to God’s will.”
So that was the ideal. Now, there were some -- as there always are in war -- there were some dreadful incidents. And in the course of this warfare with Mecca, the Prophet came into conflict with three of the Jewish tribes in Medina, who were siding with Mecca and wanted a once -- were plotting with Mecca and at one point going to open their gates, the gates of the city, to the Meccans. And there were expulsions and there was killing. But after this the Jews, the other Jews in Medina were still considered part of the Muslim uma, the Muslim community. And there was no -- and the Koran continues to abjure Christians, to treat -- speak with great courtesy to the people of the book.
Now, after the death of the Prophet, Muslims engaged, as you know, in sort of vast wars of conquest, but it would be quite wrong to imagine the Muslim hordes pouring out of Arabia, imperiled by some ferocious thing called Islam, and determined to conquer the world. These were rather secular wars, the Muslims were setting up a state, and wherever a state is set up, even here in the Americas, there were wars when the Europeans arrived here and there was a struggle to set up, bit by bit, what would eventually became the United States.
But the Muslims were not -- the first 100 years of Muslim history, the conversion of non-Arabs to Islam was not generally encouraged. You could do it if you wished, but it was generally considered, for example, that Islam was a religion for the Arabs. It was the religion that had been sent to -- given to them, just as the Judaism was a religion for the sons of Jacob. Later that changed and people converted because they wanted to convert, but the spirit of Islam is, I think, shown very clearly in the conquest of Jerusalem, one of the hot issues today at the heart of so much of the distress, of the conflict that exists between us all.
The Muslim armies arrived in Jerusalem and conquered the city in 638, that’s something like six years after the Prophet’s death. And the Caliph Omar, the Prophet’s successor, the second Caliph, was escorted around the city by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Sophronius (ph). And he was taken round all the great churches, and he was in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the main church of the Muslim -- of the Christians in -- where Jesus is believed to have been crucified at the site of his tomb and resurrection. He was standing beside the tomb when the hour for Muslim prayer came around, and the Patriarch asked, invited Omar to make his prayer right there beside the tomb in the church, and Omar said no.
And he went outside the church and knelt in the thoroughfare, the main street of Jerusalem, the main road outside, and made his prostrations there, facing Mecca. And he said, he explained afterwards that if he had prayed in the Holy Sepulcher church, some later Muslims, in a thoroughly misguided spirit of zeal, might have wanted to turn this church into a mosque to celebrate the first Islamic prayer in Jerusalem. And it was of crucial importance that the Christians kept their holy places intact, and there and then Omar signed a charter to say that the Christians must keep their holy places intact.
Then the Caliph asked, “Where is the temple?” The Muslims, at this point, called Jerusalem Bayt al-Maqdis (ph), the city of the temple. They’d heard about the great mosque that King Solomon had built, they knew that this had been a very important place for the children of Israel, for Jesus indeed, who is of -- the devotion to Jerusalem is -- the Muslim devotion to Jerusalem is very much bound up with Jesus and his presence in the city. And so this is the Bayt al-Maqdis, so where is the temple?
Well, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch looked shifty, I think, at this point, because the Christian sources say that he tried to palm off various churches, modern churches, as the temple. Because what had happened was that the Romans, in the year 70 of the common era, had destroyed the temple, and the Christians had left these ruins unreclaimed. It was a very important part of Christian Jerusalem that the ruins of the temple remain and the Christians could contemplate these ruins and say this is the symbol of our defeat of Judaism. And in recent decades the Christians had taken to using the temple, the Temple Mount, as the city garbage dump.
So eventually there was no way out. The Caliph said, “I want to see the temple.” And he was led up there or had to climb on their hands and knees, up to this appalling place of desolation, covered in burns and broken masonry and stinking rubbish. And the Caliph was appalled and he immediately began to clear the site putting the rubbish into his cloak and throwing it over the parapet into the vale --
This building had cost too much Jewish blood. It was the Messiah would do this. The Messiah would build a temple when he returned and gave victory and liberation and redemption to the Jewish people. It was not something that human beings would do.
But there were Jews of the seventh century who hailed the Muslims as the precursors of the Messiah, the heralds of the Messiah because in clearing this holy site they had prepared the way for the Messiah.
And then the Caliph -- in Christian Jerusalem, Jews had not been allowed permanent residence in the city. They’d been allowed to visit the city once a year on the 9th of Av and mourn over the ruins and mourn around the gates, but they were not allowed to be permanent residents. And Omar eventually brought -- decided that this must stop and he brought back from Tiberius 70 Jewish families and settled them alongside the Temple Mount, now known as the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in the Muslim world.
And so the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem, sadly, in the light of today’s conquest, was good for the Jewish people. Now this is the spirit of Islam, and this is the spirit we should be hearing today from our mosques, from our religious leaders, not the militant horror that we get from people like Osama bin Laden.
And I want to just talk briefly, as we’re on the subject of Jerusalem, about the story, the great story of the Prophet’s night journey to Jerusalem and his assent into heaven from the Temple Mount because I think it is a story of pluralism. This is an account of a great spiritual experience of the Prophet, a private spiritual experience for himself and it’s very similar in many ways to the visions of the Jewish throne mystics that people -- at this time, who also imagined an assent through the seven heavens to the divine throne.
The story is that one night Mohammed was miraculously conveyed from Mecca, from where he was sleeping beside the Kabbah, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and there he was greeted by all the great prophets of the past, all of whom welcomed him into their midst and invited him to preach to them. And on the haram (ph) you will see the pulpit from which the Prophet delivered this sermon. And then he ascended through the seven heavens and at each of the seven heavens, we’re told, he encountered some of the great prophets of the past, Moses and Aaron , Jesus and John the Baptist, Enoch and finally at the threshold of the divine sphere, Abraham, the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims, the father of those who believes, St. Paul said.
And at one point -- in one of the stories the Prophet asked Moses for advice about how many times Muslims should pray and he has a rather high figure. He is thinking about eight times a day and Moses says, “Don’t think about it, go for five,” go for the happy mean, be realistic. So and then the story passes into reverent obscurity where Mohammed then enters the divine presence.
Now this is a story of pluralism. (A), I think, it symbolizes the Prophet’s yearning to bring the Arabs who’d been left off the divine map of spiritual history right into the heart of the monotheistic family into Jerusalem. So that long flight symbolizes what he was reaching out, yearning to do, yearning to achieve. And then the fact the prophets all listened to one another, welcome one another, accept one another’s insights, acknowledge one another, is a matter -- is a spirit of great pluralism, this is the real vision of Islam. And this is what we want to have today, not the narrow chauvinism.
There’s one verse of the Koran that I love. I come back to it again and again. It was after -- it was uttered -- Mohammed quoted it after he had conquered Mecca -- peacefully -- without shedding a single drop of blood. And standing beside the Kabbah he invited the people of Mecca, his own tribe the Quraysh, to enter Islam but there was to be no compulsion in this. The Koran is very, very definite in highly strong Arabic. It says, “There must be no compulsion in religion.” It is as strongly worded as the shahada, “No God but Allah,” so that the force against religious coercion is as strong as the statement for the unity of God.
And then -- but so that no one was to be forced to enter Islam against their will, but he issued an invitation to the Quraysh (ph) to become Muslims. And he said, “Oh, Quraysh, God is calling you from the haughtiness of paganism with its pride in ancestors.” We’re often a bit like this. We all like thinking of our prophets as the best, or our tradition is the best. “God is calling you from the haughtiness of paganism with its pride in ancestors, but remember all men come from Adam and Adam came from dust.”
And then he quoted these words from the Koran. “Oh, people, says God.” This is the word of God. Oh, people we have formed you into tribes and nations so that you may know one another, not so that you may dominate or coerce or convert, or bomb, or kill, or maim, or commit terrorist acts against, but so that you may know one another. The experience of living in community teaches you about living with others and it’s a springboard to the knowledge of still, other more distant people.
So what’s happened? What has happened? Why, given this pluralism, this benevolence, a benevolence shared by every single major tradition, what has happened to cause the hideous and amoral, disgusting, obscene violence that we saw on September 11th and which we’ve been seeing in other acts of Islamic -- so-called Islamic terror.
During the course of the twentieth century a militant form of religiosity has surfaced in every single major world religion. It’s often given the highly unsatisfactory name of “fundamentalism.” This is a term that was coined by Christians in the United States to describe their protestant reform movement at about the time of World War I and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists rather resent the use of this Christian term to describe their similar reform movements, too. But the first fundamentalist movement developed here in the United States during World War I and it developed in the monotheistic faith last of all. Islam was the last of all to produce a full-blown fundamentalism in the 1960s.
Now what is it? What is this militant party?
We have fundamentalist Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, even fundamentalist Confucianism in China. It represents a widespread dissatisfaction and revolt from modernity, from secular modernity. Fundamentalists feel that religion has been sidelined. They want to drag religion from the side lines to which it’s been relegated in a secular country, culture and put it back to center stage. And they’ve achieved some success in this, even though in many ways, I think, fundamentalism can mean a religious failure. It represents a rebellion, as I say, a desire to get history back on track. Bring God back.
Fundamentalists typically tend to go through a very similar scenario. First, they tend to withdraw from main stream society and create enclaves of pure faith in a godless world. I mean, examples are Bob Jones University, I think it’s in Indiana, and/or the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York or indeed the training camps of bin Laden. And there they -- from this some of them will, from these enclaves of faith, some of them initiate a counter offensive against the secular mainstream society. As we saw in the 1970s when you had the Iranian revolution, you had the rise of the moral majority and the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East.
Now, so fundamentalists are -- every fundamentalist movement that I have studied is rooted in fear. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which is where I’ve confined my studies, is convinced that modern secular society wants to wipe out religion. Even here in the United States. It is gripped by a feeling of fear and people -- they feel that they are fighting for survival. And when people feel that their backs are to the wall they can lash out violently.
But having said that, it’s important to say that of the people who we might call fundamentalists only a small minority take part in acts of terror and violence. Some are not violence at all. The ultra-orthodox Jews are not violent at all, generally. And they -- many are simply struggling to live what they regard as a religious life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith.
Now, the trouble with this is that once that you are sort of engaged in this militant form of piety, struggling, struggling to survive, very often people start to distort the religion that they are trying to defend. And one of the first things that tends to go out of the window is compassion.
Now, history shows that it’s very difficult to deal with these movements. Attempts to suppress them usually result in them becoming more extreme. The Times say of the Scopes Trial in 1925 when Muslims, when Christian fundamentalists tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools and were ridiculed in the secular press. Fundamentalists after that experience of humiliation swung from the left of the political spectrum to the extreme right, which is where they’ve remained ever since.
This fear of annihilation is not always just paranoid. Jewish fundamentalism, for example, is haunted by the Nazi holocaust when Hitler tried to eliminate European Jewry. The fear of annihilation is strong there. And in some parts of the Muslim world secularization has been so rapid and accelerated. It didn’t take part in a gentle way. It wasn’t very gentle with us but it did take centuries. And it’s been so rapid in some of these countries that it has seemed like an assault. If you think of Ataturk, for example, when he was creating modern, secular Turkey, abolishing the madrasses, closing down the madrasses, abolishing the sufi orders and pushing the sufis underground. This felt like an attack on religion. The Shah in 1935 gave his soldiers orders to shoot at hundreds of unarmed demonstrators who were peacefully protesting against obligatory western dress in one of the holiest shrines in Iran. And hundreds of Iranians died that day.
And in this kind of setting you can see that a secular policy experienced as great fear. But none of this fear excuses violence or killing. And what seems to be the case right now is that, as far as I can see, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, fundamentalism is becoming more extreme. And far more extreme than what we saw in the 1970s. Certainly so in the United States there are Christians who are expecting, confidently expecting, the destruction by God of the federal democratic government of the United States and are preparing themselves to take over.
This is far more extreme than anything dreamed up by Jerry Falwell. And similarly, what we saw on September the 11th was something else. I mean, bin Laden doesn’t seem gripped by fear to me, he seems more gripped by rage and confidence. The thing has entered another phase. And there are things going on with these hijackers that I don’t understand, so we should be alert to this.
But I just want to make that point that Islam is not alone in developing a fundamentalist movement. What tends to happen when a region is divided by conflict is that religion and fundamentalist movements get sucked into that conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, began on both sides as secular, a clash of secular ideals and programs. But since 1967 it has become increasingly religionized, “sacrelized” on both sides as the fundamentalist movements which originally began by sort of reform as internal religious movements got sucked into the struggle. And I can see that this is time for me to draw my -- yes, very nicely put. Do I want to take questions now? Very kindly put instead of, “This is enough from you.”
And so I’ll just close. I’ll just draw to a close. I called this a revelation, September the 11th a revelation. The word apocalypse too, means revelation, unveiling. It revealed to us a reality that we hadn’t seen before. And one of those realities was that we are now living in one world. Before September the 11th, the big news story in the United Kingdom had been our asylum seekers, who had -- every night refugees from various parts of the country try to get into the United Kingdom. And they cling to the underbelly of trains, they try to -- 80 or 90 a night try to walk through the channel tunnel. Truck drivers will open their trucks and find them filled with people. Our ports suddenly seemed full of sniffer dogs and arc lights and police cars. And England suddenly seemed to be becoming like a rich, privileged, gated community in a dangerous city that tried to keep the hoards out.
Similarly, September the 11th showed us that we cannot ignore the plight of the rest of the world, we cannot walk away from the problems of the rest of the world and think that they don’t concern us, or imagine that we are protected by our great might or our oceans or our military or economic strength. If we turn our backs upon the world, the world will come to us, either in disturbing ways, like our asylum seekers, or in terrible ways, in violent, horrible, dreadful ways.
And so as we develop a new one world reality, one thing we must all do is look to those elements of our faith -- they’re in all our faiths -- that reach out towards unity. And those are the voices of religion that we need desperately to hear at this time, not the voices of hatred and contempt and suspicion.
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: Ms. Armstrong has agreed to take some questions. And actually, upon the advice of politicians present among us here, we have devised the idea of writing your questions on the cards that are placed on each table and they will be collected. Abby and Gail (ph) will go around and collect them and we will pose them to Ms. Armstrong in the sake of saving time. But I would like to start by sharing with you some of the questions that were asked to her on our table about the status of women in Islam, and I think this is very good in the mind of everyone here.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes, indeed. And here I am, a woman standing before you, and I’ve often said, how can you defend Islam, which is such a misogynistic religion and is so oppressive to women? Well, let me say first of all that in my view no major world religion has been good for women, not one. Even my friend the Buddha, who I love, even he had a major wobble when it came to the question of admitting women to the Buddhist monastic order. But some religions begin well. Christianity was a religion that began well for women. Jesus had women disciples, it’s the women who had the first news of the resurrection, who dared to brave the -- go to the tomb when the men were still skulking and hiding. But after a few generations the men hijacked the faith and brought it back to the old patriarchy.
Islam too began well for women. Very well. Prophet Mohammed was, as I said at my table, one of those rare men who really enjoyed the company of women and needed and loved being with them. And the Koran gives women rights of inheritance and divorce, which are not as good -- equal to those of a man, but nevertheless, we in the West would have to wait until the 19th century before we got anything comparable. Women were not confined in harems to a special part of their house in the Prophet’s lifetime. You see the women in Medina taking a full part in the political life, and even after the Prophet’s death the wives of the Prophet were important religious authorities and even political leaders.
But what happened was the same old story, that gradually the religion got brought back into the old patriarchal line. The idea of covering up women and secluding them in various parts of the house really came in from the example of Greek Byzantium. The Greeks had long veiled and secluded their women in this way. There was no democracy for the women of Athens, and if you’d walked round classical Athens you wouldn’t have seen many women there. And so -- what happens too in fundamentalist movements, and this happens right across the board, that because fundamentalism is essentially a revolt against modernity, very -- one of the characteristics of hallmarks of modernity has been the emancipation of women. And thus many fundamentalist movements have overstressed the traditional role of women, and that’s happening very much.
There’s the whole question of the veil. Do we have -- or shall I -- the veil is a complicated issue. I’m against anyone being forced to wear a veil if they don’t wish to, I don’t like coercion. But a lot of women are voluntarily wearing the veil because they feel that this -- that you -- they want to show you don’t have to look Western to be modern. You can come to modernity on your own terms, want to get back in touch with the roots of the pre-colonial tradition. And there are very many complicated issues about the veil and the history of the veil.
So Islam, like the other world religions, must struggle now with the question of women. Christian churches are wrestling with the idea of women, rabbis, women rabbis are being, in some forms of Judaism, being ordained, but they still have trouble, and there are feminists in the Islamic world who are quoting the example of the Prophet and the early years just to reform Islam in this direction too. So that is going ahead. So initially it was good for women, things have deteriorated. The Shari’a was, like most pre-modern law codes, put women in a second place, and it’s only relatively recently that we’ve had -- and we’re not finished yet in our quest for full equality.
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: We have a group of questions that basically goes around the same concept of what went wrong with Islam beyond the era that you have described. And there are three questions that deal with that. Let me just very quickly go through them. One of them is, is it political Islam that has done this? And the second question is, what is wrong with Islamic countries in the modern world and whether they departed from the original.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Look, all religions depart from the origins. No religion can remain the same, otherwise they fossilize and die. Religions have to respond to events and change. Jesus would be astonished, I always think, if he attended the Lambeth (ph) Conference, or I have a secret fantasy that one die I might show him around the Vatican.
So things develop and change and Islam also went through a major course of change. What went -- what was the first of these questions?
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: One of them is about political Islam.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Political Islam. This is something I’ve glad you’ve raised, because it’s something that we don’t always understand well in the West. We have made, for excellent reasons, a clear distinction between church and state. And we did so because when in Europe we mixed the two up. The results were often horrific. If you think at our record of crusades and inquisitions and persecutions and holy wars of religion, Protestant against Catholic, et cetera. And here in America you have the first secular republic, and people are very proud of this and keep on saying, why can’t Islam separate religion and politics?
Now, in Islam it’s -- this is one of the themes of my book, is that politics has always been very, very important in the Islamic vision. Because the Muslims are commanded, the bedrock message of the Koran is that it is wrong to build up a private fortune, as I said. Good to share your wealth as fairly as possible and build up a just and decent society. And Muslims have taken this mandate very seriously indeed. And politics, you could almost say, in Christian terms has been what we might call it in the Christian world as sacrament. Something where you, in the effort to create the society, you experience the divine and you also make the divine accessible and more an immediate presence in the world.
But of course things can go wrong, because, as I’m sure you know, politics is -- who better -- often a very messy untidy business. And it’s not easy to mingle these high ideals with the pragmatic business of running a state. And so even though the ideal was endlessly to create a just and decent society, and even though, as I show in my book, political questions, political discussions, political anguish about the awful state of Muslim society, anguish meditations by Muslims, played a key role in the development of nearly all the major Islamic movements. It led to the development of Sufi mysticism, for example. It contributed to the development of the Shari’a, to Islamic historiography, to the effort of the -- the contemplation of history which is so often appalling, was not taken lightly by the Muslims and they continued to struggle with how -- what -- how do we create this just and decent society. What kind of person should lead the Muslim community?
These kind of debates were as about as formative as the great debates in the 3rd and 4th -- 4th and 5th centuries, about the nature and person of Jesus which formed Christianity and shaped it in an irrevocable way and the discussion -- these political discussions were equally formative in the development of Islam. But, as I say, politics is a difficult business. And when -- so Muslims found that in fact whatever the theory was, there was a de facto separation between church and state. Under the Abbasids the court was ruled by a very different ethos from the rest of the people. They were not living necessarily according to Islam. They had more wives than the four allowed them by the Koran, for example, and the Shari’a began rather as a counter-cultural movement against this aristocratic ethos of the court. And for many centuries the Ulama (ph) were in opposition and they had never -- in Iran they never lost their oppositional role as standing up to rulers, to unjust rulers and protesting against unjust rule.
So religion and in the Shi’a, in Shi’ite Islam religion and politics were, for centuries, separation on -- as a matter of sacred principle. When Khomeini became head of state, a cleric became head of state, he was overturning centuries of most sacred Shi’ite tradition and because it was thought that politics, all states, all government, was corrupt until the coming of the Shi’ite Imam, the Shi’ite Messiah, but that has changed. So political Islam is a political faith. It contemplates politics, it takes politics very seriously. So to call -- there’s a sort of -- a Muslim cannot be indifferent to the plight of his society and very often where Christian fundamentalists respond to the threat of modernity by evolving a doctrine such as a theory of creation, a denunciation of evolution, or the infallibility the literal infallibility of scripture. These are new fundamentalist doctrines. Muslims will often respond with a social policy, with a political vision, with a desire to create some -- to make -- put Islamic society back on track.
So it’s not political Islam itself that has done this. What’s done it is once you lose a sense of that overriding desire for compassion and justice for all, and respect for the sacred rights of others, then you’ve lost the plot religiously. And what happens when people use Islam for purely political growth, it’s also a complete misunderstanding of the nature of God. We often -- Muslims alone are not guilty of this -- are not the only ones guilty of this. We often think about God in such a limited way that we imagine God as a personality rather like ourselves, writ large with likes and dislikes similar to our own, whereas Allah-hu Akbar (God is always greater than we can conceive). But if you try and cut God down to size it’s all too easy to make God into our own image and likeness and get Him, in itself a bad pronoun, get Him to endorse our limit prejudices, our hatreds, our limited programs and give them a sacred seal of absolute approval. And this is one of the constant dangers of religion and it is I think -- I think it is a misunderstanding of the nature of God and a loss of the sense of compassion that must, above all, dominate all religious political life.
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: There is another set of questions and they all, I think, focus on the -- what you described as the peaceful nature of Islam and one of them at least suggests that the Prophet was not faithful to that peaceful nature. He broke some peace. The other is suggesting that maybe later on generations have abandoned this peaceful spirit and lastly someone is asking you, which is more peaceful, Islam or Judaism?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Oh hell, well, I’m glad you’re asking such little, limited questions. Now, okay, the Prophet. The Prophet certainly was a warrior not because he particularly wished to but because there he was. But, at the end of his life, at the end of his life he did, I think, abjure violence and conquered and overcame by a daring policy of non-violence. What he did was in the midst of the hostilities he announced that he was going to go on the Hajj and invited 1,000 Muslims to come with him. On the Hajj you may not carry arms, you may not even kill an insect or speak a cross word. There must be no violence on the Hajj. So he was going unarmed, right into Meccan territory and there -- and it was this extraordinary daring and frightening experience that the Meccans were shocked and rather put in the position where they had to come and negotiate. And he signed a truce which is the -- no, which is what I was talking about at table. He signed a truce, a peace treaty which was so -- seemed to be caving in on so many fronts that there was nearly a mutiny in the Army. They were dying to dash in and finish the job. But he said, “No, we sign at every point and make peace.” And it was this, the historian said, which changed the tide and that more people came into -- so I think, he himself, was feeling his way forward and he did finally work through to an ethos of peace, yes.
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: Two more questions actually about Bernard Lewis’ latest article in the New York Review books and one of them is asking whether you agree with him about the decline of Islam in the last century or so. And the other is asking what does Islam really have to say about purity?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Purity?
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: Purity, because --
MS. ARMSTRONG: What do they mean?
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: -- it seems that Lewis spoke about the obsession of all ideologies and religion during the 20th century with the idea of purity and the question relates to that whether Islam has a comparative concept?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Oh alright. Now, has Islam -- Bernard Lewis, I know, is a great historian and I’ve learnt a tremendous amount from Bernard Lewis’ books and works especially about the historical period, The Golden Age of Islam. It was he who taught me about Jihad in the days when I was working for television and was writing something about the Crusades and it was he who explained that by the time of the Crusades, Jihad was entirely dead letter. And there was no Muslim plan to take over the world or convert people -- or anything of that sort. Now he seems to have -- unfortunately he doesn’t seem to think that Islam has any valiancy in the modern world.
At the beginning -- I see in the sense what he means -- at the beginning of the 20th century it’s important to note that nearly every single leading Muslim intellectual, except one that I can think of, was in love with the West. There was no instinctive recoil from modern western society.
Muslims, and I’m thinking of Mohammed Abdul for example, the grand Mufti of Egypt, very important thinker, was very much at home with Europeans. He hated the British occupation of his country, hated that, but he knew an immense amount about European culture and philosophy and these people like him, they wanted their countries to look like Britain and France. They didn’t know about America at this point. And some even went so far as to say that the Europeans were better Muslims than the Muslims themselves because they, in their modern societies, they had been able to establish a more just distribution of wealth that was closer to the spirit of the Koran. And some advocated that Mullahs in training in the madrasses must study science and languages alongside their traditional Islamic and legal studies of Islamic law.
Now that’s all gone. Now I think -- I don’t think -- what I disagree, I think with Bernard Lewis, is to say well there’s nothing we can do. They are completely now -- Muslims have now lost -- a lost cause as it were. We need do nothing. This, I think, is quite wrong. There’s an awful lot of thinking in the Muslim world right now, but we don’t ever hear about much. All we hear about is Osama bin Laden. We don’t hear much from people like Kanadarwee (ph), or Sarush (ph), or other people who are doing some really serious thinking about Islam, about the nature of the Shari’a, bringing it up to date. It’s as though all we heard about -- as though Pat Robertson were the only representative of American Christianity. And we weren’t looking at all the other currents.
So there is vitality going on. Having said that however, the twentieth century has been one of great difficulty and suffering for Muslims. They had the colonial experience, which was very debilitating. Now I know Bernard Lewis has said, well it wasn’t so bad, after all. But I don’t think we can dismiss other peoples’ pain in that way. You know, we can’t say it wasn’t so bad if we weren’t -- I mean I can’t say it, I’m a Brit. We were doing the colonizing. And this was debilitating and it has impeded the Muslim approach to modernity.
The modern spirit as it developed in the West over a period of centuries had two essential characteristics that are essential to modernity. One is independence. The modernization in Europe and the United States developed with declarations of independence on all fronts. Religious, social, political, intellectual, as scientists demanded that they not be overseen by a coercive church. Independence -- your own declaration of independence here. Classic modernizing statement -- document.
The second thing -- so independence is one. The other was innovation. We were constantly doing new things. Inventing something new. There was a dynamic about it. Reaching out for unprecedented solutions, dealing with -- bringing something entirely fresh into the world. Now in the Muslim world modernity came not with independence but with dependence. And with political subjugation. And not innovation but imitation, because they were just trying to catch us up. And so there was something skewed and difficult about the whole thing. If you compare Japan which was not colonized and not subject to foreign influence of foreign domination in that way -- it’s had its huge problems and its awful growing pains, but it has made its own version -- highly successful version of modernity which the Muslims are finding more difficult to do. The colonial experience was dreadful.
This has been -- the sense of humiliation is acute, I think, in the Muslim world. There’s a sense of whatever -- Islam is so much a religion of success. Unlike Jesus the Prophet Mohammed was a dazzling success in his own day. A brilliant political leader as well as a spiritual, towering genius. And he achieved enormous success. The Islamic empire went from strength to strength to strength. Even when it had a major like the Mongol invasions in the Middle Ages it was able to respond creatively with a strong sufi revival and then with creating three new empires.
Now, I’ll move on. But this -- against the West they have been able to make no headway. This has been for some I would say, as disturbing for some Muslims as the discovery of Charles Darwin have been to some Christians. It seems to sort of say, ‘What’s gone wrong with Islamic history? The Koran tells us if we lived in a certain way we’ll prosper. What’s happening? And why are the godless West prospering and we not?” This is difficult and there’ s a sense of debilitation and conflict. I think in a place like the Middle East which as I say then sucks all these religious currents into its orbit and sort of sacrilizes the war in a very, very terrible way. Because then things become absolute and non-negotiable. And that’s happened on both sides, say of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So let us not sort of sneer or leave them alone but reach out towards this and enter empathically with the real difficulties that Muslims are having and admire and applaud and appreciate the efforts that so many of them are making but which we never hear about much in the West. It would be good if we heard some more from -- if there were a publishing endeavor that could translate some of these creative Muslim thinkers and make people aware of the multifarious nature of the Muslim response to this challenge.
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: We have two minutes left and seven questions around what needs to be done. What should be done, both by Muslims and the U.S. to explain themselves the way you are doing? About the U.S. versus the Muslim world and how to encourage tolerance there, etc. And about Muslim and Arab countries, vis-a-vis the U.S. All the seven questions are around the same idea --
MS. ARMSTRONG: In two minutes?
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: You have two minutes.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Right. Now what can be done? I think Muslims in the United States have a key role to play here, almost as a bridge they can be, but they must come out strongly and be vocal and seen to be against terror. I know you are against terror. I have no doubt about that, but you have to keep impressing this upon the American people in creative, imaginative ways. And show the Muslim world that is suspicious of the West that it is possible to create a vibrant Islam right here in the United States. It is possible.
And I’ve seen -- before all this happened, I’ve seen some very exciting Muslim communities where they’re training their children to be good Muslims and good Americans. How can we heal this? I think knowledge. I’ve been impressed. I’ve been really impressed with the way Americans have responded to the horror of September the 11th by the descent upon the bookshops. Here you all are tonight listening to long disquisitions on Islam, to finding out about Islam. This has been very impressive to me. It’s not happening in the U.K. This is something -- and if something good can come of this horror, a greater understanding is important.
Something I think -- I’m not going to attempt to think politically. I’m not a political animal and you’re the experts here and know more about it than me. But something I think that could be done is that Americans could show the world how religious you really are. Very often people in the Muslim world, even in the U.K., we don’t realize that America is an extremely religious country. I believe I’ve been told it’s the second most religious country in the world after India. And it’s not a Godless society, but even in the U.K. what we tend to see is Coca Cola and oil and McDonalds and, you know, shopping-mania or else extreme forms of Christian fundamentalism.
We don’t see what I have been astonished and delighted and privileged to find on my travels round the United States, this really creative questing religious spirit. Show the world your religion and show that this is good creative plural religion. That’s what we need, our Muslim -- from the pulpit we need to hear Muslims giving this message of pluralism, and we too must do the same.
MIN. ABDERAHMAN: I will encourage others who I didn’t get the chance to get to their questions to approach Ms. Armstrong maybe later on and continue the discussion that we have to conclude here. Please join me in thanking Ms. Armstrong for a very interesting presentation.
And I would like to thank you. You have been a wonderful audience, and I will just leave you with an announcement that our next event hosted by this Arab group for congressional staffers and members is going to be a reception hosted by the Embassy of Qatar on February 6th at the Golden Room of the Rayburn House Office Buildings, so contact the Qatari Embassy if you’re interested to attend.
Thank you very much and have a good night.
[Applause and End of Event.]
Back to Top
© 1998-2000 Arab World