Karen Armstrong: How Religious Movements Prolong the Arab-Israeli Conflict
*Karen Armstrong: How Religious Movements Prolong the Arab-Israeli Conflict*
November 20th, 2006
By Carlton Cobb, CNI Staff Member
To a full audience on Capitol Hill, Oxford scholar of religion Karen
Armstrong argued last week that fundamentalist movements within each of
the three faiths involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Christianity,
Islam, and Judaism, contribute to sustaining that conflict. Her talk
outlined how the "Christian Right" in the U.S., Islamists such as Hamas
in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel
have drawn religion into what is "at base a political problem..., a
secular problem over land." Armstrong spoke at St. Mark's Episcopal
Church, a block east of the U.S. Capitol building, on Thursday, November
16th, in Washington, DC.
Fundamentalist movements, she said, see "the events of history as part
of a divine drama," with the Arab-Israeli conflict being a particularly
potent example. She noted that Zionism began as a secular rebellion
against religious Judaism in its attempts to settle the land of Israel,
which the Orthodox considered sacred. Since the problem has been allowed
to "fester," however, religion has been "drawn in on all sides" and the
Arab-Israeli conflict has become symbolic, "something more than itself
in many people's minds." Israel is now sacred to most Jews, whether they
are believers or not, because it represents a "revival after the
Holocaust." Likewise, the conflict is symbolic for Muslims as a sign of
their impotence and humiliation in the world: "Seven hundred and fifty
Palestinians lose their homes and no one does anything."
The Christian Right, which Armstrong described as "the first
fundamentalist reform movement of the 20th century," has sought to "drag
religion back to center stage" in American life. She traced the origins
of "rapture ideology" to an imaginative and selective reading by John
Nelson Darby of the Bible's Book of Revelation, "the most unfortunate
book of the Bible," in her words. Darby, a 19th century British
evangelist, found "no takers" for his ideas in Britain, but set off a
Christian Zionist movement in the United States. Hence, the 1948
creation of Israel and events since have been seen by the Christian
right as "fulfilling the story of the end of days" and support for
Israel's right wing has naturally followed.
Armstrong used the Christian Right as an example to support her thesis
that fundamentalist movements are rooted in fear and humiliation.
Fundamentalists share the belief that "secularism and liberalism are
attacking them," that the "modern world wants to wipe them out." So, for
example, she said that "small-town America" feels threatened by the
culture of "Harvard, Yale, and Washington, DC."
Fundamentalist movements, Armstrong said, are an "expression of a great
sickness of soul," a sign that "something is rotten" in the society that
produces them. In making her case, she discussed Jewish fundamentalist
leaders such as Rabbi Abraham Kook and Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kahane
Chai movement recently had an appeal to remove its name from the U.S.
State Department list of terrorist groups rejected, as well as Muslim
fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb.
Armstrong noted that fundamentalist religious movements start by
opposing their co-religionists, before broadening their opposition to
the larger society, and that such movements are not peaceable. Armstrong
pointed to Qutb's argument that because of the "present emergency" posed
by "Western aggression and colonialism" that the commandment against
compulsion in Islam must be thrown out, at least temporarily. She also
highlighted the opposition that the Christian Right has to organizations
such as the United Nations, the United Church of Christ, and the
European Union, each of which they regard as being the "abode of the devil."
Armstrong had just returned from attending the "Alliance of
Civilizations" conference organized by Kofi Annan in Istanbul, which she
described as an effort by the United Nations to counter the idea of a
"clash of civilizations" put forth by Samuel Huntington and "to give
practical guidelines to stop the rise of extremism." She expressed hope
that the meeting would result in a new "white paper" on Palestine that
would resolve the outstanding issues of the conflict. She was in
Washington, DC, to receive an honorary doctorate from Georgetown University.
Armstrong has authored thirteen books, including the best seller A
History of God. At age seventeen she took vows of chastity and poverty,
and entered the Roman Catholic order of the Society of the Holy Child
Jesus. Seven years later she left the convent and in 1982 published her
first book, Through the Narrow Gate, which chronicles her life as a nun.
Shortly thereafter she published a second autobiographical book about
the religious life, Beginning the World.
Armstrong's achievements as an independent scholar focusing on the three
great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have
earned her a reputation as a major contributor to interfaith
understanding and respect. Her books on Islam and Muhammad have given
many Westerners their first clear and unbiased insight into the history
and teachings of this great tradition and its prophet. Her latest book,
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, was
published in March 2006; her next book, a revision of her biography of
Muhammad, is being published by Atlas Books/HarperCollins.
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