Karen Armstrong OBE is a historian of religion, whose books on the traditions of India, China, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been translated into forty-five languages. They include, A History of God, which was an international bestseller; The Battle for God, A History of Fundamentalism; Islam: A Short History, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time; Buddha; The Great Transformation: The Origin of Our Religious Traditions and most recently Fields of Blood; Religion and the History of Violence. In 2007 she was appointed by Kofi Annan to the High-Level Group of the UN Alliance of Civilizations with the task of diagnosing the causes of extremism. In 2008, she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It was launched in the fall of 2009 and has become a global movement. Also, in 2008 she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding and in 2015 the ISESCO prize for educators. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Trustee of the British Museum.
Below is a transcript of the introduction of her talk:
I am told repeatedly in eerily the same number of words every time, religion has been the cause of all the wars in history, and that’s a very odd remark because we know that the two world wars were not fought for religion but for secular nationalism. Military historians tells us that we never go to war for a single reason; there are always multiple factors, interlocking factors involved, territorial, political, cultural and above all, economic, the competition for scarce resources. And similarly, experts in terrorism tell us that, whatever the motivation for a terrorist atrocity, terrorism is always inescapably political, and yet it seems to me that we make a scapegoat of religion, piling all the blame on that and not examining all the factors that are before us, and at this very dangerous moment in history, we need clarity.
Part of our problem is that we in the west have developed a very peculiar view of religion, dating back to the 18th century enlightenment, when we separated religion from politics. Before the enlightenment, what we called religion, spirituality permeated all aspects of life. So by trying to take politics, for example, out of religion, would be like taking the gin out of a cocktail. So when people thought politically in religious terms, this wasn’t because they were too stupid to distinguish things which were essentially distinct, rather questions such as injustice and inequity, human pain, poverty, suffering, these are matters of sacred import.
And the prophets of Israel, for example, would have had no time for people who said their prayers nicely in the temple, but did not address themselves to the plight of the poor or allow their rulers to get away with war crimes and other atrocities. Now, similarly, when we’re looking at a situation today, it’s often said, if only people would stop mixing religion with politics, and Islam in particular is seen as something inherently violent. This is a myth that has taken deep root in the western world since the time of the crusades, when it was actually Christians inflicting a gratuitous violence on the Muslim world, rather a projection of their own unease about their behavior onto the enemy.
But we really must try to avoid all these stereotypical ways of looking at Islam, we can’t afford that kind of myopia. People are always saying, well, we had a reformation, they need to reform themselves as we did. This shows an absolutely embarrassing ignorance of Islamic history, which is punctuated continually with movements of renewal and reform, just like any other faith. There are many political factors that are involved in the distress in the region in the middle east, not least, the colonialist. The French and the British, who set up the nation states that we have in the region today, they almost set them up to fail, making them inherently unstable.
Now we’ve got plenty evidence about the role of Islam in the atrocities that we’ve been thinking about all day, but they don’t get much traction in the west. Gallop, for example, did the biggest poll that it had ever undertaken after 9-11 in 35 Muslim majority countries and they discovered that, when they asked the question, were the 9-11 attacks justified, 93% of respondents said, no, they were not justified. And the reason they gave for this were entirely religious, they quoted the Koran which says, to kill a single person is to destroy a whole world. The 7% who said they were justified, their reasons were entirely political.
If religion is not all about violence as the myth says, then what is it about and what should religion be doing to counter-balance this appalling state of affairs. In 2008, I won the TED prize and TED gives you a wish for a better world which they promise to make happen and I knew at once what I wanted because I got absolutely sick and tired of hearing religious leaders coming together and pronouncing on some abstruse point of doctrine, condemning this or condemning that and they never mentioned compassion, even though my studies showed me that whatever I was writing about, whether it was a history of God, a history of Jerusalem, a history of fundamentalism, I kept being drawn back inexorably to the issue of compassion.
Every single one of the major world faiths has developed its own version of what is called the golden rule, never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself, and said that this is the essence of faith, the test of true spirituality; and if the world needs anything at the moment, it is compassion.
Check out the full lecture:
Check out her Compassion Charter: