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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Interview by Andrea Bistrich: Karen Armstrong (2)

Could you specify the political reasons that you identified as the chief causes of the growing divide between Muslim and Western societies?

In the Middle East, modernization has been impeded by the Arab/Israeli conflict, which has become symbolic to Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists and is the bleeding heart of the problem. Unless a just political solution can be found that is satisfactory to everybody¸ there is no hope of peace. There is also the problem of oil, which has made some of these countries the target of Western greed. In the West, in order to preserve our strategic position and cheap oil supply, we have often supported rulers-such as the shahs of Iran, the Saudis and, initially, Saddam Hussein-who have established dictatorial regimes which suppressed any normal opposition. The only place where people felt free to express their distress has been the mosque.

The modern world has been very violent. Between 1914 and 1945, seventy million people died in Europe as a result of war. We should not be surprised that modern religion has become violent too; it often mimics the violence preached by secular politicians. Most of the violence and terror that concerns us in the Muslim world has grown up in regions where warfare, displacement and conflict have been traumatic and have even become chronic: the Middle East, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir.

In regard to the Arab-Israeli-conflict you have said that for Muslims it has become, "a symbol of their impotence in the modern world." What does that really mean?

The Arab-Israeli conflict began, on both sides, as a purely secular conflict about a land. Zionism began as a rebellion against religious Judaism and at the outset most Orthodox rabbis condemned Zionism as a blasphemous secularization of the Land of Israel, one of the most sacred symbols of Judaism. Similarly the ideology of the PLO was secular-many of the Palestinians, of course, are Christian. But unfortunately the conflict was allowed to fester; on both sides the conflict became sacralized and, therefore, far more difficult to sort out.

In most fundamentalist movements, certain issues acquire symbolic value and come to represent everything that is wrong with modernity. In Judaism, the secular state of Israel has inspired every single fundamentalist movement, because it represents so graphically the penetration of the secular ethos into Jewish religious life. Some Jewish fundamentalists are passionately for the state of Israel and see it as sacred and holy; involvement in Israeli politics is a sacred act of tikkun, restoration of the world; making a settlement in the occupied territories is also an act of tikkun and some believe that it will hasten the coming of the Messiah. But the ultra-Orthodox Jews are often against the state of Israel: some see it as an evil abomination (Jews are supposed to wait for the Messiah to restore a religious state in the Holy Land) and others regard it as purely neutral and hold aloof from it as far as they can. Many Jews too see Israel as a phoenix rising out of the ashes of Auschwitz-and have found it a way of coping with the Shoah.

But for many Muslims the plight of the Palestinians represents everything that is wrong with the modern world. The fact that in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians could lose their homes with the apparent approval of the world symbolizes the impotence of Islam in the modern world vis-à-vis the West. The Qur'an teaches that if Muslims live justly and decently, their societies will prosper because they will be in tune with the fundamental laws of the universe. Islam was always a religion of success, going from one triumph to another, but Muslims have been able to make no headway against the secular West and the plight of the Palestinians epitomizes this impotence. Jerusalem is also the third holiest place in the Islamic world, and when Muslims see their sacred shrines on the Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary, also known as Temple Mount]-surrounded by the towering Israeli settlements and feel that their holy city is slipping daily from their grasp, this symbolizes their beleaguered identity. However it is important to note that the Palestinians only adopted a religiously articulated ideology relatively late-long after Islamic fundamentalism had become a force in countries such as Egypt or Pakistan. Their resistance movement remained secular in ethos until the first intifada in 1987. And it is also important to note that Hamas, for example, is very different from a movement like al-Qaeda, which has global ambitions. Hamas is a resistance movement; it does not attack Americans or British but concentrates on attacking the occupying power. It is yet another instance of "fundamentalism" as a religious form of nationalism.

The Arab Israeli conflict has also become pivotal to Christian fundamentalists in the United States. The Christian Right believes that unless the Jews are in their land, fulfilling the ancient prophecies, Christ cannot return in glory in the Second Coming. So they are passionate Zionists; but this ideology is also anti-Semitic, because in the Last Days they believe that the Antichrist will massacre the Jews in the Holy Land if they do not accept baptism.

Do you think the West has some responsibility for what is happening in Palestine?

Western people have a responsibility for everybody who is suffering in the world. We are among the richest and most powerful countries and cannot morally or religiously stand by and witness poverty, dispossession or injustice, whether that is happening in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya or Africa. But Western people have a particular responsibility for the Arab-Israeli situation. In the Balfour Declaration (1917), Britain approved of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and ignored the aspirations and plight of the native Palestinians. And today the United States supports Israel economically and politically and also tends to ignore the plight of the Palestinians. This is dangerous, because the Palestinians are not going to go away, and unless a solution is found that promises security to the Israelis and gives political independence and security to the dispossessed Palestinians, there is no hope for world peace.

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