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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Interview by Andrea Bistrich: Karen Armstrong (4)

So why aren't religious people compassionate? What does that say about them? Compassion is not a popular virtue. Many religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate. They don't want to give up their egos. They want religion to give them a little mild uplift once a week so that they can return to their ordinary selfish lives, unscathed by the demands of their tradition. Religion is hard work; not many people do it well. But are secularists any better? Many secularists would subscribe to the compassionate ideal but are just as selfish as religious people. The failure of religious people to be compassionate doesn't tell us something about religion, but about human nature. Religion is a method: you have to put it into practice to discover its truth. But, unfortunately, not many people do.

Islam and the West

Discussing Western ideas of justice and democracy in the Middle East, British foreign correspondent of The Independent, Robert Fisk, says: "We keep on saying that Arabs ... would like some of our shiny, brittle democracy, that they'd like freedom from the secret police and freedom from the dictators-who we largely put there. But they would also like freedom from us. And they want justice, which is sometimes more important than 'democracy'". Does the West need to realize that Muslims can run a modern state, but it is perhaps not the kind of democracy we want to see?

As Muslim intellectuals made clear, Islam is quite compatible with democracy, but unfortunately democracy has acquired a bad name in many Muslim countries. It seems that the West has said consistently: we believe in freedom and democracy, but you have to be ruled by dictators like the shahs or Saddam Hussein. There seems to have been a double standard. Robert Fisk is right: when I was in Pakistan recently and quoted Mr Bush-"They hate our freedom!"-the whole audience roared with laughter.

Democracy cannot be imposed by armies and tanks and coercion. The modern spirit has two essential ingredients; if these are not present, no matter how many fighter jets, computers or sky scrapers you have, your country is not really "modern".

The first of these is independence. The modernization of Europe from 16th to the 20th century was punctuated by declarations of independence on all fronts: religious, intellectual, political, economic. People demanded freedom to think, invent, and create as they chose.

The second quality is innovation as we modernized in the West: we were always creating something new; there was a dynamism and excitement to the process, even though it was often traumatic.

But in the Muslim world, modernity did not come with independence but with colonial subjugation; and still Muslims are not free, because the Western powers are often controlling their politics behind the scenes to secure the oil supply etc. Instead of independence there has been an unhealthy dependence and loss of freedom. Unless people feel free, any "democracy" is going to be superficial and flawed. And modernity did not come with innovation to the Muslims: because we were so far ahead, they could only copy us. So instead of innovation you have imitation.

We also know in our own lives that it is difficult-even impossible-to be creative when we feel under attack. Muslims often feel on the defensive and that makes it difficult to modernize and democratize creatively-especially when there are troops, tanks and occupying forces on the streets.

Do you see any common ground between Western world and Islam?

This will only be possible if the political issues are resolved. There is great common ground between the ideals of Islam and the modern Western ideal, and many Muslims have long realized this. At the beginning of the twentieth century, almost every single Muslim intellectual was in love with the West and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. Some even said that the West was more "Islamic" than the unmodernized Muslim countries, because in their modern economies they were able to come closer to the essential teaching of the Koran, which preaches the importance of social justice and equity. At this time, Muslims recognized the modern, democratic West as deeply congenial. In 1906, Muslim clerics campaigned alongside secularist intellectuals in Iran for representational government and constitutional rule. When they achieved their goal, the grand ayatollah said that the new constitution was the next best thing to the coming of the Shiite Messiah, because it would limit the tyranny of the shah and that was a project worthy of every Muslim. Unfortunately the British then discovered oil in Iran and never let the new parliament function freely. Muslims became disenchanted with the West as a result of Western foreign policy: Suez, Israel/Palestine, Western support of corrupt regimes, and so on.

What is needed from a very practical point of view to bridge the gap? What would you advise our leaders-our politicians and governments?

A revised foreign policy. A solution in Israel/Palestine that gives security to the Israelis and justice and autonomy to the Palestinians. No more support of corrupt, dictatorial regimes. A just solution to the unfolding horror in Iraq, which has been a "wonderful" help to groups like Al-Qaeda, playing right into their hands. No more situations like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. Money poured into Afghanistan and Palestine. A solution to Kashmir. No more short-term solutions for cheap oil. In Iraq and in Lebanon last summer we saw that our big armies are no longer viable against guerrilla and terror attacks. Diplomacy is essential. But suspicion of the West is now so entrenched that it may be too late.

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