Remember all those Jewish terror plots? Jews shouting “Shema Yisrael” as they blew themselves up in crowds of non-Jews and flew planes into buildings? Remember those captured internal documents of Jewish organizations saying they were working toward “eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within” so that “the religion of Moses was victorious over other religions”?
Karen Armstrong is by no stretch of the imagination an original thinker. As I have noted many times here, Leftists and Islamic supremacists tend to parrot the same talking points, as if they were all reading from the same script. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a database somewhere of themes to sound and stock answers to questions, since they repeat themselves with such dreary regularity. Armstrong here is repeating talking points that we have heard before from the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg, Islamic supremacist pseudo-moderate Reza Aslan, Muslim Brotherhood-linked Congressman Keith Ellison, Nicholas Kristof, and Canadian Muslim leader Syed Sohawardy, among many others.
Christopher Hitchens ably took apart the central claim being made here when writing last year about the Islamic supremacist mega-mosque at Ground Zero: “‘Some of what people are saying in this mosque controversy is very similar to what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s,’ Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, told the New York Times. Yes, we all recall the Jewish suicide bombers of that period, as we recall the Jewish yells for holy war, the Jewish demands for the veiling of women and the stoning of homosexuals, and the Jewish burning of newspapers that published cartoons they did not like.”
Armstrong’s aim (and the aim of all the others who have repeated this) is to intimidate her hearers into thinking that criticism of Islamic supremacism leads to the concentration camps, and thus there must be no criticism of Islamic supremacism. The unstated assumption is that if one group was unjustly accused of plotting subversion and violence, and was viciously persecuted and massacred on the basis of those false accusations, then any group accused of plotting subversion and violence must be innocent, and any such accusation must be in service of preparing for their subversion and massacre.
The difference in this case is not only that Muslim leaders worldwide have made their intention to conquer and subjugate non-Muslims very clear, in a way that Jews never did in the run-up to the Holocaust; it is also that anti-jihadists nowhere advocate a “final solution” for Muslims, and never will — we are merely calling upon them to drop the authoritarian and repressive aspects of Sharia and obey the laws of the Western societies in which they live. This is a movement in defense of freedom and equality of rights before the law.
But Karen Armstrong for some reason wants to enable the advance of a repressive and authoritarian model for society, and in order to do so she smears those who are resisting the imposition of that societal model.
“Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: ‘It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps,'” by Michael Schulson, Salon, November 23, 2014:
…There’s a line in your book that struck me: “Terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives, religious, economic, and social, are involved. Terrorism is always about power.”
I think I’m quoting some terrorist specialist there.
Even when [terrorists] claim to be doing it for Allah, they’re also doing it for political motives. It’s very clear in bin Laden’s discourse. He talks about God and Allah and Islam and the infidels and all that, but he had very clear political aims and attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, towards Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The way he talked always about Zionists and crusaders rather than Jews and Christians — these are political terms. Since the early 20th century the term “crusade” has come to stand for Western imperialism.
In the Hamas martyr videos, the young martyr will segue very easily from mentioning Allah the Lord of the world, and then within a couple of words he’s talking about the liberation of Palestine — it’s pure nationalism — and then he’s into a third-world ideology, saying his death will be a beacon of hope to all the oppressed people who are suffering at the hands of the Western world. These things are mixed up in that cocktail in his mind, but there’s always a strong political element, not just a going towards God.
In fact, all our motivation is always mixed. As a young nun, I spent years trying to do everything purely for God, and it’s just not possible. Our self-interest and other motivations constantly flood our most idealistic efforts. So, yes, terrorism is always about power — wanting to get power, or destroy the current power-holders, or pull down the edifices of power which they feel to be oppressive or corruptive in some way.
This is not really a mixed motivation at all. “Even when [terrorists] claim to be doing it for Allah, they’re also doing it for political motives. It’s very clear in bin Laden’s discourse. He talks about God and Allah and Islam and the infidels and all that, but he had very clear political aims and attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, towards Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.” Of course — because Islam has from its beginning included a political, supremacist, expansionist and authoritarian program. Armstrong’s error here is assuming, or trying to get her audience to assume, that when bin Laden or Hamas talked politics, they couldn’t have been doing it all for Allah. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam (a real one) — the assumption that it is inherently otherworldly like Christianity, whose founding figure said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” when in reality Islam is quite this-worldly, with a founding figure who said, “I have been commanded to fight against people until they confess that there is no god but Allah and I am his messenger.”
How direct is the link between colonial policies in the Middle East and a terrorist attack in New York or London?
I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.
Leftists like Armstrong frequently display an unconscious ethnocentrism: they assume that Islamic jihadis are simply passive reactors to Western atrocities, with no capacity to act on their own, for reasons on their own. Of course she thinks “we helped to do this,” since she denies to Muslims the capacity for independent thought and action. She would deny this, of course, but try this: tell her that you think 9/11 was caused not by any Western atrocity, but by the Islamic jihad doctrine, and watch how long it takes her to call you “bigoted” and “Islamophobic.”
Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.
Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.
So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?
We’re in danger of making a scapegoat of things, and not looking at our own part in this. When we look at these states and say, “Why can’t they get their act together? Why can’t they see that secularism is the better way? Why are they so in thrall to this benighted religion of theirs? What savages they are,” and so on, we’ve forgotten to see our implication in their histories.
We came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence.
Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.
When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?
It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.
This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.
There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.
That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.
Is Islamophobia today comparable to anti-Semitism?
Let’s hope not. It’s deeply enshrined in Western culture. It goes right back to the Crusades, and the two victims of the crusaders were the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in the Middle East.
Right, because Jews along the crusaders’ routes would be massacred —
They became associated in the European mind. We’ve recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia. That has remained. It’s also very easy to hate people we’ve wronged. If you wrong somebody there’s a huge sense of resentment and distress. That is there, and that is part of it, too.
I remember speaking at NATO once, and a German high officer of NATO got up and spoke of the Turks resident in Germany, the migrant workers who do the work, basically, that Germans don’t want to do. He said, “Look, I don’t want to see these people. They must eat in their own restaurants. I don’t want to see them, they must disappear. I don’t want to see them in the streets in their distinctive dress, I don’t want to seem their special restaurants, I don’t want to see them.” I said, “Look, after what happened in Germany in the 1930s, we cannot talk like that, as Europeans, about people disappearing.”
Similarly, a Dutch person got up and said, “This is my culture, and these migrants are destroying and undermining our cultural achievements.” I said, “Now you, as the Netherlands, a former imperial power, are beginning to get a pinprick of the pain that happened when we went into these countries and changed them forever. They’re with us now because we went to them first; this is just the next stage of colonization. We made those countries impossible to live in, so here they are now with us.”
How should one respond to something like the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, or the threat of terrorism that originates in Muslim countries?
Saudi Arabia is a real problem, there’s no doubt about it. It has been really responsible, by using its massive petrol dollars, for exporting its extraordinarily maverick and narrow form of Islam all over the world. Saudis are not themselves extremists, but the narrowness of their religious views are antithetical to the traditional pluralism of Islam.
We’ve turned a blind eye to what the Saudis do because of oil, and because we see them as a loyal ally, and because, during the Cold War, we approved of their stance against Soviet influence in the Middle East.
Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against modernity, and one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the liberation of women. There’s nothing in the Quran to justify either the veiling or the seclusion of women. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, legal rights we didn’t have in the West until the 19th century.
Inheritance? The Qur’an rules that a son’s inheritance should be twice the size of that of a daughter: “Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females” (4:11).
The Qur’an also declares that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man: “Get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her” (2:282).
It allows men to marry up to four wives, and have sex with slave girls also: “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice” (4:3).
Worst of all, the Koran tells husbands to beat their disobedient wives: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them” (4:34).
It allows for marriage to pre-pubescent girls, stipulating that Islamic divorce procedures “shall apply to those who have not yet menstruated” (65:4).
That’s what I feel about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It’s iniquitous, and it’s certainly not Quranic.
Where do you, as someone outside of a tradition, get the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic?
I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions….
Funny how so many imams inside and outside of Saudi Arabia disagree with her. They don’t count, apparently, if they have uncomfortable opinions.