Warfare against religious extremists strengthens their cause, scholar asserts

Former nun who has written widely on world religions calls for the invention of a new terminology that would replace imprecise combination of the words 'Islamic' and 'terrorism'

L.A. Cicero Karen Armstrong

Armstrong, an expert on world religions, said many Muslims feel alienated by the war on terrorism.

Bombs won't stop acts of terrorism committed by Muslim religious extremists because such attacks only strengthen the fundamentalists' conviction that modern, secular society wants to destroy them, said British scholar Karen Armstrong in an appearance in Memorial Church last Wednesday evening.

"You can't convert Osama bin Laden," she conceded. But we can reach out to Muslims who are alienated, not only by terrorism but by rhetoric that doesn't distinguish between Islam and violent forms of fundamentalism, she said.

Armstrong, a former nun who has written widely on world religions, spoke about the history of Islam and current world events while presenting the Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Community, a series organized through Memorial Church. Armstrong, who teaches Christianity at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, is the author of books including Islam: A Short History, A History of God, Buddha and a biography of Muhammad.

In the middle of the last century it seemed that secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major part in world events, Armstrong said in a 90-minute talk that overlapped with the final debate between presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush. "That's proved to be false," she said, pointing out how eagerly both candidates sported their religious credentials.

She called the ideological change largely the result of the rise of fundamentalism, which she defined as a countercultural, militant form of piety that constitutes a widespread revolt against modernity. "In every single region where a modern secular-style government has established itself, a fundamentalist religious ideology has developed alongside it," she said. "Very often, the media talk about Islamic fundamentalism as if the two go together like love and marriage or horse and carriage. In fact, Islam was the last of the three monotheistic religions to develop a fundamentalist strain."

Armstrong called for the invention of new terminology that would replace the thoughtless combination of the words "Islamic" and "terrorism."

"When the IRA was bombing Britain, we didn't call them 'Christian terrorists'" and require Catholic bishops to publicly disown the acts, she said. "We knew [the terrorists] were common criminals." Nor were extremist Orthodox Serbs who slaughtered Muslims in 1995 referred to as "Christian terrorists," she added. "We recognized them as people who had lost their moral bearings."

The rise of fundamentalism is a kind of retreat, because every fundamentalist movement is rooted in profound fear and the dread of annihilation, she said. Such movements create enclaves for "pure faith," such as Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden's training camps, she said. "Some, by no means all, will launch counteroffensives to fight the encroaching secular society."

Armstrong disputed the notion that the tenets of Islam are inherently incongruent with secularism and democracy. In the beginning of the 20th century, most leading Muslim clerics "were in love with the West," she said. "They found in turn-of-the-century European cities the kind of egalitarian societies that were preached in the Koran but were not easily put into practice in pre-modern Islam."

In 1906, mullahs in Iran fought side by side with soldiers to demand and establish a modern constitution and democratic representational government. The British discovery of oil in the region in 1908 kept the government from functioning freely, she said.

Modernization in the West was a 300-year-long process marked by convulsive wars and accompanied by independence and innovation, she said. In the Islamic world, the modern secularized world did not come with independence, "it came with colonial subjugation and humiliation" by countries including France and Britain. "That's been disastrous for Muslims."

Additionally, "secularism has been implemented so quickly that it often has been experienced as-and has been-an assault."

In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime imprisoned thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, many for minor offenses such as passing out leaflets or attending meetings, she said. Muslim Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb, who developed fundamentalist religious theories that have influenced Osama bin Laden, became radicalized in an Egyptian prison, she said. "Secularism did not seem like a good value to [Qutb]. It seemed lethal and evil."

In contemporary Iraq, Iraqis' main experience of secularism has come under Saddam Hussein's socialist regime-"again, not a very good advertisement for secularism," Armstrong said. Neither are the recent photographs of the torture by American troops of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. "We come in with all our talk about how lofty our ideals are and then they see those photographs. What are they to think?"

Unlike the British-whom she called "a godless lot"-the United States, with its unprecedented power and massive military and economic resources, is profoundly religious, she said. "What's needed now, in this country, is a theology of power. Somehow it's got to be better than 'I've had some vision' or 'God's on my side.'

"The Crusaders went into battle crying, 'God wills it!' when they slaughtered Muslims and Jews, and obviously all they were doing is projecting their own hatred. We've got to get beyond that kind of primitive power," she said.

It's difficult to do religion well, said the 60-year-old Armstrong, who left her Roman Catholic faith and became an atheist as a young woman but now refers to herself as a "freelance monotheist." Her study of both Islam and Judaism caused her to rethink religion, she said.

Religion should help people transcend their egos, selfishness and greed, she said. "The test of religion is whether it creates compassion.

"People who claim to have God on their side-this is bad religion. Some people's idea of God is simply an inflated version of themselves, an idol created in their own image and likeness.

"They don't have to be a grand ayatollah or a president, they can be a preacher or somebody on the radio who says quite categorically that God loves or God disapproves of that or hates the other. It's uncanny how frequently the opinions of the Deity coincide with that of the speaker."