Armstrong, born in 1944, became famous with her hefty books on the history of religions and questions of violence and religion, such as In the Name of God. She is a much asked speaker and travels around the world with her lectures. She initiated The Charter for Compassion, one of her favorite subjects to talk about.
What does it mean to you to receive this honorary doctorate?
“It’s a big honour to have your work affirmed by the Academy. For me particularly, because I failed my PhD at Oxford when I was young. It was a scandal at the time and I thought my academic life was over. It’s a long and horrible story. If you refuse a thesis you are supposed, as the examiner, to give a detailed, point by point reason why this is not good.
This examiner only wrote four lines, saying that I was a very clever young woman but this was not a suitable essay for a PhD. The Oxford faculty were furious and told him they would never again be invited to examine for Oxford again. Then they had to decide what to do with me and they argued for five months. There were people on my side, but eventually they decided it could not be re-examined because that would vitiate the sanctity of the Oxford doctorate.
This was way back in the seventies. But you know, in a sense this was a good thing. Because I have had a much more interesting life outside Academy. Otherwise I would have become professor of English literature. This has been much more useful. So I often tell students: if you don’t get what you want now, life may be giving you a nudge in a different direction.”
I can also imagine that you feel vindicated and that you have a giggle.
“I do have a little laugh, yes.”
Some people are worried whether theology is still important as a discipline. What is your opinion on this matter?
“It certainly is important. We in Northern Europe are beginning to look very old fashioned in our secularism. Everywhere else in the world people are becoming more religious. Certainly in the United States, which are the second most religious country in the world after India. We’re constantly seeing religion in the news these days. Britain is more secular than the Netherlands – you are quite religious in your country, whereas the UK is probably one of the worst markets for my books. Holland is the second biggest market for me after the US.”
Do you have an idea why that is the matter?
“I don’t know. But the Dutch have always been very good to me. I think it’s because the Dutch may not want – some of them – to do religion anymore, but they understand it in a way the British have never understood it. My family comes from Ireland originally and that’s a very different culture.
But in any case religion is a major force in the world, certainly south of the equator. And so the lofty saying ‘oh, religion is a thing of the past’ really means putting your head in the sand and not noticing what’s going on. Of course not everything about religion is good. Religion is difficult to do well – it’s an art form, I think. Not everybody does art beautifully.
There is so much utter nonsense talked about Islam at the moment. It is really embarrassing to listen to things that are said, if you know anything about Islam. We really must get it right.”
Can you give an example of such nonsense?
“Oh, that it is an inherently violent religion. That is absolutely not the case. It has a far better record of what we now call tolerance than Western Christianity. Much more. The Quran is a very pluralistic document. It says that all rightly guided religion comes from God. But we get nothing like that in the Bible.
What’s happened is that unfortunately Saudi Arabia has for the last thirty or thirty five years or so misused it huge wealth and international support – because Saudi Arabia gets massive support from the West.”
Islam is not inherently violent. It has a far better record of what we now call tolerance than Western Christianity. Much more.
Because of the oil?
“Because of the oil! It has used this wealth to impose its particularly narrow, peculiar form of Islam on the rest of the world, with disastrous effects. And Western countries – certainly Britain – we give huge amounts of aid and weapons to Saudi Arabia. So we are supporting this. And it is partly our creation too – our colonial policies have certainly helped to radicalize some portions of Islam, but not all.
We’re talking a lot about Pakistan at the moment, and India, because it is the 70th anniversary of these countries. We’re not talking nearly enough about the role of Britain in this. Because the partition of India was an absolute disaster. A million people were killed trying to cross from one country to another at the time of partition and seven million people were displaced: an absolute catastrophe. Like Palestine – another one that has helped to radicalize Muslims. A massive injustice. We need to have all these factors in our disposal, not just ‘Pooh, pooh, what a bad religion’ when we know nothing about it at all.
You know when I go to Pakistan, which is considered a radical country, I lecture to huge audiences there. And my hosts always tell me: ‘Don’t be too polite, tell us what we do wrong.’ They love me there. Would we invite a Pakistani woman over to our country and ask her specifically to be critical of Christianity or democracy?
So I get disgusted hearing this arrogant nonsense talked about religion. It is spoken from a position of ignorance and immense privilege. We are living in our countries a life of absolute privilege compared to the vast majority of Muslims. Far more Muslims have been killed by ISIS for instance.”
You are battling against the ignorance with books and lectures. Is the academic debate too highbrow for the public at large?
“I am trying to make it accessible to people outside the academy. I admire academical books, I read them all the time, but they are not easy reading. A PhD is meant to be unreadable. But this information has got to be taken to a larger public.
I remember after 9/11 when I spent a lot of time in America talking about Islam there were Islamist experts in places like Harvard who were trying desperately to do that. But they couldn’t do it; they were stuck in these academic mindsets: ‘You can’t exactly say that, because this that and the other…’ and everybody is left with no clear ideas at all. It’s their training. And I have taught myself all this so I don’t have any of the jargon.”
Are you capable of making sweeping statements when needed?
“Yes, but they are informed statements. Saudis don’t like me… but there are muslims who have told me that they have been able to come back to Islam because they have read my books. So it’s speaking to the reality of the Islam. We don’t talk nearly enough about the iniquity of Saudi Arabia.”
Isn’t it dangerous for you to speak like this?
“I have no plans to go there.”
But you might be attacked in your home country by a terrorist?
“These terrorists are not Saudis. Saudis support a lot of these movements but they are also the targets of them. And a lot of these people who attack know nothing about Islam at all. You must have heard the famous story of two young men who left Britain a couple of years ago, to join the jihad in Syria, and who had ordered from Amazon.com a book called Islam for dummies.“
Saudis don’t like me… but there are muslims who have told me that they have been able to come back to Islam because they have read my books.
And there have been serious studies, not by liberal softies like me, by a forensic psychiatrist for example, a former CIA officer, certainly not a softie… He interviewed all the people in Guantanamo who had been connected with the 9/11 attack. He found that only 20% of them had had a regular Muslim upbringing. The other 80% were either new converts, who knew virtually nothing, or they were self-taught, or they were not observant when they joined the movement.”
So what is it they are looking for?
“There is a lot of pent-up fury and rage, which we see not only in the Islamist movement. Look at the recent riots in America. There is a massive division that has opened up. I don’t know how it is in Holland but certainly in the UK. It was very evident in the Brexit-vote: this is a divided country. The privileged areas like London voted to stay in the Union. And the neglected parts of the country voted for Brexit.
We had this terrible disaster, the fire in London which has caused huge distress and anger. This fire would never have happened two streets up, in Chelsea, because the people are rich there. These were people at the bottom of society, most of them Muslims, put in these appalling conditions, and no help was coming from the local government. Local people of all varieties came forward and helped, but not the Borough itself, and not the government. That has caused huge outrage.
So there is a lot of simmering anger. And some of these angry men get into cars and ram things. A lot of them have mental problems of course.”
“In June, a young man drove a car into worshippers coming out of a mosque at the end of Ramadan and killed one and injured a lot of people, about two miles from where I live in Finnsbury Park. The imam there put his arms around the man who had done this, to save him from the attack of the Muslim crowd. He defended him. And that’s the thing we should be hearing more of.
We’ve got a Muslim mayor in London, Sadiq Khan, who’s being absolutely excellent about this, expressing his rage about the way his religion is being abused. After the terrorist attacks he has organized a big rally of sorrow in Trafalgar Square.”
So compassion is the answer – which is why you started the Charter for Compassion. What was your drive at the time and how is the Charter movement doing?
“I was sick of hearing about religious leaders when they came forward who spoke about wrong doctrines or disapproving of sexual practice or gay marriage – all these utter irrelevancies. Whereas every single one of the world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule: never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.
It seems to me that unless now we insure that all peoples, whoever they are, whether we like them or not, are treated as we expect to be treated ourselves, the world is simply not going to be a viable place. That has become even more evident than in 2008, when I received the TED prize.
So TED got together a panel of religious thinkers and activists in six religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. We created this Charter and then people started putting it into practice.
Every world religion has developed its own version of the Golden Rule: never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.
The best thing that is happening is the cities campaign, where mayors endorse the Charter. But they are supposed to have a practical plan of action, the action that their particular city needs. Some cities are better than others. Our aim is to have one thousand of these cities worldwide.”
And how many of them are there now?
“The numbers vary, but I would put down the number of good cities we have at about fifty. There are more but some of those are just in it for the feel-good effect. We are setting up a team in Louisville, Kentucky, which is one of the cities where the mayor endorsed the Charter. He has done fantastic work; he bought a Holiday Inn and put it at the disposal of the homeless. So nobody needs to sleep out rough in Louisville. And he set up a mentoring program whereby older people look after younger troubled kids and keep a constant eye on them. They are now going to undertake the whole of the Charter for Compassion Cities Campaign and do the monitoring.
The best of the cities is Karachi, an independent assessor said. A young man there has set up a network of schools of compassion. In order to train the leaders of tomorrow. And he got together a team of educationalists who inserted compassionate teaching into core subjects of the curriculum. There are now about 5,000 children going through this program but he is determined it will be up to a million by the end of the next decade.
Every school which signs up for this has to send two teachers, every three months, for a training weekend, so that they get the compassionate ideal too. And they hold things like compassionate art exhibitions in the city. They also develop relationships with schools in the disadvantaged poor areas. For there is massive disparity of wealth in Pakistan.
Actually it was the children from these schools that asked the mayor of Karachi to make this city a city of compassion.”
“In business there is also a lot of interest in compassion. The people who came forward to help me have not been religious leaders but business men and women. They told me that they saw what happened in 2008, when greed and viciousness came to the foreground and it was bad for business. Compassionate ethics, putting yourself in the shoes of the other person, is the only way to go forward.
People say to me: are these business men not doing it just for material gain? And I say: I don’t care! Let’s get people acting compassionate whatever way they choose. They can also meditate for hours until they get themselves in a pure state of mind.
In Karachi there is also a project about compassionate driving. Driving in Karachi is quite scary, and dangerous. Compassion in the car is thinking about other people on the road. That’s a practical thing that gets compassion into people’s hearts every day: how would I like this done to me?”
Business people are worried about the long term, probably?
“Seattle was one of the first cities declaring itself a compassionate city. And one of the people I went to see there was Howard Somebody-or-other [Schultz, lt] who was head of Starbucks. He said: ‘Oh don’t give me this rubbish.’ But next year I went, he was sitting beside me on the platform. He told me a good story: his father was a greengrocer. Occasionally he saw that his father would put some extra strawberries or bananas or something into somebody’s basket. He asked why and the father said: ‘Look, I know these people, they like strawberries and bananas so if they’re not buying them there’s something wrong.’ Ofcourse that is good for business, for people will come back.
In business there is also a lot of interest in compassion. The people who came forward to help me have not been religious leaders but business people.
I speak a lot to business people. Somehow this rampant greed that is certainly present, is simply irrational. For what you get is what happened in 2008.
There is a young entrepreneur in Pakistan who’s taken my book Twelve Steps into a Compassionate Life and converted it into business ethics. He gives courses and lectures and he gets lots of requests to speak and show people how to take them through the twelve steps.”
So although religion is big throughout the world, it is still business that is going to implement compassion? Is that what you’re saying?
“No I’m only saying what’s happened to me – it’s not a principle everywhere. It is my personal experience. But I have very little hopes of our government. This man in Pakistan who founded the compassionate schools has also formed the India-Pakistan CEO Forum. Leading business men of the two countries say: ‘Look our governments will never make peace between our two countries; we as leaders of the economy on which these governments depend, will do something. They meet regularly and started a campaign, Aman Ki Asha, which is a half-Hindi, half-Urdu word. Their aim is to try and use the media to improve the profile of one another in their own countries.”
The role of the media seems dubious in our countries. How can it be changed?
“Yes I quite agree: the media bear a huge responsibility. But how to get them to change? I don’t know. I like to talk to media people here. We don’t hear enough about other people suffering. I was appalled after the attacks in London and Paris. Yes, these were terrible, terrible things. But four days before the last Paris attack, in November 2015, forty-four Lebanese people in Beirut had been killed by two ISIS suicide bombers. We never mentioned that in our media. There was a huge outcry about the Paris killings and nothing about Lebanon. So the Lebanese said: we don’t matter to them.”
“A few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre Boko Haram killed 2,000 Nigerian men, women, children and the elderly in Nigeria. Tiny little mention in the newspaper because the whole of the press was geared up to Paris. Then there was this disgusting spectacle, in my view, of these political leaders marching for freedom of expression in Paris. Many of them, including my own Prime Minister, headed countries that had for decades – in the case of Britain for over a century – supported regimes in Muslim majority countries that allow their people no freedom of expression, like Saudi Arabia.
Just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre I went to speak in Jordan. It was a closed session with diplomats, the royal family and statesmen. They were not a bunch of radical hotheads. One old man who had brokered the peace treatment between Jordan and Israel said: The West has lost its humanity. It cares only for its own dead.”
And for the money?
“They notice that we never ever listed all the thousands of civilians, men, women and children, who died in the Iraq war, who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was an appalling war of course which should never have been fought. But we honoured the soldiers who came home dead. And we should also have honoured the people who just died because they were in the crossfire.
And this is againnoticed. I was at a round table lunch at the British Museum with Prince Hassan of Jordan. I said that there had been no public outcry here at these unacceptable number of casualties among the Iraqis. He held my hand across two people and his eyes were full of tears.
This is something the media should do. It is something they could do, every day: so many people were killed today in Iraq.”
The theory of clashing civilizations (Islam vs the West) has long been disproven. This is a clash engineerd by bad policies in the past.
Is this part of the Clash of Civilizations, really?
“There are no two civilizations utterly opposed to one another. That theory has long been disproven. This is a clash engineered by bad policies in the past which like karma are coming back to haunt us now. We sowed bad deeds.
I say ‘we’, but The Netherlands also were a colonial power. But we British have a huge responsibility for the trouble we see today. We never think about that.”
Don’t we also need self-compassion?
“I have a nightmare vision of the Charter: a whole room full of little people feeling sorry for themselves, forgiving themselves and having compassion for themselves. It makes me feel quite ill. Because basically the people in Seattle and Rotterdam are living the life of Riley compared to the vast majority of the people in the world. A life of utter privilege.
Self-compassion is number three in my twelve steps. You can’t stop there.”
But it is a necessary step – as long as you have guilt and rage inside you will project it onto the outer world.
“Yes I am aware of that. But people often ask me: what should a compassionate city be like? And I answer: it should be an uncomfortable city. It won’t be a matter of handing out flowers and feeling good. The prophet Muhammed once said: ‘Not one of you can be a believer who can sleep when he knows that someone is hungry.’”
“We should allow the knowledge of for instance Sierra Leone right now, where they have these appalling floods and they have just had the ebola crisis and that terrible war. They are the poorest people on the face of the earth and they should break our hearts. The migrants who are dying nearly every day, trying to get into Europe or Britain, coming from unimaginable horrors, and often horrors that we have helped to create… This should make us uncomfortable.
Compassion I see as the grain of sand that makes the pearl in the oyster: it should irritate. But we are deluged by images of suffering like no previous generation. They come into our television screens night after night and sometimes we just get up to have a gin and tonic and we don’t bother. We should use this as a spiritual opportunity to let it trouble us.”
Shouldn’t sensitive people protect themselves against an overkill of tragedy?
“Not very people have come to that state. I don’t mean that we should get into a self-indulgent paroxysm of ‘Oooh these poor people…’ that is all about me too: oh look what a sensitive soul I am. I have no time for that either. Try to do something practical.
One thing we could do for example – I want this done in the cities: when we hear about a disaster, like in Sierra Leone, we can take flowers to a place in the city as a reminder. So that people see it and remember.
The people who formulated the Golden Rule, like Jesus and Confucius and the sages of the Upanishads, all said that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group. You must have compassion for everybody. Love your enemies, said Jesus.”
Do you think ceremonies like this are practical measures?
“They are reminders and it is a start. But it is not enough. Basically our world is not going to survive if we go on like we are going.”
Other interviews or articles with or about Karen Armstrong (Dutch and English) can be found here.