Karen Armstrong on Religion and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

"Man is kind enough when he is not excited by Religion."

— Mark Twain.

Washington, D.C. – On a rainy, windy afternoon, Nov. 16, 2007, before a capacity audience at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, only a few blocks east of the U.S. Capitol, Karen Armstrong, a distinguished author, Feminist and scholar, addressed the potent issue of religion as it impacts on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The event was sponsored by the Council for the National Interest, (CNI), a feisty grassroots group, with headquarters in this city. [1]

Armstrong has written numerous books, some on Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. My favorite is "A Short History of Myth." Later this year, she plans to release an updated biography on the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). "Myth," she explains, "is…spiritual…make-believe, it…transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking, ‘What if?’ What if this world were not all that there is?" [2]

Armstrong said: "This [the Arab-Israeli conflict] is at base a political problem…Zionism, for example, began as a rebellion against religious Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, which regarded it as an impious attempt to secularize one of the most sacred symbols of Judaism, which was the land. But, because this secularized problem has been allowed to fester, religion has got drawn into the conflict on all sides. The Arab-Israeli question has become symbolic. It stands for something more than itself in many people’s minds. That is what we are up against when we are thinking about a just solution. People, even in a highly rational world, continue to regard history, mythically,…as a divine drama." [3]

"For many Muslims," Armstrong continued, "the situation of Palestine has become symbolic of everything that has gone wrong for Muslims in the modern world. The fact that 750 Palestinians could lose their homes and the world does nothing. It’s regarded as a sign of the impotence and the humiliation of Muslims." Armstrong also underscored how Palestine is "extremely symbolic" for Christians, too, "especially in the U.S…In America, they have a better understanding of the religious questions, but not much grasp of the politics. So…people actually ask me-University professors-‘Where did the Palestinians come from?’ And, they look astonished when I say, ‘Palestine!’ These are…educated people. There is a huge ignorance about the political issues here." [3]

CNI, who presented this talk, has been battling for years for the U.S. to take a more evenhanded approach to the problems of the Middle East. Pitted against it has been the ubiquitous forces of the powerful, extremely influential, Israel Lobby. [4] Headed by ex-diplomat Gene Bird, CNI envisions "a U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is consistent with American values, protects our national interests, and contributes to a just solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as to restore a political environment in America in which voters and their elected officials are free from the undue influence and pressure of a foreign country, namely Israel." [1] A recently released document, k/a "The Harvard Study," authored by scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, showed that the aggressive Israel Lobby has exercised "unmatched power" over our foreign policy for over four decades, which hasn’t been in the "national interest," while extracting $140 billion-plus from our treasury. The excellent report clearly vindicated CNI’s basic position. [5]

The topic of the "Christian Right" came up next for Armstrong. She called it, "a significant voting lobby," in the U.S., and the "first fundamentalist movement of the modern world…It’s legitimate to call them ‘fundamentalists.’ It’s their name of choice…Their objective is to drag religion back to center stage of modern secular culture. They have achieved some considerable success in this…Religion has made a comeback, [in America], but it is not always very healthy religion. Central to the ideology of the Christian Right is their apocalyptic vision of the end of days. They are convinced that God is so frustrated by the world that he can only redeem it by launching a terrible end time catastrophe. It is a vision of intense despair…Most of these extremist movements are rooted in a great fear-a sense of humiliation." [3]

Armstrong then talked about the controversial Biblical theory– "The Rapture Ideology." She said: "The theory is…that just before the last days arrive, the born-again Christians, who are the only true believers, will be ‘raptured’-taken up into heaven. So, that they will escape the tribulations…They will have…a ‘ringside seat’ where they can regard the sufferings of the people who have humiliated them in their lifetime. It is based, this theory, on a literal reading of the ‘Book of Revelations,’ reading Revelations in a new way…I am not a fan of the ‘Book of Revelations.’ It is the most unfortunate scripture. It was never intended to be a time table of Armageddon. People did not read scriptures in a literal way before the modern era. This is a completely modern take on it…The Christian Right are very staunch Zionists," since it is "essential" that Jews stay in their land before Jesus can return "to fulfill the ancient prophecies," Armstrong explained. "But, they are also anti-Semitic. Because, when the ‘Antichrist’ comes, he will kill all the Jews in Israel who have not been baptized. So, it imagines a terrible genocide at the end of time… [3] The Christian Right is highly selective. They quote copiously from the ‘Book of Revelations,’ but not from the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek when attacked and not to give way to vengeance and judgment."

Born in the U.K., Armstrong, is a former Roman Catholic nun. After she left the convent, she penned a book about her experiences, "Through the Narrow Gate." As a result, she received a lot of hate mail from fellow Catholics in Britain. If that wasn’t bad enough, Armstrong wrote two more tomes, which must have send her critics right up the wall. The first was entitled, "The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex Wars in the West." The second was called, "The End of Silence, Women and the Priesthood." [6] When Pope Benedict XVI recently made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Armstrong, a Celt, with Irish roots, strongly rebuked him for it. [7]

As an example of an off-the-wall, militant "Religious Zionism," Armstrong pointed to the assassin, Yigal Amir, a deranged Zionist. He shot to death Israel’s then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, because he was "seen as giving back the Land to the Arabs." [8] With respect to aspects of the Christian Right in the U.S., Armstrong recalled how the erratic Rev. Pat Robertson labeled the devastating stroke suffered by then-Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as "an act of God." He said this because he felt that Sharon was considering "a withdrawal" of military forces from the Occupied West Bank. Armstrong said that the "extremist groups, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, are ‘not orthodox.’ It is important to get that into our heads." As an aside, President George W. Bush, who recklessly led the country into the Iraqi War based on a pack of lies, is suspected of being a born-again Christian. [9] Now, there is a really scary thought!

Armstrong emphasized another irony about the bloodstained Arab-Israeli conflict and the evolving political philosophy of the brutal Zionist occupiers. [10] She said: "Jerusalem was annexed by the Israelis in 1967, not legally…[Theodor] Herzl, one of the great articulators of the Zionist dream, had no time for Jerusalem at all. [11] The early Zionist settlers hated the spectacle of the Jews praying at the Western Wall…This was an example of everything that they did not want, but that changed when Jews were reunited with the Western Wall…after the 1967 War…As long as Israel has the complete support of the U.S., it feels omnipotent."

Finally, Armstrong said we are "living in such peril…on a knife’s edge. The white hot center of the troubles are in Israel-Palestine. We must sort this out." Each of the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism," she submitted, "have their own narratives. And, everyone thinks that their narrative is the ‘only one.’ Somehow, we’ve got to look at these and learn to listen to each others’ narratives, if we are to find the peace…in this long and tortuous history."


[1]. http://www.cnionline.org/

[2]. "A Short History of Myth" by Karen Armstrong, at pp. 8-9.

[3]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW4BqMMtytc

[4]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Israel_

[5]. http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpaper.nsf/rwp/

See also:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QvBUGxXS2Y and

[6]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Armstrong and

[7]. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1874653,00.htm

[8]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yigal_Amir

[9]. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6115719/

[10]. http://www.pchrgaza.ps/

[11]. http://www.nkusa.org/index.cfm