To a full audience on Capitol Hill, Oxford scholar of religion Karen Armstrong argued last week that fundamentalist movements within each of the three faiths involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, contribute to sustaining that conflict. Her talk outlined how the “Christian Right” in the U.S., Islamists such as Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have drawn religion into what is “at base a political problem…, a secular problem over land.” Armstrong spoke at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a block east of the U.S. Capitol building, on Thursday, November 16th, in Washington, DC.
Fundamentalist movements, she said, see “the events of history as part of a divine drama,” with the Arab-Israeli conflict being a particularly potent example. She noted that Zionism began as a secular rebellion against religious Judaism in its attempts to settle the land of Israel, which the Orthodox considered sacred. Since the problem has been allowed to “fester,” however, religion has been “drawn in on all sides” and the Arab-Israeli conflict has become symbolic, “something more than itself in many people’s minds.” Israel is now sacred to most Jews, whether they are believers or not, because it represents a “revival after the Holocaust.” Likewise, the conflict is symbolic for Muslims as a sign of their impotence and humiliation in the world: “Seven hundred and fifty Palestinians lose their homes and no one does anything.”
The Christian Right, which Armstrong described as “the first fundamentalist reform movement of the 20th century,” has sought to “drag religion back to center stage” in American life. She traced the origins of “rapture ideology” to an imaginative and selective reading by John Nelson Darby of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, “the most unfortunate book of the Bible,” in her words. Darby, a 19th century British evangelist, found “no takers” for his ideas in Britain, but set off a Christian Zionist movement in the United States. Hence, the 1948 creation of Israel and events since have been seen by the Christian right as “fulfilling the story of the end of days” and support for Israel’s right wing has naturally followed.
Armstrong used the Christian Right as an example to support her thesis that fundamentalist movements are rooted in fear and humiliation. Fundamentalists share the belief that “secularism and liberalism are attacking them,” that the “modern world wants to wipe them out.” So, for example, she said that “small-town America” feels threatened by the culture of “Harvard, Yale, and Washington, DC.”
Fundamentalist movements, Armstrong said, are an “expression of a great sickness of soul,” a sign that “something is rotten” in the society that produces them. In making her case, she discussed Jewish fundamentalist leaders such as Rabbi Abraham Kook and Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kahane Chai movement recently had an appeal to remove its name from the U.S. State Department list of terrorist groups rejected, as well as Muslim fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb.
Armstrong noted that fundamentalist religious movements start by opposing their co-religionists, before broadening their opposition to the larger society, and that such movements are not peaceable. Armstrong pointed to Qutb’s argument that because of the “present emergency” posed by “Western aggression and colonialism” that the commandment against compulsion in Islam must be thrown out, at least temporarily. She also highlighted the opposition that the Christian Right has to organizations such as the United Nations, the United Church of Christ, and the European Union, each of which they regard as being the “abode of the devil.”
Armstrong had just returned from attending the “Alliance of Civilizations” conference organized by Kofi Annan in Istanbul, which she described as an effort by the United Nations to counter the idea of a “clash of civilizations” put forth by Samuel Huntington and “to give practical guidelines to stop the rise of extremism.” She expressed hope that the meeting would result in a new “white paper” on Palestine that would resolve the outstanding issues of the conflict. She was in Washington, DC, to receive an honorary doctorate from Georgetown University.
Armstrong has authored thirteen books, including the best seller A History of God. At age seventeen she took vows of chastity and poverty, and entered the Roman Catholic order of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Seven years later she left the convent and in 1982 published her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, which chronicles her life as a nun. Shortly thereafter she published a second autobiographical book about the religious life, Beginning the World.
Armstrong’s achievements as an independent scholar focusing on the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have earned her a reputation as a major contributor to interfaith understanding and respect. Her books on Islam and Muhammad have given many Westerners their first clear and unbiased insight into the history and teachings of this great tradition and its prophet. Her latest book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, was published in March 2006; her next book, a revision of her biography of Muhammad, is being published by Atlas Books/HarperCollins.
The Council for the National Interest is a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots organization advocating a new direction for U.S. Middle East policy.