Karen Armstrong Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Karen Armstrong
Joe Pickering

Karen Armstrong

An interview with Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong talks about the fundamentalist phenomenon, why she chose to focus on fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in The Battle for God, how this relates to modernization, and why she feels Fundamentalists are becoming more radical.

Q: Please tell us how you would define religious fundamentalism.

A: The militant religiosity that we call fundamentalism has surfaced in all the major faiths in the twentieth century. It constitutes a reaction against and a rejection of modern Western society, but it is not a monolithic movement. Each fundamentalist movement has emerged independently and is a law unto itself, sometimes differing from (or in violent opposition to) other fundamentalist movements within a single faith tradition. The fact that fundamentalism has erupted in almost all cultures indicates a widespread and worrying disenchantment with modern society, which so many of us experience as liberating, exciting and empowering. Countries such as the United States, Egypt and Israel are deeply polarized, split into two camps, one which feels positive about secular modernity; the other passionately hostile to it. As the century draws to a close, these two camps appear to be in an incipient state of war, as witnessed in such incidents as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma; terrorist attacks on foreign tourists in Egypt, designed to bring down Mubarak's government; and the assassination of President Yitzak Rabin in Israel. One of the most dangerous aspects of the fundamentalist phenomenon is that it seems incomprehensible to the liberal or secular world. The two camps within the same society scarcely speak the same language and have few values in common. Projects that can seem self-evidently good to a liberal -- such as democracy, peace-making, concern for the environment, the liberation of women, or freedom of speech -- can seem evil or even Satanic to a fundamentalist.

Fundamentalism often expresses itself violently, but it springs from deep fear. Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in this book is inspired by a dread of annihilation. Fundamentalists are convinced that the secularist establishment is determined to wipe them out, even in the United States. Hence, it is an embattled form of faith; fundamentalists believe that they are fighting for their own survival, the survival of the religion, and the survival of civilized society. They feel that their backs are to the wall and that they must fight their way out of the impasse in which they find themselves.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

A: Fundamentalism has erupted in nearly all the major world religions: there is a fundamentalist Buddhism, fundamentalist Sikhism, fundamentalist Hinduism, and even fundamentalist Confucianism. I have chosen to concentrate on fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because these have so far been easily the most prominent and influential. Fundamentalism as a phenomenon began in the United States in the early twentieth century, so American Protestant fundamentalists were the pioneers of this militant religiosity, and show its problems, pitfalls, dynamics, concerns and dangers. Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists have all experienced modernity as a devastating assault, and their activities often hit the headlines because they pose a grave danger to the Middle East peace process. The Iranian Revolution was one of the most spectacularly successful of all fundamentalist campaigns. Its development since the Muslims brought down the secularist regime of the Shah in 1979 shows that fundamentalism may well be a means of enabling people to make the painful rite of passage to modernity on their own terms and in a religious context that makes it acceptable to the mass of the people. The fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, therefore, are the ones that most crucially affect our own Western society. Before we can hope to understand the fundamentalism of another culture, we must first learn why and how fundamentalism has erupted in our own society.

Q: You state that Western civilization has changed the world -- especially religious traditions. When do you feel that it started to take such a strong effect on all cultures?

A: Western society has changed the world by introducing a new type of civilization, based not (as in the pre-modern period) on a surplus of agricultural produce, but on technology that enables us to reproduce our resources indefinitely. This type of civilization depends upon a scientific and empirical rationalism, which is not constrained, as in the pre-modern world, by spiritual, religious or mythological values. It took the peoples of Western Europe and America almost three hundred years to develop this kind of civilization; it was a highly complex process, that involved advances in several fields and on various fronts at the same time. It did not come fully into its own in the West until the nineteenth century. Once it was up and running in Europe, the need to continually expand the economy and find new markets led to the formation of Eastern colonies in India, the Middle East and Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These colonies then had to be modernized according to Western norms to make them fit in with this new Western-dominated economic network. It was at this point, therefore, that the non-Western nations began the process of modernization; it became apparent to them that the only way to take a full part in the new world and to shake off European hegemony was to Westernize. But modernization took over three hundred years in the West, and it was a painful, violent and dislocating process.

Q: There seems to be a recent interest in fundamentalism in our culture. What do you think accounts for that?

A: After their failure at the Scopes Trial (1925) to prevent the teaching of evolution in the public schools, fundamentalists retired from the public domain and seemed to have disappeared. But they were very much alive, they had simply withdrawn to form their own counter-culture (in their churches, Bible schools, and radio and television empires), which enabled them to stage a counter-offensive in the late 1970s. Again they seemed to have been defeated by the sexual scandals involving prominent televangelists during the 1980s, and the liberal establishment assumed that fundamentalism was a dead letter. But this is to misread the situation. Fundamentalists have not gone away; there are even signs that fundamentalism is becoming more extreme.

Q: Please tell us why you have chosen to begin with Judaism and its relationship to fundamentalism in THE BATTLE FOR GOD.

A: It was important to explain the nature of pre-modern society and spirituality so that the reader could appreciate the magnitude of the changes wrought by modernity. Consequently, I traced the history of Jews, Western Christians and Muslims from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century in the first part of the book, to show the advent of modernity and its impact upon traditional agrarian faith. I began with the Jewish experience not because it has a particular "relationship to fundamentalism" (Jews are no more or less fundamentalist than members of any other faith), but because the Jewish experience tells us something crucial about modernity. First, the experience of the Jewish people makes it clear at the outset that modernity is not always liberal and benign; it has been especially hostile towards Jews and Judaism. Modernity, especially in its early stages, could be cruel, coercive and violent. The Jewish people were the first of many peoples to experience modernity initially not as liberating and enlightening, but as a lethal assault.

Q: How do you feel that people will relate to modernization in the future?

A: The fears aroused by modernization will not go away. The old dream of the Enlightenment was that as people became more educated and rational, the world would become more tolerant, civilized and compassionate. The horrors of the twentieth century, which has ended in the mass graves of Kosovo, has shown that the modern rational and secularized ethos has been just as (if not more) lethal and destructive than the pre-modern religious bigotry. Fundamentalism, as one of the chief protests against this modern ethos, is not likely to disappear.

The United States, which can be seen as the showcase of modernity, shows this clearly. Here modernization is complete; people enjoy a high standard of living and extensive freedom; the nation is the most powerful and successful in the world. But far from vanishing in the liberal light of the modern day, it seems that the old fears have simply been exacerbated in recent years. Only about ten percent of the population would describe themselves as "fundamentalists," but polls show that many fundamentalist attitudes are shared by about fifty percent of the American people. Fundamentalists are becoming more radical. Where the old Moral Majority was essentially law abiding in its campaign against secular society in the late 1970s and early 1980s, new fundamentalist campaigns (such as the anti-abortion crusades of Operation Rescue) are prepared to resort to civil disobedience.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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