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Aired December 5, 2001 - 11:30   ET



ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): About 1 billion people, nearly a quarter of the world's population, are followers of Islam. In more than 40 countries, Muslims make up the majority of the people. Does the West understand the Islamic world?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a basic problem between the Muslims, Arabs, and the West, America.

VERJEE: What is that problem, and why is it there? On Q&A: a conversation with renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong.


VERJEE: Welcome to Q&A.

After the September 11 attacks in the United States, the world wanted to know more about Islam -- more about the religious beliefs of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Today, with the war in Afghanistan and the crisis in the Middle East, still more questions are being raised about Islam. So we thought we'll dedicate our program today to understanding Islam.

We start with its history, and Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Islam first took root in the Arab soil of ancient Arabia. The very word "Islam" is related to the Arabic word for peace. It means surrender, the act of submitting one's entire being to God, in order to achieve peace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If people could just hear the meanings behind these words, then they would see that this is not really different from being a good Christian; this is not really different from being a good Jew.

AMANPOUR: Some of the trade was flourishing on the Arabian Peninsula in the early seventh century, while the Jews and Christians -- they bartered with worship to one God; Arabs at that time honored an array of tribal Gods. Around the year 610, a merchant from Mecca named Mohammed ibn Abdullah had an experience that would change his life and change the world.

JOHN ESPOSITO, CENTER FOR MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING: He was a man, who had a prosperous life as a businessman, but was a man who was questioning and, the tradition tells us, was a man who was going through a bit of a kind of personal crisis, as many do in terms of, what's life about; what am I doing? And Mohammed, in one of these moments, heard the voice of Rasul.

AMANPOUR: The result, according to Islam: a message from God, dictated in Arabic, that would eventually become their holy scripture, the Quran, literally "the recitation."

ESPOSITO: That Muslims do believe that this is a literal word of God, that every word in this book comes directly as a word from God. But because it's a literal word of God does not mean that it is a literalist interpretation all the time.

AMANPOUR: That word and the religion that sprung from it spread across three continents over the centuries that followed. At the time, the Islamic world was an oasis of civilization and learning.

ESPOSITO: During the Dark Ages, they became the builders and the purveyors of civilization and culture, and after that, passed that on to the West, whether it's philosophy, algebra, geometry, medicine, the sciences, the arts, architecture. And this is part of the kind of memory, politically and culturally, of many Muslims.

AMANPOUR: But in the early years, the spread of Islam was also violent and bloody.

KAREN ARMSTRONG, AUTHOR, "ISLAM: A SHORT HISTORY": The Prophet himself had to fight wars, because he himself was under attack by the very powerful City of Mecca, who threatened to exterminate him. But the moment he realized the tide had changed in his favor, he abandoned violence completely and achieved final victory by an ingenious policy of nonviolence.


VERJEE: The book "Islam: A Short History" is written by renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong. She's written many books on spirituality, including the biography of Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed along with "A History of God" and "The Battle for God." She joins us now from New York.

Karen, good to have you with us.

On a personal note first, you were a former Catholic nun. You were teaching at a college geared towards the study of Judaism. Why your personal interest in Islam?

ARMSTRONG: For some years now, I've been very disturbed by the degree of ignorance and suspicion of Islam that is current in the West today. And that's always seemed to me a very, very dangerous situation. We know from the hideous history of the 20th century what that kind of stereotypical, inaccurate thinking about a group of people can do. And we can't afford any more of this ignorance of 1.2 billion people in the world today.

VERJEE: Why is that that ignorance?

ARMSTRONG: The West has long had an antipathetic relationship with the Islamic world. Ever since the time of the Crusades, Islam became the symbol of the other, everything that we Westerners feared we might be and hoped we were not. Islamophobia, if you like, developed alongside hatred of Judaism. And so these things are deeply written into the Western identity, but we can't afford this any more.

VERJEE: Do you see Islam and the West as a clash of civilization, something we've been hearing a lot about in the recent weeks?

ARMSTRONG: No. I absolutely don't. We must remember that at the beginning of the 20th century and during the 19th century, nearly every single leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West and seemed to recognize its democracy and its political institutions in a profound way as being deeply congenial to it. Now, we seem to have lost that goodwill during the 20th century and are now in the mess that we find ourselves.

Islamic fundamentalism, like any fundamentalist movement in any faith, always begins with a concern about one's own culture, one's own coreligionists. And bin Laden himself began not by attacking the West, but by attacking Saudi Arabia and some of the other Muslim countries in the area, which he believes are corrupt and immoral and un-Islamic. Only at a late stage did he turn his attention to the west.

VERJEE: I want to get into that a little bit later with you. But first, let's cover some of the basics here. As you say, there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. What is it that they all have in common?

ARMSTRONG: A belief -- a profound and passionate belief in God, the God worshiped by the Jews and the Christians -- a deep desire to create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect. That's the bedrock message of the Quran. And so politics is what we in the Christian world might describe as a sacrament, something which makes God's will efficacious in the world. And in the course of the struggle to achieve this good society, one will get intimations of the divine.

VERJEE: And we have more than 1 billion Muslims in the world. I mean there are different cultures, there are different histories, there are diverse traditions, and so forth. How important is it to understand the plurality of Muslims in understanding Islam?

ARMSTRONG: Very important indeed. It's often assumed in the Western world that Islam is a sort of monolithic faith and it just takes one fatwa and the whole Muslim world spring to attention at the drop of the hat. This is not true. There is many versions of Islam, as there are versions of Christianity -- very different moods, different interpretations, different political struggles -- and some Muslim countries have deep difficulties with one another. There is no one single uniform response. Many Muslims will interpret the Quran in many, many different ways.

VERJEE: Can you explain why is it to sit to take that step further that the Islam of, say, Saudi Arabia is different to that of Turkey which could be different to that of the Islam that's practiced in India or Iran for that matter? What's different? What makes it so?

ARMSTRONG: Well, it's just like to say what makes the Catholicism, the form of Christianity that is practiced in Ireland, different from the Church of England, different from, again, French Catholicism or from American Protestantism. Each country, its own region, opts for a particular mood of Islam, just as people opt for different moods of Judaism, different moods of -- the history behind these changes is complex. We can't go into it there. But the thing to do is to see it as similar to the divergence of belief and practicing in Christendom itself.

VERJEE: Another thing I would add to that. What I was really wondering about was doesn't the Islam that's practiced in those countries, for instance, have to negotiate its way through the kind of culture it resides within, through the kind of democratic or nondemocratic institutions that it's forced to operate within? So what happens is that a different Islam seems to emerge out of the different contexts in which it has to operate, and it's not necessarily the religion itself, but a product of its culture.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, and a lot of what you are saying too is not so much Islam, but the product of an imperfectly modernized society or a society that is going through the painful process of modernization. And a lot of Muslims are laboring under highly undemocratic regimes, many of them, unfortunately, supported by the Western world -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria -- countries that have rulers that are not Muslim, really, in any way. Therefore, this causes Muslim great disquiet, because the state of the Muslim community is of very great religious importance.

People will be as distressed to see the Muslim community, the umma, corrupt, ineptly ruled, with injustice and cruelty reigning, as a Christian might be if he or she saw the Bible spat upon or the Eucharistic host violated. So we must be aware of the political sensibilities in the religious imagination of Islam.

VERJEE: So are you saying that what Islam believes in that all is not necessarily fundamentally different, but the ways in which it's interpreted and intellectualized and how it has to operate, that's what gives rise to differences.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, and that's the same in any religious tradition. All religious traditions develop and change over time. They adapt to circumstances, and all religious traditions have to meet the challenge of their own particular modernity, and Islam is no exception. The Muslim world is going through a difficult period in the Postcolonial period.

They've suffered the great trauma and dislocation of colonial rule, and that has hindered the whole modernization process and deeply affected the way Islam is interpreted. Because this is seen as a struggle, some people are returning to Islam, as to the precolonial culture, before the British and the French and the Western powers intervened in their region and made it incomprehensible to many of the people.

VERJEE: What does Islam say about the role of women?

ARMSTRONG: No religious faith at all has been good for women. All of them have been largely male spiritualities and patriarchal institutions. Some of them, however, like Christianity and like Islam, began, however, with a positive message for women. The Quran gives women rights of inheritance and divorce that we Western woman wouldn't have until the 19th century. And again, there's nothing in the Quran about the veiling of all women and their seclusion in a particular part of the house.

VERJEE: So how did that happen?

ARMSTRONG: That came in several generations after the Prophet, when the Muslims were imitating the practices of the Christians by Greek Byzantium, who'd long secluded and veiled their women in this way. And then you have Muslim thinkers who abjure the early egalitarian message of the Quran, which has a basically good message for women. And later Muslims dragged it back to the old patriarchy. That's exactly what happened in the Christian world too, which developed a strongly misogynistic tradition.

And as in many of the world traditions today, there are Muslim feminists who are challenging their menfolk and asking them to return to the positive message of the Quran and the Prophet and to treat their women accordingly. And there's great ferment in the Muslim world, just as there has been in the Christian world too over such issues as the ordination of women.

VERJEE: Is that how you see what went on in Afghanistan with the Taliban and its oppression and politicization also of women?

ARMSTRONG: Yes, I think the Taliban I wouldn't even dignify with the name of Muslim fundamentalists. I see them as a sort of an awful bunch of, almost, thugs really -- Islamic Robin hoods, who emerged out of the absolute chaos of postwar Afghanistan. Many of them, I think you have to realize, were orphaned in the war. Many of them have no fathers, grew up in refugee camps, and I think that too may have affected their view of women. It's part of the trauma of the Cold War and the chaos of Afghanistan, and not to do with Islam, per se.

VERJEE: Karen Armstrong, we will continue our conversation in just a moment.


VERJEE: Welcome back to Q&A. We're talking with religious scholar Karen Armstrong about Islam.

Karen, we've been seeing a lot of carnage, a lot of bloodshed in recent days in the Middle East, and in Afghanistan as well. How do you explain that the people involved say it's all apparently in the name of Islam?

ARMSTRONG: A form of militant polity, often known as fundamentalism, has erupted in every single major religion worldwide. It began in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and spread everywhere a modern Western secular-style society has established itself. A religious counterculture has sprung up alongside it, wanting, as it were, to drag God and religion from the sidelines to which they've been relegated in secular culture back to center stage.

Islam was the last of the three monotheistic faiths to develop a fundamentalist tradition. This developed in the late 1960s, '70s, when secularist policies such as socialism and nationalism seemed to have failed the people. And they wanted to get back to the precolonial roots and their own traditions.

Fundamentalism is not necessarily a violent faith. Only a tiny proportion of the people who call themselves or would be called fundamentalists in every faith take part in acts of terror and violence.

But when a region like the Middle East is already engulfed in conflict -- a conflict that was secular in origin -- it's very likely that religion will get somehow swept into this maelstrom and turn very nasty indeed. And that's what happened in the Middle East, and it's also happened in Israel, too. There is a quite a bit of Jewish fundamentalism also which has often erupted violently. You think of the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, for example.

VERJEE: How, though, is it justified logically? What's the logical argument with a militant part of Hamas, for example? What's that logic?

ARMSTRONG: Well, Hamas began by attacking Arafat and the PLO. They wanted a Muslim leadership to Palestine because they felt -- and they had reason for this -- that the Palestinian Authority was corrupt and cruel. During the first intifada, Hamas developed a militant wing, and turned against Israel. The Quran forbids all aggressive warfare. The only kind of war that a Muslim may participate in is a war of self-defense.

Now, the Hamas would say, We are fighting a war of self-defense because we are under occupation; the Israelis are attacking us. And some would find after their houses have been bombed by the Israelis -- they would find shells in the rooms of their house with "Made in the USA" upon them. And so many will draw the conclusion that America is fighting them too.

It's still never, never, never justified in Islam to kill civilians or to commit suicide or to murder innocent bystanders. There is no justification in the Quran for that.

VERJEE: As you say, it's a very tiny group that subscribes to that, but how damaging has that been to the perception of Islam worldwide?

ARMSTRONG: Very damaging indeed, unfortunately, because it confirms people's suspicions. Ever since the Middle Ages, we have assumed that Islam is an essentially violent and intolerant and bigoted faith. In fact, this was not true. Not until the 20th century did Islam develop this extremism. But because we have this long tradition of assuming the inherent violence of Islam, when we see Muslim terrorists, they confirm our prejudice; and that is a great pity and very damaging, because it is not in any way an accurate reflection of the faith.

VERJEE: Karen, why is it that we never hear from the moderates in Islam? Where are their voices? Why aren't they heard and it's only this tiny minority that gets heard?

ARMSTRONG: They are speaking. While I had been in the United States, I have constantly found that there have been statements by individual leaders. You have to understand that there is nobody in the Islamic world like the pope or the archbishop of Canterbury or the chief rabbi who can speak for all Muslims in a given vicinity.

But for example -- and I was told by an imam in New York here a couple of weeks ago that Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, one of the leading jurists in the world, has condemned this attack in the strongest terms and given American soldiers who are Muslims permission to fight in the war in Afghanistan, even though Muslims are not supposed to kill or fight other Muslims, because he said the people who did this appalling act have put themselves outside Islam.

And now that, unfortunately, did not get published in "The New York Times," even though the imam begged that this should be published. Then people remain in ignorance of this. This is a pity because there are voices being raised. And unfortunately in the media, the main person we are hearing from is Osama bin Laden, which is like having Pat Robertson the sole voice of religious America.

VERJEE: Is it also something to consider that perhaps the moderates in other countries don't necessarily have the intellectual space to express themselves? Is that something that's problematic?

ARMSTRONG: That can be a problem, but of course, you have to understand that in many of the states where so-called extremists are operating, the government would welcome these moderate voices, because the activities of these militants are directed against people like Mubarak. They don't want Muslim extremism and would perhaps welcome a moderate voice.

And indeed, there are leading major Muslim thinkers like Qaradhawi, Hatami, Abdul Karim Soroush, Ghannoushi, people whom we never hear about in the West, who are deeply against the bigotry that has arisen in a small quarter of the Islamic world, are constantly speaking out. But no one in the west has ever heard of them. And the reason there they have...


ARMSTRONG: Well, perhaps they are not so newsworthy. It was the same at the time of Salman Rushdie crisis, for example. A month after the ayatollah issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie, there was a meeting of the Islamic Congress during which 44 out of the 45 member states condemned the fatwa on Islamic grounds and said it was against Muslim Law. Now, that didn't really hit the headlines at all. And the public were generally left in thinking that the entire Muslim world was monolithically clamoring for Rushdie's blood, which was, in fact, not the case.

VERJEE: Karen, can you give us a big picture look here -- just a closing thought. When you take a step back, what is the most important thing people need to understand about Islam?

ARMSTRONG: The thing that people need to understand about Islam is that it is not something exotic or peculiar. The religion is deeply in line with our Western traditions and sees itself as deeply in line with Christianity, with Judaism, whose prophets are revered and praised in the Quran.

And the Quran tells Muslims that they must respect all rightly guided religion that issues in a just and decent society: the Islamic ideal of an egalitarian society where the poor and vulnerable are treated with dignity and respect. This is something that is at the heart of our own traditions, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we can perhaps ease on a very tense and explosive situation.

VERJEE: Karen Armstrong, pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

VERJEE: I'll be back with another edition of Q&A in just a few hours, at 20:30 GMT.

And remember we'd love to hear from you, so drop us an e-mail any time. Our address is q&





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