Why Karen Armstrong’s denial of the role of religion in violence is dangerous



I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them.” Qur’an, Surat 8: 12

Imagine a medical researcher investigating the cause of a certain type of cancer who examined only environmental causes, such as smoking, but deliberately ignored any possible possible genetic factors.

By any definition, this would be deemed as unscientific, irresponsible and, indeed, dangerous.

And yet this is what religious apologists like Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan have done in recent writings when asserting that religion really has nothing to do with barbaric Islamic movements such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Taliban, or the motivations of the self-radicalized, lone-wolf jihadists who try to make their way into heaven by killing an infidel or two.

In Armstrong’s view, these movements are strictly political. She is only half right – there is and always has been a strong political component within the world’s major religions, Islam in particular, because Islam historically never made a distinction between temporal and spiritual laws. The separation of church and state is a western concept; in Islam, sharia law governed all human affairs, spiritual and political.

In her recent opinion piece, The Myth of Religious Violence, Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, writes:

The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political. Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe.”

This “Muslim World” on which Christian dogs of war were “let loose” were formerly Christian lands that had been overtaken through Muslim conquest. Certainly no one would deny that the Catholic Church was motivated to impose Christianity on the world through political power. But the crusades were largely a response to Muslim imperialism.

The first crusade was an attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim control, and subsequent crusades were also in response to Muslim conquest over Christian lands, which included Sicily, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Southern France.

Remove the religious claims of the three Abrahamic faiths over Jerusalem, and an ocean of blood would never have been spilled. To claim religion has nothing to do with this violence shows a staggering ability to ignore history, religious scripture and, indeed, common sense.

Armstrong does make one important point that I think is essentially correct: the secularism of western liberal democracy is alien to traditional Islam. Even political borders – such as the one imposed arbitrarily by colonial powers on the Middle East – were foreign notions.

The attempt to adopt these ideas in Muslim societies by secular-minded political leaders, as was the case in Turkey and Iran, or to impose them by western powers, is at the root of grievances against the west by many Muslims, and not just the hardcore Islamists.

Unlike Christ, who was a spiritual leader who never lived long enough to govern, Mohammed was both a religious and political leader, not to mention a military one as well. And by the time of his death, he had codified a set of laws that were all-encompassing, with no distinction between church and state, no dichotomy between the cleric and the governor.

One law, handed down from God, was sufficient to guide all human affairs. All matters of human activity became guided by one set of laws. For more than a thousand years, the affairs of both Muslims and non-Muslims under Muslim rule were guided by sharia law and the rule of the caliphs. The attempt to adopt secular rule of law in Islamic societies has not gone well.

There’s no question western liberal democracies and colonial powers have much to answer for in the creation of this Frankenstein monster called ISIS or ISIL.

As the noted oriental studies scholar Bernard Lewis has pointed out, the abolition of the Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924 in favour of a western secular government in Turkey was cited by Osama bin Ladin as the main grievance against the west, as well as the desecration of Islam’s holy land, Saudi Arabia, by American infidels in the form of oil companies and military bases.

Colonialism in the Middle East, whose modern borders were drawn by western powers, the presence of American oil companies and military in Saudi Arabia, the creation of the state of Israel, and the political and military involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts, particularly by the U.S., have all added parts to this monster.

But it was religion – and in particular the strict interpretations of Islam by the Wahhabists – that provided the spark that brought this monster to life.

Quibble all you want over whether ISIS is properly interpreting and implementing sharia law, the beheadings, the crucifixions, the amputations, the stonings of adulterers, the execution of gays, the sexual enslavement of women, and armed jihad — all of these acts are justified and prescribed by sharia law. They are prescribed in the teachings of Islam, if not in the Quran itself, then in the Sunnah.

For Armstrong to argue that religion has nothing to do with the violence of ISIS is irresponsible and dangerous. Ignoring how religion can be used for evil is like the naive denial that allowed Nazi Germany to flourish. European leaders were too slow to recognize and react to the evil growing right on their doorsteps. Those who refuse to acknowledge evil, in fact, contribute to its prospering.

Politics may have created the monster ISIS, but religion gave it breath.