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Karen Armstrong: Islamophobia: We need to accept the ‘other’

26 March 2012 General 25 Comments Email This Post Email This Post
Karen Armstrong: Extremists are setting the agenda on both sides of the divide. What happened to tolerance, liberalism, egalitarianism and rationalism?

Karen Armstrong: Extremists are setting the agenda on both sides of the divide. What happened to tolerance, liberalism, egalitarianism and rationalism?

A decade after 9/11, the West seems more bitterly divided from the Muslim world than ever. In Afghanistan, there’s been a violent explosion of anti-Western sentiment after last month’s Koran burning at a U.S. base and the slaughter of 17 Afghan civilians by an American soldier two weeks ago. But this hatred is not confined to distant parts of the globe. We’re witnessing a surge of virulent Islamophobia in Europe, especially in the Netherlands and some parts of Scandinavia. And sadly, this seems to have crossed the Atlantic.

In 2002, a survey of Canadian Muslims by the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations found that 56 per cent of respondents had experienced at least one anti-Muslim incident in the 12-month period since 9/11. Mosques or mosque construction sites in Ottawa, Montreal, Hamilton, Waterloo and Vancouver have been targeted by vandals. In January, anti-Islamic graffiti were spray-painted on the walls of the Outaouais Islamic Centre in Gatineau, Que. – the third such attack in four months.

These hate crimes are committed by a small minority, of course. But unfortunately, on both sides of the divide, extremists set the agenda. The news media, for example, inform us of terrorist attacks but don’t give much coverage to those Muslim leaders who regularly condemn them. Between 2001 and 2007, Gallup conducted a massive survey representing the views of more than 90 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. When asked if the 9/11 attacks were justified, 93 per cent of respondents said they weren’t – basing their arguments on religious grounds. This finding wasn’t widely reported and could, therefore, make no impression on the widespread view that Islam is an inherently violent faith.

This belief is deeply engrained. It dates back to the Crusades, when Western Christians were fighting holy wars against Muslims in Syria and Palestine; their brutal ferocity stunned the people of the Near East. Even though Islam had a far better record of tolerance than Christianity at this time, European scholar-monks depicted Islam as a fanatical religion of the sword that was violently opposed to other faiths. They were, perhaps, projecting buried anxiety about their own behaviour onto their victims – Jesus, after all, had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them.

As Europeans fought their way out of the Dark Ages, Islam, a great world power that dwarfed Christendom for centuries, became their shadow self, arousing in them the same kind of complicated resentment as the United States inspires in some regions today – an image of everything that they were not (or feared obscurely that they might be). This distorted image of Islam became one of the received ideas of the West.

During the 12th century, anti-Semitism also became a chronic disease in Europe. It seemed absurd to the Crusaders to travel to the Middle East to liberate Christ’s tomb when the people who had killed Jesus – or so the Crusaders mistakenly believed – were alive and well on their very doorsteps. Those who couldn’t go on Crusade would often do their bit by attacking Jewish communities at home. Jews were said to kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzo at Passover. This image of the Jew as child-slayer, representing an almost Oedipal fear of the parent faith, persisted well into the modern period and regularly inspired pogroms in Europe. Without a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, the Holocaust would have been impossible.

We now know what can happen when unexamined prejudice is allowed free rein. 9/11 was a terrible crime. But if it has stained the reputation of Islam, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have equally tainted the image of the West. Islamophobia is also a violation of essential Western values: tolerance, liberalism and egalitarianism. Founded on fear and ignorance, it also flies in the face of Western rationalism. We have created a global market in which, whether we like it or not, we’re interconnected as never before. If we want a peaceful, stable and sustainable world, we have to learn to live with those we instinctively regard as “other.”

Karen Armstrong, a historian of religion and founder of the Charter for Compassion, received Simon Fraser University’s Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue last week.

Original post: Islamophobia: We need to accept the ‘other’


  1. الله اكبر ….لا اله الا الله محمد رسول الله

  2. no god but allah and mohamed is massenger of allah

  3. Those are pretty much humanist concepts, and things like that don’t fare well in a religious environment, sadly.

  4. We need to remember that we’re all one people divided by borders and oceans. we need to remember that instead of fighting each other, we should be fighting the corrupt governements that start these types of fueds. but most importantly,we should strive in becoming better people, and try to maintain better standards of living as a whole!

  5. I am sick of the righties and all their shit. Time to throw some back at ’em!

  6. Both sides of the divide, my ass. You ask, “What happened to tolerance, liberalism, egalitarianism and rationalism?” The question should be “what happened to not intervening militarily in other sovereign nations?”

  7. To be honest, never all that popular. If we are being honest.

  8. Fundamentalism in any religion is the enemy of society.

  9. I’m one who was once some one who was anti Muslim but it only latest a couple if weeks. But my anger was directed at the people who attacked us. Then I started to realize a lot of the hatred started towards musliums would happen during election years. Which in this country seems to happen every six months. I also started to realize that most people who hate Musliums do not know any. And they seem to get all of their info from other far right wing groups.

    I also realize that the extreme left does the same thing. I wish the more moderates would take over the conversations. However, I understand that being moderate now a days is a big of a crime as being Arab.

  10. “Humanist” concepts do not fare well in a FUNDAMENTALIST” environment. Not all people who feel religion to be real and of value are fundamentalists–but he fundamentalists have louder voices. We are letting them define the debate– and the word” religion”. This is unwise.

  11. See the face of God in every other person. We all have the same creator and sustainer.

  12. Forget tolerance… What about acceptance?

  13. She skips right over the invasion of Spain, Persia, India, siege of Vienna, siege of Malta, Battle of Mohacs and any other event that could have given non muslims a negative view of muslims.

    I got my info about life with the muslims from people, muslim and non, who had fled muslim gov. Back then they did not blame Islam itself.

  14. As an atheist I feel that no religion has the ascendency! I sympathize, but cannot accept.

  15. As an atheist I feel that no religion has the ascendency! I sympathize, but cannot accept.

  16. As an atheist I feel that no religion has the ascendency! I sympathize, but cannot accept.

  17. Mahmoud Dabour, your hero Mohammed is a child molesting pedophile. So the “messenger of allah” screwed nine year old little girls. Absolutely disgusting.

  18. “What happened to tolerance, liberalism, egalitarianism and rationalism?”

    All of those things are either non-existent or illegal according to Islam. THAT’s what happened to them.

  19. You mean you can”t accept them as fellow human beings Beth. In the end that is what counts. Live and let live.

  20. BTW not accusing Beth, just trying to clarify what you mean.

  21. RObert I like your point. I mean I feel like most of the time the answer lies in the middle of two extremes. I think that is called common sense actually. 🙂

  22. liberalism became herdonism and is therefore rejected by most.

  23. Robert, you had some great points. I agree that people often fear that which they don’t know…whether it is a different religion, race or culture. It is a sad state of affairs in this country that people can’t understand that we are all human beings on this planet who basically want the same things…to have a job, a home, a family, a happy life. We are not that different and if people could just understand that the world would be a more peaceful and happy place.

  24. America does not practice violence but even though they constantly talk about freedom of Justice development progress fighting terrorism are all nice words but it is not really final …

  25. We need to remember that long established nations and communities generally don’t wish to have large numbers of foreigners shoved down their throats and sooner or later will show their displeasure one way or another. The history of forcing different groups to accept each other is a long string of failures and this time it won’t be different. We resent this imposition on our birthright and when the patience runs out history will repeat itself.

    Armstrong can split hair over historical minutiae, but for here and now it comes down to a revulsion we feel when our town, city, village no longer feels like home. When masses of strangers with their own customs and habits crowd our streets, speak their language, demand respect and recognition.

    I don’t feel we need to find deep philosophical arguments against such invasion, or win debates, or justify our case in any way. It’s OUR home and *THEY* must leave simply because THEY are different. We have no desire to learn about and accommodate THEM.

    THEY might be good in THEIR own right. I don’t care – out.

    THEY might be representing an ancient culture or religion – whatever, pack up and go.

    THEY may be carrying THEIR own cross, raising THEIR family and worry about things that we also worry about – but THEY are still not us and must leave.


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