Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation
Karen Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.
Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?
A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.
Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?
A: Pakistan is on the frontier of this present struggle, in a sense. It’s right on the border there, with Afghanistan. It’s a country born of displacement. I think it’s not so much important for the future of Islam as important for the future of the world. What happens here will be very decisive in how the so-called war against terror proceeds in other regions. This is, after all, a frontier that that has for years cooperated with the West and is now reaping a grim harvest for that cooperation from its extremists.
It is a nuclear power. And it is a country born out the horrendous events of the partition of India, with a really difficult question to ask: How do you become a secular Muslim state? If there are no Muslim symbols in your country, why on earth are they here? Interestingly enough, the kind of conversations I have about this topic remind me very much of conversations I had in Israel, another secular state born out of displacement and tragedy. Israeli friends who are adamantly secular have said to me that if there are no Jewish symbols or no Jewish feel to this secular state, then what on earth are we doing here?
Q: At the moment, many Western politicians seem to take a quick fix approach to Pakistan: give full support to President Musharraf, close down the madrasas, send in troops into the tribal areas. Do you thing these policies can be effective against something as hard to grapple with as a religious movement?
A: Well, I’m not sure that this all is religious, to be perfectly honest. Some of this trouble up in the tribal areas is much more to do with tribal honour than it is to do with Islam per se. But I think military force is never an answer. Surely we have learned this just by looking at what has happened in Iraq and in the Middle East. There the military option has opened up a can of worms and another set of disasters. I think what we need to do is not do this short-term business of supporting one politician one day, another politician another day, busing somebody else in as our own candidate chanting the word democracy, as though it was some kind of saving mantra, when what is needed is a much longer term view, a less self-interested view, less of an ability to just use a country to further our Western policies in a region and (rather) see what is actually good for the country as a whole.