Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Karen Armstrong on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

British religious scholar Karen Armstrong has a good op-ed piece on Western Christian/secular cultural attitudes toward Muslims and Jews: Root out this sinister cultural flaw Guardian (UK) 04/06/05.  This is a very useful historical recollection:

In 1492, the year that is often said to inaugurate the modern era, three very important events happened in Spain. In January, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe; later, Muslims were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or exile. In March, the Jews of Spain were also forced to choose between baptism and deportation. Finally, in August, Christopher Columbus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a protege of Ferdinand and Isabella, crossed the Atlantic and discovered the West Indies. One of his objectives had been to find a new route to India, where Christians could establish a military base for another crusade against Islam. As they sailed into the new world, western people carried a complex burden of prejudice that was central to their identity.

Almost immediately following this, the Spanish Inquisition, controlled by Ferdinand and Isabella though sanctioned by the Catholic Church, began brutal persecutions of converted Jews and descendents of converted Jews.  Later, they focused their main attention on Muslim converts to Christianity and their descendents.

Zeal for the Catholic Church and gold were central to the Spanish motivation to colonize the new world.  That the results of this holy greed were often spectacularly inhumane - though can we call it un-Christian? - was readily apparent to people at the time capable of seeing it.  In the mid-1500s, to take probably the most famous example of the latter, Fray Bartolom√© de las Casas recorded his own perceptive criticisms of "the destruction of the Indians" in what's now Latin America.  (If John Paul II had been Pope at the time, he might have tried to suppress De las Casas as a "liberation theologian.")

This is also an intriguing observation by Armstrong about that period: "Christians blamed Muslims for giving too much power to menials and women at a time when the social structure of Europe was deeply hierarchical."  She has elsewhere called attention to the history of Western Christian objections to how Muslim societies treat women.  At this time, they were blamed for giving women too high a status.  And Muslims were regarded as decadently sensuous because of all those harems, which generated many an imaginative story for European readers.  Today, of course, well-known champions of women's rights like Dick Cheney are outraged over the inequality of women in Muslim countries, at least the ones we're about to attack.  And Muslims are generally portrayed as prudish and sexually repressed.  Go figure.

In her op-ed, she connects the accumulated religious prejudices of centuries with attitudes toward both Jews and Muslims:

September 11 has, perhaps inevitably, stirred up the old Islamophobia. The action of an extremist minority has confirmed the old violent image of Islam. ...

So entrenched is our anti-semitism that even support for the Jewish people can be tainted by prejudice. Lord Balfour, who crafted the declaration in favour of a Jewish homeland in 1917, had anti-semitic feelings, which, his daughter recalled, greatly disturbed him.

Christian fundamentalists in the United States, who strongly influence American policy in the Middle East, are also prey to anti-semitic fantasies. They are zealous supporters of Israel, because they believe that unless Jews are living in the Holy Land and fulfilling the ancient prophecies, the second coming of Christ will be delayed. But the Israelis are simply there in a "holding" capacity, because once the last days have begun, the Antichrist will massacre them all. (my emphasis)

Actually, she's a bit unfair to the fundis on that point.  The more common fundamentalist view is that most of the Jews will be killed and that the rest will stop being Jews by converting to Christianity.  Either way, Jews and Judaism go away.  What is notable about her description is that, unlike even many critical observers of this so-called "Christian Zionism," she explicitly calls it anti-Semitic.  And she's right.  It's very much based on the worst traditional Christian attitudes about Jews and Judaism.  And the bottom line is the fundis of this view argue, based on very imaginative and kooky interpretations of Scripture, that God intends to do away with all the Jews.

And she's also right that the Christian Right promoting this view "strongly influence American policy in the Middle East."  Not only do they lobby the Republican adminstration successfully.  But some fundamentalist groups raise funds specifically to subsidize the establishment of new settlements on Palestinian land, such settlements one of the main obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

Armstrong also asks sensibly:

Muslims are well aware of this anti-semitic strain in the Christian Zionism of the US. How can we expect them to abandon their resentment of Israel when our own ideology is so muddled?

And this is also an important historical observation.  And it's not just some feel-good multicultural saying, it's historically descriptive:

For centuries, Jews and Muslims were the shadow-self of Europe. Sadly, we have passed our anti-semitism to the Muslim world. Until the 20th century, anti-semitism was not part of Islamic culture. The Qur'an speaks respectfully of all the "people of the Book" and honours the Jewish prophets. But now our anti-semitic mythology is one of the few western products that Muslim extremists are happy to import. It is another sad twist in the tragic and convoluted history of the three religions of Abraham.

1 comment:

purcellneil said...

Americans don't know enough about Islam, Arab culture, history etc.  and even though we are in front of everyone else in the world 24/7 they really don't know us either.  Tom Friedman is saying the world is flat, and tiny too, but the gaps in understanding are immense.

I don't think the answer is more engineering majors.

Neil