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Interview With Karen Armstrong, Religious Writer

By tudlio in MLP
Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 11:43:33 PM EST
Tags: Politics (all tags)
Politics

Salon is running an interesting interview with Karen Armstrong, a theologian and religious writer who has penned several books on Islam and fundamentalism.


The perspective I had not heard before came in response to a question about why democratic governments are rare in the Islamic Middle East:

Democracy is something that we developed in the modern world as a result of our modernization -- not because we wanted to suddenly give power to the people. It's part of the transformation that comes with a capitalist economy...

The Muslim world hasn't had time to develop a home-grown democracy. They still don't have the same kind of capital market economies, and in many countries democracy got a bad name because it was associated with bad regimes that the United States supported, despots like the Shahs in Iran.

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Interview With Karen Armstrong, Religious Writer | 19 comments (19 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
And any time they do ... (4.80 / 10) (#1)
by Dlugar on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 01:10:05 PM EST

The Muslim world hasn't had time to develop a home-grown democracy.
Any time they do try out some democracy stuff, they inevitably make "the West" mad ... because, you see, what does the majority of the Arab world want? "The West" to stop interfering with their business. In fact, Armstrong's very next sentence is this: "In Egypt between 1922 and 1948 or so there were 17 elections all won by the populist party, but it was only allowed to rule five times because each time the British or the palace wouldn't let them rule because the populists wanted to kick the British out."

See also Al-Jazeera and the US.

Dlugar

And it will continue to happen... (3.75 / 4) (#4)
by SIGFPE on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 02:00:23 PM EST

...because the strength of popular anti-US feeling in much of the Middle-East. Many Middle-Eastern regimes are covertly pro-West (well, at least not vehemently anti-West), after all, they need to sell oil, and are making back door deals with the US (Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and maybe even Iran). But this is not what 'the people' want.
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]
You hit the nail on the head (5.00 / 4) (#5)
by Philipp on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 05:40:27 PM EST

Other examples: Whenever a Islamic party gets a lot of votes in Turkey, it is subsequently outlawed. When a Islamic party won elections in Algeria in the late 1990s, the election were cancelled, with a nod from the West.

The US supports terrible governments, like the cleptocracy in Saudi, because they apparently believe that it is better to have a reliable despot than the will of the people.

Interestingly, the country that is moving most promisingly into the direction of democracy (albeit slowly) is Iran. It is also on the 6-country US shit list of "Rogue Nations".

Whenever I hear Bush say that US stands for freedom in the world, I have to puke, because in respect to the Middle East the US stands for supporting corrupt dictators against the will of the people. And all this rests on the simple believe that if the people would take power in, say, Saudi, they would stop selling oil to the US.

alias kn 'killall -9 netscape-communicator'
[ Parent ]

Democracy and Islam (4.00 / 2) (#6)
by lordsutch on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 06:29:26 PM EST

And all this rests on the simple believe that if the people would take power in, say, Saudi, they would stop selling oil to the US.
Never mind that most U.S. oil comes from sources in the Western Hemisphere. Japan and Europe have much more interest in preserving a stable supply of oil from the Middle East.

As for your general point about democracy, it really depends on what you mean by "democracy." If a Western party (say, I dunno, the Republicans of the U.S. or the Canadian Alliance, two parties that have been accused of much the same thing as the Islamist parties of Algeria and Turkey) wanted to turn their country into an avowedly Christian state and deny the rights of religious minorities, and they won an election, I doubt we'd call that a particularly "democratic" result.

Of course, Turkey also has an ethnic dimension (Kurds vs. Turkification) to its political problems in addition to the Islamist/Ataturkist split.

In terms of promising Islamic democracies, I'd say Morocco, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are faring much better than Iran, as are Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, and (to a lesser extent, given Syria's involvement) Lebanon. Even the Palestinian Authority is more democratic than Iran by most measures (the PA's decisions can't be overrulled by an ayatollah, and it is popularly elected). Pakistan wasn't doing too bad until the latest coup.

Linux CDs. Schuyler Fisk can sell me long distance anytime.
[ Parent ]

Why not? (none / 0) (#7)
by Dlugar on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 02:08:18 AM EST

If a Western party (say, I dunno, the Republicans of the U.S. or the Canadian Alliance, two parties that have been accused of much the same thing as the Islamist parties of Algeria and Turkey) wanted to turn their country into an avowedly Christian state and deny the rights of religious minorities, and they won an election, I doubt we'd call that a particularly "democratic" result.
Why not? It's very democratic. And it's happened before in US History. As long as the majority of the people support it, it's never been a problem in the US, even when minority religions scream and holler. And if that's not what the majority wants, then they don't get elected.

Regardless, "cancelling elections" isn't going to make things better. If you're worried about inalienable rights of minority groups, then what you need is a constitution to go along with your democracy. Not some Western power cancelling any election they don't agree with.

Dlugar

[ Parent ]
Democracy and Majority (none / 0) (#19)
by vectro on Sun Nov 04, 2001 at 01:15:13 PM EST

Actually, here in the US, there are quite a few controls on the majority. In order to implement effective change you really have to hold control for about three generations.

Consider: Even if 90% of people thought Christian prayer in schools was the way to go, you still need to have a supreme court willing to twist the constitution is such a way as to make it so.

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
[ Parent ]
Iranian Democracy (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by Jeremiah Cornelius on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 03:10:19 AM EST

In terms of promising Islamic democracies, I'd say Morocco, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are faring much better than Iran, as are Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, and (to a lesser extent, given Syria's involvement) Lebanon.

You fail to understand that the period of "Islamic Revolution" which characterizes contemporary Iran is a mask which overlays a complex and sophisticated history of popular democratic reforms. The "Islamic" government of Iran could never have come to power without this history of popular power - it co-opted this, to be sure.

Iran has never been a colony of foreign powers. This is untrue of every other example you cite - with the exception of Turkey, which was itself, arguably a colonial power. This is relevant because the democratic inclination and reforms in Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries were largely native, and expresions of a dynamic which occured from within Persian culture and society - not colonial transplants or a Soviet-styled reactionary response.

After interesting periods with the Agha Khan in the 1840's and other precursory upheavals, Iran rid itself of absolute monarchy in a constitutuional revolution in 1911-1912. The result of this is analogous to the production of the Magna Carta, in that a parliamentary body has had varying influence on political power in Iran since this time. Qajar princes, Pahlavi parvenus and Ayatollahs have all had to exercise some consideration for popular and directly elected representation.

When recent popular elections in Iran regularly result in greater than 88 percent voter turnout, you cannot easily disregard the depth of Iranian belief in democracy - nor can the effect of this be discounted in moderating the behavior of the regieme, inspite of the despotic council of guardians, etc.

,,`,,
jeremiah cornelius
`,,`

[ Parent ]

Islam for Absolute Beginners (4.00 / 4) (#2)
by M0dUluS on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 01:13:31 PM EST

The quote about how democracy got a bad name from being associated with despots like the Shah is sort of weird. The article is an interesting read, but it could be complemented with an anarchist analysis of the history of Islam. The latter article is quite detailed on the varieties of Islam and the internal tensions. Thanks for posting this MLP.



"[...]no American spin is involved at all. Is that such a stretch?" -On Lawn
I'm curious about her book... (3.50 / 4) (#3)
by ti dave on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 01:21:42 PM EST

Because the Muslim world certainly contains entrepreneurial capitalism. Perhaps she is referring to a dearth of, Oil concerns aside, Megacorps in the Arab world.

IIRC, Lebanon once had a shining "Western-style" economy.

ti dave
"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same."

Regious writer or writer about religion? (none / 0) (#8)
by Kasreyn on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 03:08:37 AM EST

Is she a writer who is religious, or a writer who examines, studies, and dissects religion? Because it's hard to be both at once, though I suppose it's possible.


-Kasreyn


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Good academics, bad academics (none / 0) (#12)
by Pseudonym on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 09:22:20 AM EST

It's no harder for a religious person to study religion than it is for a human being to study anthropology or for a Greek person to study Greece. Good academics stay impartial. Bad academics don't. They do this regardless of who they are.



sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Important differences (none / 0) (#14)
by Macrobat on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 04:43:16 PM EST

I don't agree with this:

It's no harder for a religious person to study religion than it is for a human being to study anthropology or for a Greek person to study Greece.

These aren't comparable fields. For one thing, nobody (well, almost nobody) questions whether or not Greece, or people, exist. Also, belief is not a criterion for membership in those groups. And most Greeks, I suspect, don't believe that other countries aren't real. The study of religions, for the religious, has to take all of these factors into account. That's an important difference.

That isn't to say that a religious person can't be impartial; it's just meant to point out that the study of religion really does have additional complications where one's own bias can be harder to root out.

"Hardly used" will not fetch a better price for your brain.
[ Parent ]

Bias is common to most fields (4.00 / 1) (#15)
by Pseudonym on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 09:54:44 PM EST

The anthropology analogy was better. An anthropologist must be impartial about their own society when they study other peoples'. How about a political person studying politics? Presumably to join a political party you need to be somewhat aligned with their ideals. Or a philosophical person studying philosophy? These examples have more noticable "one's own bias" problems. But then, even study of quantum physics has a bias problem as it has strayed into the area of philosophy in recent decades.

Even in computer-related fields, I have my own ideas of how an operating system should be structured or what a programming language should look like. I still need to work to look at other operating systems or languages and evaluate them on their objective merits, as opposed to how they fit with my biases.

IMO, all the best researchers in some field should have a personal stake in it or personal opinions on the matter. That's what drives curiosity. It would be a sad world if you could only research topics that you had no interest in. :-)



sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Good point! (nt) (none / 0) (#16)
by Kasreyn on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 11:00:50 PM EST

nt
"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
[ Parent ]
True, but... (none / 0) (#17)
by Macrobat on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 12:07:06 AM EST

True, but consider also that most of us have not been indoctrinated regularly, sytematically, and from a very young age in anthropological theories (although your point about being immersed in our own culture is valid), or quantum mechanics for that matter. And people the world over are punished (sometimes killed) simply for asking questions about religion; it's rare to find that kind of zealotry in, say, CS circles.

Anyhow, if it sounds like I'm disagreeing with you in a big way, I'm not. But I still think there is a little more work to be done when one of the faithful sets out to study religions.

"Hardly used" will not fetch a better price for your brain.
[ Parent ]

Religion vs other fields (none / 0) (#18)
by Pseudonym on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 04:30:59 AM EST

First off, I do see what you're saying. I'm suggesting that the study of religion is no different than any other field of human endeavour (except in the normal ways that different fields of human endeavour are different otherwise they would be the same), and that being religious is no different from any other deeply-held belief, be it about politics, philosophy or software licences.

You, on the other hand, are suggesting that they are slightly different. We agree at least that if there is a difference, it's very slight.

We are indoctrinated from a young age in politics. We were affected by the beliefs of those around us, even if only to make us rebel from those beliefs later in life. We are indoctrinated in attitudes towards philosophy, consumerism and many other things that make us "us". So I think the analogy with politics and philosophy still holds.

We are not "indoctrinated" as such in physics, but we learn common-sense physics, at least. So we still have something to unlearn when, say, we first encounter a helium-filled balloon, a gyroscope or a wavefunction.

Yes, you can be punished for asking questions about religion in some places. You can also be punished or killed for asking questions about politics. In some places you can be punished or killed for questioning the values of the society. Sometimes these are even the same places.

In CS circles we don't physically kill people, that's true, but the same mentality can be found. I wrote on this previously in another context.

Now when it's all said and done, religion does tend to contain mystical/spiritual aspects which are difficult to overcome for some. My gut feeling is that such people are unlikely to go into the field of studying comparative religions, or even to become academics.

BTW, I'm really enjoying this thread. A topic like this can so easily degenerate in the hands of the wrong kinds of people. :-)



sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Hasn't had time ? (none / 0) (#10)
by evil roy on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 07:04:13 AM EST

That is the most piss weak effort at explaining the failings of these countries. The two things that the middle east has always had have been time and resources.

yes. (none / 0) (#11)
by StrontiumDog on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 07:44:23 AM EST

Continuous outside interference in Middle Eastern politics has given local politics precious little time to develop.

And with the exception of oil, the Middle East is piss-poor in resources.

[ Parent ]

Democracy outside the West (none / 0) (#13)
by Pseudonym on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 09:29:06 AM EST

I once attended a seminar from a researcher who spoke about Russian sociology. One of the things she mentioned was how bad a fit Western feminism was with the aspirations of Russian women. She also mentioned the move towards democracy, which intrigued me, so I put a question to her:

Western Democracy(tm) is almost one word. It seems to me that if the ideas that the West has produced over the last few hundred years are to work in the East, they must be re-invented. Does Russia need to invent the Eastern Democracy?

I think the question applies equally to the Middle East. What do you think? Is our model of democracy a good fit or not?



sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
Interview With Karen Armstrong, Religious Writer | 19 comments (19 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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