Friday, 5 February 2010

How to speak to "the Muslim World", by Karen Armstrong

Looking back, there was a striking omission from the government's recent list of faith advisers. Where was Karen Armstrong? Was she unavailable? Too grand for such a relatively obscure grouping? Did she turn them down? Or, perhaps, were they afraid to ask? Is she the inter-faith equivalent of the beautiful woman who never gets asked out on dates because all the men she knows think that she's out of their league?

You certainly can't accuse the ex-nun (dubbed "Koran Armstrong" by some of her many critics) of resting on her laurels. Last summer found her in Cairo, speaking at a conference at the city's ancient Al Azhar university and just a few short weeks after Barack Obama's triumphant performance there. Obama, so went the spin, had transformed America's relationship with that chimerical entity "the Muslim World" with the force of his words. In retrospect, the effect of the speech was negligible: it annoyed the Israelis and some feminists but its talk of US-Muslim "partnership" was not followed by any discernible change in policy.

They wouldn't have known that at the time, though. Armstrong and her fellow Western delegates went to Al Azhar with high hopes. "It seemed an auspicious occasion." Presumably they assumed that it was going to be the usual inter-faith fluff in which everyone agreed that all religions were basically the Same Thing, and that Thing was Niceness. Instead they treated their guests as though they were hosting Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.


We quickly became aware of the intense anger in the room. Even though many of us were personally known to Al-Azhar and were greeted with warmth and affection, as soon as western ­delegates took their places on the platform, they became representatives of "the west". There was no dialogue. Nobody responded to the content of our papers. Instead, one by one, the distinguished professors and imams of Al-Azhar rose to their feet to denounce western policy in the region.


These distinguished professors and imams went on to forget the expected inter-faith sensibilities and voice the usual litany of complaints. "The sufferings of the Palestinians, the tragedy of Gaza, the conflict over Jerusalem, the crime of Guantánamo – and, of course, the horror of Iraq." Everything was the fault of American policy; no-one paid any attention to "the Muslim viewpoint".

Armstrong and her colleagues were rather stunned. They assumed that Obama's smooth words had opened a new phase of respectful dialogue; instead, it had prompted a new "intensity" of anti-Western feeling. There's an interesting lesson here. But acknowledging Western failings, it seems, Obama had merely fed the sense of victimhood and self-righteousness in the region. It wasn't that his audience hadn't liked what they heard; they liked it so much they wanted more, and the more they heard the more they wanted. The job of visiting Westerners, post Obama, was obviously to confirm the distinguished professors and imams in their prejudices about the evils of the West and the blamelessness of "the Muslim world" for its own misfortunes. Eventually, the penny dropped:

During the last session an American theologian managed, with some difficulty, to take the floor and spoke on behalf of us all. We had, he said, been deeply impressed by the pain in the room; we knew that "the eight horrible years of George W Bush" had inflicted grave damage on the region, and would do everything in our power to work with Al-Azhar for a better future. Immediately, one of the most vitriolic of our assailants responded with generosity and the conference was finally able to issue a firm and positive joint resolution.


So that's all right then. Self-abasement is usually a winning strategy, rather like handing your wallet over to a mugger. As Armstrong writes, "a frank acknowledgment of culpability could turn things around." But if this not what Obama had just done? Indeed: he had "raised hopes" and this "could be dangerous" because "disappointment could only make matters worse." Appeasement can't be merely verbal, in other words.

Bizarrely, Armstrong sees in all this a message for the Chilcot Inquiry. To providing Iraq War bores with entertainment, reminding the country just how crazy Tony Blair was and giving former civil servants an opportunity to settle old scores she now adds a new purpose: repairing the battered image of the West in the eyes of the entire Muslim world. "Muslims are also waiting for the outcome of the investigation, and this makes the inquiry an opportunity that we can ill afford to lose," she writes.

She doesn't say which Muslims. British Muslims? Muslims in Iraq? For her, "Muslims" are just an undifferentiated mass, fortunate possessors of a uniquely compassionate and peace-oriented religion but nevertheless rightly in a state of permanent fury at the domineering and fundamentally wicked actions of "the West". The success or failure of the Chilcot Inquiry will be measured, for her, by whether or not it is sufficiently lacerating of British and American policy, not just in Iraq but in the entire Middle East (i.e. Iraq + Israel + Afghanistan) to appease the anger of "the Muslim World".

If so, then its failure - and the ensuing "disappointment" seems assured. Apologising to "the Muslim world" for two centuries of Western criminality just isn't on the committee's agenda. That's Karen Armstrong's job.