When a friend recently saw me carrying around a galley of Karen Armstrong’s latest book Fields of Blood: A History of Religion and Violence to review, she was puzzled. “But you hate Karen Armstrong!” Hate may be too strong a word, but my friend was accurately remembered the attitude I had toward the universally admired, “name brand” in popular religion writing, circa our college years in the late 1990s.
I would express frustration at Armstrong’s generalizing sensibility, the way she covered centuries of history with a smoothness that was dazzling, but also provoked a little contrarian red light to go off in my brain, blinking: really? Are you sure? Aren’t you missing something? Armstrong was a moderator, a mediator, a compromiser, a bringer-together of opposites. She had no time to zoom down the vast sweep of religious history and land in those sidelined individual narratives of religion I was most interested in.
But although a suspicion towards universalism has stuck with me to this day, I find myself feeling more warmly toward Armstrong’s work this time around. Fields of Blood has elements of Armstrong’s patented smooth-edged history. But it’s framed as a direct retort to the argument, often leveled by New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, that religion causes war. Back when I was in college, we hadn’t quite completed the conflation of the words “Muslim” and “terrorist,” and the atheists weren’t yet New. Maher was around, but he wasn’t yet saying things like “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing,” and going nearly unchallenged on national TV. Today, the kind of oversimplification that prompts Bill Maher’s unacceptable Islamophobia seems to have whipped Armstrong into what, for her, is a frenzy.
Had she been on that infamous episode of Real Time, she would have come in somewhere closer to Affleck than to Nicholas Kristof’s almost-offensively-mild retort, “this does have a tinge a little bit of how white racists talk about African-Americans.” How much better to retort, as Armstrong writes in Fields of Blood, that had the members of the Hamburg Cell had more education in Islam than they in fact did, they might have been less likely to commit such heinous acts, that Israel’s “dynamic of secular nationalism pushing a religious tradition into a more militant direction,” that “to imagine [suicide bombers] do this entirely for God or that they are impelled solely by Islamic teaching is to ignore the natural complexity of all human motivation.”
How much more transcendent to respond to haters that “We must deplore any action that spills innocent blood or sows terror for its own sake. But we must also acknowledge and sincerely mourn the blood that we have shed in the pursuit of our national interests.”
Though I heartily agree with my fellow RD writer Nabil Echchaibi when he writes that “we need raunchier stories that reflect how complex our Muslim lives really are,” and Armstrong would hardly seem to be an ambassador for either raunch or complexity, don’t count her out yet. Maybe someone like Armstrong, who is, like Affleck, a beloved public figure not perceived to have a stake in the religions that she defends, has the platform to say “this is wrong,” and have people listen.
As she writes, we must “take responsibility for the world’s pain and learn to listen to narratives that challenge our sense of ourselves. All this requires the ‘surrender,’ selflessness and compassion that have been just as important in the history of religion as crusades and jihads.”