Karen Armstrong, Caped Anti-Anti-Muslim Crusader?

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.”


  • and who finances Karen and her lies about the ‘Religion of Peace?” The Saudi’s. and who coined the phrase “Islamophobia” to silence any and all criticism of Islam, no matter how legitimate? The Muslim Brotherhood.

    Why don’t you go read sura 5:32 , the one even Obama uses to prove Islam is so peaceful. You might have a bit of a shock when you read the entire sura and not the half line the apologists dishonestly use to prove Islam is peaceful. then read sura 5:33.

    actually, i will save you the trouble:

    SURA 5:32:

    Sahih International

    Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.

    SURA 5:33:

    Sahih International

    Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment,


    oh my it turns out its the jews who are forbidden to kill and muslims have allah’s permission to crucify and amputate. who would have guessed.

    wake up. Islam is a supremacist religion. The caliphate is the goal and the entire world is the target. Its in the Qur’an.

    Quran (2:191-193) – “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing…

    but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    So try reading the Hebrew Bible (i..e. old testament) literally. Its filled with murder, slaughter of whole societies, rape, you name it. Christians do the same thing with the O.T. The mistake in doing this you elevate the words as a prime source and make the words your idol. Not a good way to begin, and its blasphemy. Frankly, I don’t know for whom you see yourself as an expert in theology.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Once you also start taking into account the lived religion of the millions non-violent Muslims in the world, then I’ll start caring about what you have to say on the matter.

  • cpmondello@gmail.com' Corey says:

    “….and ignore the 1400 years of intense Jew hate…”

    Are you talking about millions of followers of the bible, even those today who are rabid conservative Christians?

    “The National Government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.”

    February 1, 1933 radio address,
    ‘The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, 1922- 1939’ Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 1969

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