Armstrong explores compassion, differing histories of the US, Pakistan

Author and social activist Karen Armstrong speaks to Chautauquans Friday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy as the final lecturer for the Interfaith Lecture Series on “The People of Pakistan.” Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

The Department of Religion’s Week Five theme, “The People of Pakistan,” confronted widespread ignorance and misconceptions about the complexities of Pakistan and its peoples. During Friday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture, Karen Armstrong challenged the audience to bring the knowledge, insights and existing questions garnered from a week of study and turn them into compassionate action for the betterment of our world.

“Unless we learn at this perilous juncture of history to implement the Golden Rule globally so that we treat all people whoever they are as we wish to be treated ourselves, the world will not be a viable place,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong is a former nun, a religious scholar, author and the major contributor and proponent of the Charter for Compassion. The charter is a multi-faith international initiative that builds understanding, compassion and calls on people to live their lives and lead their countries according to the principle of treating others as you would be treated.

In a lecture titled “Pakistan: A Modern Dilemma,” Armstrong delved into the history, nature and necessity of compassion before challenging some of the “received ideas” of the West that cloud its ability to fully understand Pakistan.

In Buddhism, the word for compassion is Karuna, which means to take responsibility for the pain of the world, Armstrong said. When the Buddha was a child, a priest prophesied that the Buddha would see four disturbing sights that would prompt him to become a monk. To protect his son from those sights, Buddha’s father trapped him in a palace within a pleasure park that allowed for no signs of the pain, suffering and disorder of the world.

Eventually, the gods decided Buddha had lived too long without understanding reality, so they sent four gods disguised as a sick man, an old man, a corpse and monk. When Buddha saw those four unfamiliar sights, he was appalled, and he left home. For the next 40 years of his life, he walked the roads of India, trying to heal the pain of the world, Armstrong said.

Armstrong said that at Chautauqua, people live in a pleasure park similar to that of the Buddha. The West in general lives in a world of privilege, but people should not cite that as reason for remaining remote from the suffering of others, she said.

“We cannot just sit by and watch pain in the world. We have a responsibility for it,” Armstrong said. “They are our fellow human beings, and in this global village we’ve created, we are connected as never before.”

In the past week, Chautauquans were exposed to images of pain, such as the drone attacks, the 37,000 people killed in the Afghanistan War and the devastating plight of those trapped in or seeking refuge out of the Pakistani tribal areas.

“The idea is to let these images of pain invade your mind and heart and stay with them,” Armstrong said.

Week Five can be seen as a Socratic experience, Armstrong said. When people came to Socrates, they often thought they knew what they were talking about, but after Socrates’ rigorous questions, they were left confused, scratching their heads. That is a good thing, Armstrong said.

Socrates said, “the moment you realize how little you know, you become a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, who pursues wisdom because you know you don’t have it,” she said.

In this world, people speak omnisciently about others and people, saying things like “the trouble with her is …,” or the “thing about him ….” That omniscient detachment drives stereotypes and propagates ignorance.

“As though you could sum up the complex mystery of a human being in a single sentence, and we do it with whole peoples,” Armstrong said.

Chautauquans should come away from the week about Pakistan bearing a sense of responsibility to recognize how little they might know about the country and also to speak responsibly about the country, Armstrong said.

“Socrates said you could not become a philosopher unless you are prepared to stringently question every last one of your deepest certainties, every single one of your received ideas,” she said.

Armstrong analyzed the received ideas of the West.

One assumption is the West discovered democracy and secularism — and other countries such as Pakistan are infant countries and newcomers.

Armstrong
Photo by Lauren Rock.

“Nonsense, we are the newcomers in the West,” she said.

The Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and Egypt were the birthplaces of civilization. Civilization began in that part of the world, in the Indus Valley, in 3,500 BCE, Armstrong said.

“Then in the same area, in what is now Pakistan, what we call the Axial Age began,” Armstrong said.

The Axial Age started in 900 BCE, when all the major world religions were born, Armstrong said. At that time, Indian ritualists, or priests, removed all allusions to violence from the religious texts of the time.

“This was the beginning of the preoccupation with violence, which would characterize religion in India,” Armstrong said. “You have Buddhism, Jainism all eschewing violence. Islam arrived in the sixth century, and its history is similar to the United States.”

Islam arrived from nowhere and achieved dominance in a short amount of time, she said. Islam was at its height during the High Caliphal Period, which ranged from 692 to 945 AD. Following the High Caliphal Period, Islam experienced a decline but then rose again in three great empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Iran and the Mughal Empire, each emphasized its own form of Islam, Armstrong said. In the Ottoman Empire, Sharia was introduced; the Safavids were Shiite, and the Mughals practiced Sufism and Falsafa. Those states were the strongest in the world.

“Just remember that you have had a unique history,” Armstrong said. “From this, you’ve had a different history; who knows what is to come? But also, other nations, other peoples can’t necessarily relate to that history. They’ve had a more up and down.”

Greatness comes and goes, Armstrong said — the United Kingdom once dominated the world. Despite that dominance, it still caused problems in colonial territories, for which it is still guilty, Armstrong said.

In the 17th century, while Akbar ruled the great Mughal Empire with an emphasis on pluralism, Europe was going through a revolutionary change toward modernity. Modernity is the basic change of the structure of the economy from agrarian to industrialized. That change altered the social structure of societies, moving them from aristocrat dominant, with 5 percent of the society living off 95 percent of the population’s labor, to something more equitable.

“It wasn’t that we began this modernity out of humanitarian reasons,” she said. “We discovered that by technological replication of resources and by the constant reinvestment of capital, we could liberate ourselves from dependence upon agriculture, and that changed everything.”

The revolution that erupted and the path toward modernity were very violent. It was characterized by bloody revolutions, wars of religion, dictatorships and terrorism, Armstrong said.

“The passage to modernity is a very turbulent thing, and people who are making that passage later on are going through that same turbulence,” she said.

The U.S. never had to endure that, Armstrong said. Men who had already experienced enlightenment founded the U.S. — the act of destroying the aristocracy was never necessary.

Many of the concepts the West is most proud of were born of the passage to modernity. Democracy, secularization, tolerance and the idea of the nation-state were all economic necessities brought on by a change to an industrialized society.

In that kind of society, peasants were needed as workers in urban areas. To be efficient workers, they had to have some education, which led them to demand a say in decision-making. That brought democracy.

Secularization came from a desire to eliminate the Church’s influence on business practices. Industry required workers from all classes and faiths, even minorities. That bred tolerance, though it was a superficial, as the 1940s in Europe showed.

The idea of the nation-state was developed because an industrialized society must be run as a comprehensive whole, for the sake of production and economics, Armstrong said. The phrase is a contradiction. “State” is the Western concept of government — it is the democratic system, the congress and senate. “Nation” is a more sentimental value.

“The nation is what brings a lump to your throat on the Fourth of July, that makes you cheer your national team at the Olympics, that makes you feel that you are an American and have some kinship with people you’ll never meet,” she said.

The sense of nation bred nationalism, a concept that leads to violence. Each modernized state has marched tirelessly toward modernity, but there are victims of that progress, Armstrong said.

She told the story of visiting a slave hall in Senegal. The hall had four rooms: one to hold women, one to hold men, one to hold girls and boys. As slaves were held captive, parents could hear their children’s cries from each room, Armstrong said.

“This house, what struck me, was built in the same year as your Declaration of Independence,” Armstrong said. “There’s freedom for some but slavery for others.”

When England and France colonized countries around the world for workers and raw resources, they altered the nature of their societies and shook them to the core. That intervention made it much more difficult to modernize. Japan and Turkey, who were never colonized, have entered modernity much more easily than other countries that were colonized, Armstrong said.

Modernity has two characteristics. The first is independence — all societies that have progressed into the modern era have timelines punctuated by declarations of independence. The second characteristic is innovation. When countries modernized, it was initially through their own efficiency and ingenuity, Armstrong said. For colonies such as Pakistan and India, a modern economy arrived by way of Western powers but came with subjugation and dependence. Because the colonizers had already innovated, there was no time of innovation or dynamic growth, Armstrong said.

“What is religion, that’s the question and it’s a very good one. We in the West — as part of our modernization, we created an entirely new view,” Armstrong said. “And it is new, and it is hard to get this across, really, because it’s so ingrained in us now that we think it’s universal.”

Secularization is a unique facet of modernity. The idea of religion as something private, personal, is an invention of the seventh century, Armstrong said. Historically, every activity, no matter how banal, was wrapped up or infused with some religion. Even the English understanding of the word “religion” differs from that of other societies. In Arabic, the word for religion literally translates to “the way of life,” Armstrong said.

“Because religion was so infused, it was like taking the gin out of a cocktail; it demands a great degree of abstraction,” she said. “And that is not self-evident to many of the peoples who have not had our particular history and who don’t see the reason for this.”

The secularization process has been violently propelled throughout the world. In England and France, religious leaders were torn from power, killed, and the church was bankrupted.

In Turkey, Ataturk rigorously expelled all religion, even closing all of the madrassas and forcing the Sufis to practice in hiding. In Iran under the Shah, soldiers were allowed to take their bayonets and cut through the fabric of women’s veils.

That violent, adamant secularization leads to fundamentalism.

“In every country where a modern secular state has been established, there has been a fundamentalist backlash, as people fight back,” Armstrong said.

In Pakistan, religion was indelibly altered during the time of Zia ul-Huq, a military dictator. To have access to oil, Pakistan developed a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia. At that time, Saudi Arabia was exporting a very narrow form of Islam — Wahhabism.

“It is not in itself violent at all, but basically, it doesn’t like Sufism, it doesn’t like Shiitism, it doesn’t like other forms, other religions much,” Armstrong said.

Wahhabism is a very small, narrow sect of Islam developed during the 18th century on the Arabian Peninsula.

“Imagine if a very small Christian narrow sect or a very rigorous tiny Jewish sect got petro dollars and could export this all over the world,” Armstrong said. “It would change the map of Christianity and Judaism, and that’s what happened.

“So we’ve got a problem.”

Armstrong has been to Pakistan three times, and each time just before she left, something terrible happened. Though she is often nervous prior to arriving, her experiences with the people of Pakistan wash away her worries.

“Their buoyancy, affection, lightheartedness — we have such fun on these exhausting tours that you almost, just go along with the flow,” Armstrong said. “You know you read about these places from afar. It’s different when you’re there. I hope you have a sense from what you’ve listened to this week that Pakistan is a more complex and rich place than you did at the beginning of the week.”

Update: This story has been corrected to show the High Caliphal Period as 692 to 945 AD.

2 Responses to “Armstrong explores compassion, differing histories of the US, Pakistan”

  1. “Islam arrived from nowhere and achieved dominance in a short amount of time, she said. Islam was at its height during the High Caliphal Period, which ranged from 945 to 692 BCE. ” The High Caliphal period is from 692 to 945 AD!

  2. Thank you, Ralph Zwier! The dates have been corrected.

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