BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. Karen Armstrong's life, as you will soon learn, was turned around by, of all things, a footnote. When this former nun fled the convent and became a scholar of literature at Oxford, she thought she'd put all things theological well behind her. But, as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him, or Her, your plans.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: So can I ask you what you think about the Pope?

BILL MOYERS: Next thing you know, Armstrong was creating documentaries about religion and making comments like this:

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The Pope is the world's last, great, absolute monarch. He not only controls doctrinal and spiritual affairs, but also the political, social and economic fortunes of his church. And because he's believed to be directly guided by God, his decisions have the ring of absolute truth, which is strangely out of kilter with the democratic tenor of today's world.

BILL MOYERS: While working on a film in Jerusalem, the ancient city where Islam, Judaism and Christianity converge, the connections among that trio of faiths rekindled Armstrong's imagination and led to another new career.

She became one of the foremost, and most original, thinkers on religion in our modern world. Her many popular books include studies of Muhammad and Islam, the crusades, the ambitiously titled A History of God and her latest, The Bible.

A self-proclaimed "freelance monotheist," Karen Armstrong is now on a mission to bring compassion, the heart of religion as she sees it, back into modern life.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well this is such an honor.

BILL MOYERS: Last year, at an annual gathering of the leaders in technology, entertainment, and design, she received their highly prestigious TED Prize, a $100,000 cash award that, like the genie in the lamp, also grants the recipient a wish.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion — crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule.

BILL MOYERS: The Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you." That universal principle of empathy and respect is at the core of all major religions.

Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion was launched last year with an interactive website, There, people of all faiths can submit their ideas about what the Charter should say.

Recently, she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and gathered with a group of international religious leaders to draft the guiding principles of her charter for compassion. Karen Armstrong, it's good to see you again.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: It's great to be back. Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: So tell us what you're up to with this movement.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, my work has continually brought me back to the notion of compassion. Whichever religious tradition I study, I find that the heart of it is the idea of feeling with the other, experiencing with the other, compassion. And every single one of the major world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule. Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

You see, the Greeks too, they may have been not religious in our sense, but they understood about compassion. The institution of tragedy put suffering on stage. And the leader of the chorus would ask the audience to weep for people, even like Heracles, who had been driven mad by a goddess and slew his own wife and children.

And the Greeks did weep. They didn't just, like modern western men, wipe a tear from the corner of their eye and gulp hard. They cried aloud because they felt that weeping together created a bond between human beings. And that the idea is you were learning to put yourself in the position of another and reach out, not only to acceptable people, people in your own group, but to your enemies, to people that you wouldn't normally have any deep truck with at all.

BILL MOYERS: So this is not just another call for another round of interfaith dialogue?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: No, it's nothing to do with interfaith dialogue. Look, I'm not expecting the whole world to fall into a daze of compassion.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, I don't think you have to worry about that.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: But this is the beginning of something. We're writing a charter which we hope will be sort of like the charter of human rights, two pages only. Saying that compassion is far more important than belief. That it is the essence of religion. All the traditions teach that it is the practice of compassion and honoring the sacred in the other that brings us into the presence of what we call God, Nirvana, Raman, or Tao. And people are remarkably uneducated about compassion these days. So we want to bring it back to the center of attention. But then, it's got to be incarnated into practical action.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think, for example, that Osama bin Laden and the Radical Islamists will sign onto this?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Of course not. But we have to understand that Osama bin Laden and the radical Islamists are largely motivated by politics. They may express themselves in a religious idiom.

BILL MOYERS: As many of those suicide bombers did as they dived into the World Trade Center.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: They did. But their motivation, when you read Osama's declarations and the suicide videos of our own London bombers are all political. Their grievances are political.

BILL MOYERS: Were you there when London was bombed?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I was right in the middle of it.

BILL MOYERS: What was your reaction?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I thought that this was virtually inevitable. This is a political matter. And Tony Blair had put us right on the front line by joining with former President Bush. And we were all expecting this in London. There was no great surprise.

I was actually in the British library, right next to the King's Cross station, so it was a police zone. And we had to stay in there all day. We weren't allowed out. We didn't know quite what was happening. It was announced over the Tannoy that we were in a terrorist attack. There we were with true British phlegm still fussing about our footnotes. And —

BILL MOYERS: Did this diminish or strengthen your resolve on this issue of compassion?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: We've got to do better than this. Compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn't mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what's motivating the other, learning about their grievances. So the Charter of Compassion was to recall compassion from the sidelines, to which it's often put in religious discourse and put it back there.

BILL MOYERS: One of your peers, a friend of mine, the scholar of religion Elaine Pagels told me many years ago in an interview like this that, "There is practically no religion I know of," she said, "that sees other people in the way that affirms the other's choice."

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. And this is a great scandal. There used to be. Islam, for example, the Koran is a pluralistic document. It says that every rightly guided religion comes from God. And there must be no compulsion in religion. And it says that Muhammad has not come to cancel out the teachings of Jesus or Moses or Abraham.

Now, Muslims have fallen into the trap that Jews, Christians, and others have done, of thinking that they are the one and only. This is ego. This is pure ego.

BILL MOYERS: But it's inspired, is it not sanctified by religion?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, no, I mean, the idea is that you all have to be Muslim, is actually going against the explicit teaching of the Koran, in which God says to Muhammad, "If we" — using the royal we — "had wanted the whole of mankind to be in one single religious community, we would have achieved, we would have made that happen. But we did not so wish. This is not our desire. So you, Muhammad, leave them alone." And everybody says the Koran has their own din. Their own religious tradition, their own way of life.

Now, this is getting lost to the modern world. But that was also Muslim practice for the first 100 years after the death of the prophet when in the empire that they created, conversion to Islam was actually frowned upon. Because Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians and, later, Buddhists, had their own din, their own religion. And that was to be respected.

BILL MOYERS: But you're putting your finger on a real fault line, it seems to me. That, metaphorically, the language of violence, which goes all the way back in these ancient stories, whether they're true or not, and often invoke God for the sanctification of violent acts.

I mean, in this splendid book that you've done recently, The Bible: A Biography, you quote, for example, from Joshua, "When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai, in the open ground. And where they follow them into the wilderness, and when all to a man had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel return to Ai and slaughtered all its people. All the people of Ai."

You go to the Koran. You have quoted this too, where the Koran paints a picture. You know, "Allah has sealed their hearings and their hearts. And on their eyes, there is a covering. Theirs will be an awful doom." When you talk about the positive and affirmative side of even these texts, there is also a counter prevailing side that creates this fault line.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yeah. These scriptures all have these difficult passages. There's far more of that kind of stuff in the bible, both old and new testaments —


KAREN ARMSTRONG: — than there is in the Koran. Now, one of the things that I am going to call for in this Charter are for exegetes, 'cause the people who interpret scripture, to look at these passages. See how they came into the tradition in the first place. What were the circumstances in which they appeared? What influence they have on the tradition as a whole? And now, what do we do with them? Really study them in depth. How do we deal with them in this age where scripture is the —

BILL MOYERS: By exegetes, you mean the scholars and students and interpreters of every faith?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Every faith. Yes. And that we must, first of all, study our own scriptures, before we point a finger at other people.

BILL MOYERS: You ask the question, "What would it mean to interpret the whole of the Bible as a commentary on the Golden Rule?"


BILL MOYERS: What's your answer to that question?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, this is one of the things that really intrigued me when I was researching this book. How frequently the early rabbis, for example, in the Talmudic period, shortly after the death of Jesus, insisted that any interpretation of scripture that read hatred or contempt for any single human being was illegitimate.

Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said that when asked to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching, while he stood on one leg, said, "The Golden Rule. That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. And everything else is only commentary. Now, go and study it."

St. Augustine said that scripture teaches nothing but charity. And if you come to a passage like the one you just read, that seems to preach hatred, you've got to give it an allegorical or metaphorical interpretation. And make it speak of charity.

BILL MOYERS: But of course, what some people do is to read for their own purposes what...


BILL MOYERS: ...they call allegorical. And then, read literally what they want to apply in their —

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And of course, you have to understand that this tendency to read scripture in a literal manner is very recent.


KAREN ARMSTRONG: Nobody, for example, ever thought of interpreting the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life, until the modern period. It's our scientific mindset that makes us want to sort of read these texts for accurate information.

BILL MOYERS: But as stories, don't they still have a very powerful effect? I mean, for example, you and I both know that the first murder in the oldest story grows out of a religious act.

Cain and Abel are brothers. They're rivals for God's favor. And out of jealously, Cain kills Abel. And once that pattern is set, it is followed right through like a red thread. Ishmael and Isaac and Joseph and his brothers. Right on down to Christians versus Muslims, Muslims versus Jews. Christians versus everybody. I mean, this is deeply embedded, is it not, metaphorically in our imagination?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I think these are difficult texts. We read these texts as though they're easy. Now, I see Genesis as deconstructing a neat idea of God.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean deconstructing?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: First, in the chapter one, you've got the famous chapter where God's sitting in the universe, center stage, totally powerful, totally benign, blessing everything. All that he has made and, no favorites, impartial. Totally powerful, totally benign. Within two chapters, he's completely lost control of his creation. Then, you've got the impartial God turns out to be a God that has real favorites.

And the Bible makes you feel the pain of the ones that are rejects. When Esau cries out, "Oh Father," to Isaac, "Have you no blessing for me, Father?" And Hagar, Abraham's second wife, who runs up and down outside in distress when Abraham has been commanded to leave her in the desert. And then, God, the benign creator becomes God the destroyer, at the end of the flood. And by the end of Genesis, he's retired from the scene.

And Joseph and his brothers have to rely on their own insights and dreams, just as we do. You can't say what God is. That is, people often ask me, "Ms. Armstrong, do you or do you not believe in the God of the Bible?" And I always say, "Tell me what it is." I'll be fascinated to hear because the Bible is highly contradictory. What it shows, I think, is that our experience of the divine is ambiguous, complex.

We can misunderstand it. We can use it to create mayhem because of our own horrible sort of murderous tendencies. And there are no clear answers, no clear theology in the Bible.

BILL MOYERS: Spoken like a true Protestant, if I may say. I mean, those of us who believe we are, in effect, the editors of our own sacred text. That gets us in trouble.


BILL MOYERS: But that's what you're saying.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: But it shouldn't be, because in the pre-modern world, you were expected to find new meaning in scripture.

BILL MOYERS: The pre-modern world being —

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Before the 17th century. You have the beginning of the scientific revolution in Europe in the 16th century. And that starts changing everything. A different economy, a much more literal approach to life. And the scientists, people like Newton, start to write theology. And the churches seize upon this and they start thinking that the Bible is literally and factually true.

But in the pre-modern world, what you see are the early Christian and Jewish commentators saying you must find new meaning in the Bible. And the rabbis would change the words of scripture to make a point to their pupils. Origen, the great second or third century Greek commentator on the Bible said that it is absolutely impossible to take these texts literally. You simply cannot do so. And he said, "God has put these sort of conundrums and paradoxes in so that we are forced to seek a deeper meaning."

And the Koran is the same. The Koran says every single one of its verses is an ayah, a symbol or a parable. Because you can only talk about God analogically, in terms of signs and symbols.

You must go to the bible and find new meaning, they said. And the same was true of the Greeks. At the beginning of the rationalist tradition in Greece, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the people who commented on them didn't sort of take down everything they did slavishly. They used it as a springboard to have new insights in the presence. Rather as we might use weights at the gym to build up our strength. They use it as something to start them thinking. But the Rabbis used to say, "You may not leave a scripture or text until you have translated it into practical action for the community here and now."

BILL MOYERS: Meaning acts of kindness, acts of compassion.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Acts of compassion.

BILL MOYERS: Acts of justice. Right?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: We are all indebted to those Hebrew Prophets for this powerful resonating sense of social justice.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And the Rabbis who came after them in the Talmudic age, and who created the Mishnah and Talmud, as it were then, New Testament, that paid very little attention to the Hebrew scriptures. But said, "Now we have to move on." Now, we've lost that confidence.

And that's what the charter is trying to do. Trying to nudge people into the hard work of being compassionate. People don't want to be compassionate. When I go around lecturing about this, I sometimes see the good faithful, looking mutinous. Because they may know that they ought to be compassionate. But what's the fun of religion if you can't sort of slam down other people? This is ego.

BILL MOYERS: I'm glad you mentioned this, because I know many atheists and agnostics who are more faithful, if that's the right term, to the Golden Rule than a lot of believing religious people.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes. And I also know a number of atheists who have no time for the Golden Rule at all.


KAREN ARMSTRONG: So this is just people of all —

BILL MOYERS: But what is it that evokes the empathy and the commitment, which you're calling for, to people to put themselves in other's shoes. What is it that evokes that in people?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Basically a sense of urgent need. If we don't manage to do better than this both within our own communities, our own nations, and as regards other nations far away, then I think we are in for a very troublesome ride. We are not doing well at the moment. The three monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they have a besetting problem, a besetting tendency. That is idolatry. Taking a human idea, a human idea of God, a human doctrine and making it absolute. Putting it in the place of God. Now, there have been secular idolatries too. Nationalism was a great idolatry.

BILL MOYERS: The state can be —

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The state can be. This is what we do. As Paul Tillich said, "We are makers of idols." We are constantly creating these idols. Erecting a purely human ideal or a human value or a human idea to the supreme reality. Now, once you've made of something essentially finite, once you've made it an absolute, it has, then, to destroy any other rival claimants. Because there can only be one absolute.

BILL MOYERS: Who created God?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Human beings created the idea of God. But the transcendent reality to which the idea of God nudges us is embedded in part of the human experience.

BILL MOYERS: But if we create God, then we can read into God. Our...


BILL MOYERS: ...passions, jealousies, envies, animosities, aspirations.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yes and this is idolatry. When you are creating a God in your own image and likeness. When the crusaders went into battle with the cry, "God wills it," on their lips. They were projecting their own fear and loathing of these rival faiths onto other people. And we get a lot of secular people doing this too.

BILL MOYERS: With the Stalinists, the Communists, the Fascists —

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And even nearer here in the United States. You know, we've got people saying, "We want to get rid of religion." Or Radical Republicans slanging Democrats. We are very agonistic society.

BILL MOYERS: Agonistic?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Meaning competitive. That we're in our discourse. Can I just say —


KAREN ARMSTRONG: Let me say this. In our discourse, it is not enough for us in the western democratic tradition simply to seek the truth. We also have to defeat and humiliate our opponents. And that happens in politics. It happens in the law courts. It happens in religious discourse. It happens in the media. It happens in academia. Very different from Socrates, the founder of the rationalist tradition, who when you had dialogues with Socrates, you came thinking that you knew what you were talking about.

Half an hour later, with Socrates, you realized you didn't know anything at all. And at that moment, says Socrates, your quest can begin. You can become a philosopher, a lover of wisdom because you know you don't have wisdom. You love it. You seek it. And you had to go into a dialogue prepared to change, not to bludgeon your conversation partner into accepting your point of view. And every single point in a Socratic dialogue, you offer your opinion kindly to the other, and the other accepts it with kindness.

BILL MOYERS: But you can't have a dialogue with people who don't want to have...


BILL MOYERS: ...a dialogue.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: But that doesn't mean we should give up altogether. Because I think the so-called liberals can also be just as hard lined in their own way.

Most fundamentalist movements, in every tradition that I've studied, in every fundamentalist movement, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has begun with what is perceived as to be an assault by the liberal or secular establishment. And look at your Scopes Trial for example. You have this absurd ruling, of ban on evolution in the public schools. And after the trial, the secular press do a number on the fundamentalists.

BILL MOYERS: H.L. Menken was ruthless about them...


BILL MOYERS: depicting a caricaturing of them.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: And they crept away. And we thought we'd seen the end of them. But of course, they were just regrouping. But before the Scopes Trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum, prepared to work alongside socialists and alongside social gospel people in the slums of the newly developing industrialized cities. After the Scopes Trial, they swung to the far right, where they remain. Before Scopes, fundamentalists tended to be literal in their interpretation of scripture. But creation science, so called, was the pursuit of a very tiny minority. After the Scopes Trial they became more militant in their literal interpretation of scripture. And creation science became, and has remained, the flagship of their movement.

BILL MOYERS: So does your notion of compassion embrace liberals saying that, in the interest of harmony we will encourage our state schools to teach creationism alongside with your Darwin's...

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yeah, you see —

BILL MOYERS: ...notion of evolution?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: You see, the assault of Richard Dawkins on creationism has resulted, for the first time, in a worry about Darwin in the Muslim world. Up until this time —

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: There was no worry about Darwin in the Muslim world up until very recently. The Koran doesn't say how God created the world. The texts tell you this is an ayah. We don't know what happened. And there was just no problem about it.

Now, and I get to see it on the websites that I get, it's headline news that British scientists sort of slang creation. And Darwin has now become an anathema as a result of that assault. So I think we've all just got to come off our high horses a bit, I think just to cool down the rhetoric. I think that truth must be respected. There must be an openness towards science, as Saint Augustine pointed out years ago. He said, "If a religious text is found to contradict contemporary science, you must find a new interpretation for this text." You must allegorize it in some way. We need to get back to that. And let's just state I don't want this to be going after the fundamentalists. I don't want this to be going after extremists. I want this to just say, quietly, let us to remember the primal duty of compassion.

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: To put the words calm and passion, means to feel with the other. To experience with the other. Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you. If you don't like to be attacked, don't attack others. As Confucius said, who was the first to propound the Golden Rule, 500 years before Christ, you seek to establish yourself, then seek to establish others.

If you don't like hearing your own traditions traduced then have the discipline not to traduce the traditions of others. And it's hard. It's hard. It's not — people who say it's a simplistic idea, obviously, never tried to practice the Golden Rule. As Confucius said, "All day and every day." Which means that you constantly have to dethrone yourself and your own ideas from the center of your world and put another there. And realize that even in the most unlikely person there is a trace of the divine.

BILL MOYERS: We'll be back shortly with more of my conversation with Karen Armstrong. We'll discuss Islam, one of her favorite subjects, and how a footnote changed her life. But first, this is the time we remind you that you are the public in Public Television. Please take a moment to call this station and make a pledge. We need you now more than ever. Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome back and thanks for your support. I'm here with the scholar and historian of religion, Karen Armstrong. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography, but it was this one, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, that first got everyone's attention. When it was published in 1991, Publisher’s Weekly called it "engrossing," and The Economist praised the book as "Knowledgeable without being pedantic...and readable." Armstrong's work was even welcomed in the Muslim world, where readers sensitive to misinterpretation of their faith were surprised to learn a westerner, and a woman at that, could so gracefully capture the essence of Islam's founding prophet.

Karen, you were just in Pakistan.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I was indeed.

BILL MOYERS: Did you get any kind of response when you raised this subject?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, I had an immensely warm welcome in Pakistan. One woman came up to me and she said, "When I see you with your blond hair and blue eyes speaking with such respect about our prophet, I just weep."

BILL MOYERS: But what do they say about their own militants?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well they are —

BILL MOYERS: Those insurgents who are, you know, slitting the throats of many Pakistanis right now.


BILL MOYERS: Decapitating them, murdering them, suicide bombers.


BILL MOYERS: What do they say about them?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: They're appalled of course. And you know, they've just had their own sort of 9/11, with the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Not an anti-American thing. This was directed solely against Pakistani Muslims who were breaking their Ramadan fast there.

The Marriott Hotel in Islamabad is right next to the government buildings. It's a great icon in Islamabad. This was a massive attack on their own people. I went to see President Musharraf, and he said that of course, Muslims themselves are under attack from these militants because all fundamentalists movements, whether they're Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist, begin with an assault on their own co-religionists. They see that people are always saying, "What can't these mainstream Muslims keep the militants down?"

Well, the militants regard the mainstream Muslims with absolute disdain and see them as part of the problem. They're not interested in people studying the Koran or praying in the mosque in the usual way. These are political activists.

BILL MOYERS: Can you point today to one place where this notion of compassion has been embraced by different religions to actually bring about a political consequence that we could look upon favorably?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Not as yet. No, I can't, because we're not living in a compassionate society, whether we're talking in secular or religious terms. You know, look at the way, sometimes, your elections are carried on. With real slanging matches and discrediting.

BILL MOYERS: That's politics.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Yeah. That's politics. And what is a lot of this religious slanging, but religious politics? Many of the so called religious leaders are in power not because they are sages of wisdom or contemplatives. They're not Dalai Lamas. They are religious politicians who are not known for their lack of ego.

But basically the human race has never embraced compassion. Why did we create this compassionate ideal at the time of the — when all the great world religions were created? Because their societies had reached a point of violence. And this — the religious people said, people like the Buddha, Confucius, the Sages of the Upanishads , the Prophets of Israel, Socrates, they all said this aggression, even in a good cause, is not the way to go. And people found that when they did it all day and every day, it worked. Because you get rid of ego, it does bring you a sense of enlightenment. But it's not just a question of holding hands in church. Or you know, embracing when you make the peace. Or allowing a charitable thought to rise to your mind in a sporadic moment. It is a discipline that you have to practice all day and every day. I used, you know, to be a really spiteful human being.


KAREN ARMSTRONG: I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors. And also from my teachers at Oxford. You know? And people used to say to me, "I would really hate to be your enemy," because I have this very sharp tongue that I knew how to use it. And I get in first before someone put me down. That kind of thing.

I found that, in my studies I had to practice, what I found called in a footnote the "science of compassion." There was a phrase coined by great Islamist, Louis Massignon. Science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry but in the sense of knowledge, scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.

And Latin — the knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other. Putting yourself in the position of the other. And this footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post enlightenment rationalism. You mustn't look on this in a superior way and look at the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century text as, "poor soul." You know?

And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself — putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.

And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen, on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn't any longer be quite as vicious as I was or dismissive as I was in the kind of clever conversations —

BILL MOYERS: Why? This is the first time I've heard of a born again experience beginning with a footnote. Was it your imagination that said, "I have to see this world the way Muhammad saw it and experienced it?"

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I said that this footnote is right. If I go on writing, as I had been doing up to this point for saying, "This is all rubbish." You know, I know it all. These poor benighted souls in the past didn't know what they were talking about. I was not fulfilling my job as a historian.

It was my job to go in and recreate it, enter into that spirit. Leave myself behind and enter into the mind and society and outlook of the other. It's a form of what the Greeks called ekstasis. Ecstasy. That doesn't mean you go into a trance or have a vision. It means — ekstasis means standing outside yourself. Putting yourself behind. And it is self, it's ego that hold us back from what we call God.

BILL MOYERS: You speak of the change in you. You're talking about a personal transformation. But take the next step. What would bring about the kind of real change in society and in politics that would be an extrapolation of or a continuation in community of what you're talking about?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Okay. Not to treat other nations or other — in a way that we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

BILL MOYERS: Unless they've attacked you.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Even so, I mean, there was a chance after 9/11, you know, when something different would have been done. The religions have generally developed, as the Koran does, a theory of just war. You know? That you can fight only in self-defense. But a lot of the policies that we created helped to, you know, first of all, let's leave America out of this. Look at the British, and their colonial policies.

Many of the problems we face in the Muslim world date back to that colonial period, to British behavior, and arrogance, and the abuse of democracy. For example, in Egypt, between 1922, when Egypt was granted a modicum of independence, and 1952, when you have the Nasser revolution. There were 17 general elections in the country, all of them won hands down by the Wafd party, who wanted to see reduced British influence in Egypt. They were only allowed to rule five times. On every other occasion, the British made them stand down and put more congenial people in power. This made the whole idea of democracy a bad joke. Now, would we wish to be treated like that ourselves?

BILL MOYERS: Now, this is what some people call blow back, in the intelligence world. And some people say, "Are the chickens coming home to roost?" But I want to make sure that people don't misunderstand. After 9/11, we made a mistake of invading a country that had not attacked us.


BILL MOYERS: But what about when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor or when the Germans, the Nazis wanted to come across the channel and destroy Britain? You're not saying they're to treat Germany or Japan the way we would like to be treated.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: No, but you fight in self-defense. And the trouble with war is it has a horrible dynamic of its own. So that, in the end, we all start doing dreadful things that...

BILL MOYERS: That's right.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: ...that violate all our own principles. Like the British bombing of Dresden, for example.

BILL MOYERS: The American bombing of Hiroshima.


BILL MOYERS: Nagasaki. The atrocities of both sides —

KAREN ARMSTRONG: That's what happens when in war. So that's why they say you — the Koran, for example, says you must limit war and you must stop hostilities as soon as the enemy sues for peace. That kind of thing. But instead of seeing the other world as them, or instead of seeing our own fundamentalists as them and enemies, somehow learn to see, perhaps, the pain that lies at the root of a lot of this because they feel attacked by us. I was once in a — recently, some years back — in a conference in Portland where a man got up and started shrieking at us, saying that the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims on the stage who were agreed with each other were all going to hell.

And I could hear the pain in that man's voice. That, at some level, we had assaulted him. At some profound level. There was pain there. In a war situation, it takes a long time before you can even get people to sit around the table. In Northern Ireland, for example, before you could get people on all sides, the British and the Republicans and the IRA and the Ulsteristes — to get them around the table was an immense achievement.

People said when they saw everybody coming up this drive of Stormont Castle and sitting around that table, the emotion in that room in itself was profound. We're not nearly there yet. One of the things that we can do on our side is to learn to decode fundamentalist rhetoric, as we learn to decipher a great poem or an op-ed article. To see the hidden agendas. To see what lies underneath this. Because they are expressive of a fear and rage that no society, as we've seen, can safely ignore.

BILL MOYERS: What is it — you've studied this — what is it fundamentalist Muslims fear about the world?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Basically they have experienced secularism as a profound assault. We had 300 years to develop our secular institutions. Modernization in Europe, and later the United States took a long time. And the new ideas had a chance to trickle down naturally to all different levels of society. They didn't have that chance. Modernization had to take place very quickly. So that, for example, when Ataturk modernized Turkey, he closed down all the Madrassas. He —

BILL MOYERS: The religious schools.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The religious schools. He forced the Sufi orders, mystics, underground and forced all men and women to wear western clothes. In Iran, the Shahs used to make their soldiers go out with their bayonets, taking off the women's veils in the streets, and ripping them to pieces in front of them. In 1935, the Shah gave his soldiers orders to shoot at hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in one of the holiest shrines in Iran who were peacefully protesting against western dress.

And hundreds of Iranians were killed that day. Now, in such a context, secularism doesn't seem the benign ideology that it has been for privileged people, like you and me. It feels like a dead, lethal assault. The most virulent forms of Sunni fundamentalism in Islam developed in the concentration camps, and to which President Nasser had interred thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood without trial.

Submitted them to mental and physical torture and execution. Some of them had done nothing more incriminating than handing out leaflets. And in these camps, they became radicalized. One of them was a man called Sayyid Qutb, who entered the camp as a moderate, a student of French and European literature. When he heard Nasser vowing to secularize Egypt and confine Islam to the private sphere on the western model, he looked around this prison. And secularism did not seem benign. It seemed lethal.

And there's something else. There's been a Gallup poll that asked Muslims what they liked most about the West. And what the biggest thing that they all liked was our freedom. They'd like to see more of it themselves. What do they fear most about the West? What do they dislike most about the West? What worries them most? "Their disrespect for our religion." And when they hear ill considered, uneducated remarks about their religion, this is a gift to the extremists who can use it to show that the West is making a crusade against Islam. And it's also endangering our own security.

BILL MOYERS: But the burden is not wholly on the West, is it?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: We have to do our part. And not exaggerate things. This survey also asked — in 35 Muslim countries, it asked them whether they thought the 9/11 attacks were justified. Only seven percent said they were justified. And the reasons they gave were entirely political. Palestine. You know, the Iraq — sanctions in Iraq, et cetera. The occupation of Muslim lands.

These 93, or 92, percent who said they were not justifiable may not have liked western foreign policy. But what they said was their rationale for condemning these attacks was religious. They quoted those parts of their scripture which says that to take one life is to take an entire world. That to kill is not justified. We've got to see that. And we've got to see that reflected more in our own press and in our own dealings with this. Otherwise, we're going to build up a bogey, as we did with the Soviets.

BILL MOYERS: Your new book, The Case for God, comes out in September.


BILL MOYERS: Will you come back?


BILL MOYERS: In the meantime, we have Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography. Thank you very much. It's been good to talk to you again.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: As Karen and I talked, I was mindful of a speech Barack Obama made almost three years ago. On June 28, 2006, he reminded us just how impossible it is in a democracy to reconcile absolute claims about God.

BARACK OBAMA: At some fundamental level, religion doesn't allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. Now, to base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy-making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

BILL MOYERS: My old friend Martin Marty, one of the country's leading historians of religion, contrasted Obama's message with that of the Reverend Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation at the president's inauguration. Warren had said there are five issues that cannot be negotiated: abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia. "To me," Warren said, "they're not even debatable because God's Word is clear on these issues." Actually, according to Martin Marty himself, no stranger to the Scriptures, there are only a few inches of Biblical text that can even be inferred to support Warren's big five, much less treat them as non-negotiable.

What Pastor Warren and millions in his camp advocate, says Martin Marty, is no different from Muslims who base social and political policy on the Koran, or ruling parties in India who dictate law from their holy books. Such rigid literalism works only in a theocracy, where the whole population accepts or is forced to accept one faith's notion of "God's Word."

So it would seem a good thing in a world of clashing absolutes, for all parties to take a few minutes to read Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion, a work still in progress but more urgent every day. You'll find the link to it on the Moyers website at

That's it for the Journal. I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next week. Thank you.

Theologian Karen Armstrong on Compassion

March 13, 2009

Karen Armstrong has dedicated her life to the study of religion — both from inside the walls of a convent during her seven years as a Catholic nun — and as a author of books on the world’s faiths from Islam to Buddhism and a best-selling History Of God. Her examination of the commonalities of the world’s faiths has brought Karen Armstrong to her current project: The Charter for Compassion.

“My work has continually brought me back to the notion of compassion. Whichever religious tradition I study, I find at the heart of it is the idea of feeling with the other, experiencing with the other, compassion. And every single one of the major world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule. Don’t do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

….We’ve got to do better than this. Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn’t mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what’s motivating the other, learning about their grievances.”

The Charter for Compassion

The Charter for Compassion is Karen Armstrong’s effort to promote the principles of the Golden Rule across the religious and global spectrum. The group effort to build an interfaith ‘charter of compassion’ is guided by the Council of Sages, a multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders. The council will guide the writing of the final charter, but the process is open to submissions from anyone, anywhere who has an interest in the founding guidelines laid out below:

The Charter does NOT assume:

  • all religions are the same
  • compassion is the only thing that matters in religion
  • religious people have a monopoly on compassion

The Charter DOES affirm that:

  • compassion is celebrated in all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions
  • the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group
  • therefore, in our divided world, compassion can build common ground

Last year Karen Armstrong received the $100,000 TED prize, presented at this international conference of experts in the fields of technology, entertainment and design for her efforts on behalf of the Charter for Compassion. You can find out more about the Council of Sages and offer your own thoughts at the Charter for Compassion website. You can revisit Bill Moyers’ previous conversations with Karen Armstrong, and two of the Council of Sages, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Joan Chittister below.

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a prominent scholar of religion and society. Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. In 1982 she wrote a book about her seven years in the convent, Through The Narrow Gate, that angered and challenged Catholics worldwide; her recent book The Spiral Staircase discusses her subsequent spiritual awakening after leaving the convent, when she began to develop her iconoclastic take on the great monotheistic religions.

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