Karen Armstrong, British scholar of comparative religion, finds that there is a long and inglorious tradition of distorting Islam in Europe. She criticises the notion that Islam is essentially more violent than Christianity and speaks about the genesis of Western disdain for the Arab world. Interview by Claudia Mende
Ms Armstrong, in an article for “The Guardian” you wrote that the barbaric violence of IS may be “at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain”. Would you write that again now, after the Paris attacks?
Karen Armstrong: Yes, most certainly. If the attack on “Charlie Hebdo” was indeed inspired or backed by al-Qaida, it was politically as well as religiously motivated. In Paris, it attacked the sacred symbol of modern secular Western civilisation: freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was an Enlightenment ideal; it was essential to capitalist society that people were free to innovate without being suppressed by the restrictions of Church, class or guild. In Paris, the terrorists were saying in effect: “You attack our sacred symbol (the Prophet Muhammad); then we will attack yours! Now you see what it feels like.”
But what does this have to do with Western disdain?
Armstrong: The Prophet has been caricatured in the West as a violent, epileptic, lecherous charlatan since the time of the Crusades in the Middle Ages; this distorted image of Islam developed at the same time as our European anti-Semitism which caricatured Jews as the evil, violent, perverse and powerful enemies of Europe.
So yes, the attack on the magazine was in part a product of Western disdain. The attack on the Jewish supermarket, which seems to have been backed by ISIS, was directed against Western support for Israel. Here too, there is an element of disdain: there has been little sustained outcry against the massive casualties in Gaza last summer, for example, which seems to some Muslims to imply that the lives of Palestinian women, children and the elderly are not as valuable as our own.