Fate of Pakistan pivotal - historian Karen Armstrong
By Simon Cameron-Moore, Reuters, Feb 3, 2008
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The future of Pakistan, and how it balances the need for Muslim symbols with the secularism needed to run a modern state, will be important for the future of the world, according to historian and theologian Karen Armstrong.
Nuclear-armed and reaping the grim harvest of "extremism" resulting from the West's support for a religious war to drive the Soviet Union out of neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan has a big question to answer, says Armstrong.
"How do you become a secular Muslim state?"
Last Thursday, Armstrong, whose writings have highlighted the tolerant and pluralistic nature of Islam, met President Pervez Musharraf, who hoped to change Pakistan into a state where "enlightened moderation" prevailed.
Musharraf, who came to power as a general in 1999, has made little headway, according to critics, and his popularity has plummeted, while support for the United States has provoked Islamist militants into waging war in tribal areas of the northwest where al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.
"Pakistan is on the frontier of this present struggle," Armstrong told Reuters during a visit to Islamabad to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect.
"I think it is not so much important for the future of Islam as important for the future of the world," said the 63-year-old Briton, whose book "The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" was released a year before al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on the United States.
"What happens here will be very decisive in how the so-called war against terrorism proceeds in other regions."
Pakistan, the world's second largest Muslim nation, has been locked in a struggle between liberal progressives and religious conservatives since it was carved out of the bloody partition of India in 1947 as a homeland for the Subcontinent's Muslims.
Both sides try to interpret the words of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah to suit their ends. Jinnah died a year after Pakistan, which then included modern day Bangladesh, was formed.
"The kind of conversations I have about this topic remind me very much of conversations I had in Israel, another secular state born out of displacement and tragedy."
Armstrong said Israelis faced a similar struggle between secularists in tune with the vision of their country's founder, David Ben-Gurion, and ultra-orthodox Jews, some of them militant.
Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, realized the need to have a degree of secularism in order to run a modern state, she said.
Khomeini, just before he died in 1989, told mullahs not to meddle in defense and economic policies, she said.
CORNERED BY SECULARISM
The separation of religion in the state represents a modern, major change in societies where religion is a way of life.
When it happens too quickly, people feel threatened and if attacked through the media or by force, they become aggressive, said Armstrong, a former nun who describes herself as a "freelance monotheist".
"Most of these extreme movements are rooted in profound fear, a fear of annihilation," she said, stressing that the same dynamics play out in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
"In small-town America there are Christians who believe they are going to be wiped out by a so-called liberal establishment."
During the interview, Armstrong cited the example of Sayyid Qutb, whose writings from an Egyptian jail in the 1950s and 60s helped craft a strain of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism that spawned the global jihad of al Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
People should study Qutb's texts rather than the Koran if they wanted to understand al Qaeda, she said. But they had to be read in the context of the torture Qutb suffered and his reaction to efforts to secularize Egypt, she said.
Attempts to introduce secularism, which took centuries in the West, has been done too quickly in the Middle East, according to Armstrong, resulting in religious movements that tend to become lethal if they occur in regions where violence is endemic.
Despite his fundamentalism, Qutb probably wouldn't have approved of bin Laden, according to Armstrong, who views the al Qaeda leader as "a criminal" rather than a thinker or ideologue.
Armstrong didn't see militancy in Pakistan's tribal lands, or Hamas or Hezbollah movements, or even bin Laden's al Qaeda, as being motivated principally by religion.
"They're a form of religiously articulated nationalism, religiously articulated identity politics", she said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)