Karen Armstrong is wrong, wrong, wrong on Bill Maher
"Why is Kim Kardashian famous?" I hear this complaint a lot. Me? Kim Kardashian doesn't bother me any so I don't complain about her. I know why she's famous. She's good looking and she gets naked in front of cameras.
Here's my rant: Why is Karen Armstrong famous? Armstrong and her fans are doing way more damage to the world than Kim Kardashian will ever do.
If you don't listen to National Public Radio or watch TED, you might not know who Karen Armstrong is.
Left-leaning media regularly trot out Armstrong to reassure the masses that Islam is a religion of peace and that Christianity and the West are responsible for the world's woes. Armstrong's opinion is meant to be authoritative because Armstrong is, we are repeatedly told, a "scholar." Armstrong is 70 years old, she is plain, and she speaks with a plummy English accent. She may even wear blazers with leather patches at the elbows and smoke a pipe. In short, she looks and sounds like the scholar from central casting.
On November 23, 2014, Salon published an article with this lengthy title, "Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher: 'It Fills Me With Despair, Because This Is The Sort Of Talk That Led To The Concentration Camps'"
You really don't have to read the rest of the article after that rather clunky and alarmist headline, now, do you?
Everybody knows what the allusion to "Sam Harris and Bill Maher" is all about.
On September 26, 2014, on his HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher," Maher tweaked his fellow liberals. Liberals rant and rave about sexism, he said, as long as the accused are Republican Christians. Liberals hear no evil and speak no evil when it comes to misogyny in Islam. "It's not cool Rush Limbaugh called somebody a slut," Maher said, but "98% of Somalian women have" suffered clitoredectomy. "That all seems like a bigger issue than evangelical Christian bakeries refusing to make gay wedding cakes." Maher plunged his sword into cultural relativism. "It's okay to judge that rule of law isn't just different than theocracy, it's better. If you don't see that, you're either a religious fanatic or a masochist, but one thing you certainly are not is a liberal."
Then, of course, on October 3, 2014, Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Nick Kristof, and Michael Steele appeared on Maher's show. Maher mentioned that on the previous week's show, he had said, "To count yourself as a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities including homosexuals. These are liberal principles. But then when you say that in the Muslim world this is lacking, they get upset."
Salon's November 23, 2014 Karen Armstrong article was part of the tsunami of backlash that Maher has had to endure. Salon and Armstrong banged familiar drums, like cultural relativism. Islam is no more violent than any other ideology, Armstrong insisted, and singling Islam out merely allows Westerners to escape criticism. Salon paraphrased Armstrong's position. "When people in the West dismiss violence as a backward byproduct of religion, they're being lazy and self-serving. Blaming religion, Armstrong argues, allows Westerners to ignore the essential role that violence has played in the formation of our own societies – and the essential role that our societies have played in seeding violence abroad."
Armstrong classified Jewish prophets, Jesus and Mohammed in the same category. "The prophets of Israel, for example, were deeply political people. They castigated their rulers for not looking after the poor; they cried out against the system of agrarian injustice. Jesus did the same, Mohammed and the Quran do the same."
Salon asked, "How direct is the link between colonial policies in the Middle East and a terrorist attack in New York or London?" And Armstrong answered, "When I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, 'We helped to do this.'"
Salon asked Armstrong about the October 3 episode of "Real Time with Bill Maher." Armstrong responded "It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe."
Salon asked "Is Islamophobia today comparable to anti-Semitism?" and Armstrong answered that Islamophobia is "deeply enshrined in Western culture. It goes right back to the Crusades … We've recoiled, quite rightly, from our anti-Semitism, but we still have not recoiled from our Islamophobia."
I fear that casual readers – if there are any left – might stumble across Armstrong's words and think, "Wow. This lady is a scholar. There must be something to what she just said. Bill Maher and Sam Harris are comparable to Nazis, and if we don't suppress criticism of Islam, we'll have another Holocaust on our hands, with Muslims as victims."
That fear bugs me a lot. It bugs me because I respect scholarship. In fact Karen Armstrong is not a scholar, and Bill Maher and Sam Harris are not only not the Nazis here, they are the resistance fighters. It's the Nazis who would, if they could, eliminate Maher and Harris. Of course antisemites consider both Maher and Harris to be Jews, though both are atheists. But that is the least of the reasons why present day Nazis would want to eliminate men who speak publicly and courageously.
The word "scholar" is best applied to people who devote themselves to study of focused material, and achieve certification from others who have studied and gained expertise in that same material. Scholars perform original research. Scholars produce original, peer-reviewed publications. Scholars are circumspect about the public statements they make on which they claim authority. A scholar might say, "My research has been on medieval knighthood; therefore, I am not qualified to speak about soldiers in the Roman Empire." Armstrong does not meet any of these criteria of scholarship. Armstrong was, first, a nun. She left the convent and attempted to embark on an academic career. She tried to write a dissertation about the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Her dissertation was rejected. She did not receive her desired degree. She left the university.
Armstrong does not perform original research in original languages. She does not publish with university presses. Armstrong is a popularizer, that is, she reads original research by real scholars, digests it, and presents her digested version to the public. There's nothing inherently wrong with being a popularizer. Beloved figures like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and Ken Burns are popularizers. The problem with Armstrong is her obvious bias. Armstrong has been widely criticized for cherry picking facts about Mohammed in order to depict him as a peaceful, benevolent man. Mohammed massacred an entire Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza. Armstrong exculpates Mohammed for this massacre, calls the massacred Jews "traitors" who had to be killed, and insists that antisemitism is purely a Western, Christian vice. Armstrong says that Muslims were not anti-Semitic at all until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Armstrong insists that "jihad" "is a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence." None of these statements stand up to serious scrutiny. See, for example, Andrew Bostom on Islamic antisemitism well before the creation of Israel, and Bernard Lewis on the meaning of the word "jihad."
In a September, 2006 review in the New York Sun, Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, and author of "Islamic Imperialism: A History," published by Yale University Press, called Armstrong's biography of Muhammad "an attempt to validate the 'Islam equals peace' thesis" "to whitewash Muhammad's extermination of the Jewish presence in Medina" and "a travesty of the truth." This is just one of many scholarly condemnations of Armstrong's work.
I am not a scholar of Islam or of the Middle East. Unlike Karen Armstrong, I will make no claim to scholarship that I have not earned. I have made my own small contribution to scholarship on the Holocaust. I prepared myself to make this contribution by watching hours of Nazi propaganda films and combing through Nazi propaganda posters. I have listened to Nazis speeches and read the transcripts. I have read other scholars' analyses of these documents. In the Nazi propaganda I have viewed, there is nothing remotely similar to Bill Maher's or Sam Harris' commenting on liberals' selective outrage in relation to Islamic gender apartheid. This is a matter of such importance that I would like to invite Karen Armstrong to support her statement. Ms. Armstrong, can you produce even one Nazi document that is in any way similar to the transcripts of Bill Maher's two episodes of "Real Time with Bill Maher" that you describe as being the precursor to concentration camps? And, since you cannot do this, is it not time for you to retract your statement and apologize to Bill Maher and to Sam Harris, not to mention to victims of Nazism?
I am a devout Catholic. I am allergic to people like Bill Maher and Sam Harris. Men like them insult people like me regularly. I do not defend them because I like them. I do not like them. I defend them because I believe in scholarship, truth and common decency and lies about the Holocaust cause me to feel revulsion.
I'm feeling a temptation right now. I want to say, "Rather, it is people like you, Karen Armstrong, people who whitewash historical massacres of Jews, people who demonize honest debate, who do bring on Holocausts." But I bite my tongue. I resist the temptation to say that, because it is a cheap statement.
We know what created the Nazis. It's not a mystery. It was a perfect storm of several factors that were neutral or merely sub-lethal poisons on their own but when combined brought the world to its knees. A sense of humiliation in the wake of the Versailles treaty set fire to nationalism, atheism, scientism, social Darwinism, and neo-Paganism. No, Karen Armstrong, on no level did public intellectuals like Sam Harris and gadflies like Bill Maher bring on Nazism. It is obscene of you, Karen Armstrong, to say that they did. I've been to Auschwitz, several times. I've met survivors and their rescuers and their children. On their behalf, I want to say how disgusting your lies are, and how badly you owe Nazism's victims, and how badly you owe the truth, an apology.
Danusha Goska is the author of "Save Send Delete"