Karen Armstrong interviewed by Madeleine Bunting? Sounds like the pretext for a cosy fireside chat rather than an incisive interrogation. And so it turned out to be, as these two like-minded religious commentators came together in the book pages of Saturday's Guardian. No uncomfortable questions here about why Armstrong is so liberal and critical when it comes to examining her own faith of origin, as in her new book on the Bible, but so uncritical and defensive in her writings about Islam. But then Bunting's own columns on these issues have often been a mirror image of Armstrong's opinions.
As always, Armstrong is greatly exercised about the place of Islam in the modern world. But she has little to say about the wave of fundamentalism sweeping through the Middle East or the political Islam inspiring terrorist violence in the west. Instead, she adopts the classic root-causer strategy of blaming the west:
our rhetoric about Muslims reflects a blind anxiety about our own behaviour - anxieties about our own capacity for violence are projected onto Muslims, similarly our attitudes towards women.
This really is taking a postmodern attitude to 'reality' too far, and it's surely the height of patronising Orientalism to see Arab and Muslim attitudes as nothing more than a 'projection' of our own. Heaven knows 'our' (presumably she means western) attitudes towards women are not perfect - but it's stretching it a bit to compare them with the suffocating oppression of women in Saudia Arabia or southern Iraq.
In a similar denial of the agency of non-westerners, Armstrong repeats the argument she deployed in a recent article, to the effect that we shouldn't criticise Muslim fundamentalism for fear of making it worse:
Armstrong has a sense of urgency - "we should all be worried sick"; "there is so little time" - because, she argues, the history of religious fundamentalism over the past century shows, time and again, that when under attack such movements become more extreme. It was true of Christian fundamentalism in the 20th century as it withdrew from the mainstream into a hostile right-wing movement; it was true of the Muslim Brotherhood under persecution in Egypt in the 1960s. The danger now, Armstrong explains, is of more - and worse - incidents of terrorism involving perhaps nuclear devices; and yet western policies are only making such events more likely.
So the solution is - what? Keep quiet and fundamentalism and extremism will somehow go away?
Then there's the obligatory dig at critics of religion:
Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have set up a caricature of religion. This kind of aggressive secular fundamentalism feeds disdain which - as the Buddha might say - is not skilful. The test of any set of ideas must be whether they increase charity; do they help to create better understanding? - we don't need any more polarity.
I'm all for being nice to people, but surely the real 'test of any set of ideas' is actually whether it's true. On which note, it seems that although Armstrong no longer calls herself a Christian - she describes herself as a 'person of faith' - she now sees her mission as promoting the virtues of belief: apparently her next book will argue that 'we still need religion'. Thus Armstrong has become one of those people described by Richard Dawkins who, while not formally religious themselves, still 'believe in belief' and, having given up on persuading us of the truth of religion, are reduced to peddling its social usefulness, as a kind of superior therapy. 'All religions', she says, 'are designed to teach us how to live, joyfully, serenely, and kindly, in the midst of suffering.' To which the sceptic might reply: they might be designed that way, but they appear to teach many of their adherents the exact opposite.