The absurdity of Karen Armstrong is a phenomenon that never ceases to amaze, and, in its own way, amuse. Here she is in this weekend’s Financial Times, beginning her latest piece in that cracking style that is all her own:
I was fully engaged with this book from the very first sentence – “This book is a journey and an initiation” – because an initiation is exactly what we need at this perilous moment in history. Like so many religious terms, the word initiation has lost much of its force in modern times. But in all the great spiritual traditions, initiation signified the creation, often painfully acquired, of a new self. Classical yoga, for example, was not an aerobic exercise but an initiation that consisted of a systematic dismantling of egotism. Those yogins who succeeded in extracting the “I” from their thinking found that, without the distorting filter of selfishness, they perceived the world quite differently.
Somehow that brings us to Tariq Ramadan, a saint of sorts in Armstrong’s PC pantheon:
Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University and author of The Quest for Meaning, is convinced that we are all experiencing a profound loss of confidence. “Fear, doubt and distrust are imperceptibly colonising our hearts and minds. And so the other becomes our negative mirror, and the other’s difference allows us to define ourselves, to ‘identify’ ourselves,” he writes.
To which one can only retort, “speak for yourself, chum.”
Then we get to the point and away from the Enlightenment:
The “toleration” that was the watchword of the Enlightenment philosophers is not enough, Ramadan argues. Toleration literally means “to suffer” or “to endure” the presence of others and implies a relationship of domination; the powerful are requested “to moderate their strength and to limit their ability to do harm”. But such grudging acceptance is detrimental to both the person who tolerates and the one whose presence is merely endured. What is required is respect, based on a relationship of equality. Tolerance can “reduce the other to a mere presence” but “respect opens up to us the complexity of his being”.
It is always a temptation to imagine that my truth is the only truth. But, Ramadan insists that there are universally shared truths that are arrived at differently in many systems of thought, secular and religious.
“Universally shared truths”. I doubt it.
The rest of the piece is the usual faintly pernicious mush: the “pluralism” of Islam, the nastiness of “egotism”, the “unique sacredness of every human being”, “global community”, well, you know how it goes.