KARACHI: At the Karachi Literature Festival, Karen Armstrong laid out a charter of compassion, with the dangers of an overpowering ego at the centre of her argument.
With a packed hall of people eagerly listening, the session began with a question posed by moderator Abbas Husain: if compassion is the prescription for the symptoms of the disease that is intolerance, then what is the cause of the disease? Without a moment’s hesitation, Armstrong answered: “Ego”.
It is ego, argues Armstrong, that makes us place ourselves and our beliefs at the centre of the universe. It is that same ego that then causes us to degrade and denigrate the beliefs and arguments of others, that makes us enter debates not with the intention of learning from them, but with the aim of proving the other wrong and ourselves right.
The remedy Karen Armstrong proposes for this condition is compassion. Were we to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes, the world would be an infinitely better place.
It is hard to argue with that but how on earth, as one audience member asked, do you debate with those who would rather use a gun to win their arguments? In short, how are you going to convince Mumtaz Qadri?
Armstrong responded by saying that in her experience, most hardline religious groups are motivated by fear, the fear that their beliefs and way of life are going to be wiped out. Their violence then, is a reaction to that fear. The answer, according to her, is not to attack their belief system but rather to debate with them in a non-confrontational way.
It is a neat argument, but also one that ignores the fact that for many extremist groups the quest for power is now an end in itself. And that fear is for them more a tool than a motivating factor. She does of course accept the fact that the sentiments of hardline religious groups are often exploited for political purposes, drawing on examples from the United States all the way to Pakistan.
God is not a politician, says Armstrong, but there is no denying that His word is used for political gain.
Another audience member argued that since religious beliefs seem to lead to violent arguments, perhaps the answer is to remove religion from our lives altogether. To this Armstrong responded that Homo Sapiens were in fact Homo Religiosis, and that denying religion is alien to human nature.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2011.
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