Part 2 • Karen Armstrong Interview on Materialism, Nationalism & Tribalism Impacting Our Compassion

Part 2 • Karen Armstrong Interview on Materialism, Nationalism & Tribalism Impacting Our Compassion


Sahil Badruddin: In the current climate we’re
seeing, as you mentioned, less humility, less openness to other perspectives, instead people
are becoming more convinced of the rectitude of their own views—
Dr. Karen Armstrong: Yes. SB: —in a sense, we’re seeing more tribalistic
and nationalistic tendencies. Dr. Armstrong: Yes, we are seeing the disease
of nationalism at the moment, and ethnicity at the moment. It’s almost– you see what we’ve created
is a global market, where we are, actually whether you like it or not, profoundly interdependent
and all our economies are intertwined. If stocks fall in one part of the world, they
plummet all around the globe that day. What happens in Yemen tomorrow can have repercussions
in a terrorist attack in London. This is the world we’ve created. The people are retreating from this, in all
kinds of ways, into these tight little ethnicities, some of them religious, and some of them political. Brexit, for example, case in point, complete
denial. And if you remember when the Berlin Wall fell,
people were dancing in the street, but when there was talk during the recent presidential
campaign of a wall being built between the United States and Mexico, people were cheering. This, the idea in here, this is [held] very
widely– and it’s in religion too. People that were retreating into ghettos because
the more we discover about the great religious traditions of the world, the more we find
that despite their very revealing and insignificant differences, they have an immense amount in
common. SB: Right, exactly. These trends of, as I mentioned, tribalism
and nationalism, they’re clearly impacting our sense of compassion, and they’re making
us less compassionate— Dr. Armstrong: Yes. SB: How do we reverse this or diminish this,
and help people become more committed so that compassion, again, impacts their daily lives? Dr. Armstrong: I think you have to startle
them a little bit, to make them in a little bit uncomfortable, because too often people
regard religion or morality something to make them feel good. With the Charter for Compassion, we’ve created
cities of compassion where the Mayor endorses the Charter and undertakes a program for the
city that the city needs – it might be homelessness for example, or medical care, something of
that sort. It’s got to have some practical dimension. Someone asked me once, “What should a compassionate
city be like to live in?” I said, “A compassionate city should be an
uncomfortable city.” It should be profoundly not sitting complacently
around a city saying, “What a wonderful compassionate society we’ve got here,”
but looking at the state of the world around. I think you’ll correct me, but I believe
someone once told me that the Prophet Muhammad once said, peace be upon him, that no one
of you can be a believer if he can sleep when is someone is hungry. SB: Right. Dr. Armstrong: Now, we know, we see on our
televisions screens; the depths of massive inequity within our own societies. This winter in London, it was particularly
cold. Britain is one of the richest countries in
the world and yet there were unprecedented numbers of people sleeping on the streets. This should be disturbing us. I didn’t hear any religious leader come
forward to talk about this. I didn’t hear the Archbishop of Canterbury
making a point about this. When they’re watching the news, it now seems
regular for the newscaster to say when he’s introducing some footage, “This is a warning. You may find this disturbing, distressing.” And that gives you a chance to switch channels
or turn off. God forbid, within your nice comfortable home
you should see something upsetting. We’ve got to really make ourselves aware
of the pain in the world because it only makes sense because all this pain and anguish and
suffering– there are children growing up in Syria who’ve never known peace, they’ve
just seen horror in their life. What are those children going to be grown
up to become in the future? So this is not something we should just switch
off and then return to our nice comfortable suburban homes. We should be making ourselves extremely uncomfortable
about the state of the world looking at the pain of the world, that’s what all the great
prophets did, they were not sitting around complacently doing yoga. The Prophet used to go, before he received
any revelation, make a retreat on Mount Hira every year, with his wife Khadija. There they would start engaging some ascetical
exercises and also give food or alms to the poor, who would come to visit them. But it says that while he was doing this,
he was troubled about the state of the world, it distressed him. He was anguished at the state of his own society
in Mecca where there were huge spiritual melees. But also, the whole region was engulfed in
warfare with Persia and Byzantium engaged in these devastating wars. We should make ourselves aware and to make
ourselves uncomfortable because that suffering, we must feel it as though it were our own. I think that we’ve got to shake up, we live
in such a cocoon in the west. In previous years or in pre-modern states,
which were based on agriculture, agrarian produce. Ninety per cent of the population was reduced
to serfdom in order to support a small tiny aristocracy. Historians tell us that without this inequitable
system we would probably never have evolved beyond subsistence level because it created
a privileged class with the ability, the leisure, to develop the arts and sciences on which
our progress depended. No civilization until the now modern industrial
civilization found an alternative to this inequitable system. Now, we talk a great deal about equality,
but we’re not seeing the fact that a lot of the goods that we’re buying or rather
are encouraged to buy in order to keep our commercial economy going, have been created
in sweatshops from people working as indentured slaves. And we never see that. At least the aristocrats saw the peasants
toiling in the fields. We don’t see, we live in this cocoon, and
God forbid, we should see some distressing sight on the news. This is profoundly dangerous. SB: At some level, this goes back to materialism. Could you speak about the dangers of materialism
for humanity in general, and how materialism may disrupt our commitment to compassion? Dr. Armstrong: Materialism is part of it,
certainly. Basically, in the old days, religious people
wanted to transform themselves, at least that was the goal. It was at a profound level, it’s about transformation
and change. Now we are less ambitious, we just want to
be slimmer or more charismatic, we don’t want necessarily to become saints. We’re encouraged– our economy is dependent
on this. Remember, after 9/11, George Bush telling
us all to go shopping. Then I was sitting with someone who said,
“Shop?” On the other hand, of course, the economy
has to get going and you get back to the shops and start buying all this stuff that we have. So that, all along our big motorways, there
were huge emporiums of storage systems where people are storing mountains of stuff that
they’ve acquired which we don’t need. We’re continually being nagged at to buy
this, to buy that, buy the other because the economy depends upon it. I read someone who said nowadays we change
ourselves by changing our stuff. We get better stuff and we feel transformed. It encourages superficiality, greed, and it
does not encourage us to think or to see the disparity in our society where people have
not got enough.

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