Karen Armstrong was born in the United Kingdom on November 14, 1944, to a family of Irish Catholic ancestry. In 1962 she became a member of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a teaching congregation. While there, Armstrong attended St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she majored in English. She left the convent in 1979 in order to study the world’s monotheistic religions, beginning with Islam. She also became a professor of modern literature at the University of London. A few years later, Armstrong took a job as an English instructor at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, South London. During her tenure there, she penned a memoir of her convent experiences which was published in 1982 under the title, Through the Narrow Gate.
In 1982 as well, Armstrong launched a career as a broadcasting presenter. In 1984, the British Channel Four commissioned her to write and present The First Christian, a television documentary on the life of Saint Paul. Years later, Armstrong would recall that while she had been in Israel working on that documentary, she heard some Israelis refer derisively to “dirty Arabs”—an incident that led her to recognize instantly that “there was something fundamentally wrong” with the Jewish state. Impugning “the inability of the Jewish people to learn from past sufferings,” she likened that incident to “when some 30 or 40 years before, [people] had talked in Europe about ‘dirty Jews.’” By Armstrong’s reckoning, “the Israeli people” today continue to view themselves, irrationally, as victims of anti-Semitism because they “are emotionally stuck in the horrors of the Nazi era” and “cannot believe that it is not 1939 any more.”
Armstrong rose to prominence in 1993 with the publication of her book A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which traces the evolution of the three major monotheistic traditions. All told, she has written more than twenty books.
In the 1990s as well, Armstrong established a reputation for whitewashing and rationalizing the violent excesses of Islam. Her 1996 book, Biography of the Prophet [Mohammad], sold millions of copies. In 1999, Armstrong received the Muslim Public Affairs Council‘s Media Award.
A self-proclaimed “freelance monotheist,” Armstrong played a key role in the production of a 2002 PBS documentary that offered a sanitized account of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s life and of the religion he founded.
In 2002, just a few months after 9/11, Armstrong stated that Americans “were posing as a tolerant society” in the wake of the attacks, “yet passing judgment from a position of extremes and irrationality.” “The events have been a great shock to the Americans, and they are now in a state of numbness and depression,” she added. “There is still a lot of hostility and anger directed against the Muslim community there. There is, however, some reason to believe that a change in the American perception is not impossible.”
Asserting that Western hostility toward Islam dated back to the era of the Crusades, Armstrong said in 2002:
“Anti-Islamic doctrine is in-built in the Western ethos that was formulated during the Crusades. This was the period when the Western world was re-defining itself. The 11th century marked the end of the Dark Ages in Europe and the beginnings of the new Europe. The Crusades were the first co-operative act on the part of the whole new Europe, and the whole crusading ethos shaped the psyche of the key actors performing at this crucial time.
“Islam was the quintessential foreigner, and people resented Islam in Europe much as people in the Third World resent the US today. One could say that Islam then was the greatest world power, and it remained so up until the early years of the Ottoman empire. Muslims were everywhere in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, South- East Asia, China. Wherever people went, there was Islam, and it was powerful, and people felt it as a threat.”
Dismissing the notion that Islam posed any special threat to non-Muslims, Armstrong in 2002 largely blamed the West for the deeds of Palestinian suicide bombers who were targeting Israeli civilians for mass murder on a regular basis: “The West has to share a responsibility for what is happening in the Middle East. If it had not persecuted the Jews, there would not have been the need for the creation of the state of Israel. The Muslim world did nothing to the Jews, and the Palestinians are paying the price for the sins of Europe.” Palestinian suicide bombers were motivated not by hatred, said Armstrong, but by “absolute hopelessness.” They “don’t have F-16s and they don’t have tanks,” she explained. “They don’t have anything to match Israel’s arsenal. They only have their own bodies.”
On the premise that Israel was mostly responsible for the ongoing Mideast conflict, Armstrong said in 2002: “Violence of any sort always breads violence, and the occupation itself is an act of extreme violence, domination and oppression. The way things have been moving has been aggressively against the Palestinians.”
In 2002 as well, Armstrong lamented that the people of Britain “simply don’t want Muslims in their country,” but instead “want a white England for white English people.” “This is the European form of fundamentalism,” she elaborated. “… It’s the desire to belong to a clearly defined group combined with a pernicious fear of the other — a sense of pent-up rage and disappointment with multi-cultural society giving way to this kind of emotion, which feeds into fundamentalism.”
Drawing a moral equivalence between Israelis and their Arab neighbors, Armstrong said in 2002: “Jesus would be horrified by the practices of the church today. I would love to show him around the Vatican, when Christians cannot even share a church together. He would be appalled, much as Mohamed would be appalled if he knew that September 11th was done in the name of Islam.”
That same year, Armstrong asserted that Muslims should emulate Jews by learning the art of self-promotion: “The West, like it or not, is a fact of life. Muslims should try to use the media; they have got to learn to lobby like the Jews, and they have got to have a Muslim lobby, if you like ….this is a jihad, an effort, a struggle, that is very important. If you want to change the media, then you have got to make people see that Islam is a force to be reckoned with politically and culturally. Have a march down the street at Ground Zero in New York, call it ‘Muslims against Terror’. They need to learn how to manage the media and how to conduct themselves in the media.”
Armstrong also exhorted Westerners to drop their innate sense of superiority, their greed-driven excesses, and the many irrational hatreds they harbored in their hearts: “[T]he West has got to learn that it shares the planet with equals and not with inferiors. This means giving equal space in a conflict such as that between Israel and Palestine. It doesn’t mean just using governments to get oil: you promote Saddam Hussein one day, and the next day he becomes public enemy number one. The West promoted people like the Shah of Iran simply because of its greed for oil, even though he had committed atrocities against his own people. There should be no more double standards, because double standards are colonialism in a new form. Western people have also got to disassociate themselves from inherited prejudices about Islam.”
In September 2002, Armstrong stated that the previous year’s al Qaeda terrorist attacks had taught Americans “that we now live in one world; that what happens in Gaza or Afghanistan or Arabia today will have repercussions in the United States or London tomorrow; [and] that America is no longer protected by its great oceans or wealth or military prowess.” She also viewed the attacks as understandable acts of retribution for America’s historical transgressions, and has continued to affirm this perspective ever since:
In Armstrong’s calculus, Islamic values are wholly compatible with traditional American values. “The heart of Islam,” she said in 2002, “beats with the heart of the American people. The passion that Islam has for equality—Islam is one of the most egalitarian religions I know and has always lived out its egalitarianism. It’s at its best historically when it has had egalitarian forms of government, and [it is] unhappy with authoritarian forms of government, as it has now.”
Asserting, further, that Islam was “unhappy” because “the United States and the West generally” supported “a lot of despots and bad government and tyrannical government” throughout the Muslim world, Armstrong lauded Islam’s unwavering “passion for justice.” “The bedrock message of the Qur’an,” she said, “is not a doctrine but a simple command that it’s right to share your wealth equally, bad to build up a private fortune selfishly, and good to try to create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect…. And Islam is a religion of peace. Like all the great world traditions, it recoils in horror from the violence of the world and struggles through to a position of peace. You can see that in the life of the Prophet Mohammad. The word ‘Islam’ is related etymologically to the word ‘Salaam’—’peace.’”
In her 2002 book, Islam: A Short History, Armstrong blames Christians for their alleged misapprehension that Islam is a religion that somehow fosters violence: “Ever since the Crusades, the people of Western Christendom developed a stereotypical and distorted vision of Islam, which they regarded as the enemy of decent civilization…. It was, for example, during the Crusades, when it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world, that Islam was described by the learned scholar-monks of Europe as an inherently violent and intolerant faith, which had only been able to establish itself by the sword. The myth of the supposed fanatical intolerance of Islam has become one of the received ideas of the West.”
In the summer of 2002, Armstrong voiced praise for the Muslim Brotherhood, the wellspring from which Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the theological underpinnings of modern Islamic terrorism were brought forth: “[The Brotherhood] set up a wonderful welfare program before it was suppressed.… Factories where Muslims could work, had time for prayers, had vacation time, insurance, [learned] labor laws, [provided] clinics, they taught people how to treat sewage, drainage, and it was always the religions response to try to help modernity to give to the ordinary people the benefits of modernity in an Islamic setting that made sense to them and made things more balanced.”
In 2004 Armstrong drew a parallel between conservative Christians and Muslim terrorists: “[T]he Christian right today has absorbed the endemic violence in American society: they oppose reform of the gun laws, for example, and support the death penalty. They never quote the Sermon on the Mount but base their xenophobic and aggressive theology on Revelation. Osama bin Laden is as just as selective in his use of scripture.”
In the aftermath of a series of coordinated suicide bombing attacks that killed more than 50 people in central London on July 7, 2005, Armstrong wrote a piece in The Guardian entitled “The Label of Catholic Terror Was Never Used about the IRA” (Irish Republican Army). In that article, she professed agreement with the notion that “politicians and the media must stop referring to ‘Muslim terrorism,’” and that atrocities like the London bombings “had nothing to do with Islam.” Added Armstrong:
“Our priority must be to stem the flow of young people into organizations such as al-Qaida, instead of alienating them by routinely coupling their religion with immoral violence. Incorrect statements about Islam have convinced too many in the Muslim world that the west is an implacable enemy…. [T]hese [terrorist] acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims, but they violate essential Islamic principles. The Qur’an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and insists that the true Islamic values are peace, reconciliation and forgiveness…. Like the Bible, the Qur’an has its share of aggressive texts, but like all the great religions, its main thrust is towards kindliness and compassion. Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and forbids the use of fire, the destruction of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians in a military campaign.”
In 2006, as Muslims around the world were staging massive protest rallies and riots in response to what they perceived to be some negative remarks about Islam issued by Pope Benedict XVI, Armstrong published a piece in The Guardian which stated: “We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam: The Pope’s remarks were dangerous, and will convince many more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic.” “Our Islamophobia,” she elaborated, “dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is entwined with our chronic anti-semitism.”
In September 2006, Armstrong asserted that “until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity”; that “the Qur’an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God”; and that “despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.”
In a 2007 article entitled “Balancing the Prophet,” Armstrong revisited the theme of Western misconceptions about Islam and its founder. “Ever since the Crusades,” she wrote, “people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure.… The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy.”
In the same 2007 piece, Armstrong wrote: “Until the 1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the first to do so, knew they were proposing a controversial innovation. They believed it was justified by the current political emergency.”
In September 2012, Armstrong spoke at the annual convention of the Hamas- and Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Society of North America, along with such notables as Suhail Khan, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, John Esposito, and Tariq Ramadan.
In a November 21, 2013 keynote address at the 20th anniversary conference of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), Armstrong condemned critics who sought to make Islam a “scapegoat” for all the “violent sins” of humanity. Attributing the terrorist activities of al-Qaeda and likeminded groups to “Muslim pain,” “Muslim suffering,” and the “desire to do something about it,” she explained that al-Qaeda’s propaganda videos constituted, in essence, a “collage of pain” to which self-absorbed Westerners were largely blind (“we don’t see the half of it”).
Asserting, further, that “self-interested [political] policies have blown up in our face,” Armstrong drew a moral equivalence between America’s atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, and the Islamic attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. “Hiroshima and 9/11” were each the result of deficient personal reflection by the respective perpetrators, she told her ACMCU audience. Moreover, said Armstrong, the impersonal form of killing that America’s Air Force bombers carried out from the “high altitudes” was a metaphor for Westerners’ belief that they were a “privileged caste” removed from the concerns that occupied the minds of most people around the world. By Armstrong’s calculus, the world should have wept for Muslims following 9/11, just as the Greek playwright Aeschylus, in The Persians, mourned for his enemies slain at the Battle of Salamis.
In a 2014 interview, Armstrong identified Western arrogance as the reason why Islam has been slow to embrace modern values and worldviews vis-a-vis human rights and related matters:
“We [Westerners] came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence. Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.”
Additional noteworthy quotes that Armstrong has spoken and/or written over the course of her professional life include the following:
On Islam, the Qur’an, the Crusades, and Violence:
On Criticisms of Islam by Non-Muslims:
On the Bible:
On Christianity versus Islam:
In addition to her writing and speaking activities, Armstrong has taught courses in comparative religion at Leo Baeck College, a London-based rabbinical institution for Jewish education. She also has spoken on religious matters before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.