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4 out of 5
ISBN/ASIN : 0385721404
Manufacturer : Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group|
Release data : November, 2001
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In HOLY WAR Karen Armstrong presents a sweeping history of religious conflicts in the Middle East from the time of Pope Urban II in the eleventh century to the current age. The central theme of the book can be summarized as follows: The Crusades in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages have a direct influence on the troubles in the Middle East today. Holy Wars are a response to trauma. A close look at the First Crusade in 1096 shows that the Jihad had fallen into disuse until it was revived to counter the invasion by European Christians. America and Israel share a strong feeling of identification partly due to the fact that they were both settled by European refugees. America and Israel are now allied in a new Holy War against Muslims.
Karen Armstrong is not a professional historian. Her primary field is actually English Literature and she is also an ex-nun with several years in a Roman Catholic convent in her background. My only criticism of her book is that it may be too ambitious in terms of its scope. There is simply too much material to cover in just one volume. The author, however, almost pulls off the impossible because of her formidable skills as both a writer and storyteller.
Masterful psycho-historical study
Just when you thought virtually all of the ways of being in the modern world--psychological, cultural, economic and political--came bursting into consciousness like fireworks in either the technology of the 20th century or the nationalism of the 19th, Armstrong reveals that to be one of the biggest and most destructive myths of our time. In HOLY WAR, Karen Armstrong shows the paradoxically religious and inhumanly violent shadow psyche of the Western European world to be born not during the age of the Enlightenment or soon after, but in the bowels of Western culture that was the period of transformation from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages--the tenth through the thirteenth century. Europe as we know Europe to be was born through hate, religious intolerance and murder as much as anything else.
Armstrong's contention is that the Crusades of Europe, begun by Pope Urban in 1095 in order to unify the warring uncivilized factions of Western Europe with a war against Muslims to "liberate" Jerusalem, gave birth to this Western identity that exists to the present day--and with it Anti-Semitism, racism, religious intolerance, misogyny, romantic views of mass envy and willful ignorance regarding higher civilizations, and the worshipping of a military aristocracy as the foundation of culture.
Armstrong proves her point beautifully, as one would expect of a former nun turned theologian and world class historian. But what makes her historical analysis so powerful is how she bridges the gulf between history and psychology such that HOLY WAR shows the hidden irrational impulses that influence and sometimes govern much of foreign policy in today's world.
The parallels between Pope Innocent and President George Bush, Jr. are unavoidable, particularly as this book was first written before the Gulf War invasion, some twelve years before his presidency. Pope Innocent demanded a Crusade against other Christians--built on the pre-established paradigm meant for Muslims--for fear of his morally shaky Catholic empire being religiously de-legitimized by a more devout sect. His power and public appearance, dissipating as moral questions remained unanswered, became once again solidified through nations caught up in a deeply immoral but psychologically justified war against those now called unbelievers. The transformation of George Bush Jr. from inept leader for whom his competence and the very legitimacy of his presidency was in further question as the economy continued to go south in the first few months of his presidency, to post-Sept. 11 Afghani/Iraqi war hero against "Arab terrorism" (with a successful remilitarization of the American economy in the process) is too frighteningly similar to Pope Innocent's politics of holy war to ignore--particularly considering how dissent within the country is not being tolerated in the streets or in the press. As such our Administration's motivations for the Iraqi war (as well as the mounting tensions with Syria) come into new question, as does the logic of the portion of the country that supports it. Armstrong makes it obvious that our current Crusade against terrorism, obviously desperately needed for both the codependent American psyche and war-dependent Military Complex in light of the completed Crusade against Communism, is simply that: just another Crusade; another Crusade in a nine hundred year history of waging war on the Middle East and others in order to refortify the Western sense of identity and power, underneath a new set of justifications. Perpetual war...for perpetual peace. This hidden shadow psyche of our culture, deeply lodged within the unconscious of both much of Europe and America, is what is being put to good use by the Oil conglomerates of our era (of which Bush's entire cabinet is related to in one way or another), and coloring our perception of our entire world.
Armstrong is a meticulous and scholarly writer whose mastery of the subject matter is almost overwhelming. At times the book moves slowly because of the wealth of material she provides. And at times, in her effort to bring a sense of drama to her narrative, she reveals the inevitable biases of her British roots, despite her erudition leading her toward objectivity. I give the book four stars for this, instead of five. The four stars however are powerfully earned, considering how she pivots across the centuries from the Richard the Lionhearted to Anwar Sadat, Saladin to Golda Meir, Pope Urban to Ronald Reagan, to prove her transtemporal points about the consciousness of Holy War and its effect on the modern mind.
An incredible book.
Comprehensive historical perspective of Middle East conflict
In this book, Karen Armstrong juxtaposes accounts of the historical and current conflicts in the Middle East, providing convincing arguments that today's troubles, largely attributed to Islam fundamentalism, are in fact the continuation of a chain of events triggered by Pope Urban's first crusade, and the attempts of Western Europe and its church at that time to establish themselves after the dark ages.
Ms. Armstrong stresses the importance of "triple vision", i.e. the ability to view the conflict from the perspective of the Islamic, Jewish and Christian communities. It is in this spirit that the book should be read. In the course of the book, she shows understanding for each perspective. However, her sympathy appears to be more with the Islamic people in this account, than with the other two. This may be due to the fact that more explanation of the Islamic perspective is generally required, as this group is typically least familiar to the Western reader, and has been misrepresented or even demonized in the Western media.
Ms. Armstrong alternates between historical and modern times chapter by chapter. This technique is effective in driving home her arguments, but nonetheless it can sometimes feel a little too forced. The book is worth rereading in order to clearly sequence the events for oneself.
I found it immensely refreshing to read such a well-researched book, which tackles the discussion of the Middle East conflict from a broader historical perspective, starting with Abraham and ending with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Unlike many books available currently, this is a scholarly work, free of sensationalism. On a general note, as with any historical account, one can never forget while reading the book, that the events chosen for inclusion in the account are chosen at the writer's discretion and are also commented by her. With such an emotive and important subject, I think that it is essential to read several books on the topic to attain ones own "triple vision".