The hall was full by the time the session started at 10.00 am with the arrival of Tun Dr Mahathir. In the multi-racial crowd were the veritable "Who's Who" in the local NGO scene and apart from numerous members of the local academia, the various religions were also well represented. Apart from Dato' Seri Syed Hamid Albar, the Minister in the sponsoring Ministry there was a conspicuous absence of politicians.
It was a rare opportunity to hear Ms. Armstrong speak in person and for me, it was more to see the attendant crowd reactions to her talk and how she navigates the tricky differences between the similarities of the three Abrahamaic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She deftly removes barriers by stressing the futility and folly of trying to "define" (and hence, restricting) God, thereby setting up a commonality amongst the diverse audience.
Often seen in the West as an apologist for Islam and accused of consorting with the "enemy", it is ironic that some of her books are still banned in Malaysia. Yet, it was not surprising to see her at such a conference in KL.
With the presence of Tun Mahathir in the hall, a bigger irony is that a conference which reflects such pluralism would probably not have been encouraged during his tenure as PM.
The subject title was "Role of Religion in the 21st Century" and Karen Armstrong's keynote today was empathy, compassion and tolerance; "love thy enemy..." and "....smite thee on thy right cheek" stuff. She quoted Confucius extensively, especially crediting him with the, "do unto others/do not do unto others" maxim and being one of the earliest to use this "Golden Rule" as a central theme of his teachings. Not surprisingly, the best examples she used when it came to "tolerance" and "compassion" were from the teachings of Buddha. I came away from the lecture with a feeling that she is more inclined towards Buddhism although she publicly claims to be monotheistic.
Indeed, Ms. Armstrong made no "earth-shattering" new points nor provided new perspectives on the subject but her ability to articulate known concepts, precepts and views so clearly was worth the two hours.
I voice recorded the whole lecture and will post a You Tube version in this blog soon. Interestingly, I just read Marina Mahathir's blog on the event and her observations are pretty much the same. Check it out:
Karen Armstrong's biodata is as follows:
Karen Armstrong is one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs. She is a best-selling author, whose books have been translated into forty languages. Her early work focused on the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but she has since begun to explore the eastern religions. Her work is scholarly but written for the general reader, and has been appreciated not only by western audiences but also by Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. She is a broadcaster, columnist, and is much sought after throughout the world as a public speaker. Her focus is not only on theology and spirituality but on the political implications of faith in the modern world.
Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun in the 1960s, but then left her teaching order in 1969. She studied English Literature at the University of Oxford, earning the degrees of B.A. and M.Litt.. Since then she has taught modern literature at the University of London, and headed the English department in a girls' public school. In 1982, she became a full time writer and broadcaster.
Her books include: A History of God , which became an international bestseller; Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths ; The Battle for God, A History of Fundamentalism ; Islam, A Short History ; Buddha (2001); The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir (2004); A Short History of Myth (2005).The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006); and finally Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time (2006).
Since September 11, 2001, however, she has become chiefly known for her work on Islam and Fundamentalism, particularly in the United States. She has addressed members of the United States Congress and the Senate on three occasions, has participated in the World Economic Forum, and spoken at an informal debate in the General Assembly of the United Nations. In 2005, she was appointed by Kofi Anan to take part in the United Nations initiative “The Alliance of Civilizations” which completed its report on the reasons for the rise of extremism and the best means of stemming this in November 2006.
In autumn 2001, Karen Armstrong was Scholar in Residence at Lowell House, Harvard University, where she also delivered the Tillich Lecture (2001), the Peabody Lecture (2002) and the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality (2005). In addition, she has lectured at Yale, MIT, Stanford, McGill and many other universities and colleges throughout Canada and the United States. She has recently received honorary degrees at Aston University in the West Midlands, where her books are required reading on the MBA course, and at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In the autumn of 2007, she will become the William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard.
For those who have not heard of her or read her books, do check out the corresponding Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Armstrong