Wikipedia, Karen Armstrong, and Me

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Wikipedia now has 55 million separate articles. It would be churlish to complain about them all. Some of them are very good, in fact; for example, the entry on the Russian playwright Alexander Griboyedov, whose Woe From Wit I studied, line by line, in Moscow, with a teacher at Patrice Lumumba University (I believe I am the only American to have studied with a faculty member at Lumumba U.). So is the one on Minkowski Space, which I have neither the time nor the space to discuss here, but you get my drift. Wikipedia does itself proud on that entry. It’s also got a good entry on Otto Loewi, on whose lap I sat, aged five, on the porch of the Dining Hall then attached to the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. In history, I’ve enjoyed the entries — not too taxing — on Jean-Baptiste Kléber, Riccoldo di Monte di Croce, Quaestiones quaedam philosophicae, and the Standing Stones of Callanish. As for music, I have derived both profit and pleasure — and subsequent YouTube happiness — from the articles on Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Al Bowlly, Annette Hanshaw, Ray Ventura, Rina Ketty, Vittorio de Sica, and Charles Trenet.

But then there are the entries that try men’s souls, are not up to snuff, leave something to be desired. Many of them have to do with Islam, Jihad, the Middle East, the Arab war on Israel, Muslim terrorism. Take a look, for example, at the Wikipedia entry on Mahmoud Abbas. It’s very long, but it manages to mention only the title of Abbas’ dissertation — and otherwise passes over in silence Abbas’ long history of Holocaust denial, which is a major, and most unattractive part, of his biography. The entry mentions the accusations about his corruption, but not the full size — $400 million — of the fortune he has amassed with his two son Yasser and Tareq. It quotes all of his conciliatory remarks made for a Western audience, but practically nothing of his much harsher rhetoric, for Arab and Muslim audiences, directed at denouncing the Jewish state. Abbas practices “war is deceit” — but you wouldn’t guess it from what is up at Wikipedia.

As for Jihad Watch, it is described at Wikipedia “as an anti-Muslim conspiracy website.” I have been reading Jihad Watch, since its inception, and I don’t remember ever seeing the writers for the site wallowing in, or even dipping a toe in, any conspiracy theories. Here’s Wikipedia’s hatchet job on the site:

Jihad Watch has widely been described as an anti-Muslim conspiracy blog. Jihad Watch has been criticized for its portrayal of Islam as a totalitarian  political doctrine. Jihad Watch has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League as trafficking in Islamophobic conspiracy theories. Guardian writer Brian Whitaker described Jihad Watch as a “notoriously Islamophobic website”, while other critics such as Dinesh D’Souza, Karen Armstrong, and Cathy Young, pointed to what they see as “deliberate mischaracterizations” of Islam and Muslims by Spencer as inherently violent and therefore prone to terrorism. Spencer has denied such criticism, and has said that the term “Islamophobe” is “a tool used by Islamic apologists to silence criticism.” The website is labelled “unreliable” by NewsGuard as of October 2019.

Where has Spencer described all Muslims as “inherently violent? The texts – Qur’an, Hadith – of Islam certainly attempt to inculcate violence, but many Muslims, he constantly reminds his readers, choose not to follow the command to wage violent Jihad. He has never preached hatred of Muslims. Wikipedia is simply repeating what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Karen Armstrong, and a host of other Defenders of the Faith — without the least evidence – charged Spencer with, hoping few will bother to consult the site and judge for themselves.

And what is “NewsGuard” that we should take the epithet it affixes to Jihad Watch – “unreliable” – to heart? It’s a generally leftwing site, that sits in judgment on other sites. It can be counted on to disapprove of those who are critical of Islam, no matter how fact-based –that is, based on the texts and teachings of Islam, and on the 1,400 history of Islamic conquest and subjugation of non-Muslims – their criticism may be. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The visitor to Wikipedia would not know that every one of the critics referred to, or quoted, in the entry for Jihad Watch has been the object of previous criticism at Jihad Watch itself, and the calumny heaped on the site, by the critics cited by Wikipedia, is prompted not by carefully considered, disinterested analysis of what Spencer writes, but by the desire to undermine Jihad Watch, as payback for that criticism. A little Internet searching will offer examples of what has appeared at Jihad Watch about those critics — the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Dinesh D’Souza, Karen Armstrong, and Cathy Young. And one has to ask — where are all those who have praised both Jihad Watch and Spencer? The single bit of praise allowed comes from the London-based Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, who says that “most of the effective surveillance work tracking jihadi sites is being done not by the FBI or MI6, but by private groups. The best-known and most successful of those are [Internet] Haganah … SITE [Institute] … and Jihad Watch.” And that’s the extent of the praise JW receives at Wikipedia.

Why did Wikpedia leave out all mention of those who have offered praise for Jihad Watch and Spencer, including the world-famous apostates Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the pioneering scholar of dhimmitude, Bat Ye’or, the celebrated Italian left-wing journalist Oriana Fallaci, and so many more? You can find their necessarily abridged testimonies here. No doubt there have been attempts to rectify this imbalance in the overage, but there is a large army of Defenders of the Faith of Islam who spend their time making sure that Wikipedia entries offer praise of Islam, in all of its aspects, while calling into question its detractors, no matter how scholarly and textually based their criticisms may be. I am sure that were you, or I, or like-minded others, to add anything to Wikipedia’s entry on either Jihad Watch or Robert Spencer, our emendations would be swiftly taken down.

The other day I happened to look at the Wikipedia entry for Karen Armstrong, the ex-nun who is now the World’s Greatest Authority (or one of them, along with Bishop Desmond Tutu and others of that TED-talk honored ilk). Here’s a sample, from Wikipedia, of her thoughts on “compassion”:

She maintains that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to, but is a product of contemporary culture and for this reason concludes that, “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

Awarded the $100,000 TED Prize in February 2008 [despite being many times a millionaire from her books, the compassionate Armstrong did not donate her prize money to charity] Armstrong called for drawing up a Charter for Compassion, in the spirit of the Golden Rule, to identify shared moral priorities across religious traditions, in order to foster global understanding and a peaceful world.” It was presented in Washington, D.C. in November 2009. Signatories include Queen Noor of Jordan, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Paul Simon.

“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” Just look at that Mission Statement. That’s what distinguishes Karen Armstrong from ordinary people – she can come up with ideas like “compassion.” And only someone like Karen Armstrong – no, I daresay only Karen Armstrong herself – could have had the penetrating intellect, and the tender heart, to think of drawing up a “Charter for Compassion” to “foster global understanding and a peaceful world.” How does she manage to come up with such insights? No wonder Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Christian) and the Dalai Lama (Buddhist) and Queen Noor (Muslim) and Paul Simon (Jewish) all signed on; they could recognize that Karen Armstrong had hit upon a Very Important Thing. “Compassion.” And not just any compassion, but the kind that has been made into “a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world.” Why didn’t you, why didn’t I, think of that?

Of course Karen Armstrong has won dozens of awards, given TED talks, been feted around the world. Her philosophy appears to be the usual interfaith outreach racket, with special attention to poor misunderstood Islam, the Cinderella of religions, with those two misshapen stepsisters Judaism and Christianity.

Here are just some of those awards:

In 1999 Armstrong received the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Media Award.

Armstrong was honoured by the New York Open Center in 2004 for her “profound understanding of religious traditions and their relation to the divine.”

She received an honorary degree as Doctor of Letters by Aston University in 2006.

In May 2008 she was awarded the Freedom of Worship Award by the Roosevelt Institute, one of four medals presented each year to men and women whose achievements have demonstrated a commitment to the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 as essential to democracy: freedom of speech and of worship, freedom from want and from fear. The institute stated that Armstrong had become “a significant voice, seeking mutual understanding in times of turbulence, confrontation and violence among religious groups.” It cited “her personal dedication to the ideal that peace can be found in religious understanding, for her teachings on compassion, and her appreciation for the positive sources of spirituality.”

She also received the TED Prize 2008.

In 2009 she was awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen.

Armstrong was honoured with the Nationalencyklopedin’s International Knowledge Award 2011  “for her long standing work of bringing knowledge to others about the significance of religion to humankind and, in particular, for pointing out the similarities between religions. Through a series of books and award-winning lectures she reaches out as a peace-making voice at a time when world events are becoming increasingly linked to religion.”

On 12 May 2010, she was made honorary Doctor of Divinity by Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario).

On 30 November 2011 (St Andrew’s Day), Armstrong was made honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Saint Andrews.

On 20 March 2012, Karen Armstrong was awarded the 2011/12 Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue for her work in advancing understanding about and among world religions.

In 2013, she was awarded the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding by the British Academy “in recognition of her body of work that has made a significant contribution to understanding the elements of overlap and commonality in different cultures and religions”.

On 3 June 2014, she was made an honorary Doctor of Divinity by McGill University.

In 2017 Armstrong was bestowed Princess of Asturias award in recognition of her investigations into world religions.

My own reading of her works – or as much as I could stand of them, for they were a perfect example of New Age mush. Jejune, banal, nauseating – those are some of the adjectives that came to mind as I tried to read her stuff. I find Karen Armstrong thoroughly Pecksniffian – an adjective derived from Mr. Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, that is to say, “An unctuous hypocrite, a person who affects benevolence or pretends to have high moral principles; (also) a person who interferes officiously in the business of others.” Yes, that will do: Karen Armstrong is “an unctuous hypocrite.”

I was saddened to see that in her entire, quite long Wikipedia entry, only one person is quoted as being critical of her. That person was me. And while I had written at Jihad Watch about Karen Armstrong several times, and at length, the only thing Wikipedia chose to quote was my taking issue with her describing Christopher Columbus as a convert to Christianity. Here’s how it read in Wikipedia: “Hugh Fitzgerald, writing for the New English Review [I wrote the piece for Jihad Watch; it was subsequently reprinted elsewhere; whenever Wikipedia can avoid mentioning Jihad Watch, it does] criticized Armstrong’s description of Christopher Columbus as a “Jewish convert to Catholicism”, a theory that Fitzgerald suggests is not supported in mainstream academia.”

I didn’t “suggest” that “mainstream academia” does not support Armstrong’s belief that Columbus was a “Jewish convert to Catholicism.” I said that no one, anywhere, except for Armstrong herself, has ever maintained that Columbus was a Jewish convert to Catholicism. A few scholars have said that since Columbus came from a family of Genoese wool merchants and many of those in the wool trade in Italy were Jews, it is plausible that Columbus’ family had originally – a few generations back — been Jewish and then converted to Catholicism, as Salvador de Madariaga has argued. Armstrong must be a poor scholar indeed not to have known that Columbus was Catholic from birth.

Here is what I wrote in the piece on Armstrong, from which a single sentence was quoted at Wikipedia:

Armstrong offers no authority for her statement [that Columbus was a “Jewish convert to Catholicism”]. But why should she? Her purpose here is twofold. What better way to establish, in her vulgar, “some-of-my-best-friends-and-discoverers-of-the-New-World-are-Jewish” way, than to claim Columbus for the Jews (of course, assuming that people still honor Columbus for his deeds of derring-do, which would exclude the Ward Churchills of this world). At the same time, she can have this “Jewish” Columbus be depicted as part of a larger problem, for now he, that “Jewish convert to Catholicism,” has embraced the (non-existent) aggressive military plans of Ferdinand and Isabella. Columbus [Armstrong thinks] did not obtain royal support in order to find a new trading route to the East (now that the Muslim conquests in Byzantium had totally blocked the overland routes), or along the way to spread the Gospel but, she claims, he went to find the best route to “India, where Christians could establish a military base for another crusade against Islam.”

Having been transformed into a “Jewish convert to Catholicism,” Columbus can more conveniently be depicted by Armstrong as a Pentagon Proto-Neo-Con, Jewish-but-also-Christian-fundamentalist, off on his voyage to “establish a military base” for “another crusade against Islam.” A regular Donald Rumsfeld, negotiating for American bases in Uzbekistan. And Kyrgyzstan.

The most useful thing I can do now is to post one of my previous pieces on Armstrong, written for JW. I chose to comment on the first paragraph of an article by Armstrong that appeared in The Guardian. It offers examples of her many historical howlers, over decades of peddling feelgood nostrums (“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world”). and nonsense that apparently impress so many including, alas, those who contribute to Wikipedia.

I’ll put it up tomorrow.

First published in Jihad Watch.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend