A fierce passion for compassion

Karen Armstrong's charter, which she wants individuals to integrate into their towns and countries, is an effort to encourage all to live by the Golden Rule - treat others how we wish to be treated.

The words "war" and "compassion" very rarely end up in the same sentence, but last week the British author and religious historian Karen Armstrong described the violent end to the 10-year Trojan war in Homer's epic poem The Iliad as encapsulating the spirit of compassion. The ancient Greek hero Achilles, after slaying his opponent Hector outside the walls of Troy, tied the body to his chariot and dragged it around the battlefield for nine days. He was wreaking a bloody vengeance fuelled by rage and fury and relinquished the body only when Hector's father, Priam, the King of Troy, begged him. Recounting the scene, Ms Armstrong told how the two enemies, when they came face to face, recognised the pain and suffering of the other and they wept. So the potency of their anger dissolved.

"They see in each other a spark of the divine and they remember their humanity," she said during an address at the American University of Sharjah. "It [is] a heroic effort to put yourself in the shoes of the other, but that is what being compassionate takes." This anecdote illustrates the goal of Ms Armstrong's latest project, the Charter for Compassion. It is a simple, 350-word online treaty, which she unveiled last November after TED, an American non-profit organisation, granted her a $100,000 prize as part of a mission to fund people who have ideas worth spreading. Her charter (charterforcompassion.org), which she wants individuals to integrate into their towns and countries, is an effort to encourage all to live by the Golden Rule - treat others how we wish to be treated.

Compassion was lacking in our war-torn world, she told an audience of more than 700 at the university. Yet, it is a quality common to us all. As she spoke, quoting the Quran, the Bible, Shakespeare and Confucius, her message was clear: we are all one, we are all human and unless we hold sacred that basic commonality, then life on this planet will no longer be viable. She urged us all to action. "It is not enough to sit back and do nothing," she said. "We are living in a dangerously polarised world and where religions should unite us, but they are seen as part of the problem.

"In order to change this, we must be as organised as the terrorists." To begin this process she said she hoped for one billion signatures, but more than this, for international acceptance of the charter's content. "I want compassion to become a brand; to have its own logo like being 'green' or eco-friendly does now. "I want businessmen to think how they are going to implement it in their field of work, I want people to talk about it. I want uncompassionate speech and actions to jar with the public in the same way racism does. I'm not trying to issue a diktat, I just want to lead by example."

Ms Armstrong, a 65-year-old from the UK, made a name for herself as a scholar and author of comparative religious books. Her most famous work, A History of God, published in 1993, was a detailed history of the three monotheistic religions, including some parts of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. A former Roman Catholic nun who left the order during her time at Oxford University in the 1970s, she said it was through her own teachings that she found her compassionate voice.

"When I was a nun I never associated compassion with religion. It was a bit like military boot camp; very tough. I left the religious life and came back to it on my own through study. Just as tough meat is not as nice as tender meat, it was then I realised, compassion was much better than aggression." In recent years, particularly since the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States, she has made it "her life's work" to spread the compassionate voice of religion.

She is a popular speaker in Europe and North America on Islam and the West, and her biography Muhammed, A Prophet for Our Time, is one of the clearest and most succinct encapsulations in the English language of the Prophet's life and teachings. Although there has been much speculation about her religion, Ms Armstrong remains reluctant to claim allegiance to any faith. "I call myself a convalescent, someone recovering from a difficult religious past and I'd rather not call myself Christian, Jew or Muslim because I wouldn't want to say that one is better than the other. In the end, I feel I am like the Dalai Lama; I don't think it matters which faith I follow because they all preach the same thing."

Her aim for a peaceful and compassionate world is an easy target for critics. Getting the whole world to love each other is as unrealistic as it sounds. But Ms Armstrong is defiant; she wants to establish compassion as a virtue we all strive after, like justice. "It is not impossible," she said. "This is not a wishy-washy idea, it is hard-headed practicality. In any marriage you have to make a sacrifice every day to get along. Humanity is one big family and we all have to sacrifice, put selfishness on the back burner. It makes economic, political and moral sense."

Although self-deprecating about her mission, asserting that in order for it to work it has to be more than a "one-woman show", Ms Armstrong's efforts are valiant. By tackling the all-too-sensitive topic of religion head-on, she manages to cross the barrier of miscommunication between East and West. "Islam in the West is taken for granted as an essentially violent religion. It is my jihad to tell people this is not the case.

"I've lost count of the amount of times I've heard people say religion is the cause of all wars, but what is the Quran if it is not a call for compassion? The rabbis and the early Christians made it clear that if a text seems to preach hatred, then it needed to be redressed. "We need new ways of looking at scriptures." Her knowledge and ability to transgress the invisible boundaries so often imposed by religious clerics is refreshing and empowering. She is not preaching, nor pretending to be the one with all the answers, just encouraging people to remember to be kind to one another, a simple message often lost amid the angry voices of hatred and contempt.

Ms Armstrong's gift becomes apparent to any who spend time with her. Her words are moving, touching the very kernel of humanity she describes, the spark of the divine. During the hour I spend with her, she appeals directly to my basic human nature and I find myself wanting as many people as possible to hear her. Never has the cliché "united we stand, divided we fall" seemed more appropriate. Her last words to me are spoken with carefully measured but extremely sincere passion.

"There is an inviolable sacred mystery inside each person, and as [the scholar] Ibn Arabi said, a unique and unrepeatable reflection of God. It is our duty to look for that revelation, look beneath the unpromising exterior and discover what is inside. "Once you deny that each person has this mysterious value, then you have lost the sacredness of humanity forever." aseaman@thenational.ae