Karen Armstrong and Rabbi David Saperstein

Interview by Christine Amanpour of CNN. Aired November 10, 2009 - 15:10:00   ET

AMANPOUR: That was a flare-up of anger last month between Palestinians and Israeli police at one of the world's holiest sites in Jerusalem. It came amid rumors that Jewish extremists were planning to harm the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And it's the kind of violence that decades of diplomacy have simply failed to end.

But now, there is a new global initiative to resolve conflicts by emphasizing the shared values of people with different faiths. It's called the International Charter for Compassion. And joining me now is the driving force behind that charter, author and theologian Karen Armstrong. Also here with us in the studio is one of the religious leaders behind this movement, Rabbi David Saperstein.

So welcome to you both, Rabbi, Karen.


AMANPOUR: Let me go straight to our wall, where we are able to have one little clip of the charter, which basically says, "We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world." Let's cut to the chase. We have what we just showed from Israel and the Palestinian territories. We have President Obama, who's just been eulogizing and speaking about those who were shot at the military base at Fort Hood, Texas.

Can compassion really make a dent in this deeply entrenched religious, ethnic tension?

KAREN ARMSTRONG, AUTHOR, "THE CASE FOR GOD": I think that when things are as bad as they are now, we have to make a counter voice. So often what -- the voice of religion that we hear on our media is the voice of extremism, the voice of hatred, the voice of disapproval, and yet there is another voice, and it's -- it's not -- it's not being heard. So the charter is to make that voice audible.

AMANPOUR: Why is it different from what happened after 9/11, when many leaders -- there were interfaith leaders, rabbis, imams, priests, others, presidents, prime ministers, talking about, can't we just all get along, interfaith, respect each other?

ARMSTRONG: Well, it's not going to happen unless we make an effort. And the charter is basically -- it's a call to action. It's not just a question of saying that, yes, we share these values and we fall into each other's arms, but that we actually give directives as to how we actually implement the golden rule in -- in our troubled world.

AMANPOUR: So as we show pictures of President Obama now live at Fort Hood, he's going past each of the symbols of a fallen soldier, the empty boots, the rifle, the helmet placed on top of the rifle. Rabbi, how do you think that compassion is going to make a difference? We know -- it's lovely. We'd love it. The golden rule, we all would like to live by it. But in instances like this...

SAPERSTEIN: The only way to isolate extremists who would manipulate religion to justify violence is to mobilize the mainstream, centrist belief in tolerance, in respect, in moderation, and -- and compassion that is at the core of so many religious traditions.

This charter that will be launched in two days takes some the leading religious figures from all across the globe. They reinforce and legitimize each other. They help create and mobilize a force for compassion that really can change the political dynamic, as well as the discourse going on in the world, and that's indispensable.

AMANPOUR: You both mentioned golden rule. I have, too. Is that the foundation of -- of what you're talking about?

ARMSTRONG: Every single one of the major world faiths has established its own version of the golden rule and said that this is the core of faith, not believing things, not accepting a certain sexual ethnic, but that one puts oneself in a principle, disciplined way in the shoes of another person.

AMANPOUR: So let's take -- well, we're going to start with Hinduism. This is the sum of duty, to not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. There's also the Buddhist one -- well, Christianity. And as he would (ph), let's -- my religious is kindness, say the Buddhists, eminently practical. But we get the picture, that in each religion, there is the same thing.

ARMSTRONG: This -- this -- and it's -- you do it, as Confucius said, all day and every day, not just doing your good deed for the day, but you live a life of empathy, because that takes us beyond ourselves. We look into our own heart, find what it is that gives us pain, and then refuse under any circumstance to inflict that pain on anybody else.

AMANPOUR: And how does that work? I understand how that works between people. How does that work between -- between nations, between political groups? Let's take the Israelis and the Palestinians, for instance.

SAPERSTEIN: The -- the studies and polls show that there's been alarming trend of each side demonizing each other. You asked before, Mr. Blair, don't we have to work from the top down and the bottom up? The bottom up is not just economic; it's what is taught in the schools about the other. It is what is legitimate in civil discourse about -- in presenting those with whom they disagree. It is talking about the human face of every person and seeing God's presence in every human being.

Only when we begin to tear down the demonic images we have of each other and see the common human state that exists in each and every one of us can we really make a transformation from the ground up. And this effort to focus on compassion, on capturing the -- the divine character of every human being, and seeing human beings for what they are, that's central to the success of transforming the Middle East and so many other conflicts across the globe.

AMANPOUR: Now, I believe that you are involved in the President Obama's interfaith White House group. I just want to put up something that the Army chief of staff, General George Casey, told CNN just a few days ago.


GEN. GEORGE CASEY, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: We have to be careful, because we can't jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that come out. And, frankly, I am worried -- not worried, but I'm concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers.


AMANPOUR: Of course, he was there talking about the aftermath and the -- and the fallout from Fort Hood, and General Casey did give a eulogy there today. What do you think? Is this going to be 9/11 again, when all the work that was done on compassion, on tolerance, on personal relations here in the United States between Americans and -- and -- and the Muslim world, could that all be reversed, or is this an opportunity?

ARMSTRONG: We're going to have a roller coaster ride, I think. Violent -- we're in a violent time. But this is the time to practice. It means that every time we have something like this, we have to take -- hold ourselves in our hands, refer to the golden rule, and make that voice -- we have to make an effort at -- the Dalai Lama says that, when things are difficult, this is the time to practice.

AMANPOUR: Let me just again be devil's advocate. God inserted in politics has more or less created mayhem. We could look all over the world. And yet you are again invoking God, or at least God-like principles, to try to calm all this down.


AMANPOUR: Go ahead, both of you.

ARMSTRONG: God-like principles, but once you start thinking of God in a limited way, as inherently on our side, as a larger version of ourselves, writ large, with likes and dislikes, similar to our own, this is an idol that we use to endorse some of our worst prejudices. So compassion takes us beyond that self. 

And, David, you were going...

SAPERSTEIN: Well, you know, one of the great sins, I think, both in our religious traditions and in America's value system is to impute the sins of the individual to a group. That's really the danger of -- of what General Casey was talking about. And compassion, seeing the human and divine character of every person, really, it will not solve the problems in and of themselves. Without that, without capturing that as a powerful force in religion, to stand up to the extremists, we will never succeed in what we're doing.

AMANPOUR: Again, I want to show some pictures from Fort Hood, where families are -- are gathering, and it's obviously a very emotional time for them, to -- to try to figure out how to get beyond this and if there is a religious element to it.

As people, you have said, others have said, trying to embrace or empower the moderates, do you think this is another way to try and do that?

ARMSTRONG: I think. Yes -- David?

SAPERSTEIN: Definitely. That's what this is all about, to have such prestigious figures, from the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu and leaders of every religious tradition, joining together to lift up the central principle, that's a powerful message to the world.

ARMSTRONG: Also, hundreds and thousands of people contributed to the charter, contributed their ideas online. This is not just something -- yet another arcane document foisted -- it's coming from the ground up.

AMANPOUR: So you -- you hope that it's going to be grassroots. And can it? Do you think grassroots or putting it up on the Internet, however you're going to try to get as many people involved as possible? Because, you know, here in the United States, I was surprised, pleasantly, during the election campaign the whole morality or immorality about what was going on in Darfur inspired so many American students. It became a grassroots movement. Do you think this could sort of be catching like that?

ARMSTRONG: I think, wherever I've been in the world, whether it's in the United States, in Europe, or in the Middle East or Pakistan, I find people, ordinary people, are longing for a more compassionate world. They feel offended that their religion is often hijacked by extremists. There is a desire for this, but it won't just come in a waft of goodwill. This is going to be hard work, and I shall be doing this to my dying day, I think.

SAPERSTEIN: And when this was announced, we had people -- and put online pieces of it, we had people from all over the world, from over 100 countries, every religious tradition adding their ideas, giving their edits, setting these principles, lifting it up. This is truly a global phenomenon, this compassion charter. 

AMANPOUR: So does this have to bottom up, or does the pope, a senior Islamic leader, senior Jewish leaders, do they have to internalize this and give the directives?

SAPERSTEIN: Like your assessment of the Middle East, it's both. It needs the legitimacy of the key figures in the world.

AMANPOUR: Do you think they will?

SAPERSTEIN: Many have already done it. When you look at this list on Thursday when it's announced, it's dazzling. But the power of the creativity from the grassroots up that was part of this online discussion for months, that was really something extraordinary.

AMANPOUR: You're a former Catholic nun, Karen.


AMANPOUR: Will the pope sign on?

ARMSTRONG: I don't suppose so.

AMANPOUR: Because?

ARMSTRONG: I think -- I think he would be wary of something to do with a runaway nun.

AMANPOUR: But in general, compassion is a charter?

ARMSTRONG: Yes. I think there are many Catholics who want to join, and I think, too, the -- we don't -- I don't think we need to worry about the pope. The pope could have done this himself, if he'd wanted to. The - - I think what we need in the democratic age is for the people to say, "We -- this is what we desire. This is -- this is the essence of"...

SAPERSTEIN: Karen, Karen, correct me if I'm wrong, the pope rarely signs on statements that others do. He has put out his own moral vision in -- in very challenging ways here. I suspect we'll find millions of Catholics who connect and resonate with this and many prominent Catholic leaders endorsing it.

AMANPOUR: Thank you both for coming in on this particular day, when this issue is in such stark relief. Thank you both very much, indeed.

And this conversation will continue on facebook.com/amanpourcnn. Tell us what you think about conflict, religion and compassion.

And next in our "Post-Script," it's about efforts to end decades of hostility between Iran and the United States. Take a look at the man in the glasses here. This former American hostage seen here just after his release by Tehran some 30 years ago is now the holder of a significant new job.

AMANPOUR: Now, our "Post-Script." And we have a quick note about one of our guests last week.

I interviewed a former U.S. hostage who'd be held for more than a year in Iran. His name is John Limbert. I interviewed them on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. And he told me then that it is possible for the U.S. and Iran to get over the ghosts of the past.

Well, we've learned that Limbert has just taken up a new post in the U.S. government as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran. It's a completely new position, and it raises the intriguing question of whether the Obama administration will revive active diplomacy in search of an end to 30 years of hostility between the two nations.

And that's our report from now. We will be back tomorrow with a look at one of the most pressing issues of our time, nuclear proliferation. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.