[20 August 2007]
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)
They’ve been called radicals, militants or zealots. Christiane Amanpour calls them “God’s Warriors.”
The CNN reporter’s three-part series on the subject, scheduled to air next week on the cable news channel, looks at Jews, Christians and Muslims who have aggressively brought their religious faith into the political arena.
These fervent believers change social policies, shape the course of national elections and influence global affairs. A small minority use terror to achieve their ends.
Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent and one of the most recognizable faces in broadcast news, spent eight months working on the special, which will be shown in two-hour segments Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
It’s hard to overstate the impact religious fundamentalists have had in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, Amanpour said in an interview last month following a CNN session with critics in Los Angeles.
“We’re talking about the (members) of these three faiths who feel that they have a direct line to God and that religion needs to be brought from the personal into the public sphere,” she said.
“We traveled to several states (in the U.S.), to the U.K., the Netherlands, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the occupied West Bank. It was a huge undertaking.”
For the segment on Christian activists, scheduled to air Aug. 23, Amanpour sat down with the Rev. Jerry Falwell for what turned out to be the evangelist’s last interview before his sudden death in May.
The winner of numerous awards for her war reporting from the Middle East, Bosnia and elsewhere, Amanpour, 49, was raised in Tehran by a Catholic mother and a Muslim father.
Educated in Iran, England and the U.S., she is based in London and is married to a Jewish American, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin.
“I’ve lived my personal life in a multiethnic, multifaith, multicultural environment,” Amanpour said, “and I’ve spent my professional life dealing with the opposite, (covering) wars based on divisions among faiths.”
For the Jewish segment of the report, which airs first, Amanpour and her crew visited Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, whose legitimacy has been debated by other Israelis for 40 years.
“These are religious people who really believe they’re chosen, that this is their Promised Land,” she said.
A source of outrage to Palestinians, the settlements “have a huge impact on (Israel’s) ability to hammer out a peace agreement.”
The segment also looks at U.S. Zionists, including a NewYork State legislator and his wife who raise large sums to support the settlements and evangelical Christians who work for the same cause in the belief that the Jewish settlements are divinely ordained.
For the middle segment, on Muslim activism, Amanpour returned to Iran, where visiting the members of a particularly devout sect meant donning a black robe and scarf that allowed only part of her face to peek out.
“We use Iran as a historic look at martyrdom - where it comes from, what it means and how it was first demonstrated,” she said.
In London, she spoke to a writer who said he was “brainwashed” by a radical Islamic cult while still a teenager.
In the Netherlands, she interviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, raised as a conservative Muslim and now the target of death threats for speaking out on Islamic women’s rights.
The CNN team also visited a young homemaker in Long Island, N.Y., who described herself as waging her own jihad by wearing a traditional head scarf. The woman told Amanpour that her faith meant rejecting the “degrading ... immodesty” of American dress and culture.
The final two hours, filmed entirely in the U.S., focus on Christian activists from Washington, D.C., to Washington State, with stops in Virginia and Minnesota.
Amanpour found this portion of her research the most surprising part of the project.
“I had never inquired into the nuts and bolts of how Christian conservatives operate here in the U.S.,” she explained.
“We tend to look at them like some exotic subspecies, while they’re actually a huge segment of the population here. They have huge impact, and we can’t afford to treat them as a sort of loony fringe. I think that’s quite clear.”
She added that another form of Christian activism has begun to emerge, one in which the concerns are not abortion, homosexuality or the other targets of Moral Majority founder Falwell and other well-known conservatives.
“There’s a noticeable group of evangelicals who are moving away from hot-button (conservative) issues,” she said.
“Jesus talks about poverty, for instance, and there are those who think much more work should be done on poverty.
“There are others who talk about `creation care’ - protecting the environment.
“I found that very interesting, because (church groups) have enormous power, and there are instances where they could mobilize and have a real impact.”
Even with eight months of work, Amanpour conceded, there were aspects of the topic that went unaddressed.
“It might have been interesting to get to Africa,” where both Christian and Muslim activism is on the rise, “or to look at the new pope and how he’s getting back to the roots of Catholicism,” she reflected.
As for future assignments, Amanpour still feels drawn to report on the Islamic world, which she believes Americans ignore at their peril.
“We think we know about it, but we mostly know about its violent side,” she said. “We don’t pay enough attention to the political movements that are going on behind the scenes.
“Some of these countries have had so little opportunity for political development - that’s why they’ve elected Islamists. I don’t think they really want an Islamist party, but it’s the only thing available.
“(Radical Islamist parties) bring child care, education and health care where the (previous) government didn’t. If there’s to be democracy in the Middle East, I think it will inevitably go through a first phase of being Islamist democracy.
“That’s something that scares the West, and the West pulls back. But each time America pulls back from democracy, its image and credibility take a further dive.”