“God’s Warriors”: Raging Fires

In Jerusalem, Christiane Amanpour stands on a rooftop as the camera pans toward her. In this “ancient city filled with sacred meaning” for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, she and her Special Investigations Unit crew will explore the different and similar ways that these three religions approach such meaning. Amanpour, as usual, does not back down from difficult questions. She opens her six-hour report — airing over three nights on CNN — by noting that Jerusalem, the “so-called city of peace, has been torn by centuries of war.”

This much is well known, of course. Amanpour’s thesis, however, may be less familiar. The fears and rages that drive the conflicts are born of similarity more than difference. “Millions of people view the world through a religious prism,” she says, “What they have in common [is]… the belief that modern society has lost its way.” Each group — and subgroups within — wants to correct that mistake by bringing “the world” back to an order that its adherents see written in scripture. Their sameness is, in the end, also about difference, that is, born of a volatile combination of interpretation and certainty. “They say God is the answer,” Amanpour narrates. “But their battle to save the world has caused anger, division, and fear.”

God’s Warriors doesn’t set out to judge individual causes, but to consider them in relation to one another. And that makes for fascinating television, at times reductive and likely frustrating for believers in endless complexity, and at other times shrewd and ambiguous (which makes for its own likely frustrations). The programs offer broad and brief historical overviews intermixed with very specific stories of death and survival, umbrage and revenge, and sadly, very little forgiveness. This absence — which might be considered ironic, given so many religious tenets — is not lost on Amanpour, who gently and deftly raises questions concerning intent and principle with her interview subjects.

Divided according to religious affiliations, the special opens tonight with “God’s Jewish Warriors,” in which Amanpour — the renowned war zone reporter recently named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II — begins her examination of this particular “religious prism” with a murder in Hebron. This takes her back to the 1967 Six Day War, when the Israelis’ surprising victory opened the way to the settlements in and occupation of captured territories. While the settlements remain a contentious strategy, whether official or unofficial — Jimmy Carter here, again, calls them the major impediment to peace between Israel and Palestine — the program looks at effects. Tzipi Shissel remembers an assault on her family that resulted in her father’s death: “The terrorist took the knife and he stabbed my father in his heart.” And yet, she, her husband, and their 10 children stay in Hebron. She says of the Palestinians, “Let them be in a different place.”

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN)

Whether you understand her resistance to be honorable or stubborn, the program gives it contexts. Driving with Amanpour through checkpoints manned by armed Israeli soldiers, Gershom Gorenberg, American-born Israeli journalist and author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements and The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, observes, “By placing the settlements between Palestinian towns, it creates long fingers that run into the West Bank, and that makes it very difficult to create a contiguous Palestinian state.” And preventing the state is the point, says Amanpour, for right-wing settlers who would deny democratic rights to the Palestinians whose land they occupy. The camera shows guns glinting in sunlight, construction trucks and field workers, dissolving to a photo of Shissel’s dead father as she declares her distrust of all Palestinians.

As Gorenberg points out, radical Islam and the Israeli and Palestinian conflict are linked inextricably. Amanpour interviews Jewish settlers, politicians, and terrorists (though this last group, notes the narration, is “small”). She speaks with right-wing Hanan Porat, who sees in the conquering of the Arabs “redemption for the Jewish people,” as well as Yakov Barnea, whose “religion is classical music” (raised to see being Israeli was “more a nationality than a religion”). Amanpour calls the men “two faces of Israel,” who shared the experience of the Six Day War, and came out seeing their places in the world very differently, not to mention the legality of the settlements. Amanpour interviews as well Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose shifting attitude toward the settlements is indicative of broader historical, political, and emotional changes: once supporting the settlements, he “now says getting rid of most of the settlements is key to a lasting peace.”

Amanpour and Israeli human rights lawyer Daniel Seideman walking along the Separation Barrier in Jerusalem. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN)

Such adjustments in thinking have to do with pragmatism (legal and political) as well as very personal interpretations of history and scripture. Israel calls “the West Bank disputed territory, not occupied.” Amanpour interviews Theodor Moron, who once wrote secret memos to the Israeli government, which declared the settlements illegal from the start. Though he says, “I do not believe that religion can resolve religious disputes,” religion is the foundation for most arguments concerning the land, arguments exacerbated by the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This idea is reinforced by pro-Israeli politics in the U.S., embodied here by “whirlwind of schmooze” Shani and Dov Hikind, whose “Jerusalem Reclamation Project” raises money and lobbies for Israel: “With a smile and a song,” says Amanpour, “They ignore their government’s policy.” Their high-powered cultivation of Jewish American support for the settlements in East Jerusalem and other occupied territories” is set against a series of soundbites by U.S. presidents (both Bushes and Bill Clinton), all opposed to the settlements. And yet, Dov Hikind is upfront about his cause. He tells Amanpour, “I know you’re not going to put this on, but those who call me a radical, aren’t they the real radicals, because they represent a much smaller segment than I do? I represent a hell of a lot of people.”

A similar faith in mission –whether framed as numbers or spiritual righteousness — informs work by the other “warriors” in the CNN series. “Religion is politics,” says Amanpour, as the focus shifts to “God’s Muslim Warriors.” The “mask” of the terrorist, while familiar now, “is a symptom of something larger and more complex, a rage and distress about what’s happening to the Muslim world.” Tracing the “road to radicalism,” the program opens in London, where on 29 June, “a disaster [was] just barely averted,” when two car bombs failed to detonate. Citing the fear ignited by “homegrown terrorists.” Amanpour goes on to investigate how “hard-line” Muslims come to be, in part by interviewing a lapsed terrorist, Ed Husain, who joined Hizb Ut-Tahrir at age 16, and has since written The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. When Amanpour asks him about his reaction to 9/11, he admits, “I was in an odd way happy that America had been attacked.” She presses him: “When did you realize that this was the wrong reaction?” He smiles, remembering, “That very evening… We were, as Islamists, abusing the book of God.”

A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN)

“God’s Muslim Warriors” compare with their Jewish counterparts in their insistence on being right. Mentioning such familiar figures as “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh and Adam Gadahn, “the American who now speaks for Al-qaeda,” the program also notes the often-cited inspiration for the current movement, Syed Qtub, who wrote in the 1950s about the moral and spiritual corruption of U.S. popular culture. Following his precepts, Osama Bin Laden and Otub’s nephew Ayman al-Zawahiri forged a doctrine of violent resistance, honed during their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan (an archival interview with Bin Laden has him asserting, “I benefited greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan”).

Here Amanpour takes the program to Iran, where she grew up and where the first internationally notorious version of such resistance was born: the Iran hostage crisis “set off a wave of Islamic fundamentalism.” Amanpour underlines the well-known fact that both the Shah and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein were at different points supported by the U.S., and that Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini’s ideas were initially understood as “progressive,” until his Revolution clashed with secular leaders in Iran. Massoumeh Ebtekar, a spokeswoman for the “genuine student movement” in 1979, remembers, “They knew they had to take some sort of unconventional step” (Amanpour exclaims, “Unprecedented!”).

The movement soon gave way to fundamentalist restrictions, inspiring young, male martyrs. This becomes Amanpour’s focus. “Why is it so important to die?” she asks. Grand Ayaltollah Saanei says, “We love martyrdom because it leads us to heaven and because we’ll be helped on the day of judgment.” Amanpour interviews the stoic, proud mother of warriors (“I would have been angry if they refused to go”) as well as erstwhile martyrs, now reformed. Kamal el-Said Habib, who plotted to kills Anwar Sadat and was sent to prison, “now says violent jihad didn’t bring the rewards he hoped for.” While the program moves quickly through such recent history, it underlines effects of radicalism. Fawaz Gerges, who wrote Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, says “What’s happened in Iraq has really poured fuel on a raging fire. A new generation much more dangerous than Al-qaeda, that uses terrorism as a rule rather than the exception.”

The sisters of a Palestinian martyr in the town of Jenin on the West Bank. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN)

By way of poignant illustration, Amanpour focuses on “women’s positions in fundamentalist state.” She argues with one interviewee about the stoning of girls accused of adultery (“You always pick isolated cases and blow them out of proportion,” says the woman, “We’ve only had three or four cases of stoning in 28 years”), shows footage of women being arrested on the street for “dressing un-Islamically,” and interviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia-born Muslim, former Dutch parliament member, and famously outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam.

The focus on women is underlined by an interview with American Rehan Seyam Hijab, who wears the hijab (“I’m here to worship God,” she explains, and the head scarf is her means of remembering and announcing that), as well as Shadi Ghadirian’s photos of women in veils and without faces (covered by kitchen utensils, for example). “She knows,” says Amanpour, “the intricate art of self-censorship.” Still, former nun and current religious historian Karen Armstrong notes, as Amanpour nods in agreement, “It’s important to say that none of the great world religions has been good for women, not a single one of them.” She points out — as the program shows western fashion models sashaying on a catwalk, that for her seven years as a nun, “I never had to wear man-pleasing garments, I never had to fill my head with the junk society tells women to trivialize their lives.”

Women are central as well to the case made in “God’s Christian Warriors,” the series’ third installment, premiering Thursday night. Including an interview with “godfather of the Christian right” Jerry Falwell (his last with a journalist, says Amanpour, before his “sudden death”), the program looks again at how devout faith can lead to “division and fear.” Recalling the bombings of abortion clinics and court cases that marked the rise of the religious right in the U.S., Amanpour notes the irony of Jimmy Carter being the “first born again president,” who, in the 1990s, “watched the Southern Baptist Convention he belonged to become more conservative. “They took some positions that were contrary to my own faith,” he says, asserting that an especially troubling tenet was that “women must be submissive to their husbands… and women are precluded from instructing men.”

Young Christians praying in front of a cross at a “BattleCry” event in San Francisco. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN)

The program shows a range of Christian “warriors,” including Seattle-based political activist Danille Turissini and pastor Greg Boyd (of the Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota), who “believes that politics and religion should not mix” (“To be pro-life is not just to be concerned about the womb,” he says, “It’s to be concerned about life… Don’t label your way of voting ‘Christian'”). He was particularly upset, he says, when, after the Gulf war, he attended a “show” featuring three crosses and four fighter jets: while others cheered, he says, “I started crying because I wondered how its it possible that we went from a movement of people who follow the messiah to being a movement that celebrates fighter jets that fuses Jesus’ death on the cross with killing machines?”

The program concludes with a visit to San Francisco, where Amanpour observes “22,000 screaming teenagers and adults, Christian conservatives armed with their faith and ready to do battle.” Again, the idea is to take back a secular culture perceived as being out of control. She interviews founder of Teen Mania Ministries Ron Luce, who instructs the crowd, “We’re here to stage a reverse rebellion, we’re here to rise up reject the pop culture and recreate it with the creativity that God has given us.”

Amanpour flinches as the “Battle Cry Event” includes a showy explosion (“It’s like Sarajevo,” she says). Luce proclaims his war against “the American lifestyle,” calling his enemies “virtue terrorists.” Smiling ruefully, Amanpour observes the group’s hard line against homosexuality, Luce’s own “troubled past” (he discusses his broken home and adolescence spent “doing drugs and stuff, smoking weed”), as well as Battle Cry’s strict dress code. When Luce explains that girls’ skirts must be a certain length because “any man on the planet can be distracted,” Amanpour’s face reveals a combination of recognition and dismay: “That’s what the Taliban said, that men couldn’t be trusted around them.” Ah, yes, says Luce, but “We’re not extremists.”

Indeed, very few of the warriors profiled in the series see themselves as “extremists.” Rather, they understand their work as upright, determined to save the world they see as gone so wrong. That they are so alike even as they seem so different provides little comfort. Instead, their mutually exclusive focuses, their self-affirming single-mindedness, suggest that the current impasses will persist.

“BattleCry” founder Ron Luce at an event in San Francisco. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN)

RATING 7 / 10
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