God’s Warriors: Misunderstood Muslims

Islamic radicalsThe second episode of CNN’s God’s Warriors series aired Wednesday night. I wasn’t able to follow the show as closely as on Tuesday night, so I’ll provide some general comments rather than “live blogging” the show. Please give feedback since commentary on television news programs isn’t something we do that often.

This episode started off a lot less violently (at least visually) than the episode on Jewish extremists. As with Tuesday’s show, a lot experts gave us the history of complicated situations, but this time it involved things that happened centuries ago and not just decades. Overall, the show covered vast material fairly superficially. One could do 10 hours of programming on Islam. I think it might have been more interesting to focus on a few specific examples of radical Islam, rather than trying to cover Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, the United Sates and Europe.

That was one of the strengths of “God’s Jewish Warriors.” It was contained to a small tract of land and one nation.

The New York Timesreview found the first episode the weaker of the bunch and found value in the show’s host, Christiane Amanpour, being confrontational toward the views that offended her:

Tonight’s opening installment, “God’s Jewish Warriors,” seems particularly timid, spending more time than necessary on clips of the Six-Day War and other familiar historical episodes. The warriors are Jews who have forcefully pushed settlements into areas even the Israeli government has placed off-limits, making political inroads at the same time. We’ve already heard quite a lot from these people; Ms. Amanpour’s most interesting contribution is a segment on the fund-raising in the United States that supports them.

“God’s Muslim Warriors,” tomorrow, is sharper, with Ms. Amanpour finally showing some aggressiveness, on the issue of women’s rights under radical Islam, brashly confronting leaders about things like stonings. But mostly she’s polite and lets her subjects stay in their comfort zones. The most compelling interview in the segment is not with a radical but with a former radical, Ed Husain. And it turns out he’s just hawking a book.

Amanpour’s Western values came through clearly in this episode, but I agree with the Times review: Amanpour confronted people politely, not aggressively. It contrasted nicely with her upbringing in Iran.

An article by Gannett News Service’s Mike Hughes is more a report about Amanpour’s experience researching the project. I found this comment interesting and contrary to what we’re shown on the show:

The title shouldn’t be taken literally; this is rarely about actual warfare. “Only a … tiny minority uses violence or terror,” says Mark Nelson, head of CNN Productions.

Why would CNN mislabel a show? The title of the show is the major problem for most critics, and now CNN wants us to believe that it is only a superficial title?

Overall I found this show less interesting because of the broad focus on the various strains of radical Islam spread around the Middle East, Europe and (briefly) the United States. I found the part on non-terrorist jihadists in the U.S. the most revealing.

Near the end of the show, Amanpour finally got around to the brutal “holy” murder of Theo van Gogh. The show does a great job contrasting the secular practices of the Dutch with the strict teachings of radical Islam.

I am really looking forward to Thursday’s episode on “God’s Christian Warriors.” I hope to spend more time following and writing on the big finale.

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CNN: God’s Warriors are hurting us

As promised, here is a review of the first installment of CNN’s series God’s Warriors hosted by Christiane Amanpour. The topic for tonight is “God’s Jewish Warriors.” I raised the question Monday of whether the series would engage in moral equivalency by lumping together extremists (or God’s warriors) from Christianity, Judaism and Islam. As one reader asked, where are the Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism?

Overall I am very glad that CNN is airing this type of show in prime time. The producers clearly spent some serious time putting this together and CNN has done a good job getting the news out about the show. It’ll be interesting to see the show’s ratings.

But that’s neither here nor there. What follows is a running commentary as the show aired.

Spooky Lost-style music raises on scenes of people raising their hands to the heavens, on a cross and a man saying that scripture is the foundation of society. They say God is the answer, but there are people saying that Islam is a threat, religion is too involved in politics and suicide bombers are scary.

Amanpour introduces the series and insinuates that “God’s warriors” in Christianity, Judaism and Islam all believe that violence could fix society’s problems.

The first story, in an attempt to show how some Jews believe that parts of the Middle East are for the Jews to settle, shows a woman whose father was killed by Palestinians. The family continues to live in the West Bank despite the conflicts.

The show transitions nicely into showing how the Jewish people who believe they have a right to the West Bank inflame sentiments in the Islamic world.

Now we’re seeing a nice history of the Six-Day War and the recapture of the Old City.

And now we’re at our first commercial. “Later, Jewish settlers turn to terror … and a plot to destroy one of Islam’s holiest sites.”

And now we’re back. Tanks, soldiers, machine guns, and more on the 1967 Six-Day War. The result of the Six-Day War — the West Bank settlements — is now the focus of the series. Scenes from conferences and fundraisers for building up the Jewish settlements are amusing from a Michael Moore investigation style.

Now we’re off to another break. Coming up, a Jewish warrior of God tells CNN that the proper response to terrorism is revenge.

Once again we’re back in America talking about how the $3 billion provided by the U.S. is something members of Congress could never vote against. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that so much focus is on what’s going on in the U.S.

Now we’re being told that President George H.W. Bush was nearly a hero for taking on the Jewish lobby. But he backed down just before the 1992 GOP convention. Now we’re talking about a hero of the show, President Jimmy Carter, and his efforts to address the matter.

Now we’re off to another break and I just accidentally hit the publish button, so everything after this comes after my initial publishing.

The story is now coming full circle as evangelical Christians are introduced as financial backers of the Jewish settlement movement. Portrayed are members of a supposed evangelical church (whatever that means these days) that takes their Jewish heritage so seriously that they worship sometimes on Friday nights. They also dance around in blue dresses and bang on tambourines.

Oh and if you didn’t know, the alliance between evangelical Christians and Israel is growing! Lots of money is raised from Christian Zionists to fund bad stuff in Israel and the West Bank. More Americans are supporting Israel by moving there.

Overall the failure to better define “some evangelicals” is a major failing of the show. Evangelicals are not monolithic on anything related to Israel and Judaism.

We’re dealing now with more history of the agreement between Egypt and Israel to give back the Sinai Peninsula. I think I like the history portions of this show the most. The plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock gets little attention these days. I’m glad this is being discussed.

An advertisement for Anderson Cooper 360° comes up. Did anyone know Hurricane Dean is coming?

Now we’re being told that the Jewish man who killed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, because of Rabin’s to his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, is in the same moral category as suicide bombers.

Another break and I’m thankful for DVR because it’s getting late.

Things are getting pretty violent as we see Muslims and Jewish terrorists going at it. The rising violence results in support to the radical right ring of Israeli politics. Jewish terrorists are now planning to attack a Palestinian school for girls with a homemade bomb. “Jewish terror to match Palestinian terror,” Amanpour says. Bomb makers are stopped and sentenced to prison. Not all Jews condemn the criminals.

After what I hope is the last break (my alertness is fading), it’s interesting to see that what was yesterday’s news is now part of history. The evacuation of the Gaza settlements seems so fresh in my mind, and it’s fascinating to see how it played out in relation to the last 50-plus years.

The violence between the Jewish settlers and the Jewish military and police is amazing to watch. I don’t remember this being reported in U.S. media. Does anyone else remember how much coverage it received?

And concluding with the statement that people all over the world are fearful that modern society — whatever that is — is trampling on their religious beliefs, Amanpour wraps up the first in this series and I’m off to bed.

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Day of mourning for secular fundies

1101010914 400 01The email is starting to come in asking when GetReligion is going to have something to say about that New York Times Magazine cover story from this past weekend, the massive piece called “The Politics of God” by Mark Lilla. The sad thing about it is that I am three time zones away from my office and involved in some long, long meetings in which a circle of journalists and academics are, during the break times, talking about this piece.

I wish I had the time to devote to it that it deserves. Let me stress that it is not a piece of journalism, yet it is certainly about a subject that looms behind much of the journalism of this era. It is very much a piece about whether our culture’s elites “get religion.”

Here is the opening, which the Times underlined by publishing on the magazine cover:

The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity– these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

This is not the kind of piece that will make the Rev. Pat Robertson dance for joy, or anything like that. Trust me. It also must be said that some of its major themes are similar to points that historian Martin Marty has been making for ages. So this is not really a liberal vs. conservative matter. But secular vs. religious?

Consider this quote from a column I wrote about a Marty presentation in the wake of Sept. 11:

Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

There is much to write and, for once, I simply want to point you in the direction of a post elsewhere — by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher over at his Crunchy Cons blog. Rod has gone to the trouble of writing a lengthy summary of the Times piece and then offering his comments. He also rounded up another reaction or two.

To read that summary, click here. Here is a short sample of what he has to say:

I’ll say quickly, and for now, that I am glad to see this essay appear in such a prominent mainstream media outlet. I have been deeply frustrated for a long time over the inability of so many Americans, especially in the media, to understand that the American way of seeing God is not universal. Muslims are not Episcopalians in hijabs. For better and for worse, they follow their own powerful creed, and their creed is deeply incompatible with Western secularism, and with modernity. And we’ve got to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were.

And that is the key for journalists. Do we want to try to offer informed, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates? Is that possible?

At the very least, this thunderclap in the holy Times is a sign that it is getting safer and safer to admit that religion is news, period, and that it is impossible to make sense of the news that is going on around us without admitting that journalists will have to “get religion.” Amen.

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God’s Warriors: blatant moral equivalency

Christiane Amanpour12Christiane Amanpour’s CNN series, God’s Warriors, seems to be a well-intended effort at explaining in-depth religious issues prominent in today’s world. Amanpour deserves credit for raising the visibility of international issues. That she has a total of six hours of prime-time television over the course of three days this week to focus on these issues is also a plus.

But based on the promotions, it appears the series engages in a blatant case of moral equivalency between Jewish settlers, Muslims fighting to making Islamic law the law of the land and Christians fighting for “the social, political and religious future of the U.S.A.” Tuesday will be on “God’s Jewish Warriors,” Wednesday is on “God’s Muslim Warriors” and Thursday is on “God’s Christian Warriors.”

The Associated Press’s David Bauder has a rather incomplete write-up of the series that fails to address this issue. Rather, it lavishes praise on Amanpour and tells us little that the press release doesn’t tell us. But the piece provides a good launching point for making my main criticism:

Many people know only stereotypes of these true believers, even the ones in their own country, she said.

Yet it’s vital to be familiar with their thinking given the growing importance of these movements in the war on terrorism, the never-ending conflicts surrounding Israel and conservative politics in the United States.

“I’m not interested in drumming up false fears, or falsely allaying fears,” CNN’s chief international correspondent told The Associated Press by phone from France, where she added last-minute touches to the series. “I just want people to know what’s going on.”

I know it’s unlikely that Amanpour was involved in promoting the show, and it may be true that the piece tries to shatter stereotypes. But based on what I’ve seen, for instance on the series’ website, the overall approach engages in a blatant stereotype: anyone who takes their religious seriously is on the same moral level as anyone else who takes their religious seriously.

Lumping the three groups together all as “God’s warriors” also clouds the issues and gives people a false image of all groups that take religious seriously. I would be more comfortable with this if there were only Muslims who wanted to make Islamic law the law of the land, but that’s not the case in the world.

Rightfully so, the promotion says an “extreme fringe” uses terrorism as a weapon and I think it is very wrong for CNN to compare terrorism with anything but terrorism. It cheapens the act of the terrorism and lowers the moral standing of political efforts of groups trying to affect society.

Consider this post a preview for the show. I have major issues with equating terrorism with settlers’ movements and nonviolent political battles, but the show may surprise me. I have been recently blessed with a DVR. I plan to watch each episode and do my best to report back after each show airs or soon after.

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The brothers Murdoch

NetworkDeansMichael Paulson of The Boston Globe has written one of the most poignant feature stories about the Episcopal Church’s sexuality debate that I have seen in more than 15 years of writing about the topic. In writing about two brothers who are priests, Paulson reveals their deep division on sexuality (“Bill Murdoch calls homosexual activity a sin, while Brian Murdoch calls it a gift”) and persuades the brothers to talk about how they have remained close.

One section near the top of the article is awkward:

The Rev. Bill Murdoch, 58, an Episcopal priest in West Newbury, is so frustrated by the Episcopal Church’s selection of an openly gay bishop that he is bolting and taking his parish with him. At the end of this month, he is to be consecrated a bishop by the Anglican Church of Kenya, and he will return to the North Shore to start a new Kenya-affiliated parish there.

But the Rev. Brian Murdoch, 53, an Episcopal priest in West Roxbury, is not planning to join his brother for the ceremony in Nairobi and is not celebrating his elevation to bishop.

That’s because Brian, as Bill has long known, is gay.

I say the passage is awkward because Brian Murdoch’s sexual orientation is not the reason for Bill Murdoch’s leaving the Episcopal Church or becoming a bishop affiliated with the Anglican Church of Kenya. The brothers do, of course, disagree about whether the Episcopal Church should have consecrated a sexually active gay man as a bishop.

Bill Murdoch casts no aspersions on his brother’s ministry as a priest, telling Paulson via email: “My family and I love Brian and have always been proud of his service to others for the sake of the Gospel and the many, many people Brian has loved in the name of Christ. The pain of our disagreement over this issue will not change my love for him.”

Brian Murdoch raises the question of what his brother would do if Brian and his partner were to attend the consecration and then be imprisoned because homosexuality is illegal in Kenya. An interesting question, that: Does it assume that Kenya would jail two gay men merely for stepping inside its borders?

Despite these arguments with the piece, I commend it as an example of extraordinary reporting on a volatile issue.

Photo: Bill Murdoch speaks while surrounded by his fellow Anglican Communion Network deans. Bishop Robert Duncan, the Network’s moderator, is in the background.

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Secular civics in Spain

honda civicsA reader of ours, UndergroundPewster, wrote us a note asking for our thoughts on this International Herald Tribune article on a new secular civics course being introduced in Spain.

In this “Letter from Spain,” reporter Victoria Burnett tells us how a new course taught to students in about a third of Spain’s regions in September is drawing the ire of the Catholic Church. While the course seems rather benign from the initial description of lessons on why reckless driving is bad, Burnett relies on a Catholic to tell us what the fuss is all really about much later in the story

And it’s all about sex:

Alfonso Aguilo, a Catholic headmaster and head of the Madrid Association of Private Education Companies, said that 2,500 parents of the 40,000 students the association represents do not want their children to take the course. In an interview by telephone, he said he was worried about textbooks that put heterosexuality on an equal footing with homosexuality, bisexuality or transsexuality.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want their children to think there are five types of sexuality, five types of family,” he said.

Near the end of the article we’re told that part of the controversy involves the Catholic Church seeing the new course “as a challenge to its influence in the education system,” where it holds a lot of weight. Also, a fourth of all Spanish students are in Catholic schools, which receive 50 percent of their funding from the government.

Overall the article lacked a broader context that would have been helpful to see the clash between the secularists in Spain and the traditionalists in the church. The clash here makes the culture wars in America look tame, considering that both sides are represented by entrenched centralized organizations.

There is also the question of the broader European story. Spain is very different from its neighbors in a number of ways, but what do other countries’ educational systems have in terms of civics courses and the church? A couple of compelling places to look would be Italy and France.

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‘There is no Islam … without a Khilafah’

tahrirConsumers of mainstream news hear, from time to time, the term “Arab street” used to describe the mindset of those opposed to so-called Western values and, in particular, the policies of the United States, England and other nations involved in conflicts in the Middle East.

The “Arab street” is usually described in terms of great masses of people who are poor, oppressed and, other than their anger, powerless. But is that the reality in the debates we face today? What are the key issues and who cares about them?

A recent New York Times story by Jane Perlez offered a stunning look into the reality of the debates that are unfolding in England, focusing on a London event advocating a crucial concept in Islamic history — the return of the “caliphate” in the Muslim world. You know you are dealing with strong stuff when you see a headline in the Times like this one: “London Gathering Defends Vision of Radical Islam.”

Here is the heart of the story, as a “radical Islamic party” strikes back against its critics:

The party, Hizb ut-Tahrir, calls for the return of the caliphate in Muslim countries, the end of Israel and the withdrawal of all Western interests in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the botched terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, there were renewed calls in Parliament for barring the group, on the ground that though it officially advocates change by peaceful means, its pronouncements can encourage Muslims to turn toward terrorism.

The conference was dedicated to the return of the Khilafah, or caliphate, the organization of Muslim power that held sway for centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Titled Khilafah: The Need and the Method, it was held at the Alexandra Palace, a 19th-century entertainment complex in grand gardens in northern London, and drew a largely professional audience — IT managers, bankers, teachers. For hours, speakers assailed the British government for linking the group to terrorism, and for too often treating Muslims as terrorism suspects, and drummed at the theme of the need for Muslim rule.

“There is no Islam as a way of life without a Khilafah,” said Kamal Abuzahra, an Islamic academic of Bangladeshi origin, earning a roar of approval and calls of “Allahu Akbar.”

Note the makeup of the crowd. Is this your usual picture of the “Arab street,” when you read reports about groups within Islam that advocate radical or even traditional forms of the faith? I think not. That is what makes this story so crucial.

The story even fills in some of the religious content of this debate and, here is the key, allows the people taking part in the conference to describe their own views. Why is the concept of a “caliphate” so appealing?

“If you look at the political structure in the Muslim world, it’s a police state,” said Mohammed Baig, 28, a second-generation British Indian who is an asset manager specializing in corporate governance and has been a Tahrir party member for seven years. “You have the public opinion underground, and then staged public opinion in the media.”

Most people in the Muslim world want Shariah, the code of Islamic law based on the Koran, he said.

“Our feeling is: what gives Western governments the right to impose a set of values on a people who don’t believe in them?” he said, referring to the United States and Britain pushing for democratic values in the Middle East.

And there you have it, according to the moderate Muslims I have talked with in recent months. Reporters who want to cover this debate must realize that, as one scholar told me: “It is all about Shariah.” Can Shariah come to the West? Will governments in the West allow that and, if they do, are the political leaders who back that development prepared to deal with its affects on public life?

Read this Times report. Twice. (Hat tip to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher for spotting this story.)

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Where is the ghost in this Sudan story?

e1074I know that this is a very old topic around here, but here I go again.

The fact that people are being massacred in the Sudan is old news by this time.

The fact that religion has a lot to do with it is old news, especially when you are dealing with the South Sudan — where Christians and animists have been dying for many years, in numbers that are just as bad if not worse than the hellish conditions in Darfur.

It does help that Hollywood has jumped into the game when it comes to crying out for justice in Darfur. Hey, better late than never.

It is also old news that there is more to this conflict than religion and that the religious elements are complex and many-layered. The press should know all of that by now.

So I am mystified when I read a story in a major newspaper — the Los Angeles Times, in this case — that seems not to realize that there is much of a religious component to the Sudan fighting. I am talking about the Maggie Farley piece that ran the other day with this long double-deck headline: “Sudan rebel affects peace talks by sitting out: As other opposition leaders meet today to map strategy, Abdel Wahid will wield considerable clout — from exile in Paris.” The whole point of the story is to show that rebel leaders can be morally complex, too.

OK, I get that.

Wahid, a round-faced 39-year-old, is one of Darfur’s original rebel leaders, and even from afar, a man of secrets, contradictions and considerable power. He is a holdout who gains influence over the conversation about peace by refusing to talk; a would-be peacemaker who threatens more war; a fighter for the rights of displaced people, yet a figure who derives his power from their misery. And he is one reason it is so hard to stabilize Sudan.

Wahid began the SLM in 1992 while a law student in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to agitate for a secular democratic state and a greater share of the country’s power and wealth for the long-neglected people in the vast western region of Darfur. The group evolved into an armed movement, which along with other rebels attacked Sudanese forces in 2003. The rebellion resulted in widespread retaliation by militias known as janjaweed, widely believed to be backed by the Sudanese government. The militias terrorized the villages harboring rebels, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and driving more than 2 million people from their homes into U.N.-run camps.

Though he has been living in Paris since 2004 for what he says are security reasons, Wahid remains one of the most influential leaders of the Fur tribe, which makes up the majority of Darfur’s population and has been the main target of attacks.

So please read on. Am I missing something? Is there a religious element to this story, some way of describing the alignment between this rebel and the Islamists that run the government? Is this the only truly secular leader in this whole conflict?

In other words, what is going on here?

This is not a good question to have to ask at the end of a news report. What am I missing?

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