God’s Warriors

Is there an Emmy Award for Biggest Disappointment?

If so, I nominate CNN’s three-part series, “God’s Warriors,” hosted or read or fronted — but certainly not reported – by Christiane Amanpour. The investigation – their claim – into radicals of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim persuasion was CNN’s highest-rated documentary ever, which just goes to show: Scratch any responsible news organization deep enough and you’ll find a shallow, sensationalizing ratings whore.

The big reveal of the program was this: There are extremists out there ready to blow us up or hijack our elections.

There was no analysis: not what these extremists have in common, not how they’ve risen and fallen throughout history; not how moderates can effectively counteract them, not even the relative numbers of extremists within each religion. Just this: they exist – as if we had never heard of Jerry Falwell and weren’t watching TV on Sept. 11.

As for Amanpour’s segment on God’s Jewish “warriors,” it managed to be both insidious and laughable. She rightly mentioned Jewish extremists like Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who slaughtered Muslims in prayer in Hebron, but failed to note that while the Israeli government and the vast majority of Jews take pains to prosecute and condemn their extremists, Muslim nations fund or sanction theirs.

Amanpour then focused on Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza who claim God deeded that land to the Jewish people and oppose giving up their homes under any circumstances. She failed to point out that it is indeed the Israeli government these people are fighting – theirs is not some global campaign to force Jewish law upon the West.

Then Amanpour reported on AIPAC, the legal, mainstream pro-Israel lobbying group, in the same series and context as abortion doctor assassins and suicide bombers. The impression she gave was that every religion has its crazies; one is no different than the others.

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Did CNN really place the pro-Israel lobby in the same “investigation” as Islamic Jihad? Yes, and there was former President Jimmy Carter greeting Amanpour with a warm hug before confiding in her how dangerous the pro-Israel lobby is to American foreign policy.

Rational people can raise any number of objections to AIPAC’s policies or strategies – and I have over the years – but to single them out under the guise of balance is ludicrous.

For my own sense of sanity and balance, I switched off the TV and picked up last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

There was a cover story on religious fundamentalism by a writer and thinker smart enough and bold enough to understand where exactly the threat is, and where it isn’t.

“…. Millions of people, particularly in the Muslim orbit, believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs,” Mark Lilla wrote in his essay, “The Great Separation,” in The New York Times Magazine of Aug. 18.

Lilla’s essay did everything Amanpour failed to do: it traced the historical development of the separation between Church and State, the divorce between theology and politics that we in the West took for granted, and how that “Great Separation” is not a given in the Muslim world.

Muslim law, wrote Lilla, “is meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands…. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.”

And that is why the world is roiling with religiously inspired violence – not, as it turns out, because of AIPAC.

It’s an open question whether we moderates can go the distance against the toxic religious and ethnic extremists out there.

For Muslims, Lilla points out, the issue is even more difficult. To offer a liberal version of Islam that meshes with Western ideas of “the great separation,” is to drain Islam of the very power that its new generation of adherents finds so hypnotic.

Lilla finds more promise in contemporary Islamic theologians like UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl and Swiss cleric Tariq Ramadan, “whose writings show Western Muslims that their political theology, properly interpreted, offers guidance for living with confidence in their faith and gaining acceptance in what he calls an alien ‘abode..'”

Lilla sums up with as powerful a charge as we religious moderates could ever take to heart. “We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder,” he writes, ” we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.”

Clearly, we moderates have our work cut out for us. And it’s a job not made any easier by the junk CNN just tried passing off as journalism.