When ReligionWriter’s husband first saw a press copy of CNN’s new six-hour documentary, “God’s Warriors,” lying around the house, he said he looked forward to learning about famous heroes and soldiers in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.

He was disappointed, then, when the first segment, “God’s Jewish Warriors,” which will air next Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 9 p.m. EST, instead focused on a parade of unrepentant Jewish terrorists, unsmiling Israeli settlers and vaguely frightening Jewish Americans who raise money for illegal Jewish settlements.

In her stand-up intro to all three segments, Amanpour defines God’s Warrior’s this way:

Over the last 30 years, each faith [Judaism, Islam and Christianity] has exploded into a powerful religious force, with an army of followers who share a deep dissatisfaction with modern, secular society and a fierce determination to bring God and religion back into daily life, back to the seat of power. We call them “God’s Warriors.”

This definition would seem to leave room for Jews who take their religion seriously and use it for ends more positive than the construction of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank. Or the heroes of Jewish faith that ReligionWriter’s husband had hoped to learn about.

After watching the Jewish segment, one would have the idea that “God’s Warriors” is simply a novel, neutral phrase to refer to fundamentalists, extremists and the religiously unreasonable.

But if you watch the other two segments, the definition of “God’s Warriors” is expanded to include other more harmless, even positive examples. In the “God’s Muslim Warrior” segment, which will air next Wednesday, Aug. 29, Amanpour focuses on a 20-something American Muslim woman from Long Island who insists that jihad for her means wearing dressing modestly and observing her faith within the context of an often-unsupportive American culture. She engages in her own free-form translation of jihad.

Holy war? Really, who made that up? That is a very bad translation. It’s [actually] a self-struggle. Living in a secular society where you have to work to maintain your Islamic values? That’s jihad.

Since Amanpour allows this American Muslim to define faith in her own non-violent, personal-piety-focused American way, it seems strange that the Jewish segment did not include a similar profile. Instead, the only counterpoint comes in the form of a quiet Israeli veteran of the 1967 war, who prefers classical music to religion and likes bacon on his sandwiches. Why not also show an American Jew who, instead of using the Torah to insist on the Jewish right to occupy land, uses that same text to work towards reforming American society?

For the viewer, then, it’s never quite clear who “God’s Warriors” are, in the same sense that it’s never quite clear from the “War on Terror” who the enemies are.

Why now?

As the viewer watches footage of Israeli teens weeping while the Gaza settlements are bulldozed, hears ominous drum beats while photos of Osama bin Laden flash across the screen and sees pro-life demonstrators marching on Washington, the questions arises: Why make this series now?

Israel/Palestine, in spite of many protestations that it lies at the heart of turmoil in the Middle East, is on the political back-burner in the U.S. right now. And the story of Osama bin Laden and even Egyptian writer Seyyid Qutub has been oft-told. (Indeed, the footage and narration on Qutub, whose book, Milestones on the Road, is credited with birthing jihadist ideology, covered almost the exact same ground as PBS’ documentary, Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda, which aired this June.)

We know about these phenomenon: Why not help us understand them? Amanpour wisely turned to religious historian and popular writer Karen Armstrong for explanations. Armstrong’s 2001 book, The Battle for God, which explores the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is, in the view of ReligionWriter, one of the best popular titles on religion, period, and is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand religious extremism in the modern world.

Unfortunately, Armstrong appears only fleetingly through the documentary, and the central insights of her book receive only passing treatment. What Armstrong deftly and definitively showed in her book is that fundamentalism is a direct reaction to secular society and that the primary enemy for most fundamentalists is not the far-away enemy of other people, but their coreligionists who have a more lax religious outlook. This last point comes up in “God’s Jewish Warriors,” in the form of Rabin-murderer Yigal Amir, when Amanpour points out that Amir was enraged by what he perceived as Rabin’s intolerable compromises and sell-outs. More context like this is needed to make sense of fundamentalists.

On the first point — the relationship between fundamentalists and secular society — “God’s Warriors” is less sympathetic than Armstrong’s book, and as a result less effective. In her book Armstrong narrates how, in the late 1960s, after quitting the nun-hood and leaving the nunnery, emerged to discover a culture that had changed profoundly in her absence. She describes attending a party, where the Beatles’ “I want to hold your hand” was blaring while young people danced, drank and kissed. She writes (ReligionWriter is paraphrasing): “Here these singers were screaming out an emotion that I could barely articulate to myself, let along announce to a crowd of people.”

Armstrong helps us understand that for many people in America and around the world, secular society is experienced as a visceral assault to the senses, not to mention a direct challenge to deeply held values.

“God’s Warriors” rightly identifies an opposition to secular culture as the force that motivates fundamentalists, extremists and even run-of-the-mill religious folks in various traditions to press for social and political change. What the series fails to do is help us sympathize with this outlook. Even the most secular parents are probably unhappy that their son is addicted to violent video games, or that their daughter’s friends are losing their virginity in junior high.

So what makes some people turn to violence or extremism to solve those problems? That important question remains unanswered.

The Good Parts, and Why We Want More from Amanpour

Where the series shines brightest, ReligionWriter felt, was in telling individual stories. Ed Hussein’s journey out of radicalism is fascinating, as is the story of the Palestinian family whose son became a suicide bomber, as is the story of the American homeschooling family with five children.

One of the most interesting segments, part of “God’s Christian Warriors,” deals with the evangelist Ron Luce and his teen ministries, including BattleCry and Teen Mania. Luce talks heatedly to Amanpour about “virtue terrorists” who are “raping” teenage America in the streets, and he insists that if his message of “purity” is “divisive,” well, don’t blame him: “Jesus’ message was divisive.”

This segment comes alive in part because Amanpour steps out of her objective and sometimes deliberately wide-eyed reporting style to challenge Luce. When they are discussing Luce’s live-in ministry program, where TV, pop music and R-rated movies are banned, and where girls must wear skirts of a certain length and boys can’t use the Internet unsupervised, Amanpour tells Luce this makes her think of repressive societies around the world (i.e. probably Iran.) When Luce justifies the female dress code on the basis that the boys will then not be distracted by the girls’ sexuality, Amanpour replies tartly that this is the same reasoning used by the Taliban.

Indeed, the viewer begins to want more critical interjections like this from Amanpour. It doesn’t seem right that this most senior of journalists, Iranian by birth and a veteran of numerous conflicts, should be asking anyone (in this case, Karen Armstrong, who is no Iran expert) to explain the basics of the Iranian Revolution. And when Dutch ex-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali insists that women are being killed “right now” across Europe by their own repressive, religion-mad families, Amanpour offers skeptical “Really?” to this breathless, data-less assertion but presses no further.

Another rare and refreshing moment of Amanpour frankness comes when she interviews a former member of the Egyptian terrorist organization that assassinated President Anwar Sadat. As he ponderously explains that in Islamic law women have rights, but they can never be political leaders because they have other (i.e. domestic) responsibilities, Amanpour waves a devilish finger at the man, a sign that she feels his argument is not only stupid and wrong but obviously disproved by her very presence in front of him. (The man, resorting to his broken English, smiles abashedly and says, “You would angry from me now.”)

The Final Word

If you have six hours to spare next week, and you are hungry to understand the rise of fundamentalism in the monotheistic faiths today, ReligionWriter recommends you read the Armstrong book rather than watch the CNN series.

But if you have time, the best thing would be to both read the book and watch “God’s Warriors.” The two complement one another not in terms of ideas, but in terms of medium. The footage of “God’s Warriors,” collected over eight months of reporting, is fascinating and edifying to watch and makes a good complement to the more in-depth and contextual analysis of Armstrong’s book.

(All photos used with permission from CNN.)

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