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Was CNN's "God's Warriors" Fair?

On August 21-23, 2007, CNN ran a series entitled “God’s Warriors,” hosted by Christiane Amanpour. The two-hour segments dealt, in nightly order, with Jews (and Israelis), Muslims and Christians. I watched all three, but since my areas of expertise are Islamic and Christian history (as well as being a Christian myself), my commentary will not encompass the first night.

As is usually the case with CNN, powerful images from exotic locales are interspersed with seemingly hard-hitting interviews and spiced with almost subliminal commentary from the host—in this case, Amanpour. She began the segment on “God’s Muslim Warriors” by talking to “Ed” Hussein, a Brit and former member of Hizb al-Tahrir who has written a book—The Islamist—on his journey into and out of that organization dedicated to establishing a global caliphate transcending national borders. This was followed by a brief, and useful, description of Sayyid Qutb and his writings. Qutb was the Egyptian intellectual who is, in many ways, the most important proximate influence on modern jihadist thought, especially in his contention that Western civilization is corrupt and godless and its influences must be replaced by Islamic ones, especially law.

Amanpour interviewed the usually-knowlegable Fawaz Gerges on Qutb, then jumped to the topic of Iran, where we got our first clip of the ubiquitous Karen Armstrong. Armstrong has somehow gained the status of an expert on Islam, despite the fact that she works only in secondary sources or in sources in translation; furthermore, Armstrong never met a Pollyannish view of Islamic history that she didn’t totally accept. This was followed by a recap of 1979’s Iranian Revolution, then of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the role that Shi`i views of martyrdom played in Iran’s being able to eventually repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Amanpour, in one of several clips from Qom—Iran’s ayatollah central—then talked to Grand Ayatollah Saanei who, when asked about terrorism, replied (at least according to the translator—my Farsi is not that good) “terrorists should go to hell—but we have the right to defend ourselves.” Amanpour, as usual (at least with Islamic interviewees—she behaves rather differently when talking to Christian evangelicals), did not press the ayatollah to explicate that curious statement. Perhaps we might have learned that one ayatollah’s terrorist might be another ayatollah’s martyr?

From here Amanpour took us to Cairo and briefly reviewed why and how Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. However, in explaining the ideological roots of the folks who riddled him with bullets, Amanpour noted the undeniable influence of Qutb on groups like Takfir wa-al-Hijra, but then opined that Qutb had “redefined jihad”—the clear implication being that jihad was nonviolent until Qutb weaponized the concept. This is a politically-correct absurdity, for as I (and other writers) have demonstrated, jihad’s primary meaning has been “conquest of the Dar al-Harb [non-Muslim territory] by the Dar al-Islam [Muslim world]” since at least the 9th c. CE, if not going back to Muhammad himself.

Amanpour then finally launched into a segment on Usama bin Ladin, describing him (rightly) as “ultra-strict, devout” and “wanting to create a global caliphate.” She does a good job on the Egyptian roots of Bin Ladin’s thought, especially of course the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in this regard (al-Zawahiri, for example, is Egyptian and got his start in the MB). However, she once again allows political correctness to trump reality, in describing the Muslim Brotherhood as having “renounced violence” and allowing to go unquestioned Fawaz Gerges’s contention that the MB is now “mainstream…[and] moderate”—a myth that research by Patrick Poole has superbly exploded.

Amanpour next turns back to Iran and explores Mahdism (although without ever uttering that term), describing President Ahmadinezhad accurately as “waiting for the return of the Shi`ite messiah.” Of course, the returned Hidden Imam in his role as Mahdi is NOT a “messiah,” at least not as Christians—the largest group to use the concept—understand it. The Mahdi is quite unlike Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected Christian messiah, in that his role is more that of a global warlord who will take over the world and create a just planetary caliphate. Granted, that may be a bit much to explain in a CNN special. But would it have been too much for Amanpour to explore the fact that belief in the Mahdi is NOT just the province of Shi`i Islam—that most Mahdist claimants throughout Islamic history have been Sunni?! Indeed, as I have pointed out in my writings and on my website (www.mahdiwatch.org) , Mahdi claims in the Sunni world are not just part of history—several have been made this year alone. But to give Amanpour credit, she did travel to the Bright Future Institute in Qom, an organization founded under Ahmadinezhad’s adminstration which is dedicated to teaching about, and preparing for, the re-emergence of the Hidden Imam. She also used her difficulties in getting her chador on properly to segue into a discussion of the status of women in Iran under Islamic law today. However, I’m not all that reassured in this regard by the interview with a prominent female Iranian politician, who said that the Qur’an mandates stoning for adultery but that “we’ve only had 3 or 4 cases of stoning in the last 28 years.”

And what would be a discussion of women in the Muslim world without Karen Armstrong’s opinion? “Not a single one of the world’s great religions has been good for women,” and “the Qur’an gives women rights” that the other two [monotheistic] religions don’t. The first is a blanket statement that it would seem to owe more to Ms. Armstrong’s sour grapes, as a former nun, toward the Catholic Church than to any reasonable historical assessment of Christianity, since it is rather ahistorical to detach the fact that women’s rights developed in Western civilization from, at least in part, the Christian foundations of the West. As for the latter, Armstrong is correct that the legal status of women was raised from virtually non-existent to second-class by Muhammad. However, I am puzzled as to exactly how “send your wives to beds apart and beat them” (Surah al-Nisa’:34ff) give women rights. Of course, Amanpour did not press Armstrong on such issues.

Amanpour then moved to the status of Muslim women in the U.S. I was quite surprised that she stated there are “approximately 2 million Muslims in the U.S.,” drawing upon the latest data by the Pew Center, rather than simply repeating CAIR-esque propaganda about the “7-10 million Muslims” here. But she quickly reverted to politically correct (or perhaps just ignorant) type, in allowing a Muslim-American woman to state that “jihad means struggle. Holy War? Who made that up? That’s a very bad translation.” If I hadn’t already been on the floor, I’d have fallen out of my chair, amazed that any Muslim is that ignorant of her own history while only slightly less amazed that CNN’s Islam expert allowed such massive ignorance (or mendacity) to go unchallenged. Who made up the idea that jihad means holy war? Off the top of my head I can think of al-Bukhari, Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. One might even quite plausibly argue the Islamic prophet Muhammad himself. It’s not the definition of jihad as “holy war” that is novel; rather, it is the revisionist definition of jihad solely as a peaceful struggle to be a good Muslim and/or to propagate Islam. The world would be well-served if the latter version were to win out—but the violent definition of jihad is neither new nor artificial. No doubt Homeland Security will breathe a collective sigh of relief if jihad indeed comes to mean something as anodyne as “wearing the hijab”—which this same American Muslimah claimed. But she has an uphill struggle, since as Amanpour pointed out—using the same aforementioned Pew data—26% of American Muslims under 30 think that suicide bombing is sometimes justified. (See my 7 Myths About Islam.)

Yet more Karen Armstong came next: analogizing the habit she used to wear as a nun to the hijab or chador that allegedly increasing numbers of Muslim women are adopting, Armstrong said both were liberating in that neither is “man-pleasing.” By that logic, the Taliban with their full-length burkas have the most liberating take on women’s dress.

Amanpour talked to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at some length, a quite informative segment from a fellow who converted from Judaism to radical Islam, then found his way out. From here she jumped to the Netherlands and discussed the Islamic killing of Theo Van Gogh and the threats against Islamic reformer Ayaan Hirsi Ali which forced her to move to the U.S. However, Amanpour made a ridiculous stab at moral equivalence by juxtaposing an interview of a Dutch Muslim cleric who had openly prayed for Hirsi Ali to “get cancer and die” with one of a Dutch politician who calls Islam a threat and for a ban on Muslim immigration to Holland.

The penultimate segment was on Palestinian suicide bombers. The mother of one such young man told Amanpour that “according to the Qur’an he’s in heaven.” If the Qur’an itself—said to have been written in the 7th c. CE—says this, then how can suicide bombing and jihad be modern ideas, twisted by modern ideologues? Amanpour ended the night on Islam by stating categorically that people who kill in the name of Islam adhere to “a twisted version of Islam.” I wonder if she would include Muhammad in that category?

On Thursday, August 23, CNN went after “God’s Christian Warriors.” Let me state at the outset, in the name of full disclosure, that while I am a rather conservative Christian, I am in no way, shape or form an evangelical or “fundamentalist” Christian (yes, my liberal readers, there IS a difference).

Amanpour began by observing that “religion has exploded as a political force” in the last 30 years but blames it on the Religious Right: “[Jerry] Falwell thrust religion into politics.” Has Christiane, or any producer or editor at CNN, never had a class in American history? Religion has been part and parcel of American politics going back to the founding of the Republic, as Jon Meacham demonstrates in his recent book American Gospel. Many Americans who don’t work at CNN know that the 19th century fight to emancipate black American slaves was led by the churches. And even within Amanpour’s lifetime, we have had the example of the civil rights struggle—incubated in black and white churches and led, more often than not, by ministers. How she gets away with stating on TV that Falwell religionized politics is beyond me.

She did a good job summarizing the catalyzing effect of 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision on evangelical Christians—but for some reason totally ignored its similar effect on the 70 million strong Catholic community in the U.S., other than to briefly observe that Falwell’s movement “transcended denomination, including Roman Catholics and Mormons.” Amanpour spent quite a bit of time talking about the law school at Liberty University (the school Falwell founded in 1971) and how it’s training conservative Christian attorneys not only to fight Roe but also to change the society. At this point my attorney wife, who had been watching the series with me, remarked: “isn’t it amazing that these Christian ‘warriors’ are using the legal system to try to effect change—rather than flying airplanes into buildings?” Indeed. Why does CNN seem obsessed with equating Christian fundamentalists with Muslim ones? Despite some surface simlarities, the two are quite different. But for CNN, as for much of the mainstream media, ANY strong religious belief is ipso facto frightening and irrational.

Of course, being based at CNN with its Atlanta headquarters, Amanpour had to interview former President Carter, who said a few years ago—upon his formal departure from the Southern Baptist Convention—that “like Moslems [sic] and orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists restrict the role of women.” Could someone explain how a man with a degree in nuclear engineering from the Naval Academy could be so—well, asinine? The SBC did decide to stop ordaining women as ministers. However, I have yet to meet a Baptist woman wearing a burka, walking behind her husband, prevented from working outside the home or prohibited from driving. Oh, and while Baptists are no doubt not immune from domestic violence, I have never—and I spent the first quarter-century of my life as a Southern Baptist, and attended a SBC college as an undergraduate—heard or read a Baptist minister or theologian advocate beating one’s wife, much less one’s wives. I used to think Carter lost to Reagan because of the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but now I realize he lost because of his inability to reason or to make clear moral distinctions.

Amanpour spent some time interviewing one of the leaders of the “Christian Zionist” movement, John Hagee. As a Middle East historian and non-fundamentalist Christian, I do not subscribe to Hagee’s view of unbridled American support for Israel as part of God’s plan. However, is Hagee really a wild-eyed fanatic to state that “Iran…is a threat to both the U.S. and Israel?” Hell, he should be working at the State Department.

She also dealt quite critically and sarcastically with Pastor Rich Scarborough, who is on a mission to get Americans to vote (presumably Republican, although he never said as much). Amanpour described Scarborough as “getting really riled up” and showed numerous clips of his quite animated preaching—all the while clucking disapprovingly. Yet Scarborough could not even hold a candle in the “riled up” department to most black ministers—who, by the way, have been known to inject politics now and then into THEIR sermons. But since they tend to advise their flocks to vote Democrat, it seems CNN finds that unworthy of analysis, or even coverage. On this topic, I lost count of how many times Amanpour used the adjective “right-wing” to describe ideas and people—yet not once did I hear her utter the term “left-wing.”

Amanpour’s take on the large and growing home school movement strongly implied that parents taught their kids at home solely because the public schools taught the evil philosphy of evolution. However, the home schooling folks I know are more concerned about the moral decay of public schools than they are with Darwinism. She is right that many evangelical Christians are adamant that one cannot believe in both God and evolution—a view inexplicable to me, since this conservative Christian happens to accept both—but clearly leaves the impression that any conservative brand of Christianity shares this philosopy. Yet the Catholic Church officially sees no contradiction in seeing evolution as guided by God. And in a short segment on a conservative Christian college that requires women to wear long skirts, Amanpour opined that this was the same as the Taliban in Afghanistan forcing women to wear full-length burkas! The final segment in the night on “God’s Christian Warriors” dealt with a Christian group which went to San Francisco to preach and confront the gay and lesbian community there with the New Testament prohibitions against homosexuality. While Amanpour said “some say your message is divisive, not inclusive,” almost no coverage was provided of the vile obscenities and death threats screamed at these Christian teen-agers by some of San Francisco crowd. Perhaps we can look forward to a CNN special on “God’s Secular/Atheist Warriors?” Don’t hold your breath.

Amanpour ended the series, in Jerusalem, stating that “God’s warriors” in Judaism, Christianity and Islam all think their religions have been pushed to the side and that they have the answers to cure their respective society’s ills. That is true. But God’s Christian warriors, even by CNN’s own evidence, think their answers should be enacted legally and peacefully within the United States (and why didn’t Amanpour cover Christian movements anywhere else?)—whereas many, but not all, of God’s Muslim warriors think the entire world should be run by their religious rules, even if it takes violence to impose them. All of Amanpour’s attempts at moral equivalence failed to hide that fact.