Saturday, August 25, 2007

Christiane Amanpour reports for 'God's Warriors'

We haven't seen Christiane Amanpour in quite a while - in, oh, like 15 minutes or so. Flip on CNN and there she is, somewhere, though usually somewhere over there, in the war-torn world and far away from our safe, tethered and generally anesthetized lives. Outside of Anderson Cooper, Larry King or maybe Lou Dobbs, she is CNN's most visible presence and someone who has amassed a pretty amazing body of work at this network over nearly 25 years.

If this doesn't sound like a reasonable buildup for her six-hour tour of religious fanaticism that begins Tuesday at 9, then the fault is mine alone. "God's Warriors" is an estimable achievement, even for a subject that has been relentlessly worked over by hundreds of scholars, journalists and book authors in recent years, including Amanpour herself. (It's even hard to say how much of "God's Warriors" has been strip mined by Amanpour before, although "Struggle for Islam," which won her an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2002, addressed similar themes.)

But what's special about "God's Warriors" is the sheer totality of it. Over six hours, Amanpour and her team seem to capture the essence of a hugely important moment in world history, and with the exception of the title, do so without hyperbole or histrionics. It's really the best of Amanpour - and really, dear, old, battered and much-maligned CNN, too.

"God's Warriors" is about three world movements - though as you watch, you will probably want to come up with a better word to describe them. It's about the religious zealotry that has forged so much of the global political landscape since the end of the Cold War. These "warriors" are fighting over radically divergent views while bound by some similar ones, too. In a paradox that unfolds over these hours, they are blood enemies on some obvious level yet strangely allied on another.

But Amanpour's broadcast is far from comfort food. In a style typically restrained though never diffident, she explores the historical roots of these views that have become more pinched and close-ended over time. Offering no all-encompassing or compassionate solutions - at least in her reporting - the religious extremists are instead steeped in dogma and intolerance. Some of these "warriors" abhor violence. Others, of course, resort to it as a matter of course.

"What they have in common - Jews, Christians and Muslims - [is] the belief that modern society has lost its way," Amanpour says in voice-over. "They say God is the answer." (Tuesday's broadcast is "God's Jewish Warriors," followed by "God's Muslim Warriors" Wednesday and "God's Christian Warriors" Thursday.)

What else do they have in common? Apparently an abhorrence for Britney Spears, who is made to represent Western culture's overcommercialized and oversexed ways. But West Bank militants are probably not deeply concerned about Spears' recent car-ramming episode, although the "Christian Warriors" - evangelicals - haven't exactly been advocating her album sales. The title itself is a silly stretch, too, placing under one all-encompassing catchphrase the kids at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University with the kids at some madrassa in Pakistan learning how to lock and load AK-47s.

Get beyond these superficial flaws, and a richly layered broadcast unfolds. Tuesday and Wednesday's programs are the best, and "Christian Warriors" is the most dispensable. Much of the material in that installment has been reported so often - from Falwell, whose interview with Amanpour was the last before his death, to Ron Luce's Battle Cry, the evangelical youth crusade. - that it's already numbingly familiar.

But Iranian-born, globetrotting, battle-hardened Amanpour is at her best in the Middle East. She seems intent on interviewing everyone - patiently, at length, and pointedly. Tuesday's Jewish "warriors" were inspired by the Book of Ezekiel ("Ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers") and refuse to be pried loose from their West Bank settlements spread out over 26,000 square miles. They're fighting rear-guard with Palestinian militants and a frontline battle with much of the rest of the world, while some of their biggest allies are America's evangelicals.

Amanpour also interviews author and historian Gershom Gorenberg ("The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements") who questions the settlements' legality. She presses Theodor Meron, former counsel of the Israeli foreign ministry, on a "top secret" memo he had once written claiming the settlements violated the Geneva Convention. (He sidesteps the question.)

Wednesday's Muslim Warriors" is filled with dozens of interviews, too (former President Jimmy Carter appears throughout) and a long historic perspective. It begins with Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian religious leader who inspired Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri and died in an Egyptian prison 41 years ago. She tracks the story of Ed Hussein, a former London jihadi who later published a book on his experience ("The Islamist"). She also travels widely in Iran, where she attends a passion play with Shiite Muslims who weep openly over a 1,400-year-old story.

And her journey ends up in America, with a New Jersey social worker, Rehan Seyam - born and reared in Islip - who insists on wearing a hijab (veil) in public. Like many others of her generation, Amanpour reports, Seyam is more orthodox than her Egyptian-born parents.

But one of God's warriors? Hardly. She's squarely in the middle of society's struggle between the secular and non-secular. The punch line to Amanpour's story: Seyam and millions more like her are growing in number and have no intention of backing down.

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