THE VALLEY OF DOUBT
Mother Teresa, it's reported, at times was tormented about what she felt was her lack of faith. Seems like a common experience. Has it not happened to you? Speaking of Mother Teresa, watch this space on Monday.
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REFLECTIONS ON 'GOD'S WARRIORS'
I have waited until this weekend to react here to this past week's TV series, "God's Warriors," on CNN, which sought to help us understand religious fanaticism in our era. That's because I wanted some time to absorb what was offered and to let it all settle a little.
* The topic itself is among the most important of our day. Religious fanaticism has set many parts of the globe aflame with hatred and violence, and we simply must understand its roots so that we can, at minimum, defend against it but, even more, seek to limit it. So cheers to CNN for making a good-faith attempt at educating us.
* That said, I found that the effort CNN made to be fair and balanced resulted in giving the impression that today extremism in the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is somehow equal. That's a silly notion. Yes, each religion has produced wild-eyed fanatics who believe they have a direct pipeline to God and that God sometimes wants them to murder others.
But to pretend that fanaticism in Judaism (with only 15 million or so Jews in the world) today is somehow commensurate with fanaticism in Christianity (with about 2 billion adherents) or Islam (with more than 1 billion followers) is delusional. And to suggest that radical Christians today are causing the level of violence through terrorism that radical Islamists are causing is irresponsible.
CNN did not directly equate the level of violence and upheaval created by "God's Warriors" in each of the three religions, but by reserving one night for each faith, it gave the impression that each faith was producing an equal amount of damage. Perhaps viewers would have been better served by a thematic organization rather than a by-religion account.
* I also found problematic the label "God's Warriors" as somehow equally befitting all radicals of each faith. But perhaps that's just the danger that headline writers always face. Some so-called "warriors" are a clear and present danger to themselves and everyone while others are simply intellectual kooks. Still others who might willingly accept the label of being a warrior for God are rational people of deep religious commitment who do much more good than harm.
* Much of what was presented was simply history. I found that especially true in the opening segment, which focused so heavily on how things in the Middle East got to this point. It was a good primer, perhaps, for young people who have not lived through the last several decades, but I frankly didn't learn much from it. But re-running history was also a heavy emphasis in the segment devoted to Islamists. And the Christian segment devoted a great deal of time to the history of such movements as the Moral Majority. Again, it seemed like a rehash.
* And yet I was pleased to see CNN pay attention to Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian about whom I wrote this in 2002: he "probably deserves to be called the primary thinker behind the radical version of Islam to which Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other fanatics have pledged allegiance."
* LIttle things about the series bothered me. One example: The chief correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, at one point said, "the Jewish Bible, the Torah. . ." Well, the Jewish Bible is bigger than the Torah. Strictly speaking, the Torah is composed of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Levitucus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. To have the whole Jewish Bible one must add the Prophets (Nebiim) and the Writings (Ketubim). Sometimes Torah is used informally to refer to the whole Jewish Bible, but Amapour should have made clear that she understood the difference. As I say, it's a small matter, perhaps, but if you don't get the details right, viewers have a perfect right to wonder if they can believe your larger conclusions.
* Another little thing: In the Islam segment there was much talk of "martyrdom" without ever giving a good definition of it. Martyrdom in radical Islam has wrongly become synonymous with suicide, and they're quite different matters, as CNN should have pointed out. And speaking of word use, in the third segment she often used the term "Christian conservatives" without giving us much of a definition, and she described San Francisco as "perhaps the most liberal city in America," without telling us what she meant by that. Such labels, as I've often said, hide much more than they reveal.
* OK, one more little thing: Amanpour in the second segment said she "discovered" the Shia belief in the hidden, or 12th, imam. Oh, please. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes reading about Islam, especially Shia Islam, knows about that. If she didn't know about it until she started working on this series, it shows how remarkably ignorant she was. And I grew tired of her seeming to be shocked that Muslim women might choose to wear the hijab, or head scarf, without it meaning they were oppressed.
* In the first segment, Amanpour seemed to express astonishment that some Jews wore "Tefilin," sometimes spelled tefillin. It is, however, a common practice, especially among Hasidic adherents. And, in fact, Jewish law demands that all Jewish men older than 13 wear these square leather boxes and strips of leather, though for sure not all do.
* After acknowleding that the phrase "occupied territories" was controversial when referring to land Israel has controlled since the 1967 war, Amanpour nonetheless adopted the phrase as normative.
* And what I found missing from the series were enough calm, reflective, scholarly voices. But I suppose it's hard to make that seem interesting to people who think television somehow is calm, reflective and scholarly by nature.
* Amanpour and the CNN staff did a good job of finding people important to the story -- and getting them to talk on camera. But haven't we all by now seen and heard enough from the late Jerry Falwell and even from over-quoted scholar Karen Armstrong? At least she was a reflective voice, but I wanted a fresher voice.
* But another thing I found missing was a strong acknowledgement that religion can and does also play an extraordinarly positive role in the world. Without such an acknowledgement, the series played into the simplistic idea that I criticized in a recent column that "religion causes violence," and thus can be dismissed as destructive and unhealthy. It would be possible to emerge from the CNN series with the impression that all religion is pretty much just mindless zealotry.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about some impressions I drew from my recent trip to Poland.)