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God's Warriors: Three Religions

Aired August 24, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the weekend edition of our program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Over the course of this week we've been bringing you a series of reports on God's warriors, from Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

A few years ago, I had the rare opportunity to spend almost a year traveling the world to report on these three religions and to illustrate in dramatic detail where religion and politics collide to change the course of history.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The scripture is the blueprint to life and living.

AMANPOUR: (voice-over): They are sure of their mission.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our role is to redeem the entire world.

AMANPOUR: What they have in common --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: God promised we would return to this land.

AMANPOUR: -- Jews, Christians and Muslims, the belief that modern society has lost its way.

RON LUCE, CO-FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, TEEN MANIA: They're raping virgin teenage America on the sidewalk and everybody is walking by and acting like everything is OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The problem we have now with the civilizations is you don't offer the man where to go. He doesn't know his place in life.

TZIPPI SHISSEL, DAUGHTER OF RABBI SHLOMO RA'ANAN: The people that don't keep the Torah, they don't understand the meaning of being Jews; they're wasting their life.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): They say God is the answer.

REV. JERRY FALWELL: I would like to see America become the nation under God again.


AMANPOUR: Tonight, once again, God's Muslim warriors, perhaps the most timely reports in our series, because the central conflict in the Muslim world remains the divide between Shiite and Sunni. In the past 18 months, we've witnessed millions of Sunni Muslims rise up in mostly peaceful, democratic revolutions, against dictatorships from Tunisia, to Egypt, Libya and beyond.

But Syria, where the struggle for democracy continues, is tied to the Shiite part of the Muslim world along with Iran and Iraq. And a titanic struggle for supremacy between these two blocs continues to play out in the region right now.

To understand the stakes and the history, we want to take you inside both communities.

First, I traveled to Iran, the most powerful Shiite nation.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): It's is the holiest time of year for Shiite Muslims. On the streets of Tehran, grown men and women weep and pray. The city stopped dead in its tracks -- from the main streets to the bazaars -- as people across Iran relive the great religious dramas of their faith.

I grew up in this country, and as a reporter I come back, because it is here that 28 years ago God's Muslim warriors rocked the world.

AMANPOUR: This is where America first tasted Islamic fundamentalism, when Islamic revolutionary students stormed the embassy and took American diplomats hostage for 444 days. And this set off a wave of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world.

AMANPOUR: What were the Iranians reacting against?

KAREN ARMSTRONG, RELIGIOUS HISTORIAN: The Iranians were reacting against decades of Western interference. You can see this as Iran's declaration of independence.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The ruler of Iran, the Shah, had been restored to power in the 1950s in a CIA coup. He was rushing to modernize his country, like his father before him.

ARMSTRONG: The Shahs in Iran used to make their soldiers go out with their bayonets at the ready, ripping off the women's veils and tearing them to pieces in front of them in the streets.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Mohammad Reza Shah ruthlessly crushed dissent and exiled mullahs who challenged him. The most prominent, a firebrand cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini, blasted back, calling the Shah the enemy of Islam.

ARMSTRONG: He brought the whole of Iran out onto the streets by pointing out the injustice of the rule.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): With Iran's constitution in one hand and the Koran in the other, Khomeini offered up Islam as the antidote to corruption and Western dominance of Iran.

ARMSTRONG: And I think many of the Iranians saw it as a purifying ritual. Khomeini and the revolutionary mullahs were able to speak to Shiite traditions, not to Marxism or secularist ideals that had no grassroots among the ordinary people.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): With Khomeini's revolution came the world's first modern theocracy -- a fundamentalist Islamic republic that stood up to the United States and humiliated a superpower.

DR. MASSOUMEH EBTEKAR, TEHRAN CITY COUNCILWOMAN: We felt very strongly for the independence of our country. We felt very strongly for the dignity of the Iranian people. We felt very strongly about the intervention of the American government in our affairs.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Massoumeh Ebtekar would eventually become Iran's first female vice president, pushing for more democracy. But back in 1979, she was the voice of the revolution.

EBTEKAR: These people are spies working in the United States embassy.

We were not terrorists. We were not militia. We had no training, no military training. This was a student movement -- a genuine student movement. But they knew that they had to take some sort of unconventional step.

AMANPOUR: Unprecedented in the history of global diplomacy.

EBTEKAR: Unprecedented. Exactly.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): That unprecedented act was the takeover of the American embassy in the heart of Tehran. The relationship between Iran and the United States has never recovered.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Night after night during the holy week of Ashura, religious drama lights up the somber streets and neighborhoods of Iran.

Shiite believers, God's warriors, raise the battle standards of their greatest hero, the martyr of all martyrs, Imam Hussein. Faith, they say, bears aloft this massive weight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It's not our biceps, it's our beliefs that gives us our strength -- that and our love for Imam Hussein.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): To understand just how much they love Imam Hussein, who was the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, spend some time at these rituals.

For Shiites, about one-tenth of all Muslims, his story represents the eternal battle against oppression and injustice, and the willingness to sacrifice even one's own life for that struggle, which is what Imam Hussein did in 680 A.D.

In a fight over who would succeed the Prophet Mohammed, Hussein and his entire family were slaughtered in a heroic last stand that would lead to the bloody Shiite-Sunni rift that continues to this day.

This passion play is performed by an amateur troupe of bakers and builders and it's directed by a bus driver, Yahya Alimirzai.

YAHYA ALIMIRZAI (through translator): When I see this play, my heart breaks and I cry, because Imam Hussein has answered so many of my prayers.

AMANPOUR: This is a very emotional play. What is the reaction from the crowd?

ALIMIRZAI (through translator): The people watching are also talking to God. As they shed their tears, they confide their troubles and ask for help in their lives.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The story may have happened 1,400 years ago, but on Ashura, emotions resurface as raw as if it were just yesterday.

I sat in the women's section of the audience, next to Nasreen (ph).

NASREEN (PH) (through translator): I love Imam Hussein and I would love him to visit my home, because I've seen the miracles he's performed. One day I was penniless and I didn't know what to do. But after praying to Imam Hussein, I found 50,000 rials in my drawer. I have seen many such miracles.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Nasreen (ph) and the other women can watch but they cannot be on stage.

ALMIRIZAI (through translator): That's because Islam bars women speaking publicly when young men are present.

AMANPOUR: But in the story there were women. Women in his family were killed.

ALMIRIZAI (through translator): But back then, how shall I say it? Young men were purer. Now we have to cast them to play the roles of women.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): For instance, this mustachioed maiden. The drama, though, is not diminished.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): It's more than 1,000 years ago since this happened. Is it still relevant to Iran today?

ALMIRIZAI (through translator): For us, it's still important, just like it was during the Iran-Iraq War, when young Iranians did not hesitate to be martyrs.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Iran's eight-year war with Iraq is seen here as a triumph of faith.

In 1980, Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran. Hussein was supported by the Soviet Union and the United States. They saw him as a bulwark against the spread of Iranian-style Islamic revolution.

The world assumed that Iraq's professional army would score a quick victory. But nobody reckoned with Ayatollah Khomeini's holy warriors -- waves of young boys who volunteered to become martyrs, clearing minefields by running across them. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.

Eight blood-soaked years later, hundreds of thousands of young men and boys had been injured or killed, inspired to fight on by their first martyr, Imam Hussein.

Back then, Amir Fakhar was one of Khomeini's holy warriors. Tonight as he prepares free food for the Ashura crowds in Tehran, he tells us how he volunteered to fight when he was barely a teenager, seen here on a hilltop during the battle.

AMIR FAKHAR (through translator): I was 13 when I went to the front.

AMANPOUR: You went to the war at 13 years old? How did they allow you to go at 13?

A. FAKHAR (through translator): I did whatever I could. In the beginning, I was trained to defuse land mines and when I was battle- hardened, I ran messages on foot.

AMANPOUR: Did you think of Imam Hussein when you were at the front?

A. FAKHAR (through translator): He was my example. His courage inspired me. You can never praise him enough.

AMANPOUR: When the West looks at this and looks at the rituals, they see chest beating. They see back beating with chains.

What message do you want the West to have about your religion, about your rituals?

A. FAKHAR (through translator): When we beat ourselves with iron chains and damage our bodies, we want to show that we will stand with our imam and our religion to the bitter end. For the Shiites, his sacrifice has kept Islam alive for 1,400 years.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And it's alive today, not only in Amir's heart, but in his household. He's brought me to meet his family.

A. FAKHAR (through translator): This is my son Abbas (ph) and this is Ali (ph).

AMANPOUR: Amir's two little boys are named after his two brothers, who were killed in the war with Iraq, dying to defend their country.

More than 20 years later, his mother doesn't regret the family's sacrifice.

AMANPOUR: Kobra, you're a mother and you sent your 13-year-old son to the front. You lost already two sons.

How could you have done that?

KOBRA FAKHAR (through translator): I never wept for my sons when they went to war. In fact, I was happy. I would have been angry if they had refused to go.

AMANPOUR: Is religion that important in your life?

K. FAKHAR (through translator): During the Ashura war, one of the Imam Hussein's disciples was decapitated and his head was thrown at his mother. But she flung it back, defiantly saying, "Whatever I give to God, I don't want back."

That's how important Islam is for us.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): From the Holy City of Qom, a grand ayatollah tells us that martyrdom for your faith should never be confused with suicide terrorism.

AMANPOUR: The Western world, when they think of Muslims, they think of terrorists.

So what is your answer to those people who say that they are God's warriors, that they're God's soldiers, that they kill in the name of God?

GRAND AYATOLLAH SAANEI, IRAN (through translator): I've always said that terrorists should go to Hell, and that is our belief. But if the enemy attacks us, we have the right to defend ourselves in any possible way.


AMANPOUR: (voice-over): Which is what Davoud Abdolhadi did. Like his friend, Amir, he was also a teen, defending his country.

AMANPOUR: Do you really wish that you could have been martyred?

DAVOUD ABDOLHADI (through translator): Yes, martyrdom was my biggest wish. But for me, it just wasn't meant to be.

AMANPOUR: Everybody understands that if your country is attacked, you will defend it. But what I think many people don't understand is this love of martyrdom that exists in Islam and particularly in Shiism. Why is it so important to die?

ABDOLHADI (through translator): We love martyrdom because it leads us to heaven and because we will be helped on the Day of Judgment.

AMANPOUR: Are you ready to fight again if you have to?

ABDOLHADI: The true believers are still here. We don't ask for war. But if an enemy attacks even an inch of our territory, all Iranians from children to old men, are ready to fight.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Tonight Davoud sings in honor of Imam Hussein's martyrdom.

ABDOLHADI (through translator): When we beat our chests, we feel light. We share the sufferings of Imam Hussein and we tell the world that he is our master.


AMANPOUR: The most fervent Iranian believers still say that they would fight and die to defend their Islamic state.

When we come back, we'll travel to the Sunni side. We'll see what bred the hatred that Osama bin Laden tried and failed to ride to victory.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to our program. We've been looking at the struggle for supremacy that's being waged right now between Shiite and Sunni Islam. America and the world are still waiting to see which direction these new Islamic democracies eventually settle on.

So it's fascinating to examine America's historic role in today's Islamic fundamentalism.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): "This great America, what is it worth in the scale of human values? I wish I could find somebody to talk with about human affairs, morality and spirit, not just dollars, movie stars and cars."

AMANPOUR (voice-over): It is a moral indictment of America written in the 1950s -- the author, a man who found the country to be a spiritual wasteland. His name was Syed Qutb. He inspired the likes of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Qutb's works laid the foundation for the modern jihad movement.

FAWAZ GERGES, AUTHOR: Syed Qutb is the philosopher of the militant Islamist movement.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Fawaz Gerges is a professor and author who has interviewed hundreds of Islamic jihadists.

GERGES: His views on America are terrifying. They are terrifying because they're narrow. He presented America in very simplistic dichotomies. And those simplistic dichotomies have influenced and shaped how radical Islamists and radical jihadists view America and Americans.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Qutb, an Egyptian Sunni Muslim, came to America in 1948 to study. But American culture shocked the scholarly Muslim poet and critic.

GERGES: His two years in America turned Syed Qutb into a militant Islamist. He resented the deep philosophical secular roots of American society. He resented the way woman and man interact in society. He resented the obsessive nature of America materialism. He believed that America lacks ritualism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): "I fear that a balance may not exist between America's material greatness and the quality of its people."

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Qutb returned to Egypt and preached a message of restoring Muslim nations to their religious roots.

The secular Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned and tortured him and, finally, in 1966 executed him.

His most radical book, "Milestones," was written from prison. It advocated violent jihad, even against Muslim governments. His writings and what many saw as his martyrdom inspired generations of Muslim radicals.

MAHFOUZ AZZAM (through translator): He was my teacher, my instructor, my mentor.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Mahfouz Azzam was also Qutb's friend.

AZZAM (through translator): He used to express in some of his letters about his feelings that American society is losing its soul because of its materialism. He said, "That's all they think about."

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Azzam is also the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who would take Qutb's message to heart.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI, TERRORIST: We are Muslim. We are Muslims who believe in their religion.

AMANPOUR: Zawahiri has become one of the most notorious terrorists of our time, second in command to Osama bin Laden.

AL-ZAWAHIRI: We want to speak to the whole world.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Zawahiri and bin Laden were part of what came known in the Muslim world as the sahwah, the awakening, a religious movement in the 1970s that pitted young, reform-minded Sunni Muslims against their established governments. If Syed Qutb provided the inspiration for these future jihadists, Afghanistan was their call to arms.

In 1979, the Soviet Union, officially atheist and communist, invaded Afghanistan. It was an affront to Islam. Thousands of young Muslims signed up for jihad -- a holy war against the invader. Osama bin Laden was one of them, and his exploits in Afghanistan gave him credibility as well as a base.

OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): I have benefited greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan. It would have been impossible for me to benefit as much from any other opportunity.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The Soviets, worn down by the Mujahedeen -- the Muslim warriors -- eventually withdrew from Afghanistan.

Bin Laden would go on to establish Al Qaeda. Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor, would become his adviser, both men inspired by the words of Syed Qutb.


AMANPOUR: And a final note, during the week we tried to leave you with a final thought as we imagine a world that is or was or perhaps will be.

God's warriors, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian, imagine their world is the one their God envisioned for all men and women. They have gone into battles, figuratively and literally, to make that world and that vision not merely gospel or Torah or Koran, but brick and mortar and flesh and blood. They are not the other. They are our neighbors. And we cannot ignore them.

Hopefully, by revisiting these reports, we have gained a better understanding of all God's warriors.

I'm Christiane Amanpour. Thanks for watching and good night from New York.