TV Review: The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, Fundamentalism, The Doomsday Code, (Channel 4); Al-Qaeda: Time to Talk?, Al-Qaeda: Turning the Terrorists (BBC2)
There has been an orgy of television programmes in this past week, in and around the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Programmes ranged from the (now somewhat controversial) drama The Path to 9/11, to a documentary on people who tried to commit fraud on the back of the attacks by claiming they or their relatives were dead. Other programmes explored religion and terrorism. Some have been good, others average, whilst one I caught the other night on Channel 4 was dreadful.
Presented by Robert Baer (an ex-CIA agent who was depicted by George Clooney in Syriana), the first episode of The Cult of the Suicide Bomber set out to investigate the phenomenon of people blowing themselves up for their cause and beliefs, concentrating in this episode on Westeners (the second part will look at female suicide bombers). Whilst I don't deny his detailed and first-hand knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs, I doubt his ability to grasp the situation of Muslims in Britain and his ability to analyse suicide bombing as a phenomenon. If you're interested in the cult and psychology that surrounds suicide bombings, then you're theory must take into account of data which includes not only Muslims but also, for example, Tamil separatists. Otherwise, if he only wanted to talk about Muslims and suicide bombing, why not just call the programme "Suicide bombing and Islam" or something along those lines, instead of hiding behind an altogether more broad title. He goes over old ground when discussing the Tel Aviv bombers from Britain (Omar Khan Sharif and Asif Hanif), as well as the London bombers. In fact he didn't actually provide any new insights into the psychology of suicide bombers. For example, suicide bombing, whilst presenting a philosophical and theological dilemma (on the issue of killing onself), it might not, in and of itself, be problematic; it is the choice of targets for many such bombers that presents the biggest concern. The production and general presentation of the documentary was very poor; especially Baer's ability to bore you with his voice. In any case, Omar Khan Sharif and Asif Hanif had been the subject of in a Panorama documentary some weeks ago.
Also in their "Can you believe it?" season, Channel 4 aired Fundamentalists, presented by Mark Dowd,
himself a Catholic. Dowd sampled views of believers from across the
globe, from militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka to Jewish settlers living
on the 'land God gave them'. The programme seemed to confirm my own
belief that "fundamentalism" is an attitude and not necessarily
attached to a particular religion. Dowd himself argued that
fundamentalism was a modern phenomenon, which lent itself to an uneven
marriage of religion and politics. But perhaps the most interesting
programme has been Tony Robinson's The Doomesday Code, also shown on Channel 4. Robinson travelled across the globe, from the United States to Uganda, to understand the rise of Dispensationalist theology
and its political strength in the US, and how it might be affecting American
policies. Apart from the known associations with Israel and US policy in
the Middle East, such beliefs were also affecting attitudes towards the
environment, social justice and the demonisation of Muslims. In Uganda, for example, many believers were said to be abandoning their education and careers or even concern with fixing roads, schools and hospitals, secure in their knowledge that their belief in Christ and coming Rapture would get them to heaven. American organisations were said to heavily fund groups to spread these sorts of beliefs. Some
people portray Muslims as the biggest threat to the world (where 'the
world' conveniently ignores most of the population on this planet), and
whilst I've been quite open and forthright that Muslims have issues,
you have to ask as to who is the biggest danger? Small bands of people
committing (largely) random acts of pious violence and who will never be
able to overrun entire states (as is claimed by some delusional people); or those who appear to sit a little
too close to the centre of the biggest military machine the world has
known and commit themselves to fullfiling the violent prophecies they
believe in? For that is what most of these end of times beliefs seemed to be;
self-fulfilling prophecies, perpetuated by a most inglorious circular
logic. Perhaps what Robinson's programme failed to do was to properly
distinguish between such fundamentalist Christian beliefs and the
broader evangelical Christian tradition. The two are not the same, although they may overlap.
BBC 2, not to be outdone, have had their own series of programmes. Peter Taylor, who has spent five years investigating various groups who call themselves "al-Qa'ida", presented his first documentary a few weeks ago called Al-Qaeda: Time to Talk?, in which he explored the possibilites of engagement with the group. The lack of a single group or heirarchy would appear to make that possible, even if any politician was willing to risk discussing such a possibility. The second episode, Al-Qaeda: Turning the Terrorists, was on the fight against terrorism in South East Asia, principally Indonesia and the Phillipines. This programme has been the best of the various docmentaries and Taylor pointed to an important weapon Indonesian governments have come to rely upon: Muslims. That is the best way to combat these ideas amongst Muslims is not merely to try and crush them (which can often be counterproductive) but to ask these individuals to change sides. The programme concentrated on Nasir Abbas, a former commander of Jemaah Islamiya (JI), an outfit responsible for the Bali bombings, who turned against his former group. He has become a key source of information for the Indonesian government. He also speaks to the young men captured by the security services about their activities and tries to persuad them to change their ways. That is 'to talk as a Muslim to another Muslim' (which is the basic point I have tried to get across). Such a tactic has also been used by Yemeni authorites, with varying degress of success. A lesson for certain politicians perhaps?