TV UK, 31 July

Faultlines documents not so much the rise of religion as the demise of politics.

Dolan Cummings

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Some time ago in this column I dismissed in passing the idea that religion is a major influence on contemporary politics. Now I have the chance to elaborate, thanks to John McCarthy, who has followed up his John Meets Paul with Faultlines, an investigation of religious conflict around the world (ITV1, late on Sundays).

What was impressive about the opening episode on Sunday was that it focused not on the alleged ancient enmity between Ishmael and Isaac, but instead on the vexed issue of religion within the Israeli polity itself. McCarthy started with the well-known but little discussed fact that Zionism is a secular creed. More pious Jews regard it as a kind of blasphemy.

One question hung over the whole programme: what does it mean to insist on the ‘Jewishness’ of the Jewish state when it doesn’t mean insisting on religious observation? The answer seems to be changing, but it is no clearer for that. It is this awkward question, rather than any profound religious feeling, that keeps religion so high on Israel’s political agenda, while Palestinians are fenced out of the discussion, and much of the country.

This accounts for the paradox that many of Israel’s foreign supporters see the state as a rational, secular island in a sea of backward religious prejudice. There could be no better example of that than Iran, the subject of McCarthy’s second programme (a week on Sunday). Here is a country in which religion dominates politics, or more accurately religious leaders dominate the rest of the population. This seems impressive, until you consider the political alternatives.

McCarthy’s search for a democracy movement in Iran is depressing. In the absence of a positive vision of secular democracy (sound familiar?), the argument is between different interpretations of Islam. The heroes are moderate clerics who issue ‘enlightened fatwas’ – you don’t have to misunderstand the word fatwa to see an oxymoron there.

And while McCarthy sees hope in an ageing student radical who favours democratic Islam, he also encounters a group of gothic rockers who reject politics altogether, preferring to do their own thing. In this political context, which is not peculiar to Iran, religion gets a medal just for showing up. Subsequent episodes come from a politically tense Brazil, where the Roman Catholic church is losing out to Protestant Evangelicals; India, where the government rules in the name of Vishnu; and Russia, where the Orthodox church is attempting a comeback.

In each case, though, what is documented is not so much the rise of religion as the demise of politics, the failure to imagine a better future made by human beings. Perhaps most interesting will be the final episode from the USA, the Great Satan itself. Those who warn in doomladen tones about the rise of the religious right would do better to concentrate on their own political ideas, or lack of them.

That’s enough TV for now. For the next few weeks I’ll be at the Edinburgh Festival, where the youth of the West is hard at work imagining a better future. I’ll keep you posted.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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