Archives for March 2012


Post categories:

Adam Curtis | 18:27 PM, Tuesday, 27 March 2012

At first sight the search for peace and stability in Iraq, and the search for physical and mental fitness in the extreme contortions of modern Yoga seem to have absolutely nothing in common.

But curiously they do.

Both the terrible structural problems and distortions that underly Iraqi society today, and the strange, contorted poses that millions of people perform every day in things like Bikram's Hot Yoga, actually come from the fevered imagination of the British ruling class one hundred years ago.

As they felt Britain's power declining they wanted desperately to go back into the past and create a purer and more innocent world, uncorrupted by the messiness of the modern industrial world -  a new Eden forged both by strengthening and purifying the human body and by inventing new model countries round the world.

And we are still suffering from the consequences of that terrible nostalgia.


At the end of the nineteenth century a fanatical craze for physical fitness swept through Britain. Millions of men and women took up gymnastics, body building and other physical exercises.

Such a thing had never happened before - and it was given a name - Physical Culture.

The craze had an almost religious intensity because those who promoted it said that it was the only way to prevent the British nation - and its Empire - from collapsing. Behind this was a powerful belief that the modern world of the 1890s - the teeming cities with their slums and giant factories - was leading to a "physical degeneracy" in millions of people.

It was a fear that had started with the elite who ran Britain's public schools. Matthew Arnold warned of "the strange disease of modern life" with its "sick hurry" and "divided aims". Out of that came a movement called "Muscular Christianity" which wanted to recreate the kind of heroic human being that existed before industry and the modern world came along and corroded everything.

It was a vision of a restored physical and moral perfection in the young men who were going to run the empire. And it involved doing lots of exercises in new things called Gymnasiums. Then liberal reformers got worried about the working classes -  convinced that the slums were leading to a "physical degeneracy" . So they persuaded lots more people to do exercises.

Then a figure rose up who united all of this dramatically into a mass movement. He was called Eugen Sandow.

Sandow came from Prussia, he started as a circus and music-hall performer. But then in the late 1890s he invented something he called "body-building". It caused a sensation throughout Europe and America - and he became a massive celebrity because he was seen as the leader of a crusade of Physical Culture that was going to stop the degeneracy that was plaguing Britain.

Here is some film shot by Thomas Edison - showing Sandow in action.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Sandow said that building the perfect body was a way of reconnecting with a pre-industrial time of virile physical perfection. He was very good at PR - and he told a story of how he had gone with his father to see the Greek and Roman statues in Italy. He asked his father why there were no more such men?

His father replied that in those days the rule of the survival of the strongest had not yet been corroded by the dangerous, cushioning effects of "civilisation". There and then, Sandow said, he resolved to lift from himself - and the world - "the stigma of weakness".

And to do that  you had to "build" your body to look like this


Sandow also started a magazine called Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture - to promote what he called The Gospel of Strength. It became the centre of a worldwide movement that incorporated bodybuilding with all sorts of physical exercises.

It was the start of the modern idea of fitness - and at its heart was an almost spiritual vision of restoring a lost wholeness to both human beings and to the world. The American promoter of Physical Culture, Bernarr Macfaddden wrote in 1904

"Our ancestors were strong, virile and conquering because they lived close to Nature and so absorbed her inexhaustible vitality. But we are losing our inherited vitality, slowly perhaps, but none the less surely."


In 1905 Sandow set up "The Empire and Muscle Competition", and then went off on a tour of the world. When he arrived in British India he became a sensation - thousands came to see him in his giant tent.

He had arrived in India at a time of rising tension. There were growing protests against Britain's rule, and Sandow's gospel of strength now began to get mixed up with another ideology - Indian nationalism. In the next twenty years, as Britain's hold over India weakened, the culture of physical fitness that Sandow had brought to the country would re-emerge in a strange mutated form as a way of fighting against British rule.

And in a further mutation this would lead to what we now know as modern Power Yoga.


After the First World War the territories of the old Ottoman Empire were divided up amongst the European powers, and Britain got three provinces in Arabia that would become the new country of Iraq.

Britain had created new countries within its Empire before and it had always started by surveying in extraordinary detail the societies they were ruling   - compiling censuses and records of property boundaries and a mass of other details. Out of all that they then built a new administrative system.

It wasn't often very fair or democratic - but it bore some relationship to the reality of existing power structures.

But by the 1920s Britain was bankrupt after the war and couldn't afford such elaborate preparations. Instead a small group of elite administrators were allowed to create a new society out of their imaginations.

And their imaginations were influenced by exactly the same yearning for a return to a pre-industrial rural idyll that had created the Physical Culture movement in Britain.

What the British administrators did was take a romantic vision of a long lost Britain run by feudal landlords and project it onto Iraqi society - where the tribal Sheikhs were seen as being like the British landed aristocracy.


A historian called Toby Dodge has written an absolutely brilliant book called Inventing Iraq. It lays out in clear and very persuasive detail how this group of British Civil servants in Iraq built something that looked like a modern nation - but was in fact a facade. Behind it was really a weird nostalgic myth about Britain.

At the heart of this group was the legendary Gertrude Bell. She wrote the key "Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia" in 1920, and Dodge shows how she, like many of the men working with her, completely distrusted the new modern middle class that had grown up in the cities like Baghdad.

This class had helped run the Ottoman Empire and the British believed that they were tainted - that they had been corrupted by the despotic Ottomans, and that if they were given power they could rise up and become despots themselves.

To prevent this, Bell and the other colonial administrators turned instead to the tribes in the countryside and the Sheikhs that controlled the tribes. The Sheikhs would be a far better alternative - powerful "people of influence" who could help the British run Iraq. They were "true" Iraqis, unscathed by Ottoman influence.

Here is a picture of Gertrude Bell.


What made the rural tribes and their leaders so attractive to the British was the fact that they seemed -  in their imaginations - to be just like the stable feudal world of Britain with its rural nobility. The British were explicit about this, the Administrative Report for the Basra Division in 1918 said:

"These landlords are men of gentility and pride, occupying a position of influence and status reminiscent of that of the feudal landlords of English history"

Gertrude Bell was full of the romance of the Sheikhs, she said they were "aristocrats" who managed to keep the collectives they headed in a "natural equilibrium".

Some British administrators in Iraq thought this was mad - that you couldn't transmit authority and order through the tribal system, especially because the sheikhs' political and social power had declined long before the British turned up. It was also sidelining the one group who could help create a proper modern society - the middle class in Baghdad.

But, as Toby Dodge shows, the romantic vision of the sheikh as the linchpin of rural society won out. His judgement is blunt:

"This vision had little to do with the historical or social truth of the society. It sprang in large part from the colonial officials own understandings of the evolution of British society.

To the British the noble bedouin, untouched by all that was negative about the modern day, stood in stark contrast to those who peopled the cities - to those who had succumbed to the temptations of modernity."

If Dodge is right - and his evidence is very powerful - what the British did was create Iraq as an expression of their own fears about what was happening to their own country. They took their worries about the rise of the urban mass, and the horrors of industrialisation in Europe and projected this onto the complex societies that were all mixed together in the nascent Iraq.

They then ruthlessly ignored this complexity and gave a lot of power to the noble, virile sheikhs - who were very like the noble heroes that Eugen Sandow wanted to recreate with his bodybuilding.

Here is part of a film that gives a perfect and vivid illustration of this British romantic view of the Arab tribe as pure, uncorrupted society. It is made by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger who spent the 1940s living among the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq, and then with the Bedouin nomads who live in what is called The Empty Quarter that straddles Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

But problems emerged right away.

The British supported the sheikhs who were prepared to co-operate, but there were others that the British deemed "unruly" - and because of this division there was growing anger and resentment among some of the tribes. And from 1920 onwards there were rebellions. But there was also a growing economic crisis in Britain - the defence budget had been cut in half and there wasn't enough money to find the troops that were needed to put down the revolts.

So the British invented what they called "Air Control". It was the first use of aerial bombing to put down a civilian uprising - and it was promoted as both a humanitarian and a moral way of keeping control. The bombers would be clean and precise, hitting only the buildings and fuel stores of the unruly tribes.

The first large-scale bombing was in November 1923 in the Samawah district on the Euphrates. It was against defiant tribes from the Bani Huchaim confederation. A British Special Services officer called John Glubb had done a reconnaissance and worked out who he thought were the sheikhs who led the tribes. His operations map showed:

"the location of the villages belonging to the Shaikhs and Headmen whose influence among the tribes rendered them particularly suitable for attack."

In doing this Glubb was following the simplified British vision of Iraqi rural society. In fact the society in Samawah turned out to be more complicated than he imagined. When the identified sheikhs were told to surrender or face bombing two of them came to the British and told them that they didn't have the power to make anyone surrender.

But the British thought they were being evasive - and the bombing went ahead. It was the shock and awe of its time. The RAF planes came in and bombed the villages, the people fled and returned as darkness fell. Then that night the planes came back with incendiary bombs and caught the villagers. An RAF report said that it was:

"to do away with the idea that they (the targets) will ever have any period of peace once an attack has begun."

The RAF's conservative assessment after the attack said that approximately 100 civilians had been killed and six villages destroyed. There was a lot of public concern in Britain about this new tactic, and in the face of this, John Glubb later claimed that only one Iraqi had died.

Glubb was one of the central military figures in Iraq - and his actions showed just how dangerous the simplified British vision of Iraqi society could be.

Here is a photograph of him:


Much later - in 1981- Glubb appeared on a very odd BBC chat show. It was called Friday Night Saturday Morning, and the theme was "The Arab People". It had a very strange collage of guests - first a Saudi prince comes on to defend his regime, then the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland dressed all in pink sits next to him and explains how every woman wants to have sex with an Arab sheikh.

Then John Glubb joins them to describe enthusiastically his bombing campaigns in Iraq in the 1920s. He starts by talking about the origin of "Air Control" but then slips away into a practiced, humorous after-dinner set of anecdotes about how the tribes were like little children who spent their time raiding each other - and had to be bombed to make sure they "played fair" like in cricket.

In an extreme, surreal way the programme illustrates the weird myth of "the noble sheikh" that the British had projected onto Iraq - and the extreme violence needed to sustain that myth.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

By the late 1920s there was a craze for Physical Fitness sweeping through India. It was something completely new to Indian society and it was led by a famous body-builder and gymnast called Professor K.V. Iyer. He had been inspired by the western ideas of Eugen Sandow and, like Sandow, he had turned exercise into both a physical and a moral duty.


Iyer modestly described himself as having "a body which Gods covet" and gave himself the title "India's most perfectly developed man"


What made Iyer's vision of a strong body so attractive to many Indians was not just physical. It was also a way of expressing the growing nationalism and hatred of British rule. Indian nationalists were very aware of the way their colonial masters dismissed all Indians as a weak and degenerate people - Baden Powell famously called them "enfeebled". A powerful body was a way of challenging that in dramatic physical terms.

In 1927 the popular journal Vayayam - The Body Builder - said its mission was "to uplift India from the mire of physical decadence."

K.V. Iyer was very aware of the paradox - that Indians were using European ideas of physical exercise to challenge their European colonial masters. And at the end of the 1920s he took his theories of body-building that were based on Western models and fused them with the spiritual ideas of Yoga. The aim was to create what one of Iyer's closest collaborators called "A Physical Culture Religion" which deliberately had roots in India's ancient past. They called it "The Yogic School of Physical Culture".

It was something very new - that had very little to do with traditional Yoga as it had been practiced for centuries. Yet it is the root of almost all the modern Yoga practiced today in Europe and America.

Such an idea is heresy to what are called the "Yoga Fundamentalists"  in the west today who portray Yoga as having a special antiquity that goes back thousands of years. But recently a Yoga teacher and academic called Mark Singleton has written a fascinating and gripping book that challenges that idea head on. It is called Yoga Body.

Singleton goes back to the India of the 1920s and 1930s and shows in forensic detail how modern Yoga was constructed out of Western ideas of gymnastics and a modern Indian political nationalism. He points out that traditional Yoga has very few poses - and most of those are variations on the seated meditation posture. For hundreds of years, Singleton says, yoga was not about physical fitness but a system of meditation and philosophical enquiry.

Here is some footage - from BBC news in 1957 - of this new kind of physical yoga being displayed to the new leader of an independent India - Pandjit Nehru.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

And in a brilliant piece of detective work Singleton goes on to show how in the 1930s a completely fictitious spiritual history was created for this new kind of Yoga - which then allowed it to be sold back to the west as something ancient and mystical.

It happened in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore. The Maharaja was a fitness fanatic, he installed a gymnasium and invited K.V. Iyer to come and teach his body building there. As Singleton shows, in the next door room was an unknown yoga teacher called T. Krishnamacharya who then proceeded to take the yogic physical culture that Iyer had invented - and push it much further.

Here is a picture of the palace.


Out of it came a radically physicalised form of yoga which is the basis for almost all the modern forms of yoga like Power Yoga that have grabbed the western imagination.

What made this so attractive to the west was that Krishnamacharya said that his system was five thousand years old and based on an ancient text called the Yoga Kurunta. He had first heard of the text, he said, when he was taught the system by a guru high up in the mountains in Tibet. He had then returned and "discovered" a copy of the five-thousand year old Yoga Kurunta in a Calcutta library, which he then transcribed.

Strangely no-one has ever seen the original text. Unfortunately when his followers asked to see it Krishnamacharya told them that it had been eaten by ants.

Singleton makes it clear that the real inspiration was far more likely to have been the body-building contortions and gymnastic exercises going on next door in the gym of the Mysore Palace.

Here is some footage of one of Krishnamacharya's followers - who was also his brother-in-law - called B.K.S. Iyenegar who was the person who brought this yoga system to Europe and America and made it famous. The first is an early exhibition he did for the BBC in 1966. It is followed by a wonderful scene of the same Mr Iyenegar on a BBC evening magazine programme from 1981 getting the presenter to do this "ancient spiritual exercise". Iyenegar was by then 63 years old. Obviously this kind of yoga works.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Gertrude Bell died in Iraq in 1926 - having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Noone knows whether it was suicide or not. But what is known is that she had come to realise that the British attempt to build a nation out of Iraq had failed. In a letter she wrote:

"There's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don't know."


In many ways the story of Gertrude Bell and her family is also the story of the fall of the British Empire. Her grandfather had been a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in iron and steel. He then became a powerful Liberal party politician helping to create the global vision of Empire under Disraeli.

Gertrude was one of the generation who then struggled in the 1920s to keep that global vision alive in the face of economic crisis and political and public opposition in Britain - and failed.

Strangely it was Gertrude Bell's half-sister, Mary, who would show the way forward to the next stage of this global vision - a mystical vision of the world in which individuals around the globe were no longer dominated by political power - but instead united by a vague, spiritual force. It was the New Age philosophy  - and Yoga was going to play a central role in this new ideology.

Mary Bell's eldest child was Sir George Trevelyan who would become one of the founders of the New Age movement in Britain. The central guiding idea of the movement was that the world was moving towards a new age in which the fragmented and divided societies and nations would die away. It would be a "oneness" - a restored unity with all the people of the earth, with nature and within your own body.


The earliest and most powerful concrete expression of these ideas was the Findhorn Foundation. It was a rural community in Scotland whose aim was to try and create a model for this new kind of unified world. Sir George Trevelyan helped create the Findhorn Foundation - and tirelessly promoted it as a vision of an alternative future for the world.

I want to show a programme that the BBC made in 1973 about Findhorn. It was taped in their community hall where the founders and many of the members of Findhorn were asked to explain their vision, questioned by a very sympathetic presenter called Magnus Magnusson.

It is incredibly funny and wonderfully bonkers, but it is also very touching. I particularly like the middle-aged, very respectable man who says that he often meets "the Great God Pan" on the streets of Edinburgh - and then says that the God Pan is sitting in the audience tonight - "somewhere towards the back".

And the man in charge of the Findhorn garden is just brilliant - both in his fashion choice and his conviction that the vegetables he grows know telepathically what he is thinking and can feel his love for them.

"The vegetables are happy to be eaten because it is an expression of love. It is a wholeness, a oneness. I am at one with the lettuce I eat, especially after I've eaten it."

Here he is - full of vegetables.


Sir George Trevelyan is sitting in the front row next to the two founders of Findhorn - Eileen and Peter Caddy.

What is fascinating is that none of these people are hippies - they are the disillusioned children of the British empire. The Caddys had met in the early 1950s when both were stationed on an RAF base in Iraq - it was RAF Habbaniyah, the airfield from where many of the Air Control raids had taken off. Both were disenchanted with their lives and had come back to Scotland to try and build an alternative kind of world.

Here is a frame grab of Peter and Eileen.


Sir George, the Caddys, and the others sit there describing eloquently and sincerely how they want to telepathically get in touch with nature to create a new Eden and build "a great harmonious oneness that links us all".

Everything they say is suffused with a yearning desire to recapture something that has been lost.

It's as if what they are really doing is creating a fantasy global empire that is run by what Peter Caddy calls "different administrative levels of natural spirits". An empire that is populated by thinking, telepathic, vegetables that are happy to be eaten - just like the happy natives that were content to be ruled by the white men that loved them for their simplicity and innocence.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Behind the New Age movement in Britain was the same belief that had driven the physical culture movement sixty years before - that the modern world and above all industrialisation was corroding both the moral and physical fitness of human beings. The aim was to restore a new unity of mind and body.

But the movement couldn't turn to the old ideas of health and fitness because in the 1930s they had become inextricably linked with nationalism - above all in the Nazi cult of physical fitness and the superman.

And that is where Yoga came in because it offered a system of physical exercise that also promised to create a spiritual oneness with the mind. It was physical exercise cleansed of all political connotations - and based instead on a powerful mystical tradition that went back five thousand years (even if the ants had eaten all the evidence for that).

And Yoga really took off in the New Age movement. It was one of the physical activities at Findhorn - and by the 1970s it had swept through the West. Here is a wonderful bit of film. In 1978 the BBC sent Sir George Trevelyan to report of the Festival For Mind and Body at Olympia in London. And one of the first thing Sir George wants to show you is Yoga.

I wish more reporters were like Sir George - I love his style, especially the way he quotes Wordsworth's pantheistic vision of the world in the middle of Olympia.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

In Iraq Britain's failed attempt to create a modern state in the 1920s has haunted the country ever since.

In 1958 there was a military coup which began a period of bloody violence that led to the country being taken over by the Baath party in 1968. When they took power the Baathists deliberately set out to try and dismantle "premodern" tribalism. They did this both to try and finally modernise and strengthen the country - but also because the tribalism was so linked in their minds to collaboration with British imperialism.

The Baathists tried out experiments with the collectivisation of land ownership in 1970 - and then started to nationalise land in 1971.

But in the late 1970s the structure of power began to strangely mutate - and as Toby Dodge argues in his Inventing Iraq - it moved backwards towards a copy of the very same tribal structure of patronage that the British had instituted.

This happened because of the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and the Tikritis within the Baath ruling elite. As power became increasingly personalised around the figure of Saddam, the power of the Baath party came to depend on the al-Bu Nasir tribe - and within that the Beijat clan group.

And in the process Saddam began to do exactly what the British had done in the 1920s. He turned away from the urban political elite (in his case bloodily - by ruthlessly executing scores of senior Baath party members that he thought were threats to him) and moved towards using the tribal system. He set out to co-opt other tribes - and to try and break the power of others

Then - after the Gulf War in 1991 - Saddam went further. He effectively recreated tribal networks and tribal "recognized sheikhs" all across Iraq who were given resources and power in return for loyalty to him. Just like the British.

And as Dodge points out - that structure continued after 2003

"It is these very same "recognized sheikhs" that the British and American forces have begun to look to for the cost-effective provision of order in the post-Saddam era.

If one were able to pick up Iraq like a good piece of china and turn it over, it would bear the legend: 'Made in Whitehall, 1920'."

Here is footage of Saddam from 1981 that shows how he was reinventing this structure. There is footage of him going to rural villages, sitting next to the headman, and promising them stuff in return for their loyalty.

It is followed by a extraordinary description of how he invented himself almost as a super sheikh - his personal telephone number listed in the Baghdad phone book - that anyone could call and talk to - just like going to see the headman.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Meanwhile Yoga conquered the western world.

But the history of Yoga is just as convoluted and contorted as the positions its followers adopt. For much of the ideas behind it were initially born as attempts to morally reinvigorate the minds and bodies of those who ran British Empire. Those ideas then swept through India and became part of a nationalism that challenged Britain's rule. They then were sold back again to the west in a new form - linked to a mysticism that gave a purpose and meaning to a nostalgic post-imperial generation.

Today yoga has morphed once again. Much of the new age mysticism linked to it has fallen away, and in an age of intense individualism where people increasingly feel disempowered, the human body has become the last territory individuals feel they have control over. It is the Empire of One - and Yoga is the administrative system that controls it.

Here is Jerry Hall reporting on the latest fashionable version - Bikram's Hot Yoga - and meeting Bikram himself  who claims to have "800 plus" schools across the world. She also then visits an Ashram in India and is puzzled to find that their Yoga isn't really like what goes on in the Hollywood Hills.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.


Post categories:

Adam Curtis | 15:45 PM, Tuesday, 6 March 2012

When you bring God into politics very strange things happen. You can see this now in both America and Iran -  in their elections and also in the growing confrontation between them. But it wasn't always like this - in fact for most of the 20th century fundamentalist religion in both America and Iran had turned its back on the world of politics and power.

But in the 1970s everything changed. For that was the moment when religion was deliberately brought into politics in both countries with the aim of using it as a revolutionary force. And those who did this - Khomeini in Iran, and right-wing activists in America - were inspired by the revolutionary theories and organisations of the left and their ambition to transform society in a radical way.

I want to tell the forgotten story of how this happened - and how in the 1980s both the Americans and the Iranian idealists came together in a very odd way - with disastrous consequences.


In the early 1970s in Washington a small group of young conservative activists came together to try and change American politics. They called themselves the New Right and they were convinced that unless they did something drastic, the liberals and the left-wingers in America were going to take over the country.

One of the leaders of the New Right was a man called Paul Weyrich, and in the wake of the student revolts of 1968 he infiltrated the meetings of left-wing grassroots organisations. He was astonished by the amount of planning and tactics that he saw and he realised that the conservative movement in America was completely unaware of all this. The right, he said, were still trapped by the belief that people would simply vote for them because they were right.

So the New Right set out to organise a new grassroots movement that could counter the left's success. They had all sorts of discussions and during one of them Weyrich pointed out that there were millions of Americans who were socially and culturally very conservative but who never voted. They were the religious fundamentalists and the evangelicals - a vast segment of the population who believed that they should never get involved in politics.

Weyrich realised that if you could activate the fundamentalists and the evangelicals then the New Right could create an incredibly powerful force. But the problem was how to persuade them. The fundamentalists were driven by pietism - the belief that a true Christian should not only devote their life to god, but also turn their back on the secular political world. They should live the good life through their own actions - and forget about politics.

Ironically it was the liberal left that offered Weyrich the way to activate the fundamentalists. Since the late 1960s the left had pushed through reforms on all kinds of moral issues - gay rights, abortion, sexual discrimination. This had shocked the Christian heartland of America because it was politics attacking and undermining the very beliefs through which they lived their private lives.

The final straw came when President Carter abolished the charity status for the fundamentalist religious schools. This really hurt because they thought Carter, an evangelical, was one of them. But Carter was of the old school - he believed that religion should be separate from politics.

So in May 1979 Paul Weyrich and four other young activists drove to the Holiday Inn in Lynchburg Virginia to meet one of the most powerful evangelical pastors in America, Jerry Falwell. Like a number of other pastors, Falwell had his own television network and millions of followers. What happened at that meeting would shatter the pietism of millions of fundamentalist Christians and bring them - and their beliefs - into the heart of American politics.

I interviewed Paul Weyrich and another of the New Right group, Morton Blackwell, about that meeting. Here they are - describing what happened. It begins with Weyrich telling how he infiltrated the left. Weyrich was a fascinating man (he died in 2008) - a conservative revolutionary.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

At the same time - in early 1979 - the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that toppled the Shah in Iran.

Khomeini did this by completely transforming Shia Islam. It was a religion that for hundreds of years had taught its millions of followers to turn their backs on politics and power. Khomeini had turned this upside down - and had brought Shiism into the heart of politics.

Back in 1963 Khomeini was just another conservative cleric living in the City of Qom, but then the Shah launched the White Revolution which was supposed to modernise Iran. Khomeini was horrified because the programme was going to emancipate women, swear in elected officials on any holy book - not necessarily the Koran, and worst of all it threatened to take away the clergy's very large landholdings.

Here's an image of the future of the Shah's revolution. Girls running nuclear power.


But the problem was how to challenge the Shah? Shiite Islam had a quietist attitude towards politics. One of its main ceremonies is "Shiite lamentation", where the faithful ritually flagellate themselves. Throughout Shiite history the clergy have made this the symbol of a retreat from the world - and above all from politics and power. The people must wait in a world full of shadows and evil - for the return of the twelfth imam. This meant that political power was evil and debased, and you must have nothing to do with it.

Khomeini decided to overturn this - and to do it, like Paul Weyrich in America, he turned to the ideas of the political left.

In the 1960s an Iranian sociologist called Ali Shariati had become fascinated by the writings of the Third World revolutionary, Franz Fanon. And when Shariati translated Fanon's writing into Persian he used the language of Islam - so marxist terms like "the oppressors" became "the arrogant" while "the oppressed" became "the weak" or "the disinherited".

For Khomeini this was the key - and in 1970 he gave a series of lectures that took Shariati's attempt to fuse revolutionary Marxism and Islam and used them to portray a new vision of Shia Islam. Your duty, Khomeini said, was no longer to remain passive but to seize power and drive out the wicked and corrupt ruler. It was an extraordinary move, because Khomeini was exploding one of the fundamental ideas of his religion.

You don't just sit around waiting for the Messiah. You fight - and you take power now. Led by the clergy.

Khomeini lifted a lot from Shariati, but it was also driven by his powerful personality and his brilliant use of the media. Here is is film of Khomeini in exile in Paris in 1977 as his ideas were taking hold in Iran. It is followed by some film rushes of the extraordinary mass demonstration that happened in Tehran on the 29th March 1978 - the slogans on the banners show the fusion of left wing revolutionary ideas and Islam. As the Shah says in the film, Khomeini had combined "the red and the black".

A few weeks later violent revolution began - and I have included in the rushes some great and very brave reporting in the midst of the fighting by the BBC reporter Richard Lindley.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

In America the politicisation of religion had taken off in a big way. Throughout 1979 The Revd Falwell travelled the country contacting, he claimed, 72,000 pastors. He showed them how to mobilise their millions of followers and how to register them to vote. Falwell also worked with the New Right to use Direct Mail to dramatise the moral issues - and to provoke.

When gays were allowed to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, Falwell sent out a warning to the Moral Majority followers:

"That's right - the gays were allowed to turn the tomb of the Unknown Soldier into:

But the question was - who should the newly radicalised fundamentalists support in the 1980 presidential election? The Religious Right prepared a Presidential Biblical Scorecard which was sent out to millions.


It scored all the candidates on the great moral issues - abortion, homosexuality, national defence, and many others. Jimmy Carter didn't do very well.


But the question was really decided at a dramatic mass meeting in Dallas. It was called The National Affairs Briefing and was sponsored by the Religious Roundtable - a coalition of religious groups. All the candidates for President and other political figures were invited to come and explain their views on religion - but only one turned up, Ronald Reagan.

The meeting's other aim was to show just how many leading pastors now believed that evangelical religion should become involved in politics. Along with Falwell, leading televangelists like James Robison and Jimmy Swaggart whipped up the 17,000 strong crowd in the Dallas Arena - in front of 50 million television viewers.

Other leading pastors, like Billy Graham, refused to come. They hated what was happening. One of them, a Baptist called James Dunn gave a brilliant quote:

"We've got a bunch of TV preachers who want to establish a theocracy in America, and each one of them wants to be Theo."

And then Reagan made his speech.

Here is James Robison at the meeting followed by Reagan, a moment that many in the movement say was the turning point. I have also included Jimmy Swaggart attacking those who say religion should not be involved in politics - because it is really funny and shows just how powerful and confident this movement was back then.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

But as all this was happening in America, the battle that was taking place in the Iranian revolution over religion and politics spilled over into American politics - and things began to get very complicated.

And its victim was the hapless President Jimmy Carter.

Unlike previous US presidents, Carter didn't like the Shah of Iran. The CIA had told him horror stories of what the Shah's secret police were doing to Iranian dissidents. And Amnesty were publiciising the same thing - like the use of bacon slicers to cut off prisoners' hands bit by bit. Carter didn't like this, he believed that America should promote human rights around the world and he publicly criticised the Shah.

But not very strongly. Carter said that criticism of the Shah's secret police was "perhaps sometimes justified", while he continued to give Iran vast amounts of weapons.

In 1977 the BBC were making a sycophantic documentary about the "life of Washington's first lady" - Rosalynn Carter. They were filming in the White House when the Shah of Iran came to visit. Carter had promised he was going to tell the Shah he should try and liberalise his country. Unfortunately thousands of Iranian exiles didn't think this was enough and they turned up outside the White House to protest, and Rosalynn's plans started to go wrong

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

When the Iranian revolution happened, President Carter tried to contact what he believed were "the moderates" in the revolution. The embassy in Tehran opened a dialogue with the liberals who had allied themselves with Khomeini - and who now wanted to transform Iran into a democracy. The most important was the new Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan.

But Khomeini wanted to get rid of these liberals because they were opposed to his idea of the new political structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran - where absolute power would be given to "the Guide", which meant Khomeini himself. The liberals saw this as the restoration of a dictatorship.

So Khomeini and his supporters manufactured a crisis. On November 4th 1979 500 "students in the line of the Imam" (ie followers of Khomeini) stormed the American embassy and took the diplomats hostage. There are stories that a young Ahmadinejad was one of the students, but no one has proved this and he denies it.

There is a great book written by Massoumeh Ebtekar who was one of the invaders of the embassy. She describes how when they began to explore, the students found tons of shredded documents lying discarded on the floor and in the barrels of the shredders. One of the invaders, an engineering student called Javad thought that the shreds from each document must have fallen together - and so it might be possible to rebuild the documents.

"He was a study in concentration - bearded, thin, nervous and intense. These qualities combined with his strong command of English, his mathematical mind and his enthusiasm, made him a natural for the job.

One afternoon he took a handful of shreds from the barrel, laid them on a sheet of white paper and began grouping them on the basis of their qualities.


"After five hours we had only been able to reconstruct 20-30% of two documents. The next day I visited the document centre with a group of sisters. 'Come and see. With God's help, with faith and a bit of effort we can accomplish the impossibe', Javad said with a smile."

A team of twenty students then went to work to reconstruct all the papers - in the end they published 85 volumes of them. The documents revealed the deep and cynical involvement of America in supporting the Shah throughout the 1970s. They were the Wikileaks of their time, for they showed how the CIA had worked closely with SAVAK - the hated and vicious Iranian secret service.


The students renamed the embassy "the nest of spies" - and quite a lot of the hatred and distrust of America that has pervaded Iran ever since comes from those reconstructed documents.

And what's more the documents also helped Khomeini destroy his liberal allies, because they revealed that, since the beginning of the revolution, President Carter had been talking to "the moderates". Khomeini seized on this and used it to force out and arrest all those in the new government who wanted a democracy. They were traitors because they had been corrupted by the Great Satan.

Khomeini then used the embassy crisis - fuelled by the hatred of America - to build his vision of a radical theocracy in Iran. It had an enormous effect on the Presidential campaign in America because it made Carter look impotent, especially when his mission to rescue the hostages failed dramatically with helicopters crashing and burning in the Iranian desert.

To give a sense of the drama and uncertainty of that time - here are some sections from the BBC News Comp tapes of the time - 1979-80. They were the 2-inch video tapes onto which raw material coming over satellite from Washington and Tehran was first dumped. I have kept them as they are - and they give a very good sense of the complexity and dislocation of what was happening. They include footage the Iranian students shot as they invaded, and then some video of what they found inside the embassy - the secret communications equipment, and then they find the shredders.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

In November 1980 Ronald Reagan won the presidential election. Millions of newly radicalised Christians voted for him. Reagan would have won without their votes, but the New Right had awoken a powerful force that now came into Washington - an evangelical conservatism that wanted to change the world, not just keep it the way it was, as traditional conservatives always had.

By 1980 the idea that left-wing politics could change the world was finished and over - throughout the western world. And in a strange way these new conservative radicals were the last spasm of twentieth century revolution - created out of left-wing tactics borrowed by the New Right - and then fused with fundamentalist anger.

But the problem was that almost immediately Reagan ignored them. Although in speeches he paid lip service to their fury over subjects like abortion - he did almost nothing to remake America into the morally good country they sought. And the religious right and their supporters were frustrated and angry.

But they still had hope in foreign policy. Like the fundamentalists, Reagan saw foreign policy not as realpolitik, but as a global battle of good against evil - and he backed the idealists in his administration who wanted to support what they called Freedom Fighters in countries like Nicaragua.

But this would lead the American religious idealists into a very weird situation - they would become the allies of the religious revolutionaries in Iran.

Because Khomeini's revolution was also having problems. The country was facing an economic disaster and the millions of poor people who had created the revolution were finding that their prospects hadn't really changed. While the intellectual leftists who had supported Khomeini had turned against his idea that he should be in charge.

So Khomeini simply annihilated the left. He killed them - or forced them to confess to treachery on TV from prison.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Then Iraq invaded Iran - and hundreds of thousands of the most devoted and active revolutionary militants were sent off to become cannon fodder. They were giving their lives to defend the revolution - but their deaths also removed the growing threat from this group as Khomeini's revolution failed to solve the economic and social problems.

And by 1984 Iran had become a very dark and strange place. Any idea of using religious energy to change the world was gone - and faced with the appalling butchery in the war, Iranian Shiism found it's way back to the old idea of martyrdom, but in a horrific way.

The historian of modern islamism, Gilles Kepel, described what happened to that young revolutionary generation.

"The appalling butchery of the war against Iraq gave the younger generation of poor Iranians an incentive to return to the former tradition of martyrdom.

No longer at issue was the transformation of the world, for the revolution had clearly failed to satisfy that expectation. Rather the young men developed a new desire - a longing for death - as a response to the failure of Iran's revolutionary utopia and the pressures of the war with Iraq.

The Shiite death wish took on massive dimensions with the sacrifice of the bassidjis at the front. The colunteers wrote letter and last testaments to their families, asserting their longing for death. What these tragic documents describe in religious terms is no less than the political suicide of the young urban poor of Iran in the 1980s."

In 1984 the BBC made a two-part documentary recording this dark, strange Iran. It is a brilliant film - it shows just what Kepel describes, hundreds of young men being bussed off to the front every day, welcoming the fact that they are all going to die.

The giant fountain in the mass war cemetery spouts blood-red water. While in cool, white offices, very young children are taught to embrace the idea of martyrdom by a spooky cleric - and are given toy models of the US space shuttle to reward them. And the revolutionary guards spend their time driving around policing their neighbours' morals, and hunting down ill-veiled women (bad hejabi).

Here are some sections from the film. I really like the way it is made - refusing to bow to the normal hysterical news style. Its calmness evokes the growing darkness brilliantly.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

And into this weird, dark world came an equally weird American - called Colonel OIiver North. He was a radical Christian fundamentalist who wanted to save his, and Reagan's, global revolution through an audacious and, in retrospect, completely crazy plan.

North was high up in the National Security Council and had been running a secret programme to help the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua - it was part of what he saw as an epic battle of  good vs evil all around the world. But Congress had found out about it - and stopped him.


So in 1985 North, began to build an amazing scheme. He knew that the Iranians were desperate for weapons in their war against Saddam Hussein, so he proposed to sell them thousands of missiles, then take the Iranian money and use it to secretly fund the Contras. The Iranians would also persuade the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon to release American hostages.

North, along with the National Security Adviser, Bud McFarlane, told Reagan that this would also be a way of opening a dialogue with "the moderates" in the Iranian regime. And out of this North built an epic vision whereby this would allow America to defeat the extremists in Iran, end the Iran-Iraq war, and root out all Islamist terrorist networks in Europe and around the world.

A journalist called Ann Wroe wrote a fantastic book in the 1980s about the Iran-Contra affair. What she describes is an incredible comedy - somebody should make a drama about it.

North gave everyone and everything code names:

Missiles were "dogs"
The airport was "a swimming pool"
Iran was "apple" - so Tehran airport was "apple swimming pool"
But confusingly in another code sheet Iran was "tango"
Israel was "banana"
The United States was "orange"
Hostages were "zebras"
So a typical message in North's notebook was:

But it got more confusing because North kept on giving himself different code names. Initially he called himself "Wagner", but then he began sending messages about the plan signed "Steelhammer". Then he called himself "Colonel Goode", while his right hand man, General Secord was codenamed "General Kopp". And then he started calling himself "Mr Green".

Here are two orange zebras:


At times North got confused about who he was. When he boarded planes he couldn't remember what name he was on the passenger list - and had to go through all of them until he got it right.

North and McFarlane started meeting with representatives of the Iranian regime in great secret in places like Frankfurt. They were convinced they were dealing with "moderates", but no one could define what a moderate was in Iran - especially when it began to seem that "conservatives" in the theocratic regime were also "radicals".

The Iranians got thousands of missiles - and three hostages were released. But then Hezbollah kidnapped three more hostages - and the Americans were back at zero again.

But North was convinced that it would work because it was the meeting of two groups - from America and Iran - who both devoutly believed that their political aims had a grander, religious purpose. He flew to Tehran to try and solve it. North sat listening to his Iranian contact talking emotionally about Martyrdom. North replied

"Because I am a Christian, I understand and believe that when one dies in faith he will spend eternity in a far better place"

The Iranians got lots more missiles, North got more money for the Contras - but no more hostages released. He got desperate and arranged another meeting with the Iranians in Frankfurt. North took a bible with him in which he had persuaded President to write an inscription - and he gave it to the Iranians saying:

''We inside our Government had an enormous debate, a very angry debate inside our Government over whether or not my President should authorize me to say 'We accept the Islamic Revolution of Iran as a fact. He (the President) went off and prayed about what the answer should be and he came back with that passage I gave you that he wrote in front of the Bible I give you.

And he said to me, 'This is a promise that God gave to Abraham. Who am I to say that we should not do this?' ''

At one of their meetings, an Iranian came up to North's right-hand man, General Secord, and said:

"What's with this guy North? We just left a country full of mullahs, and what do I find here but another goddam mullah."

Then - at the end of 1986 - North's mad scheme was exposed. There was an enormous political scandal that nearly brought Reagan down. And the revolutionary visions of the religious right were finished.

The Iranians made great play of how mad Oliver North was. The then speaker of the Iranian parliament, Rafsanjani, held up North's bible for the world to see:


But the religious right in America didn't go away, instead - just like in Khomeini's Iran - it has mutated since the late 1980s into a rigid moral police force that has become an iron cage that possesses American politics and stops it progressing.

And that is what someone like Rick Santorum is. He's no revolutionary. He's just a conservative. But whatever happens to his campaign, the religious right is an active force in American politics. In particular they are among the keenest to bomb Iran.

Meanwhile in Iran there are parliamentary elections - but it's a contest between different factions of conservative religious fundamentalists, with the opposition excluded.

Forty years ago, in both America and Iran, religion was brought into politics as a revolutionary force - fuelled by a vision that it could be used to transform the world. But now, in both countries, that power has mutated into a backward-looking and hysterical conservatism that is doing its best to remove both countries from the dynamic force of history.

And look what happened in 1987 to one of the great leaders of that revolution in America - Jimmy Swaggart. But even when he faced his downfall, he was a great performer.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.