Theological Extremism in a Secular Age

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
January 8, 2015

This is an edited transcript of The Briefing podcast from early Thursday morning, January 8, 2015.

The war on terror took on a savage new face yesterday when two gunmen entered the headquarters of a French satirical newspaper known as Charlie Hebdo and opened fire, killing 12 people—10 people connected with the newspaper and two police officers.

The Washington Post reported this morning, “France’s deadliest terrorist attack in modern memory unfolded with chilling precision here Wednesday as gunmen speaking fluent French burst into a satirical newspaper’s weekly staff meeting and raked the room with bullets, leaving behind what one witness described as ‘absolute carnage.’”

Reporters Griff Witte and Anthony Faiola also reported, “After shooting dead their final victim, the exultant killers calmly fled the scene, sparking a manhunt that extended across this capital city and deep into its suburbs… France raised its security alarm to the highest level and mobilized teams on foot, by air and in vehicles seeking the three masked assailants, who carried out the assault shouting the Arabic call of ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or ‘God is great,’ amid the gunfire.”

Charlie Hebdo—which means “Charlie Weekly”— is well-known in French culture as a far left satirical magazine. In fact, at one point in its history Charlie Hebdo had been put out of business by the French government due to inflammatory comments made in the aftermath of the death of the late French President Charles de Gaulle. But the magazine re-started in 1992 and, in recent years, has become world-famous for running satirical cartoons—including cartoons against the prophet Mohammed.

The scene of carnage in the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo was yet another sign that the Islamic culture, at least as represented by these terrorists, is ready to take whatever steps necessary to put an end to what they consider blasphemy.

French President François Hollande very clearly indicated that he considered this “a terrorist attack, without a doubt.” The French president also stated, “Journalists and police officers have been assassinated in cowardly fashion….France is in a state of shock.”

The attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters was hardly unprecedented. In 2011 the headquarters were firebombed after running a similar cartoon satirizing the prophet Mohammed. As the Washington Post reported, “Charlie Hebdo’s iconoclastic style frequently pushed the envelope. The newspaper was already under regular police guard after being targeted in the past.”

As the news of the massacre unfolded, I immediately thought of an editorial that ran in the final edition the Wall Street Journal in 2014. That editorial, entitled “Progressives and Disorder,” pointed to the fact that Western elites are often relatively unwilling or unable to deal with the disorder that has now emerged on the world scene. Western elites believe and insist that humanity operates on basically rational terms. No one better illustrates this rationalist approach to world affairs than President Barack Obama. But as the Wall Street Journal editors made clear, those Western elites are relatively helpless when it comes to dealing with the world that will not operate by the same rules of rational order and rational discourse.

The massacre in Paris is yet another sign that a a good portion of the world’s population operates by a very different worldview and by a very different moral code. There is a form of rationality evident in the Islamic attacks, in the larger context of Islamic terrorism, and in particular in the attack upon the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. But that rationality is the rationality of Islam, not of the Western worldview; certainly not of the modern Western secular worldview.

An example of the West’s confusion is demonstrated in an article that appears in this morning’s edition of the New York Times entitled “‘Dangerous Moment’ for Europe, as Fear and Resentment Grow,” written by Steven Erlanger and Katrin Bennhold. The article cites Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam and Islamic radicalism, who defined the Paris assault as “a quantitative and therefore qualitative turning point…This was a maximum-impact attack. They did this to shock the public, and in that sense they succeeded.”

But the New York Times article is notable for the fact that it lacks any moral clarity about how to understand this massacre. The article cites Andrew Hussey, identified as a Paris-based professor of post-colonial studies, who noted, “Politically, the official left in France has been in denial of the conflict between France and the Arab world. But the French in general sense it.”

One of the fundamental problems among Western elites is that they cannot understand a theological worldview—particularly the theological worldview of Islam. Being basically rational and secular in their own worldview, Western elites find it almost impossible to understand the radical actions taken by Islamic terrorists.

For example, Islamic teaching distinguishes the house of Islam (Dar al_Islam)—that part of the world which is under submission to the Quran and Sharia law—from the house of war (Dar al-Harb)—that portion of the world that is not yet brought under Sharia rule. That logic is simply something that the modern secular mind really cannot understand and the American government seems almost resolutely determined to ignore or even to deny.

Speaking on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program yesterday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina indicated that he believes that what we are witnessing is a religious war. But that statement is not echoed by other sectors of the American government—in particular, the United States State Department and, even more pointedly, the American White House. President Obama continues to refer to the group that calls itself the Islamic State by the acronym ISIL—trying to do anything to avoid mentioning the word Islam.

Similar efforts have been undertaken, very categorically, by the United States State Department and by governments in Great Britain and also in France. Even though France has been on the front lines of the war on terror, in terms of its military engagement, French leaders have been unwilling to take on Islam as a cultural challenge, a theological challenge, and, more importantly, a worldview challenge.

In an absolutely stunning development this morning, USA Today ran an article by an extremist Muslim cleric in Britain, Anjem Choudary, who wrote, “Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”

He went on to write, “Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Choudary went on basically to defend the massacre in Paris. He wrote, “Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, ‘Whoever insults a Prophet, kill him.’”

To my knowledge, this is the first time a major American newspaper has run an editorial column by a radical extremist actually calling for the death of those who insult the honor of the prophet Mohammed. In its tagline for the article USA Today actually stated that Choudary “is a radical Muslim cleric in London and a lecturer in sharia.”

But as the Washington Post reported on October 11, 2014, there is no doubt about Choudary’s actual ties to Islamic terrorism and the fact that he has proven very elusive to British authorities. In that article The Post reported, “Iraq and Syria, Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.”

The article cites Choudary as saying, “We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam. That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie—you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

Witte then wrote, “With such grandiose proclamations, it is tempting to dismiss Choudary as a cartoonish hate preacher straight out of central casting. Many do. But harder to ignore is his record of inspiring impressionable young men to carry out violence in the name of Islam—both in Britain and overseas.”

I cannot think of a precedent whereby a major American newspaper has given this kind of extremist this kind of voice in the pages of its own newspaper.

Blasphemy and the Christian Worldview

From a Christian worldview perspective there are a couple of very crucial issues for us to consider. First is the issue of blasphemy. Islam considers blasphemy a capital crime and defines blasphemy as an insult to the Quran, to Islam, and most specifically and personally, to the prophet Mohammed. Christianity also has a concern about blasphemy, but as a spiritual crime—as a sin against God, not as a matter of civic law.

As a matter of fact, Christians recognize that Jesus Christ himself suffered insults and blasphemy on our behalf. Further, Christ deterred the church from pursuing violence when he told Peter to put his sword away. Christ did not revile those who blasphemed him by calling for violence, but rather he accepted the blasphemy as part of the suffering he was called to endure. That is a stunning difference between blasphemy in the Christian worldview and the understanding of blasphemy in the Islamic worldview.

As Choudary made very clear in his article in USA Today, Muslims have a basic responsibility to protect—by violence if necessary—any insult to Islam or the prophet Mohammed. After citing Mohammed to say, “Whoever insults a prophet, kill him,” Choudary wrote, in USA Today, “However, because the honor of the Prophet is something which all Muslims want to defend, many will take the law into their own hands, as we often see.” Indeed, as we saw quite murderously in Paris yesterday.

It is very important that Christians understand that it is not our responsibility to defend the honor of Jesus Christ. As the Bible indicates, Christ will do that himself. Our responsibility is to bear testimony to Christ and, in following his example, bear scorn where necessary in his own name. For this reason, Christians support freedom of expression; understanding that to be a basic human right and not one granted merely by the secular state. Rather freedom of conscience and freedom of expression is bound up in the fact that God has created us in his own image. Christians must therefore defend freedom of expression even while we engage in the public square and bear testimony to the lordship of Christ.

As Christians we understand that every word—indeed every blasphemous word—will eventually stand under divine judgment. There is absolutely nothing to celebrate in blasphemy. But, even as Christians understand the grave consequences of blasphemy, we do not consider it our responsibility to punish the blasphemer. That’s a very important issue and one that is in keeping with the example of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Theological Extremism and The Secular Worldview

Andrew Hussey’s insightful comment in the New York Times is worth repeating: “Politically, the official left in France has been in denial of the conflict between France and the Arab world. But the French in general sense it.”

The reality is that secular elites in general find it incomprehensible to discern why the events in Paris yesterday took place. The denial that this type of terrorism is tied to a theological worldview, present in so many Western intellectual circles, is going to be far harder to hold in light of this kind of massacre. Even as the manhunt for the two assailants spreads throughout France and into much of Europe, the reality is that French intellectuals, European intellectuals, and their American compatriots, are finding themselves hard-pressed to deny that this is indeed a religious war—there is a theological dimension here that simply must be accepted.

It is true, of course, that not all Muslims are radicalized or extremist. It is true that many Muslims, especially in the West, have nothing to do with these kinds of terrorist attacks—either in plotting it or in supporting it. It is also true that most of the Muslims around the world, even if they hold to a theological worldview that justifies these kinds of actions, will never be involved in them. But the other side of the equation is that the Western world now finds itself at war with at least a very large sector of Islam.

Indeed, there is evidence that Islamic terrorism is growing. Keep in mind the report in the Washington Post that over 2000 young Muslims in France have joined the jihad in the Middle East. To those numbers must be added similar figures of young Muslims joining the jihad from the United Kingdom and from other European countries. Further, there are reports of at least several hundred young Muslims leaving  the United States from cities including Minneapolis, Minnesota to join the jihad as well.

The Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris was known for satirically attacking just about every form of religious expression – including Orthodox Judaism and Christianity. But that newspaper did not have to fear any kind of terrorism from Orthodox Jews or from Christians. Both Jews and Christians take blasphemy to be a grave sin but not in the same sense as Islam. French elites and the French people have now been informed of exactly what kind of jihad has been declared against them as a nation, against them as a people, and against freedom of expression.

There is a role for satire in the Christian worldview, even within the Bible. Just think of Isaiah 44’s satirical description of the folly of human idolatry. But that is not warrant for Christians to enter into any kind of irresponsible and intentionally offensive form of satire. Consider the example of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 who, standing at Mars Hill in the context of religious pluralism, did not resort to satire or ridicule. Instead, he boldly declared Christ and he did so in a way that was calculated to make a very clear distinction between the worship of Jesus Christ and the worship of idols. He did so in a way that should serve as an example to all Christians, especially in our contemporary context of radical religious pluralism.

We are living in a world growing more dangerous by the day. That world — the real world — is a world of clashing ideologies and conflicting worldviews. The real world is also a world in which theology always matters, and a world in which an empty secular worldview is no match for an Islamic theology set on conquest and driven by revenge.



Charlie Hebdo suspect said to surrender; two others at large after Paris terrorist attack, The Washington Post (Griff Witte and Anthony Faiola)

Progressives and Disorder, The Wall Street Journal (Associated Press)

‘Dangerous Moment’ for Europe, as Fear and Resentment Grow, New York Times (Steven Erlanger and Katrin Bennhold)

People know the consequences: Opposing view, USA Today (Anjem Choudary)

In Britain, Islamist extremist Anjem Choudary proves elusive, The Washington Post (Griff Witte)

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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