The Briefing 02-18-15

The Briefing 02-18-15

The Briefing


February 18, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Wednesday, February 18, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Atrocities of past week and year seem to lead to significant shift in Western view of ISIS

One of the most basic issues that every biblical Christian must keep always in mind is that not only we, but every single human being operates out of the basis of a worldview. We operate on the basis of certain intellectual principles, certain fundamental truths, without which the world would not make sense. One of realities we face in the modern age is that there are so many secularized people in Western countries who believe that their worldview is non-theological, sometimes even anti-theological. But of course one of the things we always have to come back is even the most supposedly anti-theological worldview is theological in its own way.

But the fact remains that the increasingly secularized society of the modern West has produced a situation in which there are many, certainly amongst the cognitive elites, who live in such apparently secularized world’s and operate out of what they believe are secularized worldviews, that they have basically succumbed to a certain voluntary disarmament when it comes to understanding theological issues and, more urgently, the people who operate out of those theological worldviews.

We’ve had to come back to this fact time and again, especially given the situation of Islam in the modern world and the rise of modern terrorism driven in large part by those who at least believe themselves to be adherents of Islam and of Islamic theology. The point I’ve tried to make so repeatedly in recent months is that the West is denying what is fundamentally true. And when I speak of the West I speak especially of the intellectual and political elites, most importantly person such as the President of the United States, Barack Obama; who steadfastly seems to believe that the way to win this argument is to deny that the argument is in any sense theological. But of course it is, and we’ve been making that point over and over again. As a matter fact, one of the point that I believe simply must be made is the point of respect. You simply are not respecting people who tell you they’re operating on the basis of a worldview when you tell them that they’re not – that they can’t be, that that worldview is not operational, and that it doesn’t represent even themselves.

But in terms of this conversation we may look back at the opening weeks, the very troubled opening weeks of the year 2015, as a significant turning point in this discussion. As a matter fact, we may look back to the past week, the past 7 to 10 days or so, as a crucial hinge in that conversation. One central piece of evidence in terms of that assessment comes in the form an article published at CNN by Daniel Burke, he’s CNN’s religion editor. It was published yesterday; it’s entitled, Religion’s week from hell and in it he describes the past seven days as being seven days of hellish violence. He goes to cities around the world and with one singular exception – and that was the murder of three Muslims in North Carolina, apparently by an atheist – with that singular exception, every other incident that is documented – horrifyingly documented – in his article has to do with Islamic terrorism, either against fellow Muslims or against others.

Another very important piece of evidence in terms of this turning may well be an article that appeared as an op-ed piece in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. Written by columnist Roger Cohen, no conservative, the title of the column is Islam and the West at War. Cohen begins his article,

“After a Danish movie director at a seminar on ‘Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression’ and a Danish Jew guarding a synagogue were shot dead in Copenhagen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the prime minister of Denmark, uttered a familiar trope:”

This is what the Prime Minister said,

“We are not in the middle of a battle between Islam and the West. It’s not a battle between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a battle between values based on the freedom of the individual and a dark ideology.”

Cohen then writes,

“This statement — with its echoes of President Obama’s vague references to ‘violent extremists’ uncoupled from the fundamentalist Islam to which said throat-cutting extremists pledge allegiance — scarcely stands up to scrutiny. It is empty talk.”

He then goes on to say,

“Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world, in a failed bid to eradicate a metastasizing Islamist movement of murderous hatred toward Western civilization.”

That single sentence paragraph is one of the most important to have arrived in terms of a major American newspaper in recent months. And it arrived yesterday on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and not by an outside writer, but from a columnist for the Times itself. This is a signal movement, a very significant change.

With tremendous moral clarity Roger Cohen writes,

“To call this movement, whose most potent recent manifestation is the Islamic State, a ‘dark ideology’ is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate. There is little point in Western politicians rehearsing lines about there being no battle between Islam and the West, when in all the above-mentioned countries tens of millions of Muslims, with much carnage as evidence, believe the contrary.”

Now, in that paragraph Roger Cohen is directly refuting the President of the United States who just about two weeks ago told a television interviewer that 99.9% of Muslims around the world are not at war with the West. Now the President would surely have been on stable ground if he said the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world are not at war with the West, but 99.9%? That’s a claim that his own national security officials absolutely denied with their own statistics that say instead, that there are millions of Muslims – not a majority, but millions of Muslims, especially across a certain portion of the world – who are ready to not only engage in this kind of terrorism, but are also committed exporting that terrorism to the United States and to Europe, to Australia and beyond.

Cohen’s article is extremely important – so important that it can be eclipsed only by one other article to have appeared in recent times; this one, this week, in the pages of the Atlantic. But before turning to that article, I simply want to note that Roger Cohen traces the problem, in terms of Islamic terrorism, asking the question ‘Is the rise of this form of Islam due to the failures of the West or the failures of Arab nations and Arab leaders?’ In the end he says, more responsibility falls on the Arab world than on the West. The West has made horrifying mistakes, but the Arab world in the end has to take responsibility for itself and for its own future and for its own people and for the confrontation of the Islamic state and other forms of Islamic terrorism, because in the end the Arab nations and the Arab peoples will decide what kind of world the Arab world will be.

2) Islamic eschatology central to understanding challenge of the Islamic State

But as I said, as important as that article is in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, it actually is eclipsed by an article that appeared just in recent days in the Atlantic monthly dated March 2015 and the articles is by Graeme Wood; the title, What ISIS Really Wants. The subtitle in the magazine is this, “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.” What that subhead of the article announces is that Graeme Wood is going to be arguing that theology really does matter. And that you cannot understand the headlines, even the most horrifying headlines of recent days, recent months and years, without understanding the inherently theological nature of the challenge that now confronts us.

He begins by citing comments made by an American military leader in the Middle East. That military leader is Major General Michael K. Nagata, he’s the special operations commander for the United States in the Middle East.  He admitted, says the Atlantic, he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. The direct quote from the general is this,

We have not defeated the idea, we do not even understand the idea.”

Now I would simply point out that most, in terms of the opinion makers and the cultural elites, the intellectual leadership you find in the West, that statement is true nearly of them all; they have not even begun to understand the idea. One of the problems is they have rejected the very nature of the idea before they come to understand it. Graeme Wood explains that this willful blindness on the part of the West to the theological challenge we face explains why President Obama just a matter of something like a year and a half ago, would refer to the Islamic state as not Islamic – that’s the  President’s own words – and as a JV team, using an athletic metaphor. And now the Islamic state has appear to be anything but the JV team, it has eclipsed Al Qaeda and other groups and is the major terroristic force we now face in the world today. It is growing, not receding, and it is inherently theological – abundantly so – and that’s the point Graeme Wood is now seeking to make.

It’s important we note that he’s making this argument in the Atlantic, one of the most important secular magazines of public discussion in the United States. The Atlantic is known for its longform journalism – that is, massively long articles – and this is a massively long article. It’s about 30 pages in its print form.

Concerning our ignorance of the Islamic state, Wood writes,

“Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi [That is Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, the leader of the Islamic State since 2010] has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

In that singular paragraph, Graeme Wood decisively defeats the secular understanding that says the Islamic state isn’t Islamic, and the challenge isn’t theological. Graeme Wood comes back to say, for those who are in it, on the side of the Islamic state, it is inherently theological. And he specifies the theology, pointing out that it’s a theology that will not accept peace as a matter of policy. It is a theology that understands world conquest, at least in terms of the dominance of Islam, to be absolutely necessary. It is a worldview, a theological worldview, that make it, says Wood,

“…constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival;”

And most hauntingly, remember those words,

“…it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.”

By the way, in terms of numbers Graeme Wood, in this article, stipulates that the Islamic state now can include within its influence, if not its direct order, something like 8 million people. Now that’s not in terms of warriors, that’s in terms of 8 million people who are in the Muslim world, ready for some form of jihad and involved in forms of Islam that feed that kind of jihadist theology.

Now again, this doesn’t mean there are 8 million people under the control the Islamic state in terms of an army, it doesn’t mean there are 8 million people actively involved in jihad. It does mean that according to this analysis, there are at least 8 million people who subscribe to a theology that would see the jihad as the answer to the question. Graeme Wood goes through a pretty important review of major developments in terms of Islamic terrorism, pointing out some very important things that many people miss.

For instance, Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by the Islamic state, no question about that. In the driver seat of terrorism in terms of the Muslim world, Al Qaeda has now been displaced by the Islamic state. And one of the other things that Graeme Wood points out is that Al Qaeda was directed mostly outside the Muslim world in terms of a projection of terror in the Western world, whereas the Islamic state is about the conquest of territory and the establishment of a caliphate – that is in Islamic rule under a Khalif, a supreme Muslim leader and teacher and so what we’re looking at here are two different groups with two different ideas of what a jihad would look like, and what an Islamic reality should look like. And yet, as Graeme Wood makes clear, one of the reasons why the Islamic State is winning the argument is because they have a more ancient and enduring tradition in Islam to claim as their own and as their justification, at the expense – not to mention of the West, not to mention of more mainstream leaders in the Arab world – but even at the expense of al Qaeda.

Getting to the inherently theological nature of what we’re facing Graeme Wood writes,

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

“Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”

Says Graeme Wood,

“We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”

Graeme Wood cites the takfiri doctrine of the Islamic State – again drawn from historic Islam – a doctrine that leads the Islamic State to be, according to Wood,

“committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. [He goes on to write] The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims.”

When there’s a turning point in this kind of analysis – one that we should welcome in the West – the reason for is often something that happened some time back, and in this case it turns out that some of this should be rootedin the increasing influence of a professor and scholar at Princeton University; professor Bernard Haykel. He’s identified by would as the leading expert on the Islamic States theology.

He told Graeme Wood that Muslims who call the Islamic State on Islamic art typically – these are his own words – embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.”

And then, in a very telling sentence, Bernard Haykel told Graeme Wood “Many of these denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature are rooted in a” – and here are his words –  “interfaith Christian nonsense tradition.”

Well in this case, I just have to affirm that this Princeton scholar knows exactly what he’s talking about, because the people most likely to be involved in so many these interfaith discussions are the people who don’t actually represent the faiths in any historic or theological sense. The very fact that they’re engaged in many these discussions means that they probably actually don’t represent the people they claim to be representing. The point implicitly being made by Princeton professor Bernard Haykel is that when Western liberal elites talk to the Muslims who to talk to them they’re talking to the Muslims will talk to them. They’re not talking to the Muslims who are behind or involved in the kind of jihad we now face as such an undeniable challenge.

Graeme Wood writes that every academic he asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent him to Professor Haykel.

“According to Haykel [he writes] the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State.”

And here is Professor Haykel again; “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

Now at this point I simply have to say that in terms of the article we’re only nine pages in of an almost 30 page article. That tells you just how important this long-form journalism really is. And just how historically important I believe this article will turn out to be.

Yesterday discussing the issue of evolution in the news I mentioned the fact that every single worldview has to come up with at least an attempt at a coherent explanation of why the world exists, and why we as individuals exist. Why human beings as human beings exist. The various answers to those questions will determine the total shape of the worldview. But if that’s true at the beginning of the worldview it’s also true at the end, because every worldview also has to offer some coherent explanation to the question ‘where is history headed?’ ‘how will all of this end?’ The worldview of modern secular materialism says that the world going to end in some kind of blackhole implosion, or it’s going to end in some kind of second law of entropy, running out of energy. It’s going to be a naturalistic accidental end to a naturalistic accidental existence.

The Christian worldview has a very developed eschatology which is essential to our understanding of Scripture itself. Essential, we should point out, not just at the end of the story but at every point of the story. We live our lives, we believe our faith, we are followers of Jesus Christ precisely because we believe what the Scripture reveals –  that he will establish in fullness his kingdom on the day described in Scripture as the day of visitation. And that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, that there will be a New Jerusalem, and that all of this will happen in accordance with all that is revealed in Scripture. History has a purpose of end. Every moment finds its existence meaningful simply because we believe this is not an accidental happening. This is not history just as Henry Ford once said, ‘one thing after another.’ This is the unfolding of the story under God’s sovereign control and toward the end of the kingdom that is here but not yet here the kingdom that is here and yet coming.

But Islam has an eschatology as well and their eschatology is just as central to their worldview – not in terms of the reading of the future but of the present – as is hours. And Graeme Wood makes them very important insight the you can’t understand the Islamic State without understanding that it sees not only the end of history very near but it sees itself as bringing about that history it understands – not drawing this and thin air but from the Quran and other ancient Muslim sources – that what it now plays a role in history is bringing about the great battle of the end. A great battle that will take place against what is identified as “Rome.” Which may be, as Graeme Wood says, as close to the Islamic State as the Republic of Turkey. On the other hand it may be the United States or Western civilization or your or some combination of all.

One of the official spokesman for the Islamic State explaining why they would be resuming the practice of slavery went back to say,

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women. If we do not reach that time,[said Adnanni] then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”

Graeme Wood says the reason why we should take it seriously is because they believe it seriously. That’s why they’re saying, and they’re saying over and over again. And only willful ignorance will deny and close ears to the fact that is exactly what they’re saying and this is exactly what they’re believing.

Wood goes on to explain that the theology explains why the Islamic State in declaring a caliphate is taking territory. It believes that that is its responsibility. It believes that those Arab nations that now hold territory are not truly Muslim and it believes that Muslim movements that do not hold territory are also not truly Muslim. One of the achievements of Graeme Wood in this article is to look at the actual statements, publications, and writings of the Islamic State and point out the inherent theological content. And also the point out the significance of such things as the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. As he writes,

It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, [here’s the reason why] the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo [says Graeme Wood] or its Antietam.”

In the second half of his article Graeme Wood goes into great detail explaining why the Islamic State should be understood as acting rationally, that is acting according to the reason of its own worldview, its own inherent rationality. These are not people who are violating their own intellectual rules and principles. Instead they are seeking to live out their theology, and live it out it appears they are determined to do, even to the death.

Graeme Wood says you can’t understand this if you don’t understand that they’re trying to establish a caliphate, that they see the West as the great enemy that not only must be defeated but will be defeated, that they understand dying and killing as something that is necessary to the expansion of their faith and to their own faithfulness, and that they understand ,as he says very clearly that in so doing they’re bringing about the very Apocalypse they believe they will be players in. They believe they’re going to be bringing about the end when they will face down the West and bring about the Muslim theological vision of the Apocalypse.

To state the matter plainly Wood writes,

“The United States and its allies have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze.”

He also writes a this is inexcusable, since the group’s been telling us what they believe in the very beginning and is basically posted all of its beliefs – at least enough to understand their coherent plan – in every available form.

Interestingly evidence of that point comes in a front-page article in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times where we read,

“With the Islamic State and its supporters producing as many as 90,000 tweets and other social media responses every day, American officials acknowledge they have a tough job ahead to blunt the group’s digital momentum.”

Now there you have an acknowledgment that we’re not suffering from having too little information about the Islamic State, its beliefs and its aims, but if anything too much.

I simply have to bring this to an end, which is a tremendous challenge given the importance of this article and the importance of its many arguments and documentations. But I’ll simply say that what this now tells us is that we might be facing at last a coming out of the daze –  the kind of willful blindness and intellectual denial that Graeme Wood indict so clearly in his article. The turning point may well be seen in his article itself published in the Atlantic this week.

For Christians is a great deal here for us to ponder in think about the we certainly have to think about all over again just how important a worldview is, and just how inherently theological virtually every worldview is, even when that worldview claims to be non-theological. But it also reminds me of a statement that I heard a long time ago; ‘you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.’

So finally we might now be seeing the knowledge that the you can’t bring a secular argument to a theological challenge. We might be – but time will tell.


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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Atrocities of past week and year seem to lead to significant shift in Western view of ISIS

Religion’s week from hell, CNN (Daniel Burke)

Islam and the West at War, New York Times (Roger Cohen)

2) Islamic eschatology central to understanding challenge of the Islamic State

What ISIS Really Wants, The Atlantic (Graeme Wood)

U.S. Intensifies Effort to Blunt ISIS’ Message, New York Times (Eric Schmitt)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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