Monday, Oct 22, 2018

Monday, Oct 22, 2018

The Briefing

October 22, 2018

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

It’s Monday, October 22, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is the Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The long, historical backstory of the House of Saud and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

The world soon learned that journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, had entered into the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on October the 2nd. We were told that he had entered into the Saudi Consulate because as a Saudi citizen seeking permission to marry another Saudi citizen, he had entered into the Consulate in order to achieve some necessary paperwork. We also learned that he was not seen leaving the Consulate, at all. Then came the shocking accusations from the government in Turkey, saying that the government there had not only credible suspicions, but audio evidence of the fact that Khashoggi had been arrested, he had been interrogated, he had been tortured, he had been murdered, and eventually he had been dismembered. Amongst the evidence as brought forth by the Turkish government was the fact that a special forces team from Saudi Arabia had arrived just a matter of hours before Khashoggi’s entrance into the Consulate. It was also discovered that amongst those who had come into the country was a medical doctor with a particular specialty in autopsies.

The charges coming from Turkey seemed almost like something out of an outlandish novel, except for the fact they also came in the context of the confusion, the cauldron of confusions in the modern Middle East and in the larger Islamic world of which both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now very much a part. You’re looking at the fact that Turkey has been vying with Saudi Arabia for prominence and for influence, and also for investment and money. You are looking at the fact that when you are seeing the Middle East as an outsider, it is very difficult to know exactly what is going on, or even what exactly is meant. What is behind an argument? What is behind an accusation? But when you’re talking about the murder of a journalist, and in this case, a journalist connected with a newspaper like The Washington Post, when you’re talking about someone of the public visibility of Jamaal Khashoggi, then you are talking about a question that will in one way or another be answered.

Furthermore, in this information age, in the age of digital media and all of the fast-paced news developments, and not only that, when you are looking at the enormous pressures that the information age can bring even on the most autocratic regime, very quickly Saudi Arabia had to come up with a story. The first story Saudi Arabia came up with was the fact that they had nothing to do with Khashoggi’s disappearance. They had no idea what had happened to him, and they assured people all over the world that Khashoggi had left the Consulate very healthy and very much on his own. But there was absolutely no evidence to back up that Saudi story and there was mounting evidence to deny it, to contradict it.

Then on Friday, Saudi time, came the announcement that indeed the Saudi government would concede that Khashoggi had been killed in what was declared to be an altercation that resulted from an unexpected fight with the journalist. Now almost immediately, especially with domestic pressures building in the United States and international pressures building, most importantly with pressure coming from western nations, very quickly the scrutiny turned into great intensity. The story just doesn’t hold up. It just doesn’t hold up that there was a Special Forces team, that there was a doctor with a particular expertise in autopsies, who just happened to arrive just before Khashoggi’s entrance into the Consulate and just happened to leave shortly after Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Furthermore, it was known that Khashoggi was a very significant thorn in the side of the House of Saud, that is the ruling family there in Saudi Arabia, and thus we get to some issues of vast world view implication. That’s not to say that the murder of anyone, for that matter, of any journalist, under any conditions, would not be something of great world view significance, it is to say that in this case, it turns back the time looking to centuries past and it also points to some of the most basic world view divides present in the world today.

It has often been remarked that if one wants to understand what a renaissance court would have looked like, just look to the Vatican. The Vatican is still, today, very much in its operations like a medieval or renaissance royal court. But if you want to know what an ancient court looked like, don’t look to the Vatican, look to the House of Saud. Look to Saudi Arabia, because there you had the example of a monarchy operating in the 21st century, pretty much like autocratic totalitarian monarchs in centuries past. Not just going back to the renaissance or the to medieval period, but going back all the way to ancient history. That’s not to say that the House of Saud, as a royal governing house is all that old, it just acts like one of those ancient monarchies.

The House of Saud is actually historically traced up to about the middle of the 18th century, to its founding figure, Mohammad bin Saud. He established the dynasty which eventually came to be the ruling family of the nation that came to be known as Saudi Arabia. The most important figure in the House of Saud, in its history was Ibn Saud, who lived from 1875 to 1953. What’s so important there is to understand that in the aftermath of two world wars, but in particular in the aftermath of the second world war, it was very much understood that the west in general, and the United States in particular, had a great deal to gain by stability throughout much of the Muslim world, and in particular, stability where the oil was most important. The greatest reservoirs of oil known at the time were, by no accident, under the sands of the dessert in what became Saudi Arabia.

American Presidents, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, did their best to create good relations with the House of Saud, and western nations tried to encourage the development of the House of Saud as the ruling house in Saudi Arabia and to try to move that royal house towards the acceptance of modern ideas of liberty and of nationality of nationhood. But as it turned out, and as it so often does turn out, western expectations have not been realized in a non-western context, and that’s especially true when you consider the fact that the moral and theological authority of the House of Saud as the ruling house in Saudi Arabia, has to do with the fact that the most important of the responsibilities understood to be invested in the House of Saud, well is to be the royal guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The authoritative identity by which the House of Saud rules is a Muslim identity, it’s an Islamic identity and it’s not just some kind of generalized identity, it is Sunni Islam and it is the Wahhabist strain of Islam. That is the very strain that eventually produced Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. So for the last several decades the United States and other western nations have tried to build relationships with Saudi Arabia and that means, with the ruling dynasty of the House of Saud, while at the same time trying to hold out the hope of some kind of modernization, understanding that the development of the House of Saud as an ally was very important, and also understanding that throughout much of the Middle East, there are two main factors at work. One of them is Islam, that’s the theological authority of the House of Saud, but the other is wealth, that is the real power. The real authority operationally behind the Saudi Arabia governing monarchy and how it operates. How it keeps order and peace within Saudi Arabia.

When Saudi Arabia and it’s reigning monarchy was gaining in authority worldwide, also gaining in massive wealth, it had a great deal to do with the oil power, the petroleum power, the Saudi Arabia then represented. It does not represent the same power now. Developments in other nations such as Venezuela also in the North Sea, Scandinavian countries, discoveries of oil elsewhere, and in the United States the development of fracking and other sources of petroleum, all of this has led to a relative diminishment, minimization of the wealth of Saudi Arabia. Thus, the House of Saud has sought to modernize, to some extent. What is now understood is that Saudi Arabia must expand it’s economic base beyond oil or the very wealth that has kept the Saudi Arabian citizenry happy until now. Well if that wealth ceases, the authority of the ruling house, the House of Saud is directly threatened.

But as The New York Times reported yesterday, in a front page story, Saudi Arabia, “Is confronting a more uncertain economic future as oil prices have fallen and competition among energy suppliers has grown.” But then something else has been happening and that has been the continuing stress, the continuing competition and rivalries within the ruling house. When you’re talking about the House of Saud, you are talking in Saudi Arabia about the ultimate elite. How big an elite? Well, in total about 15,000 members of the House who are expected to have some kind of authority. Within that is an elite of an elite, about 2,000 princes of the House of Saud, who have massive authority and influence.

The current King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman had at first named his nephew as crowned prince and heir, but in recent years he displaced that crowned prince and instead named his own son, Mohammad Bin Salman as the new crowned prince, and Mohammad Bin Salman, the new crowned prince, set himself as the face of modernization and also of the economic expansion of Saudi Arabia far beyond oil. The crown prince had said it’s his ambition to attract as much investment as possible to Saudi Arabia and specifically investment that was not related to oil. He started hosting a meeting, very much based upon the world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, in which he sought to bring major investors from the west in order to tantalize them with the opportunity in investing in the new House of Saud or in its new economic future.

But at the very time, the crowned prince was understood to be an economic modernizer, or that’s how he is presented, there was also a political ruthlessness that was very, very clear. Just the last year he imprisoned in effect several of his own cousins and fellow princes, now in Saudi Arabian style, they were basically imprisoned in the Ritz-Carlton, but nonetheless they were held effectively for ransom. They had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the reigning house in order to obtain their liberty and many of them found their bank accounts surprisingly drained of funds during their imprisonment.

Part II

Why it’s not enough to know that the myth of the modernizing dictator really is a myth

Over the course of the last several years it has also been clear that the Saudi royal house was very irritated by those who were seeking to call for modernization, democratization, an effective respect for human rights, and right at the center of so many of those concerns was none other than the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, of course, had deep connections in the west. As I said, he had been a contributor to The Washington Post. He also had deep relationships with the west and he knew how to interpret what was going on in Saudi Arabia, and furthermore, he was considered to be a very dangerous irritant to an autocratic regime. That’s why he disappeared and that’s why when he disappeared, the fingers immediately were pointed at Saudi Arabia. But not just at the nation. Those fingers were effectively, quickly, almost immediately pointed at the crowned prince himself.

President Trump has found himself largely isolated amongst other western leaders in his reluctance to blame the crowned prince directly, but when you understand how these monarchies work, it is virtually impossible that anyone will be able to trace the crime directly to the crowned prince, but it’s also almost impossible to believe that such an operation could have been conducted without his assent. A bit of the deep world view significance that arises in this was made clear in an article by Robert Kagan. It was published in yesterday’s edition of The Washington Post and titled, The Myth of the Modernizing Dictator. Kagan writes, “Many Americans have an odd fascination with the idea of the reforming autocrat, the strong man who can modernize and lead his nation out of its backward and benighted past.” This, he says, was the hope for crowned prince, Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a hope now somewhat diminished by the hit he appears to have ordered against The Washington Post contributing columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Turkey.

Kagan is himself also a contributing columnist for the Post, he also holds the post of senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He’s one of the most often quoted experts in the American foreign policy establishment. The main argument he makes in this article, it’s an important argument, is that Americans are repeatedly, over and over again, tempted to believe in what he calls this myth of the modernizing dictator, and quite accurately he points to American history, especially in the 20th century, and points to the fact that at least some Americans describe just that kind of hope of the modernizing, totalitarian, autocratic, dictator, to figures as different as Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and even Adolf Hitler. More recently, American Presidents and politicians invested that kind of hope in leaders in the Philippines, in Iran, such as the late Shah of Iran. In leaders such as Chile’s, Augusto Pinochet, and you could just go down the list.

Robert Kagan makes the point that it is a myth that dictators and autocrats ever actually modernized. They offer the west the assurance that their intention, if only they can have the opportunity and the funds and the time and the American support, then their real ambition is to modernize, it is to liberalize, it is to respect human rights, it is to bring about some kind of democratization. Kagan’s point is that, that tomorrow almost never parabolically never comes. Kagan explains this when he writes, “As for the liberalizing autocrat he turns out to be a rare creature indeed. Autocrats as it happens are disinclined to lay the foundations for their own demise. They do not create independent political institutions, foster the rule of law or permit a vibrant civil society precisely because these would threaten their hold on power. Instead, they seek to destroy institutions and opposition forces that might someday pose a challenge to their dictatorial rule.” Kagan then ends that paragraph with a sentence, “Why should we expect otherwise.”

Now when you’re looking at Kagan’s article, here’s where Christians need to think very, very carefully. We would look at this article and we would see the historical argument that he makes and we would say, you know Robert Kagan’s really onto something here. It is a bit embarrassing to us all that such hopes could ever have been invested in such a motley crew of dictators, monarchs and totalitarian leaders as he can accurately cite within this article. That’s embarrassing. But this is where Christians, given the Christian world view and our understanding of sin and the tenacious power of sin, would lead us even to sharpen Kagan’s arguments. It’s not enough to know that the myth of the modernizing dictator is a myth. It’s also important to understand that anything other then autocracy requires some prerequisites, it requires some civilizational achievements.

When you’re looking at the distinction between western democracy and any form of autocracy including the royal House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, you have to understand an argument that was made by columnist George Will, several years ago. Speaking of the hopes for the so-called Arab spring, George Will pointed out that Americans were foolish to think that all of a sudden a constitutional form of democracy could appear in much of the Arab world. The reason for that is quite simple. He said that that part of the world and it’s civilizational history has everything necessary for being a constitutional republic, or a modern liberal democracy except for Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and the list went on.

So in sum, all of this serves to underline what we must continually keep in mind, and that is the civilization is an achievement and when you’re looking at the kind of civilization that has been achieved in the west, the kind of understanding of liberty and human rights, the kind of understanding of representative government and constitutional authority, the kind of world view that undercuts autocracy, the kind of world view that prevents a dictatorship, you’re looking at a worldview that has to be built over time and has to be built upon a certain foundation and this is where Christians have to rush in to say, there’s no accident to be seen that around the world this kind of government, this understanding of liberty, this understanding of human rights, has emerged specifically from the civilizations most influenced by Christianity.

The concept of the image of God and what it means to affirm human dignity is what undergirds the western understanding of human rights. It’s exactly what is absent in so much of the rest of the world. It’s a sad commentary, but perhaps not all that surprising that most people around the world if interested in this story at all seem to be mostly, if not exclusively interested in who did it and what happens next. It’s healthy for Christians to understand that this is a very long, historical tale. It has long foundations and furthermore it’s not all that out of line of the autocratic habits of so many of the governments of the world. This kind of story is mostly shocking because Americans aren’t used to seeing this kind of story. Elsewhere in the world it is all too common.

The fact that it’s so shocking here, should lead us to ask some questions. Why are we so shocked when those closest to the story appear to be less so? That’s a question that in the end can be answered only by the analysis of world view. For all those who have eyes to see, those issues have been laid bare in these recent headlines.

Part III

What’s actually behind a society celebrating books that aren’t really banned during Banned Books Week

But next while we’re thinking about this, I want to go back to an event, or a pseudo-event that took place in the month of September. It was Daniel Boorstin, then the Librarian of Congress, who talked about pseudo-events. He talked about people as he described who were famous only for being famous, and he also talked about events that were significant only because people manufactured them. In September, one of the now annual manufactured events in the United States is known as Ban the Books weeks. But wait just a minute. In the United States, we don’t legally ban books. So in this country, what would Ban the Books week mean? Well it turns out what it means is, an opportunity for many bookstores and librarians in the United States to crusade against what they call censorship. But wait just a minute, what are they actually identifying as censorship? As it turns out, it’s not even really censorship. It is any kind of public or private opposition to the argument of any book, and as it turns out that so many of the titles that they want to celebrate when they describe Banned Books Week, not only have not been banned, but they have received at least some opposition because of, well, the kind of affirmations that are made in the book.

The kind of ambitions and motivations behind the book, the agenda that is reflected in the book. And lest librarians and booksellers say there is no agenda, just look at the arguments made by those very same people. They make that agenda very, very clear. Ron Charles writing in the Book World column for The Washington Post back in September said this, “If you tell anyone I’ll deny it, but I’ve been irritated for a long time by Banned Books Week. Despite my unqualified support, he said, for the freedom to read the annual celebration, has always struck me as shrill and inaccurate. I know the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and other fine sponsors are doing important, necessary work. I just wish Banned Books Week didn’t appear to exaggerate a problem that’s largely confined to our repressive past.”

Now I’m not going to agree in total with Ron Charles’ argument, but what’s really clear is the fact that it was rather courageous to make the argument at all. The left generally devours those who make this kind of argument and Ron Charles has opened himself to exactly that kind of criticism. Later in his article, he asked a question, “Are we winning any converts with this annual orgy of self righteousness?” The rhetoric, he said of Banned Books Week is pitched at such a fervent level that crucial distinction are burned away by the fire our moral certainty, which is an ill, he said, that wide reading should cure, not exacerbate. He even asked the question, “And what books are actually effectively banned in the United States nowadays?” He goes on to say this, “The titles on the top 10 most challenged list, in fact sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year.” He then asked the obvious question, “How many authors would kill to be challenged like that?”

He posed just that kind of question to James LaRue from the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. The kind of association, by the way I must interject that shouldn’t be understood as morally or worldview neutral. It has made it’s advocacy for example of LGBTQ issues abundantly clear. He posed a question to them with these words, “Books aren’t banned in this country anymore. The Supreme Court has made that impossible.” He then asked LaRue to respond. Listen to his response. “There are so many places, like in rural communities where you say, well the book isn’t banned, it’s still published, it’s still available on Amazon, it’s in a bookstore. But let’s say you’re a young, gay kid, and you go to your library and David Levithan’s, Two Boys Kissing, has been removed and so you don’t know that it’s there. You don’t have a credit card to get it from Amazon, you can’t hop in a car if you’re 14 years old and drive to a bookstore, so the ban is not a trivial thing. It’s a deliberate suppression of a viewpoint that has real consequences for people.”

Let’s just pause for a moment and understand the insanity of that statement. It’s actually saying that unless you provide a specific book to everyone, under every circumstance, you have effectively banned it. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, that’s the kind of logic, that’s the kind of argument up with which we must not put. LaRue is quoted extensively in the remainder of the article, but the bottom line in all of it is, that if you follow his logic then every book is owed to every person, regardless of its viewpoint. And here’s where the issues get particularly tense, they get particularly touchy. That’s because so many of the arguments behind something like Banned Books Week, what you really have is an argument for getting literature that is particularly offense to even the majority in the community because evidently according to this argument, there is the moral mandate that we must allow every book into every hand, even providing it if that is what the moral revolutionaries and others will demand.

Just consider the fact that when you have this kind of argument made ask yourself the question, which books are more likely to appear in your local public library? Books that now celebrate the LGBTQ revolution or books that represent something like Orthodox Christianity? I think you know the answer to that question already. But then we just have to understand the intellectual dishonesty of claiming that a book that is not provided is a book that is banned. As we so often say, that sounds like something right out of George Orwell’s, 1984.

So, as Daniel Boorsten pointed out, in this country we not only have pseudo-celebrities, we have pseudo-events, we have events that are only famous for being invented events, and that is almost exactly what we now face every single year in September with Banned Books Week. Again, I will give credit to Ron Charles for the courage to write what all of us are thinking. I quote again, the titles on the top 10 most challenged list in fact sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year. How many authors would kill to be “challenged,” like that? When you have an entire week celebrated in our culture entitled Banned Books Week, that’s celebrates books that actually aren’t banned, you know something’s going on and it’s the Christian responsibility to figure out what that something is.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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