November 16, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, November 16, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Horror of Paris attacks reflect theological identity and ambition of ISIS
The streets of Paris, France on Friday night turn to a massacre and mayhem. As the New York Times reported on Sunday,
“Three teams of Islamic State attackers acting in unison carried out the terrorist assault in Paris on Friday night, officials said Saturday, including one assailant who may have traveled to Europe on a Syrian passport along with the flow of migrants.”Show Full Transcript
French President François Hollande said,
“It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army.”
He went on to say,
“It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish.”
As of Sunday the death toll stands at 129, but there are a further 352 wounded and 99 of them critically so the death toll could well rise. These attacks by the Islamic State in Paris represent a significant escalation of the efforts of ISIS outside of the Middle East and national security experts on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world are wondering what might come next. The particularly horrifying strategy behind this attack was that it was undertaken by multiple assailants in multiple places within different districts of Paris and that means that first responders were unable to even get to some of the venues precisely because the roads became clogged of people fleeing from one district to another as French President François Holland made very clear this was a very highly detailed and highly calculated attack and that is what has worried many Western intelligence agencies because there seems to have been no alert whatsoever to the fact that an attack like this on this particular scale was imminent.
The intentionality behind the attacks was murderous and that included an attack upon young people at a rock concert in the Bataclan, that’s an auditorium known for that kind of venue and upon restaurants and a major soccer game in which France was competing with Germany in so many ways. There were symbolic elements to this attack that it took some time, even to recognize. For example, the location of the attack in general, the city of Paris was an attack upon the European ideal. We’ll return to this in just a moment, but Paris has a massive symbolic importance and then it was an attack upon the young, in particular, young couples and individuals who would be out on a Friday evening, especially for entertainment, whether that entertainment was in the form of sports or in the rock concert. Furthermore, there was a direct mention which has not happened before of a particular political leader, in this case, the president of France and President Hollande was identified in particular because he had joined efforts of other Western nations to oppose ISIS, not only in Syria but beyond.
One of the issues of greatest concern to Western nations is the way that this plan was plotted from afar and carried out right in the heart of Europe. Eric Schmitt and David Kirkpatrick, writing for the New York Times report,
“Defying Western efforts to confront the Islamic State on the battlefield, the group has evolved in its reach and organizational ability, with increasingly dangerous hubs outside Iraq and Syria and strategies that call for using spectacular acts of violence against civilians.”
Later in the same article the reporters write,
“The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, has for the first time engaged in what appears to be a centrally planned campaign of terrorist attacks aimed at inflicting huge civilian casualties on distant territory, forcing many counterterrorism officials in the United States and in Europe to recalibrate their assessment of the group.”
The reporters then cite William McCants, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, who said,
“They have crossed some kind of Rubicon. They have definitely shifted in their thinking about targeting their enemies.”
Similarly, over the weekend, Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt reported when the Islamic State stormed into the scene in Syria and Iraq it seemed focused on seizing territory and its own neighborhood, but in the last two weeks, the so-called soldiers of the caliphate appear to have demonstrated a chilling reach with terrorist attacks against Russia in Lebanon and now in France. Frances Fragos Townsend, the top White House counterterrorism adviser under President George W. Bush said,
“ISIS is absolutely a threat beyond the region. We must not continue to assume that ISIS is merely an away threat. It clearly has international ambitions beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate.”
We need to step back for just a moment and even ponder the vocabulary here. The caliphate is an Islamic term for a region or territory that is under an Islamic rule, not merely sharia law but under the rule of a Caliph, that is an authoritative Muslim teacher. There has not been a caliphate in place since the fall of the Ottoman Empire shortly after World War I and now this shows us that what makes a material difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda is that Al Qaeda never intended to become a state nor did it make pretensions to representing a new caliphate. But ISIS is doing precisely that and it is doing so in keeping with historic Islamic teachings and is doing so while recruiting thousands, it appears of soldiers with many coming from the most modernized cities in the world including Paris and London and Amsterdam and Bonn and Minneapolis and New York.
Christians operating out of a Christian worldview understand that we have to look at these issues theologically precisely because even as theology is always very near in the headlines in this particular case, it’s even in the foreground. We’re talking about a group and we’re talking about an Army and we’re now talking about a state that names itself the Islamic State. Well, we must understand ISIS in terms of the geopolitical and national security implications, the reality is that Christians understand that where theology is engaged it is engaged at the most basic level and nothing makes that point more graphically and chillingly then the statement that was actually released by ISIS in the aftermath of the murderous attacks, indeed the massacres that took place in Paris. Part of the statement reads,
“Eight brothers wearing explosive belts and assault weapons targeted areas carefully chosen in the heart of the French capital. The French stadium, during a match of two crusaders countries French and Germany where the imbecile of France Francois Hollande was present, the bataclan where hundreds of idolaters participating in a party of perversity were assembled, in addition to other targets in the 10, 11 and 18 arrondissement– all simultaneously.”
ISIS then went on to say,
“The ground of Paris trembled under their feet and its roads became too tight for them. The toll of this attack is a minimum of 200 crusaders killed and even more injured, the praise and honor belongs to Allah.
“Allah helped his brothers and gave them what they hoped for”
And then in their own words they put in parentheses,
“(Martyrdom) – they set off their explosive belts in the middle of these infidels after having run out of ammunition. Allah will accept them amongst the martyrs and allows them to join him. France and those who follow their path have to know that they will remain the principle targets of IS [that is the Islamic State] and will continue to smell the odour of death for having led this crusade, for having insulted our prophet, for boasting about fighting Islam in France, for striking a blow against Muslims in the land of the Kalifate with their planes which has achieved nothing in the foul smelling streets of Paris. This attack is only the start of the storm, and a warning for those who want to learn from their mistakes.”
One of the things we must note is the insane insistence on the part of so many Western leaders to deny the obvious and that is the theological identity and the theological ambition behind these attacks in Paris. But the sad fact is that so many modern secular leaders of modern secular governments now increasingly on both sides of the Atlantic lack even the basic theological understanding to know what is at stake in these attacks. For example, the statement is very clear about martyrdom. And even though martyrdom is something most Western leaders think they understand what they likely do not understand is that martyrdom in Islam is the only way to be assured of spending eternity in paradise. One of the most basic distinctions between Christianity and Islam is that the gospel of Jesus Christ as Christ himself made clear is to be the ground of assurance for Christian believers. This is made abundantly clear in the New Testament and it is also very clear, especially in the theological formulations that come out of the Reformation in the 16th century. In the New Testament we are told that these things are written that you may know that you have eternal life, but no Muslim can actually know on the basis of Islamic theology, whether or not he will spend paradise with Allah with the only exception being martyrdom. Martyrs for the faith are promised entrance into paradise. Islam is not only a religion of works and acts; it lacks any understanding of justification by faith, much less justification by faith alone. It’s also premised in an understanding of Allah as a God who created the world and is absolutely sovereign whose will cannot be defined, but who in the end it does not have a character that is revealed.
Christianity points to the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as the assurance of God’s mercy extended to us to those who believe in Christ, but there is no similar affirmation in Islam whatsoever, something else to note in terms of the statement released by ISIS, the continual reference to European nations as Crusader states. Here is one of the oddest most ironic and most dangerous presuppositions of modern secular governments and that is that theology really doesn’t matter. The other irony is that even as many of these Western nations have been doing their very best to even forget that they were once closely identified with Christianity, the Muslim world has not forgotten. So just to take the two countries mentioned explicitly in the ISIS statement, France and Germany, even if their modern secular leaders do not understand those nations to be Christian in any sense, the reality is that the Islamic State does. As we must repeat over and over again, we are not at war with all Muslims and for that we should be very thankful. But we also have to be equally candid about the fact that our foe in this case is clearly Islamic and is driven by an Islamic worldview, Islamic theology and a very clear and growing Islamic identity.
Bernie Sanders blames ideologically motivated violence on climate change, not beliefs
Many of these modern Western leaders have also forgotten history and when words like Crusader states are used here, they often fall over themselves trying to apologize for the fact that Islamic armies didn’t conquer Europe. While many horrifying things were done on both sides in the medieval conflicts known as the Crusades, the reality is that we would not know Europe today as anything other than an Islamic continent if it were not for the fact that the Crusades stopped the spread of Islam in terms of much of Europe, remember that the Muslim armies were stopped at the Gates of Vienna, Austria. The refusal to face reality and the refusal explicitly to deal with the underlying theological reality was on abundant display in the Democratic presidential debate that took place on Saturday night just in the almost immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris when the Democratic candidates refused to talk about Islam as a part of the challenge. Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State referred to a murderous ideology not referring to Islam. Meanwhile, in what must go down as one of the most bizarre moments in American presidential campaign history, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic nomination, running at Hillary Clinton from the left, said that the real underlying problem far greater than the challenge of militant Islam is the challenge of climate change. He said that on Saturday night during the debate and on Sunday morning on the CBS program Face the Nation he doubled down saying,
“If we are going to see an increase in drought, flood and extreme weather disturbances as a result of climate change, what that means is that people all over the world are going to be fighting over limited natural resources,” Sanders said. “If there is not enough water, if there is not enough land to grow your crops, then you’re going to see migrations of people fighting over land that will sustain them, and that will lead to international conflicts.”
The absolute insanity in that statement is refusing to acknowledge what has been taking place in recent years, what took place just hours before in Paris, we are not waiting for some hypothetical set of world conditions in which war may break out, war is already here, Bernie Sanders represents what may be the leading edge of insanity on the left, but he is hardly alone. He is staking out territory that many academics in the West have been trying to lay out for decades now, but it flies in the face not only of rationality, but of history. The struggle between Islam and the West is not new. It goes back centuries and history will record there never has been a time in which there has not been some element of conflict between Islam and the West. What makes the situation radically different now is the increased ability of Islamic groups from the Middle East to export their war and terror to the United States and Europe, as was seen on the streets of Paris on Friday night.
One of the refrains heard over and over again by analysts trying to explain this is the argument that what is really at stake in terms of the crisis in Islam is Islam’s confrontation with modernity as if that is a new 21st century phenomenon. That is actually part and parcel of the engagement between Islam and modernity going back to the late 19th century and all throughout the 20th century. The Middle East for the better part of the last 200 years has been a continuous bloodbath. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the first World War, just led to an escalation of the conflict, not just between Muslims and the rest of the world, but between Muslims and fellow Muslims, especially between the Shia and the Sunnis. And furthermore, any honest assessment of history, any basic understanding of the historical dynamic will reveal that the conflict between Islam and European civilizations, including the United States, that conflict goes back centuries long before anyone could even name modernity, not to mention before the modern age had arrived.
Attack on Paris attack on symbol of secularism, European ideal
Earlier I mentioned the symbolic importance of Paris; we need to talk explicitly about what Paris represents. Paris is identified not only with the seed of European culture, Paris makes the most incredible aspirations to being the seed of culture, to the extent that it even looks condescendingly another French cities, not to mention the rest of the continent. But Paris is also symbolic of the French revolution, which, as we should remember was an explicitly secularist revolution. One of the most symbolic acts of the French revolution was to go into the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the heart of Paris and to remove the statue of the Madonna and replace it with a statue of the goddess reason. In that way the French revolutionaries were seeking to make a very symbolic statement not only of the overthrow of Catholicism within the nation, but the overthrow of Christianity and ever since the French revolution and in particular with the fifth Republic, the current government of France, there has been an effort to establish a purely secular understanding of French identity and with the very ideals of the French Republic, being established on purely secular terms. Ever since the early decades of the 20th century, Paris has also been highly identified with a very public embrace of moral decadence. The English-speaking left, including left-leaning Americans have found soulless in terms of the Parisian example for the better part of the last century and more. The French secular state and French society has famously embraced an open understanding of sexuality that is at odds with even many other European nations, and with an embrace of so-called alternative lifestyles and this goes back again to the very earliest decades of the 20th century. When the Islamic State targeted Paris in this particular way for the attacks on Friday night, they were striking at the very heart of what they understand to be the West, the very heart of what they understand to be Western civilization, Europe, the very heart in particular of the European ideal. But in the aftermath of the attacks, it also became clear the confusion over the reality wasn’t limited to the intellectual elites. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz sent reporters into the districts attacked by ISIS on Friday night and some of the people living in those very districts; those very neighborhoods did not blame the attackers in any moral sense. Sabrina identified as an administrative worker in one of the theaters in the 11th arrondissement, said of the attackers,
“They’re stupid, but they aren’t evil.”
“They are victims of a system that excluded them from society, that’s why they felt this doesn’t belong to them and they could attack. There are those who live here in alienation, and we are all to blame for this alienation.”
The reporter said,
“No one wanted to talk about Islamists or the Islamic State, even after it took responsibility for the attacks and French President Francois Hollande announced that the group was behind them.
It was hard to find anyone at this gathering who would say a bad word about the attackers, and expressions of patriotism were restrained.”
Well, these responses are surely not characteristic of the entire nation of France; much less of the entire city of Paris, the reality is that they reflect what the French left has been representing now for at least a half-century. In the aftermath of the Algerian war that took place in the 1960s, the lesson France seemed to learn was that every person’s grievance is to be respected and taken at face value. But this also represents a gross theological misunderstanding, what many modern secularist in Europe and in the United States don’t understand is that the only satisfactory solution for these grievances on the part of the Islamic state is that all of Europe, indeed all the world come under the caliphate and also come under sharia law. Just yesterday, a brilliant analysis came in the pages of The Economist where the article states,
“France has done its collective best to offer Muslim citizens a hard secularist bargain: accept the ideals of the republic, which include the religious neutrality of the state, and you will be as free to practice your religion as any Catholic, Protestant or Jew.”
That is a brilliant statement and it is actually a distillation in truth of the approach taken by the French government and not only by France, but by many other Western nations as well. And here’s the problem, the logic of Islam cannot accept the modern Western ideal of a secular state, a state indifferent to all matters religious. So when The Economist writes that France has done its very best to offer Muslims what they describe as a hard secularist bargain and that is, again, to accept the religious neutrality of the state and then be as free to practice their religion as any Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, that’s a hard secularist bargain that the Islamic State considers as an ample justification for attack rather than acceptance. The Islamic State isn’t going to accept any secularist bargain; just look at the statement came after the attacks when they took responsibility, identifying France, one of the most secular nations on earth as a Crusader state and identifying those who are in the Bataclan listening to the rock concert as idolaters.
But finally, we have to note that as seared as these images in Paris now are on our minds and as much as the headlines are now continually talking about attacks in Paris, the reality is that the Western mind will soon go on to something else. The modern secular west has for the better part of the last 200 years, but especially in the last period since World War II, has been undermining the very ideals that made Western civilization possible and has been making itself increasingly vulnerable to the kind of attacks we saw on Friday night in Paris. Having unilaterally disarmed itself against understanding any theological argument because it has been at war with any kind of theological authority, the modern secular west now faces a theological enemy that it cannot understand. But the saddest thing in terms of the carnage in Paris is that the truth is right there before us. It’s not that it can’t be seen it’s that it by many simply won’t be seen. But as this murderous attack in Paris makes all so clear, denial is not only delusional, it is dangerous.