October 21, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, October 21, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
ISIS on the run: Major offensive in Mosul comes on the heels of the fall of highly symbolic Dabiq
Citizens in the United States are likely to think that the most important news stories right now are those having to do with the 2016 presidential election. That’s understandable, given the visibility and the importance of that election in terms of America’s culture. There’s something there that also should cause us pause, and that is the question, what would someone somewhere else in the world believe is even more important, more urgent, more a matter of life and death than the American presidential elections? In certain parts of the world, and in particular right now in certain parts of the Middle East, the biggest and most urgent story, the story where life-and-death most hangs in the balance, is likely to be the new offensive against the Islamic State undertaken by an Iraqi coalition. In recent days, that coalition has announced that it has begun its military effort to recapture Mosul, a very important Iraqi city and one of the last strongholds of the caliphate claimed by the Islamic State.
The stakes in this are difficult to exaggerate. The Islamic State in recent years has gained credibility, it has even virtually become a successor organization to Al Qaeda in terms of the world threat, largely because it claimed to have reestablished the caliphate, that is the Islamic rule in a line of order and of authority that goes all the way back, they would claim, to the prophet Mohammed. The establishment of a caliphate means the establishment of a state with borders and territory, and the stunning success of the Islamic State in its early years and months was itself a very attractive issue to those who are looking for a resurgence of Islam and the reestablishment of not only an Islamic State, but the Islamic State, a new caliphate.Show Full Transcript
In recent days, even in recent weeks, the Islamic State has been pushed back significantly. In its most important loss before the present battle, the Islamic State was eventually defeated in Dabiq and was required to retreat. Now what’s so important about that is the symbolic nature of that town. That town some believed was foretold by the prophet Mohammed himself to be the location of the great cataclysmic holy war between Islam and the rest of the world. According to classical Islamic theology, the world, the entire globe, is divided between two different categories: the world of Islam and the world of war. The world of Islam is that territory who would be included in a new caliphate, a territory which is marked by submission to Sharia Law and to the rule of Koran. But the most important thing to recognize is that the rest of the world is, also according to Islamic theology, eventually going to come under the Koranic rule under Sharia Law. The question is at what cost and at what time. It has always been a very important part of Islamic eschatology that the coming of the Islamic age would come after a great battle, a great apocalyptic battle.
As Anne Barnard reports for the New York Times,
“But the warriors of the self-declared caliphate lost the village, Dabiq, in just a few hours over the weekend as Syrian rebels, backed by Turkey, closed in. To soften the symbolic blow, the Islamic State switched rhetorical gears, declaring that the real Dabiq battle would come some other time.”
On The Briefing we look repeatedly at the fact that theology is always closer beneath the headlines than a secular world might understand. One of the interesting things is that the New York Times and other major newspapers, very secular in their own outlook, have been required in terms of reporting on what’s going on in the Middle East and in particular with relation to the Islamic State with some theological explanation and that pertains especially to the symbolic importance of Dabiq.
Dabiq by the way, that village where it is foretold in Islamic theology that that cataclysmic battle will be fought, that’s even the name of the main recruiting magazine of the Islamic State. As the New York Times makes clear, the fact that the Islamic State has been losing rather than gaining territory, it’s effectively losing its caliphate, that has required it to engage in some new arguments. The first argument is, oh this isn’t the real battle of Dabiq, that real one is coming later. But as the Times also makes clear, the Islamic State is setting its,
“…ideological groundwork to maintain its appeal in straitened circumstances. As it suffered on the battlefield in recent months, the group began signaling that a drastic contraction or even a failure of its territorial proto-state would not spell defeat.”
The Islamic State said in June,
“The generation that has lived in the shadow of the caliphate, or has lived during its great battles, will be able — God willing — to keep its banner aloft.”
Clearly the loss of Dabiq is a theological and a public relations catastrophe for the Islamic State, requiring it to revise its message. Once it’s on the retreat, as it is now, it has to describe the coming battles as somewhere in the future, not the present, because those battles are being lost.
One of the most interesting assessments of the current situation of the Islamic State and how the Islamic State is trying to communicate to its own young warriors was made by a London-based analyst who said, effectively, the communications of the Islamic State to its own people come down to this:
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, ISIS declares that The Final Battle of The Apocalypse has been postponed.”
Western military analysts warned the battle for the recapture of Mosul may be considerably more difficult than the battle for Dabiq. It may take longer and there may be many casualties. This is a new Iraqi coalition, and it appears to be far more formidable in military terms than the previous Iraqi Army that was displaced by the Islamic State. It now does appear that the Islamic State is on a territorial retreat, but that raises an even larger question. Is a territorial retreat also an ideological retreat? That’s going to be this huge question; it’s a question right now that makes Europe and several portions of the world very, very nervous. The reason for that is this: once the Islamic State falls, once the caliphate is no more, once their territory is surrendered, where do those warriors go? Western European nations and many nations in South Asia are very concerned that those warriors may go there. And instead of channeling their Islamic extremism into wars for territory, they may instead become the kind of lone wolf or cell-based terrorist that has become all too familiar in many parts of the world. This is unsettling not only Europe and parts of Southeast Asia, but also increasingly Latin America as well. And that’s a new page in terms of this unfolding story.
Ongoing is this pitched battle of ideological warfare between Western civilization and Islamic extremism. There is an increasing bipartisan agreement that the administration of President Barack Obama failed the test in Syria and failed much of the test against the Islamic State. But there are also huge geopolitical lessons here, and those committed to a biblical worldview should understand how the world picture around us can change.
John Sawers, reporting for the Financial Times makes the point that what we now face in terms of not only the immediate threat of the Islamic State, but the general world picture, is the fact that the great powers are no longer in greatest control. This shows how a small nation, or a small caliphate as it claims itself, a small insurgent band, even a lone wolf terrorist, can upset the entire world in terms of headlines and detention. It also reminds us that when a nation like the United States that had to an extent functioned as the police power of the world, when it retreats in that role, bad things happen. Not only does nature abhor a vacuum, the civilizations do as well. Something is going to fill that space, and those who intend by aggression and mayhem to further their ideology, the retreat of the United States has given them a new opportunity.
Sawers also points to something very interesting, and that is the fact that even as you look at the new challenge of the rise of the Islamic State and organized terrorism around the world, in Western nations you see a lessening, a decrease of confidence in historic Western institutions and in our own understanding of our nations and their role in the world. Writing about the decrease of the influence of the United States in recent years, he writes,
“The US unipolar era [that is the time in which the United States was the world’s only superpower] lasted less than 25 years, its end hastened by overambitious wars and the financial crisis of 2007-08. America remains by far the most powerful country, with unrivalled technology and corporate power but it no longer has global hegemony.”
That’s a very important thing for us to recognize. America’s place in the world is yet to be defined in this new and very threatening age. Sawers is exactly right, the new American president is going to face an array of challenges, including resurgent leadership in both China and Russia. It’s clear that both of those nations intend to put the United States in its place as simply one among other major powers. But it’s also clear that those major powers aren’t complete control of the situation.
But before leaving this issue, I simply have to go back to where I began. If you were a family living in this affected part of the world, you would understand this military conflict to be the most important thing imaginable. And of course, it is directly a matter of life and death. We already know that there have been millions of casualties and hundreds of thousands of deaths. We know that not only many innocent civilians have lost their lives, we also know that many of those civilians were the youngest of the citizens; they were children and teenagers. We’re looking at carnage and death and destruction for which we should blame Syria and the regime of Bashir Assad and also his partner, which is Russia. We also have to understand that as we are looking at this debacle before our eyes, we bear some responsibility. And one of the most frustrating things is that we are not able to quickly affect our will in this part of the world, increasingly in any part of the world. And that, we must recognize, makes this world more dangerous and the same time more difficult to understand.
With marijuana on the ballot, cash-strapped states are looking to capitalize on cannabis
Next, back in the United States we have tracked how the issue of marijuana, the increasing acceptance of marijuana, has been tracking so closely in terms of growing acceptance of certain sexual lifestyles and relationships, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. Interestingly, yesterday two major American newspapers had marijuana on the editorial page, the Washington Times and the New York Times—the Washington Times, a generally conservative paper and the New York Times, a decidedly liberal paper. The New York Times thinks it’s about time that we got on with legalizing marijuana and accepting it culturally, and it openly as an editorial board calls upon the federal government to get with the program. The editors wrote,
“People in nine states, including California, Florida and Massachusetts, will vote Nov. 8 on ballot proposals permitting recreational or medical use of marijuana. These initiatives could give a big push to legalization, prompting the next president and Congress to overhaul the country’s failed drug laws.”
The second paragraph is very interesting; it says this,
“This is a big moment for what was a fringe movement a few years ago.”
Let’s pause there for a moment. This is a recognition of vast and very significant moral change, moral change that means this came even faster than the proponents of marijuana legalization had dared to dream, once again a parallel with the LGBT movement and its own very rapid sexual and moral revolution. But you’ll also note that it was described as a fringe movement just a few years ago. That’s an interesting admission, but it’s not a fringe movement anymore. People in nine states are going to be voting on this on November 8, and if they all adopt some form of legalized marijuana, fully one out of every four Americans will live in a jurisdiction where the state in which they reside says marijuana is no big deal. But on the third paragraph of this editorial there is something even more interesting. Let me read it directly,
“The drive to end prohibition comes after decades in which marijuana laws led to millions of people being arrested and tens of thousands sent to prison, a vast majority of whom never committed any violent crimes.”
Now the latter part of that sentence we’ll speak to, but what’s really interesting is the first part. The opening words: “the drive to end prohibition.”
Now wait just a minute. Prohibition in United States and in our history generally refers to that experiment in the early decades of the 20th century in which for a brief period of time by amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the sale of beverage alcohol was forbidden. That was called Prohibition because alcohol sales were prohibited. The sly use of the word prohibition in this editorial on marijuana is itself very interesting, because of course this isn’t a prohibition. Prohibition meant that what had been legal was made illegal. In the case of marijuana, it’s not been legal. This is not some new era in which all of the sudden in just the last few decades the use or sale of marijuana has been prohibited. What’s now the issue is legalizing what virtually every generation of Americans had understood to be elicit. But it really wasn’t much of public issue until marijuana entered into the lexicon, that is the vocabulary of Americans, right after World War I. But then it was the children of the 60s, who after all were teenagers and college students during that pivotal decade, who began to make the use and legalization of marijuana a central part of their culture.
If there’s any lesson here from a Christian worldview perspective it’s that once a generation makes something like this is a symbolic issue, and once it becomes accustomed to championing a cause like marijuana, it seems to hold that cause to the end. And that’s why in a very strange development, its many of the aged Baby Boomers who are primary proponents of legalizing marijuana. It’s not that they’ve newly adopted the issue, it’s something they’ve continued ever since they were on college campuses in the 1960s.
The editors of the Times also recognize—and rightly—that even if marijuana is legalized in these new nine jurisdictions that will be voting on November 8, it is still illegal in terms of its use and its trade and its sale by the federal government. The federal government indeed continues to classify marijuana as a Class I prohibited drug. That’s not a slight difference between the federal government and the states. But interestingly, here you have the New York Times openly saying that it’s the federal government that needs to get with the program. The editors wrote,
“States are driving the change in marijuana policy because they see the damage created by draconian drug laws on communities, families and state budgets. It’s time the federal government acknowledged these costs and got out of the way of states adopting more rational laws.”
Well, “more rational laws”—rationality—here very much in the eye of the beholder. But the Washington Times has a parallel editorial that takes a very different stance that, not by coincidence, appeared on the very same day. The editors of the Washington Times also speak of the significance of having nine states voting on marijuana on November 8th, but they then point out that there are other motivations that are very much at stake. For instance, they remind us that government officials are fond of marijuana because it carries the sweet smell of money, that is tax money, and let’s be honest, that’s why many of these states in terms of the governments are quite eager to get on the bandwagon when it comes to marijuana. It’s because they see the opportunity to reap tax benefits by taxing the sale and use of marijuana. The Times also points to a certain very inescapable moral hypocrisy on the part of many of these marijuana proponents who seem to be absolutely convinced that cigarettes ought not to be sold, but that marijuana joints should. As the editors of the Times wrote,
“As Colorado’s sin-tax take from tobacco sales fell from a high of $229 million in 2007 to $37 million in 2013, the $135 million collected from pot sales of nearly $1 billion in 2015 has been a bonanza. It’s a sign of the times that in places such as Portland, Ore., ads featuring alcohol and tobacco are restricted, but billboards for cannabis are common.”
Christians operating out of a biblical worldview looking at these two very different editorials appearing in two different newspapers on the same day must understand that it’s true that, in a way, both of them tell part of the story. That’s what editorials do. They’re making an argument, not necessarily taking a stab at honest and objective reporting. But there’s also something here when you put the two of them together. When the editors of the New York Times say that the reason that they demand the legalization of marijuana and federal response to these innovations in the states is because of the cause of criminal justice reform, there’s something to that argument, no doubt. But then they go on to say that it’s also in the cause of rationality. As we’ve said, that’s in the eye of the beholder. Everybody has a rationality, the question is which is actually more convincing, which is actually more true? But then you note that the Washington Times comes along and says, oh, about that rationality, there’s a little more to the story. Because maybe that rationality is spelled M-O-N-E-Y.
The documentation in that Washington Times editorial is new in terms of what I’ve seen, documenting that the State of Colorado effectively sought and was able to make up for lost tax revenue from sales of tobacco declining by sales of marijuana vastly increasing. That tells you there’s something more here than an argument about criminal justice reform. When it comes to government making arguments about legalizing something that government will be able to tax, and even as the Washington Times rightly called this a sin tax, well, when government is in the position of making money off of sin, don’t be surprised that government puts itself in the position of saying, “Maybe sins not so bad after all. You buy it and we’ll tax it.”
Whose child is this? With the redefinition of marriage comes the expanded definition of parenthood
Next, Wednesday’s edition of the New York Times ran an article entitled,
“A Complex Case Tests New York State’s Expanded Definition of Parenthood.”
Whenever Christians see that phrase, “expanded definition of parenthood,” we should pay particularly close attention. This is a case that has to do with a lesbian couple that, when they were together, considered adopting a child. One of the couple eventually did, then the couple split up, now the partner that did not formally adopt is suing for parenthood privileges in court. Sharon Otterman, reporting for the Times, says,
“Deciding who is a parent in New York used to be a relatively simple matter. A parent was either biologically related to the child or had legally adopted the child. But in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, the first custody case is underway to test a newly expanded definition of parentage, as handed down by the state’s highest court in August.”
Now when you have an expanded definition of parenthood, we need to note from what it is expanded. Otterman reports, and we just heard it, that a parent previously was identified as either biologically related to a child or the one who had legally adopted the child. Now there’s very good reason why these two criteria have been throughout so much of human history recognized as the criteria of parenthood. The legal question of parenthood comes down to who has responsibility for this child. That is not an abstract question. And when it comes to understanding the family from a biblical perspective, well, both of these means of becoming a parent are honored and validated in Scripture. The parent is either the one who is a parent by means of biology or by means of legally recognized or culturally recognized adoption.
But then, as Otterman reports, there’s a new definition of parentage that is now officially the law in New York. It is “aimed at accounting for the complexity of nontraditional families, including same-sex couples.”
Now at this point we have to raise an issue. In all 50 states now, same-sex couples can be legally wed according to action of the US Supreme Court in the 2015 Obergefell decision. And that means that they are also able to adopt. So why is there now the necessity, in the name of nontraditional families, including same-sex families, of adopting an expanded definition of parenting? It’s because of this: there are so many that actually in these nontraditional categories don’t even fit the category of a same-sex marriage, because in this case we’re not really talking about marriage. That is another indication of the chaos that is set within a culture or a civilization, when the institution of marriage is radically and revolutionarily redefined as it has been in the United States.
This is leading to the big question once again. Who exactly is a parent? The threatening thing in this news story for New York State is that a woman who had never either been biologically related to the child and had never adopted the child is making the argument in court, and the argument is being heard, that her emotional investment in the child means that she must be recognized as having a certain level of parental rights. Now this should send a chill down every single parent’s spine, because what this tells us is that someone is now making a case that being neither biologically or by adoption related to the child, they can claim parental rights. If this can happen in a court in New York State, if it can happen in terms of a lesbian couple that is now split up, then it can be applied in any number of other situations as well. As the New York Times story says,
“Parents without adoptive or biological ties can now sue for the right to see children after couples break up, hopefully protecting them from the trauma of forced separation from a parent.
Nancy Polikoff, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law, said,
“Now the legal parent cannot unilaterally cut the other person out of their life.”
But even beyond the same-sex questions here is the looming question: how then can any parent be absolutely convinced that someone extraneous to the marriage or someone that has no biological or adoptive tie to the child can claim and plausibly argue in court to have something like parental rights? One of the lawyers representing one of the parties in this case understands exactly what is at stake when she said,
“You can’t wish or will yourself to be a parent against the objections of the legal parent.”
That’s a plausible argument. It’s an absolutely convincing argument. It’s one of those arguments that shouldn’t lose in this court. It means that the family is even further undermined. In the name of inclusion and in the name of diversity, in the name of nontraditional families, the family itself once again takes a very serious blow.