December 2, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, December 2, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A clash of civilizations? Exploring the nature of the conflict between Islam and the West
For the last generation or so, Americans have found themselves confronted by rather regular arguments in which we are told that the United States and Western civilization is not at war with Islam, but rather that there is a radicalized extreme within Islam that poses a threat to Western democracies. But the War on Terror, as it has been styled, has revealed over and over again that there is a pattern that only the intellectually dishonest can ignore, and that pattern is an indication of Muslim hostility towards Western civilization in general, and the United States specifically. But now with the Trump administration beginning to take shape before our eyes, many in the media and the thought class are beginning to ask the question, is the United States and its understanding of the Middle East and of the situation in the War on Terror, is it going to fundamentally change? Uri Friedman, writing for The Atlantic, writes about what he calls,
“The Coming War on ‘Radical Islam.’”Show Full Transcript
He then states that this is an indication of how Donald Trump’s government could change America’s approach to terrorism. The article really isn’t all that interesting as it has to do with the Trump administration. It’s more interesting as it reveals the thinking of America’s thought class on the question as fundamental as whether or not Islam is in a conflict with Western civilization. Now at this point we simply have to interject that we must be thankful and intellectually honest, both in order to recognize that the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world are not involved in any active jihad against the United States or anyone else in the world, but at the same time we have to recognize that if you’re going to talk about a radicalized element within Islam, you’re going to have to talk about what is, admittedly, including if not the activities then the sympathies of hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.
The distinction here is between a minority who are active in jihad and the majority who are nonetheless committed to Islam. What’s revealed in this article and in so many others like it in the Western press is the fact that those who are writing obviously don’t really understand Islam. At the center of Islam in terms of what we might call lived religion is the Quran, and the Quran very clearly calls for a distinction in the world between the world of Islam, that is the world that is under Quranic rule, and of the world at war, which is the rest of the world. Every faithful Muslim, according to the Quran, has a responsibility to seek and to pray for the day when the entire globe is under Quranic rule.
Now here we need to recognize that when we’re talking about Islam, it is a massive world religion and it is made up of several different traditions, two in general, the Sunni and the Shia. But what needs to be recognized is that both of them are absolutely committed to the literalistic interpretation of the Quran. And both of them, and that represents the vast majority of Muslims in the world, are also absolutely committed, because the Quran requires them to be committed, to bringing the entire world under the rule of the Quran. Now that does not mean by force, although the Quran does not only imply force, but it calls for force.
In 1990—keep in mind that’s a full decade before the 9/11 attacks—one of the most prominent experts on Islam in the Middle East and the world then, Professor Bernard Lewis, wrote about what he called the “clash of civilizations.” He warned, again in 1990, and I quote,
“This is no less than a clash of civilizations. The perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important,” wrote Bernard Lewis, “that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”
The most important issue of what Bernard Lewis is writing there is his terminology, “the clash of civilizations.” And there were those who at the time both on the right and the left in Europe and in the United States who recognized that when it comes to Europe in terms of its historic tradition or Western civilization and on the other hand, when it comes to Islam, there has been an implacable opposition going back to the beginning. This is not a new development.
In more recent years, the cultural and intellectual elites on both sides of the Atlantic have done their best to deny that there is a clash of civilizations. And as we’ve stated so often on The Briefing, one of the primary reasons for this is that the West in its secularized state has been unilaterally disarmed theologically, so much so that the elites in these cultures are virtually unable to recognize a theological argument when they see one, much less to recognize that it was a theological impulse that animates hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. The theological impulse is so lacking and absent in what remains of skeletal Christianity in so many of these nations, they cannot understand at the level of the culture leaders how a strong theological belief can be translated into the demands of everyday life. But that’s something that comes very naturally to Muslims around the world.
Friedman is absolutely right when he says that when it comes to Barack Obama, he sees a conflict of civilizations within Islam. As President Obama and others in the Western elites see the situation, Islam is a world unto itself, and there is a clash of civilizations, a basic worldview division within Islam. And as President Obama has stated, most classically in that massive cover story he did with The Atlantic monthly, it’s really clear that he sees Islam as a basically peaceful religion which could or at least should be in rational terms at peace with the West, and the problem is really then a radicalized extreme.
Bernard Lewis, on the other hand, understood that there was a clash between the civilizations of the West and Islam. Even though within the secular West there are certainly cultural conflict and cultural arguments, there still is Western culture, or at least the remnants of Western culture. And as we look across the globe, there certainly is a very powerful Islamic culture, indeed, one can argue an Islamic culture growing ever more powerful. And just consider the fact that Islamic identity has become far more powerful in nations such as Egypt and in Turkey just in the last decade. Friedman perceptively writes,
“Where Obama sees a clash within Islamic civilization—between a tiny faction of fanatics and the vast majority of Muslims—his critics see a clash between Western civilization and a small yet significant segment of the Muslim world.”
That’s an extremely important sentence, and it’s absolutely correct. Friedman, however, has written his article to warn against what might change in a shift from Barack Obama’s way of looking at the world to Donald Trump’s way of looking at the world. But here we need to note two extremely important facts. The number one fact is this: when it comes to the election of Donald Trump, there was an explicit repudiation of President Obama’s view of the world on the part of millions and millions of American voters. And furthermore, you look around the world and you see the same kind of pattern developing in nations such as France and Austria and Poland. This is a growing awareness of the fact that the clash of civilizations really cannot be denied. And secondly, Christians understand that to love our neighbor means we tell the truth about our neighbor, and that means we do our very best to tell the truth about Muslims around the world. And that truth-telling reminds us that we are very thankful, once again, that only a small minority of Muslims around the world are involved in jihad. But that small minority is still a sizable population. And furthermore, studies undertaken around the world indicate that that small minority has the active support of millions of Muslims far beyond.
But telling the truth about our neighbor means also telling the truth about the fact that when our Muslim neighbors say that they are driven by their own theological convictions, we believe them. And this means that we have to reject the worldview of the modern secularist who says that theology can’t matter so that if you tell me that your conviction is driven by theology, I have to assume that you really are driven by something else.
Moral evil and the danger of moral exhaustion: What 9/11's mastermind can teach us about terrorism
The great secular cosmopolitan illusion is disappearing before our eyes, and one key piece of evidence for this should be a brand-new book that has just come out. The book is by James E. Mitchell. It is entitled Enhanced Interrogation. Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America. The most important article about this book heretofore is by Marc A. Thiessen, and it appeared at the Washington Post.
Mitchell was directly involved in the interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. And the language that is used in this article at the Washington Post is simply too graphic to be repeated verbatim on this program. But we can state that included in the beginning of this article is Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s celebration of his personal involvement in the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl.
KSM, as Khalid Sheik Mohammed is now known, is residing currently at Guantánamo where he is being held because of his involvement in terrorist attacks, and also because of the fear that in his mind is information that would lead to further attacks against the United States and the West. As the Washington Post reported,
“KSM also described for Mitchell many of his as yet unconsummated ideas for future attacks, the terrifying details of which Mitchell does not reveal for fear they might be implemented. ‘If we ever allow him to communicate unmonitored with the outside world,’ Mitchell writes, ‘he could easily spread his deviously simple but potentially deadly ideas.’”
Thiessen then writes this,
“But perhaps the most riveting part of the book is what KSM told Mitchell about what inspired al-Qaeda to attack the United States — and the U.S. response he expected. Today, some on both the left and the right argue that al-Qaeda wanted to draw us into a quagmire in Afghanistan — and now the Islamic State wants to do the same in Iraq and Syria. KSM said this is dead wrong. Far from trying to draw us in, KSM said that al-Qaeda expected the United States to respond to 9/11 as we had the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut — when, KSM told Mitchell, the United States ‘turned tail and ran.’ He also said he thought we would treat 9/11 as a law enforcement matter, just as we had the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole in Yemen — arresting some operatives and firing a few missiles into empty tents, but otherwise leaving him free to plan the next attack.”
But Mitchell then describes what was most prophetic, in his words, about what he had heard from Khalid Sheik Mohammed. This is when KSM said,
“We will win because Americans don’t realize . . . we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”
Responding to Theissen’s article at the Washington Post on Mitchell’s new book, David French at National Review points out that there’s a basic insight that comes through this, and that is the humanity of the terrorist. What does he mean by that? He means that terrorists are not irrational. They are rational creatures. The interviews with Khalid Sheik Mohammed indicated that they did not plan irrationally to attack the United States and to see what happened. They thought they had a rational plan, and they thought themselves to have a rational basis for believing that the United States would respond as it had to previous terrorist attacks. But that’s not what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. The point being made by David French is abundantly clear. If indeed terrorists are not irrational, but if they see themselves as rational, then they need to be given rational evidence for why it would be a very bad idea to attack the United States or other Western nations. French then writes,
“Americans often ascribe superhuman levels of endurance and perseverance to our terrorist enemies. We believe terrorists scoff at losses and feel no fear. We think they relish dying, and the more they die, the more they inspire new recruits. We are convinced that they want to fight us, and when we do, we’re playing into their hands.
“But those of us who’ve deployed overseas know a different story. Terrorists are people, too. They panic, they feel fear, and most of them try to preserve their lives. They want to kill us, but they don’t necessarily want to fight. In my deployment, we captured five or six terrorists for every one we killed. Indeed, some of the terrorists who fought to the death only did so while high on drugs.
“Yes, there are true fanatics, but even the fanatics have limits of human exhaustion. They get tired, and when they get tired, they make mistakes.”
In this conflict of civilizations, as David French makes clear, one of the main enemies of the West is exhaustion. That’s true of physical exhaustion, of course: security exhaustion, military exhaustion. But even more fundamentally, the great danger is moral exhaustion.
But here’s the point in which David French’s article becomes actually quite frightening. Because in the secular West, we simply have to wonder where those wellsprings of resolve and courage are going to be found. At the very moment that Western civilization needs its greatest moral courage, it seems to be suffering from an abject moral collapse. This is where Christians operating out of a biblical worldview need to remember the poetic note that America and Western civilization is unlikely to fall as a result of a bang, far more likely to fall as the result of a whimper.
BuzzFeed piece on Chip and Joanna Gaines a shot at all "guilty" of holding to historic Christianity
Next, sometimes on The Briefing I do my very best not to talk about a story until I absolutely have to, and it appears that moment has now been reached in the story related to Chip and Joanna Gaines. They’re the host of HGTV’s program “Fixer Upper,” and as you now know by now, they have been at the center of our cultural conversation for the last 48 hours or so because of a story that ran at BuzzFeed identifying them as guilty of the crime of belonging to a church that holds to historic Christianity. Kate Shellnutt, writing at the Washington Post, introduces the controversy this way,
“Chip and Joanna Gaines, the smiley, shiplap-loving couple at the center of HGTV’s ‘Fixer Upper,’ have hit another milestone in their reality TV careers.
“Days after their latest season premiere broke records on cable, and a few weeks after their first book topped the New York Times bestseller list, online outlets challenged their evangelical church’s stance against same-sex marriage.”
The controversy can be traced directly back to an article that appeared at the liberal website BuzzFeed. The headline of the article by Kate Arthur is this:
“Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Church Is Firmly Against Same-Sex Marriage.”
“Their pastor considers homosexuality to be a ‘sin’ caused by abuse — whether the Fixer Upper couple agrees is unclear.”
Arthur writes about the success of the program and its stars, and then about the Gaines she writes,
“They are also devout Christians — Joanna has spoken of and written about her conversations with God. Their church, Antioch Community Church, is a nondenominational, evangelical, mission-based megachurch. And their pastor, Jimmy Seibert, who described the Gaineses as ‘dear friends’ in a recent video, takes a hard line against same-sex marriage and promotes converting LGBT people into being straight.”
Now as you might suspect, this is not exactly the most accurate paragraph concerning the couple and certainly concerning this church and its pastor. Every piece of available evidence would indicate that this church, Antioch Community Church, and its pastor, Jimmy Seibert, on the issue homosexuality, or for that matter the issue of marriage and sexuality and gender, is simply teaching what the Christian church has taught on the authority of Scripture for over 2,000 years.
But this BuzzFeed article makes very clear that, by implication, these two TV stars are now in trouble because they are members of a church that is guilty of the crime of holding to historic biblical Christianity. Repeatedly I have argued that there is now no place to hide. And that’s certainly true of churches; it’s true of any Christian institution; it’s true of a denomination; it’s increasingly true of every Christian. But what makes that point so emphatically in this case is that here you have two reality television stars whose purpose in terms of the conception of the show has to do with fixing up houses, not having to do with anything related to sexuality at all. But BuzzFeed’s author decided that it just might be big news for the culture at large to know that there is a hidden, secret, lamentable dimension to this couple and their lives, and that is the church of which they are a part.
Embedded in this entire controversy is the assumption that anyone who has any prominence or visibility in the public square owes to everyone an immediate answer about where he or she may stand on any related issue to controversy over LGBT questions. And indeed the clear implication of the BuzzFeed article is that if viewers watching “Fixer Upper” actually recognize that Chip and Joanna Gaines belong to a biblically committed congregation, they wouldn’t want to learn any more from them about remodeling or fixing up a home.
There are so many interesting dimensions to this story all of the sudden, but one of them comes down to this: is the BuzzFeed implication even close to being correct? Is it true that mainstream Americans watching a reality cable television show about fixing up homes are really looking for embedded cues about where the stars stand on questions related to LGBT issues? Furthermore, is it even close to true that the majority of the people watching the program would be in some sense offended by the fact that Chip and Joanna Gaines belong to an evangelical congregation? Only those in the rarefied atmosphere of the secular left could be shocked to find an evangelical church holding to evangelical Christianity.
But reading the article by Kate Arthur, I really think that she is likely to believe that if people really knew what Chip and Joanna Gaines believed about homosexuality, or even what their pastor believes, that they would run.
I held off talking about this story until it seemed that the entire culture is talking about it, but that then becomes the story. Here you have a moment of cultural obsession over two reality television stars who, apparently, simply belong to a church that holds to the historic Christian position on homosexuality. When it comes to many amongst the cultural elites, that’s simply enough to shut the program down.
For many around the world, Hollywood is America's sole ambassador. What message is being communicated?
But as we conclude the week, I end on another story related to television and its cultural influence—this one a lot happier. It’s an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Tunku Varadarajan, and he grew up as a little boy in India watching the Brady Bunch. Varadarajan, who now is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, writes after the death in recent days of Florence Henderson, one of the stars of the program who died at age 82. He describes the program, which is well known to most listeners to The Briefing, and then writes,
“The show was seriously schmaltzy by today’s cynical standards. But to many of us looking from afar, it showed American society as an exemplar of sanity. The blended Bradys lived in a land that offered avenues for reinvention, for an unconventional fresh start that wasn’t hampered by millennial rules. They came together under one roof, but they were also brought together by shared values.
“Theirs was an irrefutable wholesomeness that was at odds with the tumult outside the Brady home, a conciliatory counterpoint to the America of the Vietnam War. Cynics might say this was propaganda, but why sneer at a show that portrayed an unapologetically stable America that kept going without being torn apart?”
Varadarajan writes that as a boy watching the program from India, he gained an understanding of American culture that was very enviable and sent some signals that Americans might not have recognized. He writes,
“Viewers in the Third World marveled at the egalitarian treatment given to Alice, the housekeeper, a mere ‘servant.’ Those of us with TV sets and maids were disconcerted, wondering why our own help was treated so differently.”
There’s more Varadarajan writes, but what’s interesting from a worldview perspective is what this tells us about a boy in India watching a television program from the United States and assuming he was watching America. Given all that we have to discuss so frequently on The Briefing, and given what is now produced by the cultural entertainment complex in America, it is really interesting and perhaps of deep concern to ask ourselves the question, what would people around the world watching American television now think that America is?