May 22, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, May 22, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Breaking with predecessor, Trump confronts "crisis of Islamic extremism" in address in Saudi Arabia
President Donald Trump made his first international trip over the weekend and it will continue for the next several days. First on the itinerary was Saudi Arabia. Now that sets off this particular presidential visit from almost every other administration, because most presidents have started out in terms of their first foreign trip with something a little closer to home and a little less complicated. But President Trump went right into the very heart of the Islamic world. The big question before the president’s arrival and there he spoke over the weekend to a group of 50 Muslim nations at an event known as the Arab Islamic American Summit, the big question was the language and the message that the President of the United States would send.
Now just in terms of the contrast between the current president and his predecessor, the big issue had been the willingness of President Trump and the determined unwillingness of President Obama to use the word Islam in any way with connection to the current struggle against terrorism. President Trump during the campaign and soon after his election even in his inaugural address mentioned Islamic terrorism. But going into the heart of the Islamic world, would the president maintain that very clear message? It turned out that he did, although in terms of language, perhaps accidentally. But in any event, in terms of the message, the president was very consistent. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, President Trump forcefully summoned the Muslim world to confront “the crisis of Islamic extremism.”Show Full Transcript
That in Saudi Arabia, as he was also on the eve of visits to Israel and the Vatican. The Washington Post said that the president’s ambition was “to unite followers of disparate face against global terrorism”
Now in terms of the address the president gave, it was again a very clear message. As a matter of fact, the language is quite striking. At one point in his address, the president said,
“Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear: Barbarism will deliver you no glory — piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be condemned.”
Now what’s really interesting about that is the theological judgment that was explicitly made by the President of the United States over against many of the preachers of Islamist theology and ideology, who promise those who become martyrs for the faith and terrorist acts that they will immediately go to heaven and, as you recall in the 9/11 events, they’re to be greeted by a harem of virgins. Instead the President of the United States, citing Islamic authority, declared that those who are involved in such acts of extremism against innocent people, their souls, he said, will be condemned.
In terms of the specific terminology in question, the text of the president’s address included the term Islamist extremism. But as the president spoke, he more than once used the phrase Islamic extremism. Now that might sound like just a very minor matter of pronunciation, but it’s not. Islamist implies the fact that the driving ideological energy behind the terrorism is not actually the religion of Islam, that is to say theology, but rather a political ideology known as Islamism, thus Islamist. White House spokespersons speaking after the president’s address in Saudi Arabia said that the president had used the phrase “Islamic” by accident, explaining that he was fatigued after the long journey. But this much is already very clear, the president used the stem word Islam, and he used it repeatedly and he used in a way that was consistent with his message, and he also used it in a way that as you might expect brought criticism from the liberal western press.
For example, the Washington Post yesterday ran an article by Quintan Wiktorowicz, he is identified as a former member of the National Security Council and as an expert on terrorism, this particular author ran an article in the Washington Post with the headline,
“Why Trump’s speech on terrorism was such a missed opportunity.”
Now where was the missed opportunity? In this case Wiktorowicz says that the missed opportunity was acknowledging that the root causes of terror are not theological, they really are not about Islam, rather they are socioeconomic. Now the reason we need to pay attention to this is that here you see what has happened in terms of the Western elite discourse concerning the war on terror. They are absolutely insistent that theology doesn’t matter. It cannot be the root cause. The central issue in terms of the dynamic behind this terrorism cannot be theological, it cannot be Islam. It has to be something that can be defined in structural terms, especially in socioeconomic terms. Behind all of this has to be basically joblessness, a lack of economic opportunity and what’s identified as economic inequality. Here are the problems with that. The first problem is just the reality of Islamic terrorism as we have known it. Going back to September 11, 2001, those who were involved as the terrorists on that most memorable day in terms of world terrorism, they were not drawn from the poor, the uneducated, and the disaffected. Rather they were drawn from some of the wealthiest ranks of the Arab world. No one exemplifies that better than Osama bin Laden whose father was wealthy. The bin Laden family is one of the wealthiest families in the Middle East, largely through different kinds of business including construction during the big oil boom.
Wiktorowicz actually acknowledges at least some of that in the article, but then he writes and I quote,
“What I heard from extremists I interviewed around the world, however, suggests that taking aim at ‘radical Islam’ [that’s in quotation marks] misses the mark.”
“While the young jihadists I met spouted ideological diatribes and quoted the Koran at length, their words rang hollow — almost as if they were something the recruits thought they should say rather than something they understood and deeply believed.”
Now if you simply want to look at a sentence that appears to be nothing more than an undisguised effort to deny reality, I’m not certain we can do any better than that. He acknowledges that the young jihadists he spoke to spouted ideology and quoted the Koran at length, but he then goes on to say they really appeared not so much to be driven by Islam, but by something else. In other words, don’t listen to what they say, instead listen to this Western expert. Now we also need to note that acknowledging the reality of Islam as a driving energy, the ideology behind most of these Islamic terrorists, we do not deny that there are structural and socioeconomic issues that are very much at stake, mostly in terms of many of the recruits drawn in terms of the masses, especially alienated young men. You don’t have to specify Islam in this particular category; any time in the world in any place you find masses of young men with no jobs and no economic opportunity, you are likely to find trouble.
But the Western elites appear to be absolutely determined to deny that Islam, taken even at just face value, is often the major justification behind this terrorism, the major ideological energy. There can simply be no question about this once you look more closely at what’s actually going on, not only in the recruitment of those who are the foot soldiers, but especially when it comes to the leadership. It is explicitly Islamic. But we should also see in this article the basic denial implicitly that there could be a mixture of issues that are involved here. For instance, if one is really going to argue that the basic dynamic, the basic cause behind terrorism right now in the world is socioeconomic, you’ve got to explain why many other areas of similar or even greater economic deprivation are not seed beds for terrorism. But I simply have to go back to that headline in this article in the Washington Post, again it’s
“Why Trump’s speech on terrorism was such a missed opportunity.”
I do believe it was a missed opportunity. But in this case, not a missed opportunity by the president, but a missed opportunity by those in the West who were listening to him, especially those in elite opinion to take his words with adequate seriousness.
Why didn't US presidents set foot on foreign soil before 1906? History of the presidential trip abroad
But next, even as the president is going to be continuing on this trip not only to Saudi Arabia, but to Israel, the Vatican, Sicily and to Belgium, specifically to Brussels, where he will speak to a Western leaders Summit, it’s also interesting merely to ponder what this means historically. What do I mean by that? I mean that if anyone from, say, the first half of American history were to hear that a president of the United States were to be making an international trip, that itself would be the astonishing reality. Prior to 1906, no president of the United States set foot on foreign soil while in office.
Now there are some very interesting historical technicalities here. I said “set foot on,” that doesn’t mean that no president crossed into the border of any other country while in office. As a matter of fact, the first president to do that did so on a fishing trip. We’re talking about Chester Arthur, he went fishing on the St. Lawrence River in 1883 and wasn’t evidently catching enough fish in American waters, so he surreptitiously went into Canadian waters in order to catch more fish in which we are told as an historical note, he actually did.
Presidential historian Richard Ellis points to what he calls the ironclad taboo that kept Presidents of the United States decidedly in the United States during their tenure in office. That continued until 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt went to Panama. Now of course even then when he went to the canal zone, he was officially and legally in American territory, but he did step at least a few feet outside the Panama Canal zone into the city of Panama City, and that counts, setting 1906 as the first time an incumbent president of the United States set foot during his term in office outside the United States and it was not uncontroversial.
Stephen Mihm writing at Bloomberg BusinessWeek is right when he explains that the central motivation behind this came down to the fact that President George Washington had spoken with tremendous warning against what he called entangling alliances, and that is the United States becoming involved in world affairs, especially in terms of specific treaties or relationships with nations. Visiting a foreign nation during the term of office grants an immediate kind of recognition to a foreign power, exactly the kind of thing that successors to George Washington felt would be quite too dangerous, both domestically and internationally at least until 1906.
Shortly after the Civil War in his term in office, President Andrew Johnson actually stopped halfway across a suspension bridge over Niagara Falls lest he even accidentally step into Canadian territory. When the Canadians invited his successor, President Ulysses S. Grant to dedicate a railroad in New Brunswick, President Grant said it was a hard decision, but he could not go to Canada. He told the Canadians,
“It has never been the custom for the President to leave the United States during his term in office.”
The president went on to say that he thought there must be some kind of statute or provision that would even legally prevent the chief executive from leaving the United States. Actually, there was no such thing, but it is evident that President Grant, citing the precedent of his predecessors, actually believed that there must be some kind of statute in place. Visiting El Paso, Texas in 1901 at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war, President William McKinley also declined to go into Mexico saying,
“I cannot go over there. There is something in the traditions of this Republic, something in its precedents that does not permit the President to go outside the United States during his term in office.”
So there you have two presidents, President McKinley and President Grant, stating that they believed it might even be illegal for the president of the United States to leave United States territory during the term in office. It was Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 who broke that precedent in a fairly minor way. But it was two presidents later, President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most ardent internationalist ever to sit in the White House, who decisively broke that precedent. He broke it in such a way that none of his successors, not one of them, has come even close to the time that Woodrow Wilson spent outside the country. At the conclusion of World War I, between 1918 and 1919, the President of the United States spent almost 6 months outside the United States in Europe trying to negotiate the treaty for what would become the League of Nations. That failed, of course, and it failed even in the president’s own party almost assuredly because of the offense that the President of the United States had cared so little about the business of the United States in terms of domestic policy. Remember that the only means of any kind of fast communication at the time was a telegram, and we’re talking about six months outside the United States. The treaty involving the League of Nations failed in the United States Senate for multiple reasons, but at least one of them again was the offense that the President of the United States had spent so much time outside U.S. territory.
It’s also worth noting that no president of the United States as an incumbent left the Western Hemisphere until 1943, when, in the midst of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt joined with other world leaders among the allied powers at Casablanca in a famous conference. Since then, almost all modern presidents have made numerous international visits, partly as a projection of the United States’ influence and power.
There is another interesting historical footnote here, at least it’s very interesting to me in terms of the projection of American power, the combination of the American presidency and aircraft has been very powerful, going back at least to World War II. But what’s really interesting is that until the early 1960s when presidents traveled on Air Force planes, those Air Force planes had simple Air Force markings. When the first Boeing 707 designated as a presidential aircraft was delivered for White House use by the Air Force in 1959, President Dwight David Eisenhower had it marked with simple Air Force markings, and those markings included a great deal of orange. When President John F. Kennedy, representing a new generation, took office in 1961 and when his wife moved into the White House designated herself as, “something like an artistic director for the United States,” they decided that the Air Force plane was a great missed opportunity, especially in the age of television. At that point, the President and the First Lady assigned a designer, one of the major designers in the United States, Raymond Loewy, the responsibility to redesign the aircraft known as Air Force One, and it was redesigned in its now iconic silver and white and blue markings with the giant print, “The United States of America” along the fuselage and the American flag on the tail.
In the same way that the first President of the United States told the architect and city designer, Pierre L’Enfant, that he wanted Washington, D.C. to be a city that would intimidate those from other nations, the president of the United States in 1961 wanted the Air Force plane, Air Force One as it is designated when the president is riding on it, also to intimidate and to impress when it was either seen in the sky or when it landed especially on foreign soil. So while we’re thinking about the historical context, it’s important to understand that when Air Force One, as it is designated when the president is on it, landed in Saudi Arabia, now a specially outfitted Boeing 747, its appearance in every way possible was no accident.
A moderate Iran? How a watching world interprets the reelection of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
As is so often the case on The Briefing on Monday, international news predominates. The news coming out of Iran includes the headline in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times,
“Rouhani Secures resounding victory in Iran’s presidential election.”
Thomas Erdbrink, writing for the New York Times, tells us in the lead paragraph,
“Riding a large turnout from Iran’s urban middle classes, President Hassan Rouhani won re-election in a landslide on Saturday, giving him a mandate to continue his quest to expand personal freedoms and open Iran’s ailing economy to global investors.”
The next sentence is particularly important,
“Perhaps as important, analysts say, the resounding victory should enable him to strengthen the position of the moderate and reformist faction as the country prepares for the end of the rule of the 78-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”
From a Christian worldview perspective, the most important part of this story is not so much the election in Iran, that’s not unimportant, it might actually be very important indeed. What’s most important, however, is what this tells us about how to read a news story and how to understand the political labels where they are employed. Now what’s the issue here? The issue is the combination of Iran and the word “moderate.” Moderate is a comparative term. When you’re thinking about political extremes, it’s easy to come up with liberal or conservative or theocrat or democrat in the case of Iran. But when it comes to moderate, what in the world does that mean? The moderate position is between the two major positions. That’s what’s clearly understood in Iran, but the thing we need to recognize is that the entire structure of Iran is built upon the worldview of Islam.
Iran is an Islamic state, it has been ever since the late 1970s. And so when you talk about moderate, you’re simply talking about a position that is more moderate than some other position. And when you’re talking about Iran, you’re talking about a very radical spectrum indeed. An important thing to understand here is that over the last several years, no one in their right mind would actually refer to Iran as a moderate nation, it’s identified as one of the most dangerous regimes on the planet, not only by the current American administration, but by the previous administration as well. So in a story like this where you see the announcement that the moderate candidate has won, the obvious question we need to ask is, more moderate than what? Or more moderate than whom?
Emperor or "god"? The theology behind Japanese Emperor Akihito's pending abdication of the throne
Finally over the weekend another really interesting historical headline, this one datelined Tokyo, Japan. Again, I turn to the New York Times, the headline,
“Japan Moves to Allow Its Emperor to Abdicate. But Just This Once.”
Motoko Rich reporting for the New York Times tells us,
“Ten months after Japan’s octogenarian emperor indicated he wanted to give up the throne while he was still alive, the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved special legislation on Friday that would allow him to abdicate.”
The story continues,
“The bill, which will be considered soon by the full Parliament, makes a one-time provision for Emperor Akihito, 83, to retire from the throne and be succeeded by his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito.”
If the legislation is adopted by Parliament, that would set in motion a three-year period in which the current Emperor Akihito could indeed retire and leave the throne to his son. Why is this so noteworthy? Because of a very important theological reason that most have missed. To its credit, the New York Times did not miss it entirely. Rich writes in one paragraph,
“Any decision regarding the emperor is freighted in Japan, where until World War II, he was seen as a god. The postwar Constitution, written by American occupiers, stripped the emperor of his status as a deity and set him up instead as a symbol of Japanese unity.”
Central to what we need to know here is that the reestablishment of the Japanese Imperial line on the throne in 1867, in what was known as the Meiji Restorations, indeed involved the belief that the Emperor is a deity, is a god. This great historical transition in Japan in the 19th century drawing an end to what was known as the Shogunate and establishing once again the Imperial line in the Meiji Restoration, all of this involved theology within the Shinto religion of Japan, what is the de facto state religion of the nation in which the Emperor was worshiped as god.
Now the Japanese Imperial throne has always been quite different from European monarchies at least in one specific way, the Japanese Emperor has often not been so much in power as he has been in office and worshiped by his people. The Japanese Emperor, at least since the 19th century, has often been essentially a captive within less than two square miles in terms of the Chrysanthemum Throne in the Imperial Palace. When Japan was forced into an unconditional surrender at the end of World War II, the allied powers, most importantly under the direction of then General Douglas MacArthur, required the Emperor to renounce his divinity. But the interesting thing to note is that diehard Shintoists in Japan have never accepted that declaration.
The reason so many Japanese nationalists oppose the very idea of Emperor Akihito being allowed to abdicate is that according to their theology, it’s impossible, a god simply cannot resign, retire, or abdicate. Once again we are reminded not only that theology is always there in the story, it’s often there right in the headlines, and virtually in every case beginning right on page one.
From walk-offs on college campuses to the very redefinition of the family, we can count on this: there will be plenty to talk about this week.