The Briefing 06-21-17

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London terror attack targeting Muslim community center exposes challenges Islam faces in the West

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What is the role of government? The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 79

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The question of legacy after Bill Cosby's sexual assault accusations and mistrial

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Transcript

The Briefing

June 21, 2017

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

It’s Wednesday, June 21, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

London terror attack targeting Muslim community center exposes challenges Islam faces in the West

Day by day, virtually headline by headline, we’re learning what it means to live in a world that is increasingly marked by religious and political extremism, sometimes taking the form of terror attacks. The latest headline news story in this case comes from London where in the early morning hours Monday, just after midnight on Sunday night, a man identified as a lone-wolf attacker drove a truck intentionally into a crowd of Muslims. As the Times of London reported yesterday,

“The suspected terrorist who ploughed a van into Muslims outside a London mosque was a “lone-wolf” attacker who had recently split from his partner and was thrown out of a pub for loutish behaviour the day before the atrocity.”

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The man is identified as Darren Osborne, age 47, an unemployed father of four. He is also “alleged to have racially abused a neighbour’s child on Saturday,” says the Times, “before he was ejected from his local pub in Pentwyn, south Wales.”

According to his family, the man has suffered from mental problems. One of the interesting things in looking at this story is the fact that premeditation is exceedingly clear. This was a man who had made threatening statements. He was known to be unstable with a particular rage toward Muslims, and then he apparently rented a truck from South Wales and drove it all the way to London about 150 miles, and it appears that he specifically targeted the Muslim community near Finsbury Park in London. That community had recently concluded Ramadan prayers and was in the streets in an unusually warm London evening.

The attack seemed to come out of nowhere. A man who had already suffered an injury and was being seen to by others has died in the attack, and several others were wounded. Seven, we are told yesterday, are in critical condition in London area hospitals. The attack on Sunday night appeared to have been modeled after other attacks in those cases undertaken by Islamic terrorists, two had used vehicles in London and in the most infamous of these a terrorist drove a very heavily laden truck into a crowd in Nice, France.

The Finsbury Park Mosque is no stranger to headlines. It has been news going back to the 1990s. As The Guardian, a major newspaper in London, reported yesterday the five-story mosque, also a registered charity, was opened by Prince Charles in 1994.

“It gained notoriety as a centre for radicalisation when Abu Hamza al-Masri was its imam and weapons training sessions were held in the mosque. It was closed after a police raid in 2003, and Abu Hamza was jailed for inciting murder and racial hatred.”

The report in yesterday’s edition of the Times of London says,

“The Muslim community in Finsbury Park has worked hard to transform the local mosque into a ‘role model’, expunging the poisonous legacy left by Abu Hamza, the extremist preacher. The terrorist attack took place outside the Muslim Welfare House, a community and educational centre yards from Finsbury Park mosque, which had to be reclaimed from extremists more than a decade ago. People from Somali, Algerian, Albanian, Indian, Bengali and other backgrounds use the centre…. Abu Hamza,”

the Times reminds us,

“attracted extremists when he was the imam at Finsbury Park mosque from 1997 to 2003. Richard Reid, who attempted to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe aboard a flight to Miami in 2001, attended the mosque during that time, and an MI5 informer,” that is British intelligence, “‘described Abu Hamza’s operation as “an al-Qaeda camp in the heart of London’.”

Just about every major British newspaper has picked up the story of the current the imam of the Finsbury Park mosque, Mohammed Mahmoud, who is credited with keeping the mob from killing the driver of the van, instead telling the mob to not touch him and rather to hold him until the police could arrive.

When we put all of these headlines together and look at the story of the Finsbury Park Mosque itself, it reveals something of the tensions within Muslim life in the West. There is the side of radicalization and extremism. This grabs the headlines very often, all too often, and of course the Finsbury Park Mosque was itself, as one of Britain’s military intelligence officers indicated, more or less an Al Qaeda camp in the middle of London documented to the extent that its imam is currently in prison in solitary confinement because of his endorsement of and involvement in terrorism. But the other side of the Muslim reality in Britain and in Europe was also very clear in terms of this story, and it is the mosque as it operates now. And it’s well known in the community, representing the hopes of many Muslims to become a part of the West, at least to live in peace in Western nations.

This more westernized face of Islam in London was made clear in an article that appeared yesterday in The Telegraph by Qari Asim. He wrote,

“We Muslims must also take strength. Once again Britons of all faiths and none have shown tremendous unity coming together to condemn the attack and to show solidarity with those affected and in fear.”

He writes also,

“Britain is not an Islamaphobic country. My own experiences is that this is one of the best places in the world to be a Muslim. It’s a country where you can be a Muslim be elected as mayor of London or a member of Parliament in our most diverse Parliament to date. Where can you wear a headscarf and become the Queen of Great British Bake Off. I myself can lead daily prayers at the mosque while working as a senior lawyer at a global law firm.”

He concludes,

“Britain is a country of intellectual and religious freedom. One where Muslims can build beautiful mosques in which to proudly and publicly observe our faith under the law. Yes, we have challenges too, but we live in a tolerant nation where people of different faiths and backgrounds exist peacefully side-by-side. We are all understandably shocked and sickened when hate filled violence blights our streets because it remains so unusual in this country.”

The horrible attack undertaken by a man who might be described as deranged but in any case was driven by hate draws attention to these internal tensions in British Islamic life. Other tensions in British life came to the fore when the question was asked, is this and should it be categorized as an act of terror? The British government quickly and rightly went on to say that, yes, of course it was. And judged by the historic understanding of terrorism throughout human history, what took place at this Muslim community center was exactly what terrorism is defined to be. It is an attack that is intended to send a message of fear to a defined people or to a society, in this case the Muslim population of London.

What is the role of government? The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 79

Next, we need to recognize that that community was already quite shaken by a disaster last week, a fire that was described as a towering inferno, a 25 story apartment building that burned in an absolutely horrific blaze that has led to the deaths of it is now believed 79 people. And what’s significant in terms of the Muslim community in London is that so many of those who were residents of the generally low-income community, including that tower, were from Morocco or Somalia. They were Muslims. The fire last week in London is not believed to be tied to terrorism at all. It was considered to have been started accidentally, but there are accusations that there was no accident to the fact that the fire consumed the building so quickly and that so many people were victims of a fairly modern building fire in terms of a very modern city like London.

But the story becomes more interesting, and it has to do with the responsibility of several successive governments. One of the things that now becomes evident is that the fire was assisted by what is known as the cladding, the exterior surface of the buildings that had been renovated in recent years, using a particular product that would not be allowed in the United States for a similar kind of use. It wouldn’t meet code. As it turned out, it was not only insufficiently fire retardant, the fire very quickly went up the entire building, engulfing the building in flame and entrapping, we now know, almost 80 people inside to their deaths. It seems upon reflection almost unthinkable that a fire this atrocious could take place with such a high death toll in such a modern city as London, and this raises some very interesting questions from a Christian worldview perspective, questions most particularly having to do with the rightful role of government.

Almost immediately in the aftermath of the fire, British headlines and British citizens began to scream asking the question, who is responsible? And that’s a natural question. We want to look at something like this and ask, could it have been prevented and who might be responsible?

The Christian worldview, we should understand, privileges an understanding of small government and furthermore, what is known as subsidiarity—that is that the local government, the local structures, beginning with the most basic structures, hat is marriage and the family, neighborhood and community, the local city before you get to the state and the state before you get to the nation. That is how you understand the rightful responsibilities of government with responsibilities kept to a minimum in terms of the federal government.

But it also becomes clear that modern governments do have to take on certain regulatory responsibilities, and that our very health and welfare depends upon it. In the United States for example, there are many complaints about the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration of the US government. But at the same time, Americans understand and trust that when they go to the pharmacy and they get a pill, it is what is advertised and is not cut down or counterfeit as is so often the case in many foreign nations. As a matter of fact, in many foreign nations they are not only adulterated, they are just sugar or some other substance formed into the shape of the pill. The Food and Drug Administration does overregulate in some areas, there can be no question, and there are some who try to use government as a vast engine of regulation. But at the same time, some form and some level of regulation seems to be absolutely necessary in a modern society. The same is true in terms of building codes. Again, building codes can be far too restrictive and people can use them for political purposes far beyond what is needed for public safety. But the fire last week in London serves as an all too tragic reminder of the fact that some level of building codes is necessary.

And in the British newspapers, there was a classic left/right, liberal/conservative clash over this very question. And furthermore, it’s laden with worldview implications that neither the authors either on the right or the left seem to have understood. Polly Toynbee was writing for the Guardian, one of the most liberal of the London newspapers. She says that what this points to is the fact that deregulation—that is a cutting back of regulations—is deadly, and Toynbee is, it’s no exaggeration, seizing upon the opportunity to try to attack the current Tory government. And she wants to press the government for an increased regime of regulation, and her agenda seems to go far beyond the kind of building codes that would be directly relevant to the story.

On the other hand, writing in The Times, that’s a historically conservative or tory newspaper in London, Melanie Phillips says that the class warriors are already cynically fanning the flames, using the fire to their political advantage, trying to bring down the conservative government.

No doubt that British political debate will continue. But Christians need to ponder what is seen in this that isn’t evident in the arguments at all. For one thing, there’s the basic question of the responsibility of government. This goes back of course to the earliest stages of human existence, but it is crystallized in such events as the debate over the ratification of the United States Constitution.

In their own way and in their own times, our founding fathers were struggling with some of those very questions. Christians understand that government is a gift to creation by God. God gave it to his human creatures because he loves us. Some level of government is necessary, and the Bible makes very clear that government has some very real but very limited assignments. And we understand as the founding fathers did, as they would put it, too little government leads to anarchy and destabilization, but too much leads to strangulation. In any case, both can be a risk to the liberties of the people. Putting it into explicitly theological terms, Christians understand that even as government is given to us and has a very clear responsibility, even as we understand that sin makes government necessary for the restraint of evil, that very same doctrine of sin reminds us of why government out of control, too large and unrestrained, also becomes a demonstration of human evil and sinfulness.

Finding that balance isn’t easy. If it were easy, it would’ve been done. And furthermore, just putting the right structures and laws into place isn’t enough. Some of the stories that have come out of the fire in London indicate that the right laws might actually be on the books, the right regulations. It might not be an absence of regulations that was the problem. Rather, it might be a lax or incompetent enforcement of the regulations. Either way, the fire was just as hot and deadly. But as we look at the reality of human sinfulness and our efforts to try to create a workable community even in terms of sinful humanity, well, that’s where we understand we are in some very difficult ground here. And very difficult questions, they are going to remain difficult until Jesus comes.

The question of legacy after Bill Cosby's sexual assault accusations and mistrial

Next, in the United States some of the biggest headlines in recent days have had to do with the mistrial that was declared in the trial for sexual assault of entertainer and comedian Bill Cosby. As the New York Times reports,

“The judge in the sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby declared a mistrial Saturday after jurors reported being hopelessly deadlocked after six days of deliberations, bringing an inconclusive end to this phase of one of the highest-profile cases in recent history.”

The article continues,

“The outcome denied vindication to either the defendant or the dozens of women who have accused Mr. Cosby, one of the world’s best-known entertainers, of assaulting them over a span of decades.”

Mistrials are not particularly rare in the American criminal justice system, but they are unusual. And this was a particularly difficult case. It was reflected in the fact that the jurors evidently could not come to a decision, to a verdict, on the fairly narrow questions that were presented to them. Years ago, the jury in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson effectively brought back what was known as a jury nullification, that is even though just about everyone conceded that there was ample evidence beyond any reasonable doubt to convict the defendant, the jury for reasons of its own refused to bring about the conviction. That is not what happened in Norristown, Pennsylvania last Saturday. Instead, the jury was fundamentally unable to reach a verdict.

And there are many questions that come out of this, all of them of course important to the Christian worldview. One of them is how the rule of law works in such a case. For example, there are protections for the defendant. The evidence must be judged over against what is known as a reasonable doubt, a one key part in their deliberations. The jurors actually reached out to the judge to define once again how to define reasonable doubt. But there’s also more to the story as you might expect, and part of this is the fact that the jury was actually presented a relatively narrow question and a very difficult question. There was no question as to whether or not sexual sin and sexual assault in one sense had taken place, in the moral sense. There was adequate testimony from Mr. Cosby’s own words about the fact that he gave women drugs before engaging them in sexual activity. But the narrower question presented to the jury had to do with a specific case in a specific incident with one specific victim who alleged sexual assault and the specific testimony that was allowed, and for that matter not allowed, in terms of the larger trial in its deliberations. Pennsylvania prosecutors indicated almost immediately that they will seek to retry the case, bringing the charges against Mr. Cosby once again.

Mr. Cosby, now age 79 and described as almost blind, is facing a larger issue, of course, and this is where Christians pay particular attention. This is the trial of public opinion. And in this case it’s been really interesting to look at the aftermath of the mistrial or the hung jury. For example, Wesley Morris, writing in Monday’s edition of the New York Times, offered us an essay with the subhead,

“Bill Cosby led the most influential sitcom of the 1980s.”

Then asked the question,

“How do we reconcile that legacy with his trial?”

The lead paragraph in this article is laden with worldview importance. Morris writes,

“To the extent that America still has a collective cultural memory, it’s comforting to have the happy stuff to hold on to. And it’s depressing to arrive at a juncture that forces us to let some of that stuff go.”

He continues,

“For much of its eight seasons, “The Cosby Show” (which ran from 1984 to 1992) was foolproof happiness, and the primary source was Bill Cosby. Now, at the close of a depleting, inconclusive criminal trial, we’re back to reckoning with what to do with him and whether it’s still possible to laugh at his comedy.”

Morris describes 1985 as the year of what he says as peak happiness in terms of The Cosby Show. He contrasts that with the last three years in terms of all the revelations about Bill Cosby, reckoning with the fact that dozens and dozens of women have brought very specific charges against the entertainer, and that he has basically admitted many of these incidents in terms of court actions. He says,

“For three strange years, we’ve openly renegotiated our relationship with Mr. Cosby, struggling to square his television celebrity with these women’s accounts.”

In his essay Morris also makes the very interesting observation that these dozens of accusations have come against Bill Cosby, not against Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the character that Cosby played for those iconic years on The Cosby Show. Is there a distinction there? Well, Christians understand of course there is. There’s a distinction between the character on television and the actor who plays that character. This is true whether it’s a television sitcom or whether it’s a major dramatic movie or a play on the stage. Either way, we understand there is a distinction between the actor and the role played, and so even as Americans might have the opportunity to see The Cosby Show if they should so desire, they may still find the characters somewhat lovable and the laugh lines laughable.

But that doesn’t change the second truth in this situation, and that is this: once we do know something about an actor, we are never able to see fully past what we know. No one is going to be able to watch The Cosby Show having seen all of these allegations and following these headlines over the last three years and see the show in the same way. There’s always going to be some dissonance there.

From a biblical perspective, this is really important in what it reveals to us about the effects of sin. In effect, Bill Cosby has not only destroyed his own personal reputation, but he has in effect at least to some degree ruined the reputation of a character that Americans had loved, the character of Dr. Cliff Huxtable. The effects of sin are so pervasive that it goes beyond the immediate life of the center and to the larger society even in terms of this kind of perception. And what was revealed is the fact that we can no longer, even as we make a distinction between the character and the actor, make an absolute distinction. The knowledge of who Bill Cosby is is always going to be in our minds as we might have opportunity to see Dr. Cliff Huxtable in terms of the character.

The power of sin is actually so dramatically evident that a man who used to make America laugh now makes America almost instinctively wince. In the event of a new criminal trial, no one can predict what the verdict might be. But this much is clear: the verdict in terms of the trial of public opinion it’s already in. It’s been in for some time, and in that verdict there isn’t even a trace of comedy. It’s all from beginning to end tragedy.

Finally, another big headline story in the United States is the special runoff election in the sixth congressional district in the state of Georgia. It’s a huge story. But as I am reporting to you now from London, England, the timing is simply off for me to be able to speak about the electoral outcome in any conclusive sense. That will have to wait for tomorrow’s edition of The Briefing.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing