From Waco to ISIS: The Road Back to Sanity, Conclusion

What is the biblical response to religious violence? I would suggest at least two things. First, it is important for every follower of God to be aware of their own ignorance in spiritual matters. There are some things we can know about God, but there are also many things we don’t know for sure (Deut 29:29). In many religious groups certainty is a higher value than truthfulness. People won’t necessarily admit that or even be aware of it. But as you observe their interactions with others it becomes clear that once they have made up their minds, people of differing opinions become the “enemy.” But this behavior flies in the face of Scripture and is a symptom of human pride.

The apostle (Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:9) Paul was one of the great thinkers of the Christian church. Among other things, apostles were the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 11:47-50; Eph 2:19-22). God spoke to Paul in visions (2 Cor 12:7-10), so he was an inspired writer, who was later added to Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Nevertheless, Paul makes this startling and candid admission: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9, KJV, ESV, NIV). Although Paul received special revelations from God, he was ready to admit that his knowledge was partial and even his prophesyings were partial. Full knowledge of spiritual things is not a present reality, but something attainable only in eternity (1 Cor 13:12). This conviction harmonizes with the teaching of Jesus, which include the assertion, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now” (John 16:12). It is healthy to have religious convictions and act on them, but when those convictions lead one to kill people in the name of God, something very twisted has occurred in the name of conviction.

From an Islamic perspective, a similar caution can be found in the Qur’an itself (Al ‘Imran 3:7): “It is He Who has sent down to you the Book. In it are verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundation of the Book: others are not entirely clear. But those whose hearts deviate (from the truth) follow that which is not entirely clear. They seek discord and search for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.” From this passage it is clear that absolute certainty in religious matters can lead one to deviate from the truth by seizing on hidden meanings which God did not intend.

A second response to religious violence is to understand that the divine answer to the world’s problems is not political, financial or military. Whenever religion mixes with politics and economics, true religion is the loser and human pride is exhibited in corporate ways. The spirit of Jesus, taken from His own testimony in court, is clearly stated in John 18:36, NIV: “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.’” Peter somehow missed the memo and endangered Jesus’ legal defense by his violent actions in Gethsemane (John 18:10-11). The true religion of Jesus does not live by the sword. His kingdom comes from another place. Jesus spoke even more pointedly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:43-45, NIV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Ultimately, behind religious violence is a picture of God as a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. Jesus here says that those who love their enemies are like their Father in heaven. That is what God is really like. He is really like the One who was beaten, slandered and killed, yet said “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In the words of Jesus, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

From an Islamic perspective, the violent approach to religion should struggle much more to reconcile itself with statements like the following in the Qur’an (Al Nahl 16:125-128): “Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance” (16:125). This text suggests trusting the outcome of one’s witness to God, who alone truly knows the heart. Violence takes away another person’s choice and implies that God is pleased with forced submission. “And do thou be patient, for thy patience is but from Allah” (16:127). The key here is the character of God. The Muslim’s religious convictions cannot ignore the fact that the core portrayal of God’s character is as the merciful and compassionate One (Al Fatiha 1:1, repeated in the opening line of nearly every sura in the Qur’an). We are to be merciful, patient and compassionate to those who disagree, because that is what God is like. “Allah is with those who restrain themselves, and those who do good” (16:128). There are times and places where communities may need to defend themselves. But such actions are “emergency measures,” they are not for the purpose of exhibiting the character of God. Such actions, even when necessary, are to be regretted. They are not the substance of true religion, even for Muslims. To murder innocent people “in the name of Allah” is to bring shame and disrepute on God Himself. Such actions do not draw unbelievers to God, they drive them away in disgust.

Whether one is an Adventist or a Muslim, the solution to religious violence is centered in two things, humility and the character of God. Humility arises not out of God’s limitations, but ours. Humility is simply recognizing the truth about my own limitations. My ignorance about God is greater than my knowledge about Him I have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn. To take the life of another on the basis of my own understanding of truth is foolish arrogance in the extreme. Words fail.

The centrality of the character of God is evident at the heart of both Adventism and Islam. The central question at the heart of Islam is “What matters at the end of life?” When you come to the end of your life or the end of the world, what will truly matter? Will you wish you had played more video games? Will you wish you had binge-watched more TV series? Probably not. The Islamic answer to the question is found in two things: What really matters is God and good works. In other words, the two things that truly matter in Islam are submission to God (the word “islam” in Arabic means “submission”) and developing a character that does the things that please Him (good works). At the core of Adventism one finds the same basic question and the same answers. If you read the Conflict of the Ages Series from Ellen White, it begins and ends with the phrase “God is love.” The character of God is what the whole thing is about. And the same Adventist author says that the one thing we will take with us into eternity is our character (DA 331; RH, Dec 13, 1892).

The ultimate “jihad” is not political or military, it is a battle for the mind and the heart. Muhammad seems to have understood this principle, in spite of all the literal battles he chose to or had to fight. It is reported that after one campaign he announced to his soldiers. “We have now completed the lesser jihad. We now go home to the greater jihad.” The battle of faith is not about guns and tanks and fighter planes, it is the battle to control ourselves and to love one another. For sinful humans beings hurting others is relatively easy, controlling ourselves is difficult. If religion is to mean anything in this world, it must make us better people than we would be without it. Our study of Waco and ISIS does not suggest that they offer promising paths toward peace and self-control. Turning the other cheek is a true miracle that you won’t find in Waco or Raqqa (capital of the Islamic State). Genuine religion is more needed than ever in this world.

From Waco to ISIS: The Road Back to Sanity

When we view the horrible excesses of ISIS we may be tempted to believe that the movement and its followers are not sane. But our review of the events at Waco reminds us that no true believer is totally remote from spiritual insanity. Human nature is seriously flawed on account of sin, and sanity is often a miracle of God when it occurs. Every one of us should be grateful to God if our mental processes are reasonably sane. My purpose from here on is to explore how Waco and ISIS occurred and discover the path the Bible suggests we follow if we are to avoid the kinds of abuses that have occurred in both situations.

As noted in prevous blogs, Islam is divided today between what one could call Political Islam and Spiritual Islam. On the political side you have the jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood and many others who believe that the will of God in this world requires political and sometimes military action on the part of God’s followers. God’s way in this world depends on aggressive and sometimes violent intervention on the part of His followers. On the spiritual side, the mission of Islam is to restore the true faith of Abraham that has been distorted by political forms of Judaism and Christianity. In that scenario, Islam is a religion of peace, whose mission is to draw all believers back to the true God and to achieve harmony and peace. This divide between political and spiritual Islam goes all the way back to Muhammad’s day. Some would even see it in the Qur’an, where there is a difference in flavor between the Meccan (earlier) and Medinan (later) suras.

Most of the Muslims I know are clearly on the spiritual side of the above divide. That is what I perceive in the two religious leaders I introduced to everyone on my Facebook page earlier this month, Dr. Mustafa Kuko and Dr. As-Salaam Abdullah. That is one reason Dr. Kuko was so distressed about the events in San Bernardino, that someone who listened to his teachings could veer so far off the spiritual track into senseless violence.

For readers from a Seventh-day Adventist background, there is no room here for smug self-assurance. “Thank God we are not like those violent Muslims.” History tells us that while the peaceful, non-combatant side of Adventism is more prominent in most people’s consciousness, a more political side has shown itself in the past. A prime example is the Waco compound under David Koresh’s leadership, which I outlined at the beginning. Far less known at that time and a little before is a guerilla army in Southeast Asia that did not attack on Sabbath. Looking further back into Adventist history is the interesting case of John Harvey Kellogg. A colleague of mine has traced a line of thinking that runs from Battle Creek to Auschwitz. Kellogg was deeply engaged with purging the human race from inferior elements by what he called “biologic living.” He was an active player in the American eugenics movement that had significant ties to European thinkers who laid the foundation for fascism and nazism in the first half of the last century.

Whenever religion and politics mix, the dark side of human nature creeps to the fore and religion itself is transformed into the image of another master. Religious radicals (whether the Waco or ISIS variety) are driven by a combination of two things: 1) The absolute confidence that they are right, to the point that they are willing to die for every detail of what they believe. And 2) The answer to the world’s problems requires political and/or military action at some point. When these two elements are combined, it creates a toxic mix that can turn a peaceful religion into a monster that exhibits the character of Satan rather than the character of God. Is there any way out? To be concluded. . .

From Waco to ISIS: What Is So Appealing About ISIS?

For people in the West it is hard to understand why perfectly normal teen-agers or young adults who grew up in England, Germany or the US would leave such privileged lives and places to travel to what seems a repressive backwater filled with harshness and cruelty. They exchange comfortable lives for danger, combat and an uncertain future (people asked some of the same questions with regard to Waco). What could possibly be so attractive about ISIS?

One has to understand the power of eschatology, a compelling vision of the future. The eschatology of ISIS is grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. In a sense, ISIS is almost like a “Back to the Bible” movement in Christianity. People are called to exchange modern values for a vision based on the original sources of Islam. The goal of ISIS is the re-establishment of the caliphate, the form of government that existed in the early centuries of Islam. The caliphate is somewhat like what scholars of the Bible call a theocracy, when a nation is ruled directly by God through a judge or a king (see the biblical books from Joshua through 2 Chronicles). The idea of the caliphate is similar to what modern-day Israel would be like if it consistently implemented and enforced the laws of Moses today.

In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. The Turkish Empire declared itself a caliphate from the 14th through the 19th Centuries, but it never truly applied islamic law, so purists today don’t consider the Ottoman Empire a true caliphate. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Why is Sharia (islamic law) so attractive to many Muslims? For one thing, it is guidance for a whole way of life. It offers clarity in how to live and how to behave, and such clarity is very attractive to some personalities. More than this, life under Sharia is portrayed as a secure existence. All citizens of the Islamic State get free housing, clothing, food and medical care. In other words, all the basic human needs (1 Tim 6:6-9) are taken care of, no questions asked. The health care include full vision and dental care at no cost. If a citizen of the Islamic State requires specialty care in Turkey or Europe, that is fully paid as well. Those who wish to are free to seek riches through business or employment, but basic needs are cared for regardless.

The goal of the Islamic State is to establish a spiritually pure community. One way to accomplish that is medieval-style punishments, which provide a strong motivation to toe the line. Included in the ISIS theocracy is execution or enslavement for unbelievers. Where things get really dicey is that for ISIS most Muslims are counted as unbelievers, hence the shocking cruelties toward captured people of nearly all backgrounds. Nevertheless, the sense of spiritual certainty is very attractive to some personality types (as witnessed at Waco), in spite of the abuse that often comes with it.

The core of ISIS’ attraction to many muslim youth is its vision of the “apocalypse.” According to ISIS, the Islamic State is written into God’s script for the end-time. According to the scenario, there will be 12 legitimate caliphs in the course of islamic history. Baghdadi is considered the 8th in this line. The goal is to establish a trans-national state (combining at least two currently accepted nations). For this two work geographically, two “failed states” (where central authority has broken down or disintegrated, as in Somalia) need to be located next to each other. Syria and Iraq now qualify.

For ISIS eschatology, the establishment of the Islamic State will draw out the opposition of “Rome” (in the 7th Century that was the Byzantine Empire). The armies of “Rome” (representing Europe and the USA today) will mass in northern Syria. There will be a great battle in the region of Dabiq (NW Syria, the islamic equivalent of the biblical Megiddo). In that battle the Islamic State will be victorious. The caliphate will expand, capturing Istanbul and Jerusalem. At that point the Antichrist (called Masih ad-Dajjal in Arabic, or “false [dajjal] Messiah”) will arise, probably in eastern Iran. His forces will destroy vast numbers of Islamic State fighters. Dajjal will corner the last 5000 ISIS fighters in Jerusalem. At that point Jesus, the true Messiah, will return to earth, kill Dajjal and lead the Islamic State to the final victory.

In this kind of scenario, defeats may only encourage people to join ISIS because they will be fulfillments of the prophecy. So military solutions for defeating ISIS as an ideology have their limitations. ISIS is a theology that thrives on defeat. Every setback is confirmation that the scenario is true and will be fully fulfilled at the end. In fact, ISIS soldiers were excited recently when they heard reports that American soldiers had been spotted in a battle. They fully expect a coalition of Americans and Europeans to attack them. That will be a sign to them that the battle of Dabiq is at hand. It would likely draw even more fighters to ISIS from around the world.

So defeating ISIS through traditional political or military strategies may not work. The scenario would only be undermined if ISIS was defeated by Turks, Jordanians and Iraqis. Al Qaeda never appealed to muslims generally the way ISIS has. It has always hidden in the shadows. The power of ISIS lies in its eschatological vision combined with the seizure of territory. The ISIS idea can only be defeated by an equally compelling islamic vision. I will explore what that vision might be like in the concluding blog(s) of this series.

From Waco to ISIS: The Strategy of Osama bin Laden

The previous blog gives us a window into the mindset of Osama bin Laden when he gave the go-ahead for the attack of September 11, 2001. While the actions of the highjackers were gruesome and incomprehensible to Westerners, they were part of a strategic plan to change the balance of power in the world. The leaders of al Qaeda see the Islamic world being occupied by non-Islamic forces. To change the balance of power in the world al Qaeda must find a way to end the Aoccupation@ and re-unite Islam. Since the United States is the leading power in the world and the patron of many “islamic” regimes, it is the power behind the “occupation” and, therefore, the great enemy that motivates and controls the anti-Islamic agenda.

Defeating the United States directly was and is not a realistic option. But the kind of war bin Laden unleashed has burdened America with billions of dollars of expenses to fight “terrorism” at home and abroad. It distracts Americans with the constant fear of unsuspected attacks. It makes Americans feel as insecure as Europeans and Israelis have felt for decades. It makes isolationism look more attractive. If, in the process, the United States can be caused to withdraw from the islamic world, other anti-islamic powers such as Russia, India and Israel would not be strong enough by themselves to intervene. Corrupt and secular governments in the Muslim world would then have no base of outside support and would be overthrown by the islamic masses.

So al Qaeda did not expect to destroy the United States directly, unless some doomsday weapon might come into their hands. The United States is too powerful and too distant to defeat. Rather, bin Laden’s strategy was to force the United States into a series of actions that destabilize the governments of those Middle Eastern countries that are dependant on Washington. If the United States could be made to look weak and vulnerable in the eyes of the Arab street, the governments of the Middle East would lose their credibility. If pressure from the United States then forces those governments to join the US in fighting Islamic militants, popular uprisings could easily lead to their collapse. The ultimate goal would be the establishment of an Islamic superpower, a vast Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, governed by Islamic law. While I first wrote about this plan thirteen years ago, it almost seems prophetic now, as we have recently seen Iraq, Syria, and Libya become failed states, Egypt held together by an iron first, Israel on the defensive, and the Saudis and Jordanians running scared.

Although the United States has important interests in the islamic world, they are not on a scale to justify the expense and casualties involved in a long-term occupation. As further jihadist acts in the US occur, the American populace could easily sway toward an isolationist stance. If this isolationism should lead to complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and even the partial abandonment of Israel (already done?), the political world would have changed considerably in favor of the islamist agenda.

The goal of the attacks on September 11, 2001 was not to defeat America. America was too powerful and too distant for that to happen. Osama bin Laden’s goal was a very strange one from the Western perspective. He wanted to provoke America to attack Saudi Arabia. That’s why 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, even though the four “pilots” were from other countries. The muscle-men who would take over the plane were all from Saudi Arabia. Osama wanted it to appear that this was a Saudi attack on America. While he anticipated the attack on Afghanistan in 2001, he was sure that President Bush would not stop there. In order to stop al Qaeda he would have to control Saudi Arabia as well.

Why provoke an attack on Saudi Arabia? Because that is the holy land of Islam, the place where Allah met the prophet Muhammad, the place of pilgrimage, the land of Mecca and Medina. If any action could be calculated to inflame the passion of the islamic masses in the Middle East it would be a Western occupation of the holy places. Osama bin Laden wanted above all else to arouse the fervor of the people to rise up against the invaders and make life so miserable for them that they would be forced to withdraw, as the Soviets were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. It was a shrewd calculation that the only way to get rid of corrupt and secular governments in the Middle East was to find a way to humiliate the sponsor of those governments, the United States. Once the sponsor proved powerless, these Arab governments would fall and the Islamic Empire would be reborn.

It appears that President Bush and his advisors saw through this and attempted to sidestep the scheme by attacking Iraq instead, a target with an “evil” dictator and no major Sunni holy sites. By this means the US could control Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria without actually occupying them. But the unintentional consequence of the Iraq war was the destabilization of Iraq and the inflaming of all the faults lines within Islam (Sunni/Shia, secular/fundamentalist, salafist, jihadist, tribal enmities). And among these unintended consequences was the birth of ISIS, which began as Al Qaeda in Iraq, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. With the death of Zarqawi in 2006 and the “surge” in 2007, AQI went underground until the Americans left Iraq in 2011. Then taking advantage of the American absence in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, AQI morphed into ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or sometime “the Sham”– Arabic for Syria– the acronym ISIL uses the French word for Syria, the Levant). What is so attractive about this new player in the jihadi game? Stay tuned.

From Waco to Isis: The Mind of a Terrorist

For Osama bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a dominant place in the world again. Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told him that diplomacy would not work. The West had been Anegotiating@ with the Middle East for more than a century, and what was the result? The establishment of Israel, for one. Another result was the colonial powers dividing the Middle East into artificial nations with no consideration of tribal borders and local interests. Meanwhile the West grew richer and more powerful and the Muslim world became increasingly irrelevant.

Should the Muslim world stand up and fight in military terms then? In its present state of weakness that would be foolish. Anyone unconvinced by the dominance of the Israeli attacks in 1967 and 1982 (in Lebanon) would have had no further doubts after the Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of pointless suicide. One would lose thousands of soldiers in exchange for a mere handful of casualties on the stronger side. No one could pursue warfare for long on those terms. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was what the West calls terrorism.

In the minds of jihadist leaders, “terrorism” is nothing more than a negotiating tool. It is a way the weaker party in a disagreement is able to project a sense of power greater than its numbers or its military prowess would otherwise allow. The actual physical damage of terror attacks is not significant in political or economic terms. What is significant is the psychological effect, it is far greater than the sum total of the physical damage or loss of life. Terrorism puts those who practice it on the political map. It allows the weaker party to go on the offensive. It puts powerful nations on the defensive. There are so many potential targets and it is so costly to defend them all that the jihadist entity can always find a soft spot somewhere.  “If you’re throwing enough darts at a board, eventually you’re going to get something through,” said a Pentagon strategist. “That’s the way al Qaeda looks at it.” The secrecy and seclusion of the jihadist makes the attacks very difficult to anticipate and defend against.

The only safe defense against what the West calls terrorism is one that anticipates every possible angle of attack, particularly against assets for which adequate defenses are not yet in place, like water supplies and transportation systems. To make matters worse, every mile of the US coastline is a potential entry point for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. In a sense eradicating this threat is like finding a way to detect and apprehend criminals before they commit their crimes.

The ability of the jihadists to attack at will and keep powerful enemies on the defensive gradually wears down a powerful nation’s will to resist. As happened in Spain in 2004, people often prefer peace on jihadist terms to the constant stress of watchfulness and defensive measures. In this battle vast amounts of money, intelligence assets and personnel must be expended to track jihadists at home and abroad. In a sense the attempt is being made to surround the United States with a “protective net.” But “all nets have holes.” So if the jihadists are patient enough and determined enough, they can wear down and outlast enemies who are more concerned with personal comfort than with ideological purity.

From Waco to Isis: The Rise of al Qaeda, Part 3

The trigger point for the war between America and al Qaeda was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. George Bush Sr. believed that his decision to intervene in this conflict would be received by all Muslims as an act of American solidarity to save an islamic state from aggression. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, felt that inviting Western troops into the land of Mecca and Medina would be perceived as a fundamental violation of islamic law. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Saudis chose the route of political survival and brought in the Americans to stop Hussein.

In the past such “abominations” against Islam would have been greeted with impotent rage. But the war in Afghanistan made it different this time. Those Afghan veterans who were allowed to return to Saudi Arabia did not feel vulnerable and weak the way the Saudi leaders did. They were ready to defend the Kingdom against all comers if need be. They felt no dependance on the United States for the “protection” of the holy places. They saw that the governments in the Arab countries were corrupt and secular and could not possibly lead this fight. So international, militant, anti-American Islam was born in the wake of the Gulf War, an unintended consequence of what Americans had thought of as a noble action.

Here we see the great philosophical divide between the islamic world and the West. To the West the militant warriors of resurgent Islam are merely “terrorists,” lawless bandits who have no respect for human life and civilized values. They hate everyone, including most fellow Muslims, and everything that does not agree with their hateful rantings. But to many in the Muslim world these agents of terror are true patriots, freedom fighters willing to give their lives in the cause of God. They are the only thing standing between the islamic world and the horrific moral assaults of Hollywood, gay pride and American cruise missiles.

Osama bin Laden’s war against America was fueled by five factors. 1) The general decline of Islam over the previous centuries. In a Western-dominated world Muslims seemed to be humiliated on every side, by the Israelis, the Serbs, the Russians, the Indians, and now the United States. In addition, the West has “imposed” Western law codes on Muslim states, enforced Western economic ideas, including the charging of interest (contrary to Islamic law), and exported alcohol, drugs, pornography and crime. It is frustrating to a jihadist to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.

2) The Israeli-Palestinian Situation. While securing a homeland for Jews made a lot of sense in the West after the Holocaust, the original partition of Palestine came at the expense of Arabs whose ancestors had been in the land for centuries. That move broke many promises that the British and the Americans had made during the two world wars. To Arab eyes the expansion of Israel looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes. Jewish desperation after the Holocaust was real and for many Jews the homeland in the Middle East was the only spark of hope at the time. But the desperation of the Palestinian refugee camps remains to this day. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.

3) Secular corruption in the Middle East. A further major grievance of Osama bin Laden had to do with the corrupt and secular governments ruling over most Muslim countries. Governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were seen as unelected, oppressive, pandering to the West and soft on Islam. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of the jihadists they would not stand without American support. For Muslim fundamentalists what really holds Islam back is the corruption and inefficiency in the political and economic realm of the Middle East. It is against these that the decisive battle must be fought.

4) Betrayal in Afghanistan. While the first three grievances were real, they were of long standing and by themselves would not have created the jihadist movement. As mentioned above, it was the betrayal in Afghanistan and the western militaries in Saudi Arabia that lit the fuse of Osama bin Laden’s anger. The first of these was the American betrayal in Afghanistan. When the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, the Americans immediately lost interest and abandoned bin Laden and his mujahedin to their own devices.

5) Western militaries in Saudi Arabia. The final trigger point, as we have seen, was the physical presence of the American military in Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War. In the 1980s bin Laden was not hostile to America, in spite of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. There is even evidence he may have been on the CIA payroll for a time. But the alcoholism, materialism, immorality and relative nudity exhibited by Western troops in Saudi Arabia seemed sacrilegious to even moderate Muslims. To bin Laden it bordered on blasphemy.

But why respond to these grievances with suicide bombers piloting commercial planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What did that have to do with overthrowing corrupt governments in the Middle East?

From Waco to Isis: The Rise of al Qaeda, Part 2

The immediate context for the rise of al Qaeda was the war in Afghanistan that began in the late 1970s. To understand the motivation of those involved we need to understand something about the geography of politics. The closest any power has come (at least since the Mongol Empire around the year 1200 AD) to dominating the entire Eurasian landmass is the Soviet Union. So a primary focus of American policy in the 1970s was containing Soviet power by encircling it with a system of alliances from the northern shore of Norway, across the continent of Europe, through the Middle East, along the southern coast of Asia all the way north to the Bering Strait. The Soviets sought ways to break through this encirclement and the Americans did all they could to keep them boxed in.

But two events threatened this encirclement, both in 1979. The first was the fall of the Shah of Iran, a key American ally in the encirclement project. The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Soviets could defeat Afghanistan and invade Iran, they could break the encirclement and threaten the Middle Eastern oil fields. This would tip the balance of world power decisively in their favor. Thus the invasion of Afghanistan less than a year after the fall of the Shah seemed like America’s greatest nightmare.

As the leaders of the American military game-planned for a possible Soviet invasion of Iran, they concluded that their best option was to bog down the Soviets in Afghanistan, turning it into another Vietnam, but this time with the shoe on the other foot. So President Carter authorized the CIA to engage in covert operations in Afghanistan. But where would the money for this come from? Congress was in no mood to appropriate extra funding for the CIA in the wake of previous scandals. So Carter turned to the newly rich Saudis, who had as much to lose in this fight as America did. If the Saudis would fund this guerilla war and recruit Islamic fighters to resist Soviet power in Afghanistan, the CIA would provide training, coordination and intelligence.

But the Saudis were not comfortable funding this war from government coffers either. Instead they turned to wealthy, private families, asking them to contribute to the cause of islamic restoration. Here was an opportunity to reverse centuries of islamic decline. Many Saudi families contributed vast sums to the project, and the largest and wealthiest of these families is known in the West as the “bin Laden” family. So President Carter presided over the creation of an international army of Islamic fundamentalists. It was a low-cost, low-sacrifice (for Americans) way to keep the Russians bottled up in the vast interior of the Eurasian landmass. And they succeeded in that mission, but with unforeseen consequences.

A major element of the war was the willingness of the American intelligence and military apparatus to pass on their skills to these islamic fighters. The mujahedin learned about covert and special operations. They learned the skills of stealth and hand to hand combat. They learned what American intelligence knew and how they got such information. They learned both the advantages and limitations of military technology. No doubt the Americans thought their islamic allies ignorant and incapable of using such information against them. But many of Osama bin Laden’s fighters were relatively wealthy and highly educated. They listened and learned, and they learned well, as the West has come to discover, much to its regret.

The Afghan war was long and brutal. It drained the Soviet Army of strength and credibility and was a decisive factor in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. But it also create thousands of battle-hardened and experienced Islamist soldiers, many of them trained by the CIA and American special forces. And the fall of the Soviet Union had a powerful impact on those Islamic soldiers. It was the first time in centuries that an Islamic force had defeated non-islamic forces. And this defeated army belonged to a major world superpower. In the minds of islamic fundamentalists, it was an islamic army that gave America its greatest victory over the Soviet menace.

And was the United States suitably grateful for this islamic sacrifice? To the contrary, America believed that Afghanistan was only a minor factor in the fall of the Soviet Union (no doubt both viewpoints were at least partly right). From the American point of view the islamic world owed America a debt of gratitude. So as America pulled out of Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, the stage was set for a confrontation between a resurgent Islam and the world’s only remaining super power.

You see, America never entered the Afghan war out of some altruistic motive of defending Islam against atheistic powers. It used the islamic fervor of Osama bin Laden and others as a tool to keep the Russians encircled in the northern part of the Eurasian landmass. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the United States completely lost interest in the country and pulled out, leaving a devastated and impoverished landscape filled with warring tribes and a highly trained, international islamic army recruited from the entire islamic world.

What was this army to do now? Just go home? That was not an option. These skilled fighters were as much of a threat to their governments back home as they had been to the Soviets. So no country in the islamic world wanted them back. They were essentially stranded in Afghanistan, without external support and without purpose. What America and its allies had done in Afghanistan was to train an army of highly diverse people bound together by the common experience of the war against the Soviets, a sense of betrayal by their own governments as well as the Americans, and the awareness that they had the power to change the world. Al Qaeda was the unintended consequence of short-term American political objectives.

From Waco to Isis: The Rise of al Qaeda, Part 1

Where did al Qaeda (the self-appointed leadership of worldwide islamic terrorism) come from? What is the source of its rage against the West in general and the United States in particular? To fully understand today’s events we have to go back into history once more and pick up religious, political and economic threads that are all part of the story. The story of al Qaeda begins in the desert sands of the Hijaz, the western part of the Arabian peninsula, in the 7th Century of our era. Whether or not you believe that God had His hand in the rise of Islam, it cannot be denied that Muhammad was one of the most significant change agents in the history of the world. The energy unleashed by his religious experience turned the Arab people from idolatrous bandits to one of the greatest civilizations the world had known up until that time. The Islamic Empire was the great superpower of the Middle Ages and played a dominant role in world affairs right up to time of the so-called Enlightenment (18th Century).

Then something went wrong with the islamic dream. Some scholars trace the beginnings of decline as far back as the islamic reaction to the Crusades, others trace it back to social developments in 13th Century Spain. The energy unleashed by Muhammad’s vision was dissipated by narrow thinking. Scholarship that had transformed the arts, the sciences and literature became focused on maintaining the status quo. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman ideals created the kind of energy in Europe that had characterized the early islamic empire. The torch of science and learning somehow passed to the West, and the power and wealth of the world went with it. By the 18th Century of our era the islamic world was in serious intellectual, political and economic decline. By the mid-19th Century it was largely “colonized” by the West and has never recovered.

In the face of this long-term decline, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) founded an islamic “back to the Bible” type of movement. He wanted to restore the pure Islam of the desert, free of all later additions and innovations. In other words, he taught that all the resources needed to restore the greatness of Islam lay in the past. This is the basic conviction shared by today’s Muslim “fundamentalists.” Much like Fundamentalist Christians and historic Adventists, they seek to restore the faith to its former greatness by careful attention to the teachings of the faith’s pioneer(s). The key to Islam’s salvation lies in replicating her past. The Muslim world has deviated from pure Islam and only a return to its origins would safeguard it from domination and exploitation by the West. This “Wahabism” is closely entwined with the Saudi royal family (the House of Saud) that came to rule the Arabian peninsula in the wake of World War I. This is the intellectual atmosphere in which Osama bin Laden and his compatriots were raised.

The second foundation for the development of al Qaeda occurred in 1938, with the discovery of the world’s largest supply of easily accessible crude oil. Up until this time, the primary source of income in the Saudi kingdom came from servicing pilgrims in Mecca, Islam=s holiest city. But even the first shipment of oil produced wealth beyond all expectation. This isolated country with no other exportable product now became a major factor in global politics. The stage was set for the events of the late 1970s. To be continued. . .

From Waco to Isis: Radical Islam’s Conflicted Vision

In Sayyid Qutb’s analysis both the West and the islamic world find themselves in a condition of alienation where faith is isolated from everyday life. People are consumed by money, sex and power. Their lives are filled with drugs, sex, and alcohol, things that can never truly satisfy. To the lost condition of today’s world Qutb offered a radical islamic solution, which I will share in oversimplified form so that those outside of radical Islam can gain a basic understanding of the issues as seen through jihadist eyes.

For Qutb, the core solution to the world’s alienation is a re-commitment to God’s original authority. It is a call to go back to the beginnings, which for a committed Muslim means back to the Qur’an in its original setting (something like the “Back to the Bible” movement in evangelical Christianity). It means to restore the natural order of things as laid out originally by God. This would mean restoring God’s rules for life as laid out in Sharia law, including its rules for modesty and charity. For Qutb Sharia law was not a burden or a confinement of the human spirit. It meant declaring one’s freedom from human rules and expectations so one can live by God’s rules and expectations. In Sharia law it is recognized that women are crucial in shaping human character and that this work is best done at home. So the domestication of women was not seen by Qutb as a way of showing their inferiority, but to protect sexual boundaries and free women to do the most important work, shaping the character of the next generation. This is an ideal he set forth. In practice it often more about male dominance and privileges.

In Qutb’s theology, the only way to truly reform the world is to unite religion with the state. It is only when religion is recognized as the highest goal by the state that Sharia law will truly be applied. This is a complete rejection of western principles, including freedom of religion. In a truly islamic state, conversion would not be tolerated and non-muslims would be tolerated only if they do not interfere with the religio-political agenda of the majority. How would such islamic states be achieved? Only by a faithful vanguard who was willing to live by their convictions even unto death. Sayyid Qutb was certainly committed to being one of those, he was executed for treason (accused of plotting the assassination of the president) against the Egyptian state in 1966.

Qutb’s vision of radical Islam is conflicted today. First of all, those who buy in to this vision are divided between salafists and jihadists. Salafists do not believe in taking up arms to achieve the goals of radical Islam. They see the achievement of those goals as the work of God. They support God’s work by personal jihad (wrestling with one’s own faults and character flaws), by individual faithfulness to God’s rules, and by witness (in Arabic: tabligh) to others in words (an-Nahl 16:125). Salafists themselves are divided into two groups, those who renounce all violence in pursuits of religious goals (generally called salafists or Wahhabis) and the Muslim Brotherhood, who believe that violent jihad is not appropriate now but will be appropriate at some time in the future.

The jihadists themselves are also divided into two main groups, today usually identified with al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS. This conflicted vision can be very confusing to outsiders. I will try to simplify that conflict with a series of contrasts between al Qaeda and ISIS. 1) AQ was largely founded by wealthy intellectuals, who often had gained a western education, ISIS tends to attract simple, uneducated believers including, in the words of some analysts, “street thugs.” 2) AQ does not seek to control territory and offers no social services. It seeks to influence the political realm by propaganda and spectacular terrorist attacks. ISIS, on the other hand, sees territory as crucial and social services within that territory are a central part of the agenda. 3) AQ is focused on modern political concerns, its operatives were often quite secular and western in their thinking and behavior. ISIS, on the other hand, is following an ancient religious vision, to aid God in re-establishing the theocratic state. 4) For AQ the apocalypse is in the future, for ISIS the apocalyse is now. 5) AQ is extremely secretive and unpredicatable, ISIS is very open about its plans for both the present and the future. 6) AQ is almost impossible to eradicate, as it operates in secret and underground, ISIS, on the other hand, must have territory to survive. While ISIS could go underground if the Islamic State is defeated, its main appeal is in its ability to create such a counter-cultural state.

As a results of these differences, ISIS is often found in conflict with various movements allied with al Qaeda; such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al Qaeda in Arabia in Yemen. Before I turn in detail to the vision of the Islamic State, I would like to offer a short history of al Qaeda and its vision of how violent jihad will reshape the world.

From Waco to Isis: What’s Wrong with the West?

At the core of Sayyid Qutb’s theology (he was in many ways the father of fundamentalist Islam, from which al Qaeda and ISIS have arisen) is a fundamental analysis of the human condition, particularly as illustrated by the secular West. According to Qutb, the human race has completely lost its way. It has lost touch with God. Especially in the western world, human beings are consumed with money, sex and power. As a result they have become miserable, anxious and skeptical. He argued that the richer the country, the more unhappy the people are. The proof of his thesis he found in the fact that the West is tormented by drugs, alcohol and rampant sexuality, which can consume one’s focus but will never satisfy. Wealth is no answer to the human condition. Science has proven no answer to the human condition. The core problem with modern life is that it alienates people from their true selves. As messed up as the West is, how is it possible that Christianity has had so little impact on Western culture? What is wrong with Christianity and the West that this sad condition has developed and continues?

At this point Sayyid Qutb offered an explanation of this condition grounded in the history of Western civilization. For him, the foundation of Western civilization was in Judaism as revealed by God. God gave the Jews a wholistic approach to life (unity of body, soul and spirit). Israel was a theocracy (a politic entity ruled directly by God through inspired judges or prophets) with clear laws of life laid out by God. But instead of heart obedience to God, Israel allowed its religion to degenerated into lifeless rituals.

According to Sayyid Qutb, Jesus came along to reform Judaism and restore it to what it had been before. But instead of buying in fully to the Jesus program, the followers of Jesus (the Christians) rejected Judaism and broke away from God’s intention. They replaced the wholism of Judaism with a divided human nature based on Greek philosophy. For these degenerate Christians the body no longer mattered, and daily secular life became separated from the relationship with God, which the Greeks felt occurred at a spiritual, non-bodily level. This resulted in two Christian extremes. Constantinian Christianity often led to debauchery. If the body did not truly matter then what you did with it didn’t matter either as long as your soul was connected to God and the church. A second Christian extreme, monasticism, was in full reaction to this. If the body didn’t matter to ones’ spirituality, the godly person should ignore it, starve it, beat it, keep it under complete subjection. By denying the unity of body and soul, Europe continued to profess Christianity but the secular and the sacred were no longer united and everyday life was increasingly divorced from religion.

Sayyid Qutb believed that God sent an answer to the problems of the West and its challenge to faith through the revelations received by the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was not called to start a new religion but to reform the Judaism and the Christianity that already existed in western Arabia. He was called to restore what was lost when Christianity abandoned the Jewish teachings of Jesus. Muhammad restored the unified human nature that was so central to the biblical world view. In Sharia he restored God’s rules for life. He restored respect for the physical world, weaving faith into every aspect of business, war and pleasure. This movement not only restored faith, it led to the discovery of scientific method and vast developments for the improvement of everyday life. This led to what many call the Islamic Golden Age, from about 750-1250 AD. The Islamic Empire became the world’s leading civilization, during the very centuries when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages.

But this islamic Golden Age did not last. Islam also lost its way. A combination of the Crusades, the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and Muslim unfaithfulness led to the decline of the Islamic Empire (and the Ottoman Empire that replaced it). As islamic civilization declined, muslim science was exported to Europe. Europe soon came to dominate the world, but that dominance in the context of a divided human nature also brought in secularism, with all of its alientation. Islam was humiliated and alienated, with the result (in the early Twentieth Century) that the heartlands of the Middle East and most of the Muslim world (including the Indian sub-continent and Indonesia) were divided up by European colonial powers. In essence, through colonialism, the Christian powers in the world had declared war on Islam.

What fascinates me is the similarity between Qutb’s analysis of Christian history and that of Ellen White in the book Great Controversy. The root analysis of history behind the jihadist vision is not crazy. It offers a sober analysis of the weaknesses of modernity and suggests that the only solution to the problems of the modern world can be found in faith. But there is a fundamental flaw in the jihadist logic that we will discuss in future blogs. In the next blog we will explore how Qutb, al Qaeda and ISIS respectively have sought to solve the human crisis, with particular focus on the present situation in the Middle East.