Category Archives: Current Events

Thoughts on the Inauguration and Bible Prophecy

I’ll do my best to be non-partisan in my remarks below. Some have wondered if the election of Trump and the threats to the inauguration would have prophetic significance. I would suggest that we tend to blow current events out of proportion, simply because they are what we know and our fears for the future magnify them. A lesson or two from history may be helpful.

John Adams was so contemptuous of Thomas Jefferson that he left the White House in the middle of the night on March 4, 1801, refusing to attend the inaugural ceremony of the man who had vanquished him.

Democrat Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote in 1876, was urged to lead an army into Washington to stop the “corrupt” handover of power by Congress to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes; luckily, Tilden declined. Nonetheless, Tilden and his backers insisted they had been robbed. President Hayes was thereafter called “His Fraudulency.”

So bitter was the rivalry between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that they said not a word to each other during the 1933 inaugural drive from the White House to the Capitol. Hoover and Roosevelt never reconciled, and they hurled insults at one another with regularity. The last three paragraphs are are deeply indebted to a brilliant essay posted earlier today: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/political_commentary/commentary_by_larry_j_sabato/the_end_of_the_beginning.

As riveting as the current election and its aftermath have been, in many ways it is nothing new, so breathe out slowly everyone, relax, and enjoy the ride, wherever it leads. Prophecy is not concerned with the ins and outs of political intrigue. It is written to provide direction and hope to the people of God. No matter how out of control things appear, God is still in control.

Disappointment with the San Antonio General Conference Session

Last weekend was spent at the Calimesa SDA Church Retreat at Pine Springs Ranch in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. During the Sabbath School time the teacher was addressing the weekend’s theme of “When Things Don’t Turn Out. . .” He was addressing how we should respond when things don’t turn out the way we expect, personally, in local communities, and worldwide. He invited me to be prepared to say something about the General Conference Session and the big thing that didn’t “turn out” there, the vote to give official endorsement to divisions of the church to consider mission as a key factor in decisions regarding women’s ordination. Time ran out before I was able to speak, but I thought my notes there might be useful or encouraging to someone here. My apologies if this blog is annoying to those who might disagree with my conclusions.

Let me begin with the history of ordination. While the word “ordination” appears in the King James Bible, that English word comes from the Latin, it is not found in the New Testament. Ordination as we know it developed gradually over the early centuries and became fixed in the Middle Ages. Ordination of women did not occur then on two grounds: 1) the Bible nowhere required it, and 2) no one had ordained women before, so tradition supported the Bible’s silence on the question. These two reasons also sufficed for the Adventist pioneers, who adopted male ordination from their previous churches. This was not a theological act but a practical one, providing credentials to those who spoke for the church. When I entered ministry in the early 1970s, the traditional situation remained in place and the lack of biblical clarity meant I was neutral to negative on the question when calls to ordain women began in the 1970s.

In the years since, society in many parts of the world has completely changed on the role of women. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, fireman, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. In more and more places today, women fill virtually all roles in the work place except for ministry in churches like ours. Absent a clear “thus saith the Lord” on the matter, a tradition was threatening to present the church as completely irrelevant to society in many parts of the world.

So I took a fresh look at the Bible in light of the new situation. Acts 15 provides encouragement to do that. The earliest church believed that the Bible (the Old Testament at the time) taught circumcision as an unchanging requirement for salvation. But God’s providence in their experience led them to re-read the Bible and open the way for uncircumcized Gentiles to participate in the church. Things that once seemed obvious from their study of the Bible were no longer so in light of the Spirit’s leading. In my own fresh look at the Bible it dawned on me that the Bible nowhere asks the question “Should women be ordained?” It doesn’t address the issue directly. That means that the “answers” people were finding on both sides of the issue lacked the clarity of direct speech from God. Why doesn’t the Bible address the issue directly? What does that tell us about God? Evidently God never addressed the question in Scripture because He could live with the situation as He found it (male ordination). It was not the most important thing to challenge people with in those days. God addressed people on issues when they were ready to hear it (John 16:12) or when the mission required it (Acts 10-15).

This was the conclusion of the majority of members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. For many it was a change of mind. They learned that the Bible does not settle the matter in an absolute sense. Where mission requires it, women can be ordained. Where mission suggests that ordaining women would harm the church in a particular society, it should probably not be done. There were holdouts on both sides who believed the Bible clearly forbade or required universal women’s ordination, but the clearest trend of Bible study was in the direction of mission being the determining factor in any part of the world. That meant the world church allowing local jurisdictions to decide what was the best approach for their areas. This was not a pro-women’s ordination conclusion, it was a pro-mission conclusion. And it seemed to me that this was the only reasonable outcome at the General Conference session in San Antonio (July, 2015). I realize that there are many on both sides who still disagree with me on this. And I affirm them as brothers and sisters who have the same right I do to study and seek the mind of God on this question. Where God has left room for differing opinions, we dare not cut each other off.

Having said this, the denial of the TOSC conclusion and process in San Antonio was heart-breaking for many of us. I was heartbroken for the many women who felt the action showed disrespect to their perception of a call from God to do ministry. I was disappointed for those parts of the world who felt distrusted when their local judgment on the matter was rejected. I felt distrusted and disrespected when my earnest attempts to bring reason into the discussion were summarily dismissed with assertions and condemnation, rather than collegial debate.

But I realize that in the ultimate scheme of things my disappointment and that of others does not matter all that much. If I am right about Scripture and about God, God has been waiting a long, long time to see His people come to their senses on many issues. He has been waiting a long, long time to see healing of the divisions in the universe. He has been waiting a long, long time to see the ministry of women being affirmed by us in the same way He affirms it. If that is true, things in San Antonio didn’t turn out for God either. . .

Review of Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May Ellen Colon

A new book is coming out shortly by a couple of friends of mine. I thought you would want to know about it. The book Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May Ellen Colon, was designed as an enhancement to the Third Quarter 2016 Sabbath School lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. As such, the book was subject to many constraints. It was held to a brief and fixed length. Each of its thirteen chapters had to be similar in length. And each chapter had to correspond to the topic of that week’s lesson. The format has been a popular one, since many members and teachers are eager to supplement the Sabbath School Quarterly with additional resources.

Given the constraints of the format, I didn’t expect the book to break any new ground. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. This is a landmark book. It not only advocates that every Adventist church should be deeply engaged in its community, but it provides dozens of specific illustrations of Adventist churches around the globe who are doing just that. These kinds of ministries are divided into four types: 1) relief, 2) personal development, 3) community development, and 4) confronting injustice. Colons use a fishing analogy to describe these ministries. 1) Relief is giving a hungry person a fish, 2) personal development teaches people how to fish, 3) community development provides the fishing tools, and 4) social justice makes sure everyone has equal access to the fishing pond.

Gaspar and May Ellen Colon are eminently qualified for the task they take on in this book. For many years she has been in the General Conference Office for Sabbath School/Personal Ministries and Gaspar has been director of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry based at Washington Adventist University. In these capacities they have traveled all over the world encouraging community outreach and observing first-hand the many success stories that are out there. While most churches in the Western world are stuck in neutral, some have actively filled recognized needs in their communities, causing these churches to be highly valued by those outside the church. These success stories are a gold mine of fresh ideas that stimulate thought and provide readers with options that their own churches can consider.

The book is extremely well written and easy to read. The variety of stories keeps the reader’s attention. But the stories are not just random and entertaining, they are structured into a carefully crafted philosophical foundation. That foundation is built on both Scripture and the best scientific evidence of how groups of people relate to each other. While the Colons are not specialists in the Bible, their use of Scripture is measured, solid and persuasive. The stories illustrate how real churches in real communities apply both biblical and scientific principles to real-life problems.

This book is MUST reading, not only for SDA Sabbath School teachers, but for pastors, local and worldwide church leaders and all members who desire that churches make a difference in their local communities.

The Status of ISIS

In the wake of the Brussels attack (and Paris and San Bernardino and Istanbul) people are wondering if ISIS is getting too strong to stop. Actually the opposite is the case. I believe that ISIS as a traditional caliphate is on the ropes. The recent attacks in Europe are a sign of weakness rather than strength. Let me explain.

The core theology of ISIS is an eschatology grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. It envisions the end-time re-establishment of the caliphate, a form of government which is ruled directly by God through a designated caliph, the religious and political successor to the prophet Muhammad. 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. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A crucial element that distinguishes ISIS from al Qaeda is the possession of a trans-national territory, the Islamic State. In the theology of ISIS, as soon as the end-time caliphate is established, all faithful Muslims are to come to it and pledge allegiance to the caliph. Leaving it for nearly any reason thereafter is considered apostasy. So the fact that they are now sending people on terror missions to Europe is an act of desperation that goes against their own theology.

By declaring a state, ISIS in a sense planted the seeds of its own demise. To run a state, one is actually forced to govern; to collect taxes and provide services, including the kind of conventional military defense that is necessary to hold and govern territory. Governing territory has taken the bloom off the Islamic State dream. The citizens of the Islamic State are becoming increasingly restive. At the same time, the bumbling alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria the Levant is now beginning to close in on all sides. Many cadres of ISIS are deserting their forces and sharing their knowledge of ISIS with its enemies. This gives Western intelligence the location of top leaders, who are being picked off one by one.

As a trans-national entity that governs and wages traditional warfare, therefore, ISIS’ days seem to be numbered. But as a force capable of spreading terror outside the Islamic State, they will probably continue for the foreseeable future. The question, therefore, arises, how can Muslims themselves combat terror? What type of theology may be persuasive for those considering jihadism as a way of life?

To be concluded. . .

What about the “Muslim God”?

According to the Bible, there is only one God, the One worshiped by Abraham. Other gods do not exist. Satan and his associates are imposters, God’s rivals in name only. Jews, Christians and Muslims agree on this.

This one creator God is known by various names in different languages and those who worship him in all these languages and cultures have very different ideas of who He is. So while we disagree about his nature, the fact remains that there is only one God, whom we all (Muslims, Jews and Christians) worship with greater or lesser insight into his true character and mission.

Are Muslims worshiping a “different god,” meaning a different spiritual entity? No, that is not even possible; because we do not believe a different god exists, unless we are prepared to believe that Muslims worship Satan unknowingly.

Jesus’ example towards the Samaritan woman is instructive here. He did not tell her, “you worship the wrong God.” Instead He told her: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” And then he led her into a full understanding of who he was in comparison with that which she did not know. This is what I mean when I say that we move from common ground to higher ground.

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.