Category Archives: Current Events

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.

From Waco to Isis: The Theology Behind Jihad

As noted in the previous blog, islamic theology is quite fragmented due to 1) the lack of a central theological authority and 2) the inherent ambiguity of the Qur’an itself. I have noted several islamic streams of thought arising out of that ambiguity. But in the previous blog I left out one of them, the stream of islamic thought out of which the jihadist theology has arisen. Jihadist theology is rooted in the work of the 18th Century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He himself was not a “jihadist” in the contemporary sense of the term. But he advocated a strict, austere, “fundamentalist” view of Sunni Islam. This theology is sometimes called Wahhabism by its opponents and its followers today are called Wahhabis. They themselves prefer the term Salafists to describe themselves (following the salafi, those ancestors who best understood the practice and teaching of Muhammad).

Wahhab thought of himself as promoting a reform movement within Islam, going back to the original, desert religion, getting rid of “idolatrous practices” like visiting the shrines of saints, and instead restoring pure, monotheistic worship, free of human innovations. Salafists emphasize the life of Muhammad as seen through lives and thoughts of the earliest generations of Islam. Opponents, on the other hand, call the movement extreme and “pseudo-Sunni.” Through an alliance with the House of Saud, salafism plays a dominant role in Saudi Arabia and it is highly influential also in Egypt. But although salafism is an important part of the background for ISIS and other jihadists, it is not inherently violent. The jihad it pursues seeks to purify Islam through personal commitment and yields to God the timing of any spiritual or political revolution within Islam. Its adherents tend to withdrawal from modern society more than engagement with it.

In the 20th Century, the Egyptian branch of salafism produced a movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that was more aggressive in engaging western thought than the original salafists had been. While they too appealed to the salafist understanding of Muhammad’s practice and teaching, they used Western language and spoke directly to modern-day concerns. The leading light of this emerging “Muslim Brotherhood” was a scholar named Sayyid Qutb (died 1966– emphasis on the first syllable and pronounce as if there is an extremely short “u” between the “t” and the “b”). While generally pacifist in the current situation, the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike the salafists, believes that at some point in the future, military jihad will be necessary and appropriate. The timing of that jihad is where the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadists themselves differ. For the Muslim Brotherhood, military jihad is a future possibility, subject to God’s timing. For the jihadists, it is a present mandate. Since Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Mohammad Qutb, was Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Saudi Arabia, the theology of Sayyid Qutb is very important for understanding the jihadist mentality. Sayyid Qutb’s views can be found in his eighteen-volume commentary on the Qur’an entitled In the Shade of the Qur’an (available online at

What all Muslims rooted in Wahhabism agree on is the need for massive reform within Islam itself. The hyper-religious minority seeks “revival and reformation” in the more secular majority. So ultimately the actions of the terrorists are less concerned with the United States than they are with an in-house battle for the soul of Islam. When then attack the United States if terrorism is all about an in-house fight? Because the jihadists felt that the major barrier to Islam’s revival and reform was the corrupt “Muslim” governments that arose after the fall of colonialism in the Middle East (largely after World War II). These leaders arose from the “elites” that had aided the colonial powers originally and now controlled these “nations” after independence. And the nation that was keeping these powers in place with money and military aid (especially after the Suez war of 1956) was the United States.

The attacks on September 11 were designed to draw the United States more obviously into the Middle East to demonstrate its ultimate weakness to repeat what the colonial powers had achieved. If it could be proven to the islamic world that the United States is unable to dominate the islamic landscape, then the secular and corrupt leaders of the islamic world could be overthrown and a more religious system installed in its place. Westerners, including presidential candidates, need to understand how their words and actions may actually strengthen the hand of the terrorists within Islam itself. The very prejudices aroused by terrorism push moderate Muslims into the fundmentalist camp of the salafists, Muslim Brotherhood and radical jihadists. This is what the terrorists intended for September 11, Paris and San Bernardino. And to a large degree, they seem to be succeeding. To be continued. . .

From Waco to Isis: The Roots of Radical Jihadism, Part 2

In the previous blog I shared how radical jihadism is rooted in the Middle East’s experience of colonialism. But by itself this is not a sufficient reason for suicide bombers. Radical jihadism can only be understood in light of its religious convictions. While mainstream Islam today generally rejects radical jihadism (the very word “Islam” is rooted in “salaam,” the Arabic word for “peace”), its theology, like that of Koresh for some Adventists, can be deeply compelling to a conservatively-minded Muslim. How can Islam contain the roots of both peace and war? I believe the answer to that question is grounded in two realities: 1) Islam is theologically fragmented, there is no central theological authority, and 2) the foundational text of Islam, the Qur’an, is itself is an ambiguous book, amenable to a variety of interpretations.

As mentioned, the Qur’an at its core is a rather ambiguous book. This is acknowledged near the beginning of the generally accepted text. “(Allah) it is Who has sent down to thee the Book; in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are not of well-established meaning. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning. Seeking discord, and searching 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” (Âl Imrân 3:7, English translation by ‘Abdullah Yûsuf ‘Alî). Like the Bible, the Qur’an has some texts that are reasonably clear, even after thousands of years. But there are many other passages that are illustrative or complex or whose meanings have been lost over time.

As a result of these ambiguities, and because of the lack of any central theological authority, there are several major ways of understanding the Qur’an within Islam. Each in some sense seeks to clarify the ambiguities and create a coherent religion from it. As I understand it, some Muslims focus on how the Qur’an was understood by the Companions (Arabic sahabah) of Muhammad, those who knew him best and followed him in leadership of the islamic movement, such as Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. But even within this group of interpreters there is a division between Sunni and Shia as to how to apply the teaching of the Companions to their understanding of the Qur’an.

Some time after the death of Muhammad the traditions about Muhammad’s sayings and actions were collected in the Hadith. These included recollections from the Companions, but also later recollections passed on by those who knew the Companions, a much larger group with less connection to the original events. Most Muslims read the Qur’an in light of the Hadith, but differ as to which ones are authentic recollections and which collections of Hadith are more accurate. Sunni and Shia, in particular, differ strongly in these matters.

In later centuries the Qur’an was interpreted by the great commentators, who did their best to exegete (tafsir) the Qur’an. Some of the great commentators were ibn Abbas, al-Askari, al-Tabari, al-Azhari and al-Baghawi. These sought to explain the Qur’an by examining the style of a given text, defining the key words, clarifying the grammar and meaning of whole sentences. They also sought to dig out deeper meanings, explain metaphors and figurative speech, and reconcile verses that seem to contradict each other. Since interpreters today tended to gravitate to one commentator or another, the ambiguities of the Qur’an are often exacerbated by the plethora of options and commentators. Since Islam does not have any central authority like the pope or the General Conference, the ambiguities of the Qur’an are often unresolved by all this research. That helps to explain how the Qur’an can be cited both by promoters of peace and promoters of violent jihad. The ambiguities of the book remain unresolved for most Muslims. In spite of this, even to this day there are Muslims who reject all of these interpretations, including the Hadith, believing that the Qur’an itself is complete and only the pure can truly understand (Âl Imrân 3:7; Al An‘âm 6:114-115; Al Anfâl 8:54; Al Jâthîyah 45:2-6; Al Wâqi‘ah 56:77-81).

Perhaps the Qur’an itself offers a way out of this exegetical morass, even though most Muslims have not explored the following route. According to the Qur’an itself, its ambiguities are best understood, not by later commentators, but by comparison with the earlier revelations, those found in prophets like Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and recorded in the Old (tawrat) and New (Injil) Testaments. The Qur’an assures the reader that Allah does not change in the way He relates to past and present prophets (Al Isra’ 17:77). Readers of the Qur’an are encouraged “to believe in the scripture sent to His Messenger (Muhammad) and the scripture which He sent to those before (him).” (Al Nisa’ 4:136) Believers in the Qur’an are to “make no difference” between its revelations and those of the early prophets recorded in the Bible (al Baqarah 2:136). The purpose of the Qur’an is to “confirm what went before it,” namely the law of Moses (OT) and the gospel of Jesus (NT). (Al ‘Imran 3:3-4) But this confirmation is not a one-way street, the Bible also helps to confirm the meaning of the Qur’an. When Muhammad was uncertain as to the messages he was receiving, he was to “ask those who have been reading the Book (in the form of the Bible) from before thee” (Yunus 10:94). Muslims who read the Qur’an in light of the Bible have discovered that the Qur’an is a very different book than the one they had known before. Knowledge of the “earlier revelations” helps to clarify what is clear and what is not in the Qur’an.

Going further into this last approach to the Qur’an will have to be reserved for another time and another series. I want to focus here on the way that radical jihadists have used the Qur’an to explain the world and justify spiritually things that most people in the world consider horrible evil.

From Waco to Isis: The Roots of Radical Jihadism

My initial impression after September 11 was that it was the work of “crazy people,” people suffering from a deep mental illness of some sort. But as profiles of the terrorists emerged, that scenario was not supported. Instead, the actions of bin Laden and his cohorts on September 11 were a carefully crafted irregular type of warfare (which is why the word “attack” is often used for terrorist actions). And that warfare was grounded in a view of history quite different from the view traditionally taught in Western schools. The opening salvo of that new war was met with far more approval from sane and rational people in the islamic world (from Morocco to Malaysia) than I would have imagined. Why was that the case? I began researching Islam and the Qur’an, looking for the roots of radical Islam. It would be unfair to assume that the terrorists were normal, everyday Muslims, just as it was unfair to assume that Koresh was a normal, everyday Adventist. Nevertheless, in each case, their disturbing view of the world was heavily grounded and justified by important islamic and Adventist ideas respectively. But before we get to the religious ideas behind the jihadist actions, I will begin with an analysis of history from the islamic perspective.

From the islamic perspective, the root of most problems in the islamic world are the result of colonialism. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire (based in modern-day Turkey but extending from North Africa into central Asia) after World War I, the victorious European powers (England, France, Italy) divided up the former Ottoman lands into artificial “countries,” whose boundaries were chosen by outsiders with little or no sense of the impact on the ground. For example, the new colonial boundaries ignored tribal connections. The Hashemite tribe extends from modern-day Jordan deep into western Saudi Arabia. But the colonial borders split the tribe in half. The Houthi tribe was split between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And pertinent to the formation of ISIS, the Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq was split into eastern Syria and western Iraq. What had once been natural communities were now divided into different countries with all the barriers to travel and divided loyalties that could arise from that.

Similarly, the colonial borders also ignored religious divisions and connections. The main body of Shiite Muslims live in an arc running from Iran to Lebanon. But in the heart of this Shiite arc is a strong contingent of Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority in Syria and western Iraq, but are a minority in Lebanon and Iraq as a whole. Although a minority within the arc, Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are supported by their compatriots in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But to make it even more complicated, within this volatile Sunni-Shia mix are a significant element of secularized Arabs who are not completely comfortable with either Sunni or Shiite militancy. It is doubtful if any system of borders in the Middle East could fully accommodate this complexity, but it is clear to jihadists that the borders instituted by the Western powers do not serve islamic interests and should be considered null and void.

A further aspect of colonialism that still impacts things today was the tendency of the European powers to rule these “countries” through a social elite. Rather than installing true democracies, the colonialists ruled through local elites (people already recognized locally for their wealth and influence) who were often Western educated and generally supported the colonial powers in exchange for additional wealth and power. This approach created a serious divide between the mass of common people and the authorities (such as tribal chiefs) who had once ruled by popular consent but now were in power as the “lackeys” of foreign oppressors. Colonialism drove a wedge between the people and their traditional leaders, planting the seeds of rebellion and revolution.

Opposition to the colonial powers came from two main sources. The first group of opponents were the “pan-Arabists,” who were secular and dreamed of a “United Arab Republic,” a “United States” of the Arab peoples who dominate the landscape from Morocco to Iraq. Their goal was to overthrow the colonial powers and replace them with a home-grown Arab version of the secular West (or at times the Communist ideology). The big pan-Arabist name in the middle of the Twentieth Century was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who for a time ruled Egypt and Syria, calling the combined states the United Arab Republic. Figures like him were replaced with the current generation; al-Sisi in Egypt, Yasser Arafat in Palestine, King Hussein in Jordan, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The second group of opponents to colonialism were the “pan-Isalmists,” whose vision was based in the islamic religion and thus transcended ethnicity. Pan-Islamists dreamed of a “caliphate” (an islamic version of Israel’s theocracy– direct rule by God) which would expand far beyond the Arab world, including Muslim-dominated countries all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia. While the pan-Arabists centered their goals on a society run by and for Arabs, the pan-Islamists centered their goals on a society ruled by islamic principles. The biggest islamic “success story” in the Twentieth Century occurred first in Saudi Arabia and then, after 1979, Khomeini’s Iran. In these countries a board of islamic clergy had ultimate veto power over elected or appointed governments.

Those who were promoting islamic rule were not crazy. There was a deep and penetrating analysis of reality behind it. We cannot even begin to deal with the jihadist mentality unless we understand the theology and the philosophy behind it. Next time. . .