Monthly Archives: December 2015

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. . .

From Waco to Isis: September 11, Part 2

As the reality of the Twin Towers’ collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.

Then it struck me! Rolf, a good friend from college days, had asked me what he and his family ought to do with a week in New York. I told him, “Whatever you do, make sure that you visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center and catch the view of New York.” September 11 was right in the middle of the week he was supposed to be visiting New York. I was distraught with concern but could do absolutely nothing about it. I had no way of contacting him from the Netherlands in the pre-cellphone age.

I took a little comfort when I remembered my advice, “On the day that you visit the downtown, get to the Statue of Liberty ferry first thing in the morning. That is the only way you might get the chance to climb all the way to the top of the statue. Then, when you get back to Manhattan, walk to the New York Stock Exchange and arrange for a tour later in the day. That way you’ll get to the observation deck of the World Trade Center in early afternoon, when the view is the best.” I realized that if he had followed my advice, he would be looking at the tragedy from Liberty Island, not crushed under the rubble! But I had no way of knowing where he was (I found out later that he was OK, but I didn’t know that for a couple of weeks).

My thoughts went back to the summer of 1999, when I did the same itinerary with my family. We got to the World Trade Center in the early afternoon. My wife decided to shop for a coat in Century 21 (she had been up the towers many times in the past), a discount designer store right next to the WTC, while the kids and I went up to the top of the South Tower, where you could go up on the roof and get an unobstructed view of the city far below. I would find out later that one of the towers had collapsed right on top of the store my wife had been in and destroyed it. We could all have been in there when it happened.

All that week in Holland I spent every available moment watching the updates on CNN. The next afternoon I went for a long walk to clear my head. I crossed a bridge over a set of locks on the nearby canal, watching as a houseboat was lowered to the next level. I then set off through fields of grazing cattle, dodging speedy Dutch bikers on a lovely asphalt path about four feet wide. The landscape was perfectly flat, broken only by occasional trees, the canal and a couple of ponds. It was hard to reconcile that prosperous and peaceful atmosphere with the turmoil still churning inside me. I found I had trouble meeting the eyes of those walking or biking the other way. I really didn’t want to meet anyone, or talk to anyone.

After a couple of miles I entered a small, peaceful town. I walked along the main street with cars and an occasional truck moving by. There was the typical Dutch country church, a small grassy square with tall trees, and neat, well-kept houses with little gardens along the sidewalk. Everything looked so tranquil and serene, it was a strong contrast to the news of a wider world. But it seemed like a great place to find some peace on a shattered day.

At the other end of town I walked past a small school with a grassy playground along the sidewalk. In the playground were about 60 small, blond schoolchildren, aged perhaps 5-9, with three or four adult chaperons. There was a chain-link fence about three feet high and a short hedge between me and the children. Once again a peaceful scene, this time of happy childs’ play.

A horrible thought suddenly struck me. What if I were a terrorist? What if I had brought a gun with me, hidden in my clothing? There was no security station on the way into town. Who could have stopped me? I shuddered that such thoughts would even enter my mind. It also dawned on me that no matter how many police, well-trained security teams, checkpoints or hardened defenses you put together you can’t prevent all acts of evil from occurring. What protected these children from me was not local security but my own inner conviction to do the right thing. Who in his or her right mind could do such a thing?

As the week went on I couldn’t get the images of September 11 out of my mind.  I was born and raised in New York City.  The Twin Towers were so much a part of the city that my mind and my heart kept telling me this was only TV, this was like the movies, this wasn’t really happening. But a few days later, on my return to the United States, we passed New York City at about 30,000 feet and the smoke was still rising from the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It had truly happened. New York City without the twin towers just didn’t seem the same.

All I could think of was that this deed had been done by crazy people. No one in their right mind would highjack a plane and then fly it into a building. Or would they? Eventually it was determined that the Al Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden, supported by the Taliban government of Afghanistan, was responsible for the attacks. Who were these crazy people? It wasn’t long before I discovered that Osama bin Laden was far from crazy. And not only that, thousands, perhaps millions, of Muslims around the world seemed to feel that the attacks were somehow justified. . .

From Waco to Isis: September 11, Part 1

I landed at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam early on the morning of September 11. It was a beautiful sunny day and I quickly hooked up with the driver who was to take me to a conference a couple of hours drive away. The countryside was flat as a desktop, but interesting in a Dutch sort of way. After a nap, a walk and a little reading I headed for the dining room of the conference center around 5:30 PM (11:30 AM, New York time).

I always get a little nervous the first time I am in a large group of new people, particularly when most of them aren’t speaking my language. In this case the conference had about 900 attendees from all over Europe, from the Arctic Circle and Iceland in the north and west to Greece and Romania in the south and east. In that setting I was somewhat relieved that the dining room was not crowded. That meant I could eat by myself without seeming anti-social.
I was halfway through my meal, when a pastor from Croatia approached me. I remembered having seen him somewhere before and tried to be friendly in a dazed, jet-lagged sort of way. I was about to feel a lot more dazed. . . .
“Have you heard the news from America?” he asked.
“What news?” I grunted, thinking I might be in for more explanation than I cared to receive at that moment.
“I just heard that four passenger jets have crashed today in the United States,” he said excitedly.
“No way!” I said, “Such a thing has never happened before!”
“Two of them crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the towers collapsed, and another one crashed into the Pentagon!”
“World Trade Center collapsed? The Pentagon?” I was beyond confused, I was suspicious. One of the things I deal with in worldwide travel is all the wild and crazy rumors about stuff going on in America. People want to impress you with their knowledge of things and often they jump on reports that have no substance in the hope of impressing you. This was sounding like one of those times. “That’s impossible, you aren’t making this up are you?” In retrospect, I don’t think I was very nice to him.
“It must be true, I saw it on CNN. Go see for yourself. They have CNN on a big screen in the room just upstairs.”

I still didn’t know what to believe. I began to doubt my own reality. Perhaps I was still in a jet-lagged dream and would soon wake up in a bed somewhere in the Netherlands. But the food tasted real enough. I shook my head, trying to get the cobwebs out. I hurriedly finished my meal and dragged myself upstairs to the meeting room.

Several hundred people were crowded into the medium-sized room. Live feed from CNN was being projected onto a screen. Behind the CNN announcer was a view of the southern end of Manhattan Island in New York City. There was a huge cloud obscuring everything.

Although there were no seats available in the room, someone I knew motioned for the “New Yorker” to take his seat near the front in order to get a good view. I sat down and fixed my eyes on the screen for the next hour and a half. The nightmare continued. I peered intently at the screen looking for signs that the World Trade Center towers were still there. I couldn’t believe that they would have collapsed so easily. Then the network began repeatedly airing a new tape, showing the second airplane impacting the south tower, the fiery explosion that burst out the other side and the horrified cries of onlookers near the video camera. This was combined with repeated showings of panicked people running for their lives with a great billowing cloud of dust approaching rapidly behind them.

For me this scene cut deeper than for the hundreds of others watching with me. This was my home town. I grew up in New York. I had walked those very streets many times. No matter what perspective of the tragedy was being shown, I knew what I was looking at. I knew the likely location of the camera. I knew whether we were looking north, south, east or west. Then I considered what I knew about the World Trade Center. On a typical business day, about 50,000 people went to work in the twin towers. At any given time, several thousand tourists would also be there, going up to the viewing decks of the South Tower or the huge restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. As the reality of the towers’ collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.

And at that moment I knew one other thing, the world would never be quite the same again. . .