I landed at Schiphol Aiport 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 meal, a nap 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, perhaps 10,000 tourists would also be there, going up to the viewing decks of the South Tower or the 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.
Then it struck me! Rolf, a good friend from school 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.
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 (later I found out he and his family had decided not to go to the towers that day).
What I started to learn about myself that day is the topic of tomorrow’s blog.
I am interrupting the series on September 11, 2001 to share a summary of some new information on staying healthy during the pandemic. You may remember that some time ago I reported that employees of Loma Linda University Health seemed to be contracting the illness in roughly the same percentages as the wider community (although high proximity to Covid patients would suggest it should be higher), but that the virus at that time had caused only two deaths in the employee population whereas the numbers would have suggested 20-30. So there seemed to me there might be some correlation between the Loma Linda lifestyle and some protection both from contracting the disease and from severe consequences when one does contract it.
I consider Harold Koenig of Duke University the world’s leading authority on the interaction of faith and health. I have just been made aware of an article he wrote in the Journal of Religion and Health which aggregates years of research (more than 50 articles) on faith, infectious diseases and the human immunce system. Koenig is a medical doctor who is also recognize as a player in the field of religion. The title of his article is “Maintaining Health and Well-Being by Putting Faith into Action During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” I will summarize the main points of the article here. From here on the words are mine but the ideas are Koenig’s, as well as I could understand them.
Throughout the world many people are experiencing fear and anxiety in relation to the novel coronavirus which produces the deadly illness called COVID-19. Yet these very emotions actually increase people’s susceptibility to the dreaded virus through an adverse effect on the body’s immune system. On the other hand, positive emotions like love, joy and peace have been shown to boost immune functioning, and thus minimize both the likelihood of contracting the disease and the severity of symptoms when one does upon contract it. A large and growing body of objective scientific research underline the benefits to the immune system of prayer and meditation, attendance at religious services, and engagement in other religious activities.
Koenig lists a number of suggestions for those who wish to remain healthy and resilient—mentally, spiritually, and physically—during the anxious time of the pandemic. I will discuss them very briefly here. 1) Deepen Your Religious Faith. Use lockdowns and other measure to create time for personal religious activities that lead to a stronger relationship with God. Multiple studies document the benefits of a genuine religious faith on immune functioning and vulnerability to infection, particularly viral infection. When life was normal most people felt too busy to spend much time in devotional exercises. Abnormal times provide opportunity for building spiritual health.
2) Love your neighbor and put that love into action. Koenig notes the historical reality that Christians have often been at the forefront of caring for people during times of pandemic. Research supports the health benefits to the one doing acts of compassion for others. It not only gives a sense of meaning and purpose to life, but it enhances one’s own sense of health and well-being.
3) Use technology to reach out. Through tools like Zoom and Marco Polo provide virtual “hugs and handshakes” to people you are otherwise isolated from. It seems like a gift from God that at this very time when social isolation is at its peak, there are so many new tools for enhancing relationships without physical contact. Research supports the immune benefits of social interactions, making them worth pursuing by any available means.
4) Love yourself. As the pandemic drags on, and one has not been infected, it is increasingly tempting to develop a cavalier attitude toward the virus and feel somewhat invulnerable. But no faith tradition condones recklessness. People should not expose themselves unnecessarily. Now is not the time to relax such good health measures as frequent hand washing, and applying measures like masking and social distancing whenever one is indoors with a lot of people, such as in church.
5) Pay attention to physical health. While Koenig is not a Seventh-day Adventist, he is a big fan of the Blue Zone lifestyle practiced by many at Loma Linda. Staying physically healthy correlates with resistance to infection. So Koenig recommends regular exercise (30-45 minutes a day), 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, weight control, hydration (minimum of 2 quarts a day of water), and appropriate quantities of supplements like Vitamins D, C and E, especially Vitamin D, which has been shown to directly improve immune function. Three-quarters of Americans are Vitamin D deficient.
6) Be actively involved in a religious community. Many systematic scientific studies report a positive association between religious involvement and indicators of healthy immune function. Religious involvement reduces inflammation and increases the immune functions that are needed to resist infection. Even those with compromised immune systems function better if they engage in communal religious activities.
If one follows the above six suggestions, Koenig concludes, one is less likely to contract the virus and if one does, the course of the illness will likely be less severe, and recovery is likely to be sooner because of increased emotional, social, physical and spiritual resilience.
In reflecting on the previous two blogs, I would like to offer a word of counsel and encouragement to Muslim thinkers today, but before I do I want to make it clear that I am not blaming Islam for all the world’s troubles. While Islam has failed to solve the problems of the Middle East, Christianity has fared just as poorly at influencing the West in the direction of peace, humility, and compassion. I offer the following comments in the desire to be helpful.
I suggest that the thoughts and actions of people like Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden ultimately pose a greater threat to Islam than to the West. They seem to have believed that the true faith is shown by material power and wealth that resemble the power and wealth of Allah. In other words, the fruit of true Islam would be world dominance and material wealth. But Islam has not produced this kind of result in today’s world. Bin Laden and others have blamed the weakness, the oppression, and the poverty in Islamic countries on the West. But it seems more likely that the weakness of the Islamic world reflects a failure to adjust to the rapid changes over the last couple of centuries.
To claim material wealth and power as the outcome of true faith is to draw an immediate contrast with the West, which exhibits the very military might and economic abundance that ought to be associated with Allah’s cause. No wonder Atta and bin Laden were frustrated with both the Middle East and the West! The “infidel” has reaped the very things that should be signs of Allah’s favor. So the extremist Islam of Atta and bin Laden focuses not on producing better people but on seeking to destroy the tokens of the West’s ascendancy. But such an Islam can win only by destroying others, not by building them up. Such an Islam can only increase the violence and misery in the world.
But there is another option. The second approach is to say: “Islam becomes the best channel to God when it focuses on faith, not on wealth and power. While Muslims may suffer defeat and poverty in this world, they are the ultimate winners because they have the maturity to ignore the allures of power and wealth. While Islam may appear to be a loser in the eyes of the West, it is actually a winner, it is winning human hearts to God by humility, mercy and compassion.”
An Islam that has the strength to renounce power and wealth would also abandon war as a way of achieving spiritual goals. It would free itself to become a spiritual community that would be attractive to all the nations of the world. Such a course might even shame the so-called “Christian” West into taking the humility and compassion of Jesus more seriously!
If this vision for Islam is the best course of action, the jihadists’ focus on the West and its wealth and power could prove a lethal sidetrack for the faith. Instead of focusing on the spiritual task, people become consumed with destroying the West’s power and wealth. Muslim thinkers would do well to reject the al Qaeda doctrine by renouncing wealth and power as emblems of righteousness. In this way of thinking Muslims should leave the West alone and not covet its riches, but get on with the business of spirituality. If power and wealth is a deception, then the Western way of life will eventually collapse on its own.
I believe that Islam, therefore, can make a major contribution to the world in the wake of September 11 by seizing the path of humility, openness and spiritual growth. People are hungry for just such a faith. Perhaps the following sura could point the way: “Summon thou [people] to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and with kindly warning: dispute with them in the kindest manner: thy Lord best knoweth those who stray from his way, and He best knoweth those who have yielded to his guidance. If ye make reprisals, then make them to the same extent that ye were injured: but if ye can endure patiently, best will it be for the patiently enduring. Endure then with patience. But thy patient endurance must be sought in none but God. . .” (16:125-127)
The best response to September 11 is a faith that categorically rejects violence in the name of religion. Religious violence improves nothing, it only makes the world a more miserable and a more dangerous place. Extreme forms of religious fundamentalism do more than kill, they divide those who remain and impoverish them, both materially and spiritually.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an are books of divine revelation. Between them they communicate the will of God for about half the world’s population. Abraham and Moses are central figures in both books. The Qur’an even has positive portrayals of Jesus, although there are significant differences between the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament and those of the Qur’an. But although there are many common elements between the two holy books, they are of a different character in at least two fundamental ways.
One fundamental difference lies in the nature of the revelations themselves. The Bible reveals God through His progressive dealings in history. God meets people where they are. The Qur’an is very different from this picture. The Qur’an does not offer chains of history or a coherent focus on any particular theme. Instead it reads like a stream of consciousness, it jumps here and there from commands of God to stories of the ancients to theological pronouncements to prayers to descriptions of the final judgment. The Qur’an is not organized thought. It instead contains recitations by Mohammed which were collected after his death and organized roughly from the longest to the shortest.
The style of the Qur’an, however, is grounded in its very nature. For Jews and Christians the Bible is the product of divinely inspired human beings, generally writing in their own words. Muslims, on the other hand, regard the Qur’an as the eternal words of Allah Himself. According to them, Mohammed played no role in shaping the recitations recorded in the Qur’an. They are the very words of God Himself spoken in the Arabic language, heard by Mohammed and transcribed in Arabic by him. Thus the Qur’an is not the Bible of the Muslims, it functions for them more like Jesus Christ does for Christians. To quote Bob Woodward of Newsweek, “In short, if Christ is the word made flesh, the Qur’an is the word made book.”
For the Muslim God is totally removed from human contact (transcendent). So the closest any human being can possibly come to God in this life is the very words of the Qur’an. And since those words are the very words of Allah Himself, they are only truly valid in the original Arabic. Thus Muslims read the Qur’an and use it in prayers only in the Arabic language, even though the majority of Muslims do not understand it. But what counts for them is not the meaning and the content. The very sounds and syllables of the Arabic Qur’an mediate the presence of God to the one who reads and speaks them. So Islam is not primarily a doctrinal religion. With a few exceptions (there is no God but Allah, Mohammed is His messenger, are examples) Islam is not about what a person believes so much as an experience of God resulting in obedience and submission to His will.
So the Qur’an is very different from the Bible. For the Muslim the Qur’an is the pure and perfect revelation of God, making Islam the only perfect religion. But in spite of this belief in the perfection of the Qur’an’s revelation, Islam today is suffering from a major crisis of authority. The “perfect” revelation is nevertheless ambiguous at many points. Today it seems that any Muslim with an agenda feels free to cite the Qur’an in support of that agenda.
One of the most crucial areas of dispute in the Muslim world today is the role of violence and warfare in the Qur’an. Some who focus on the warfare texts of the Qur’an find fuel for exclusivism, hatred, and killing in the name of Allah. This should not be a total surprise, Westerners reading the Qur’an tend to be appalled at its gruesomeness in places. Grounded in the violence of the Qur’an, all that some Muslims need to justify suicide bombings and highjackings is the perception of a threat to the position and prestige of Islam. As we have seen, Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden have seen such threats coming from a variety of directions.
Many Muslim scholars, however, especially those living in the West, see another side to the Qur’an. They cite recitations that indicate Allah created diverse peoples and cultures for a purpose. Other religious perspectives, therefore, are not to be battled against, but tolerated. And while the Qur’an portrays Allah as a God of vengeance (there are similar concepts in parts of the Old Testament), it has even more to say about mercy, goodness and forgiveness. So the Islamic world is understandably divided in its interpretation. The heart of Mohamed Atta, however, was clearly undivided. He had a firm and fanatical belief that what he was doing was pleasing to God.
So while Mohamed Atta believed that what he was doing pleased God, it is helpful to remember that his fanaticism is not characteristic of the vast majority of believers in the Muslim world. In fact, the events of September 11 were so incompatible with the way the average Muslim thinks that millions in the Middle East believed the attacks on September 11 were some sort of Israeli plot. They felt that no true Muslim could have done such a thing.
But the ambiguity of the Qur’an remains a problem. Islam arose in a brutally violent time (as did the early Israelites) and its sacred book bears witness to that violence. Mohammed and his followers were constantly faced with shifting tribal loyalties, betrayals and misunderstandings. In the process Mohammed led his forces into numerous battles, and at times slaughtered what we, at least, would call “innocents.” So the use of warfare and the slaughter of innocents has some support in the practice of Mohammed himself, the original transcriber and interpreter of the Qur’an. In his defense, however, many would point out that the tribes he slaughtered were themselves seeking to exterminate his faith, making these slaughters “defensive actions.”
Here we must honestly confront a major difference between the behavior of Mohammed, and the teaching and behavior of Jesus, the respective founders of these two great monotheistic religions. Mohammed and his successors clearly used violence in order to achieve the expansion of Islam. Nothing in the teaching or practice of Jesus, on the other hand, gives any encouragement to violence or warfare in behalf of the faith. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Rom 12:17-21.
Jesus clearly taught that His followers were to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-39), love their enemies, and riddle those who hated them with the bullets of kindness and prayer, rather than AK-47s (Matt 5:44). For Jesus, the highest place in Paradise was not for suicide bombers or battlefield heros, in Jesus’ order “the last would be first” (Matt 19:30) and “the meek would inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5– the teachings of Jesus on this point are echoed elsewhere in the New Testament: Rom 12:17-21; 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9).
And Jesus practiced what he preached. When a mob came to apprehend him unjustly, his friend Peter drew a sword and became a slasher in Jesus’ defense. Yet Jesus ordered Peter to put away his sword, even in a defensive action (John 18:10-11). When brought before an unjust court he said, “My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my servants would have fought to prevent my capture” (John 18:36-37). He placed his life in God’s hands, not in the hands of well-meaning, but armed men (Luke 22:40).
It is certainly true that the Bible has its own stories of violence in the name of the Lord. In Exod 15 God is a stalwart defender of His people, assaulting the Egyptian army with His judicial fury (Exod 15:7-10). He drowns the hapless armies of Pharaoh in the Red Sea in response to plight of his people. But stories like these do not have the universal force of the Qur’anic commands. They were specific actions under specific circumstances. They are not a prescription for how God’s people are to respond to situations with their own efforts.
Furthermore, these stories are not “considered God’s own eternal words, as Muslims believe Qur’anic verses to be. . . Israeli commandos do not cite the Hebrew prophet Joshua as they go into battle, but Muslim insurgents can readily invoke the example of their Prophet, Muhammad, who was a military commander himself. And while the Crusaders may have fought with the cross on their shields, they did not–could not–cite words from Jesus to justify their slaughters” (Bob Woodward, Newsweek, “The Bible and the Qur’an,” February 11, 2002, p, 53).
“Except for the place where they died, Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta would seem to have had absolutely nothing in common. . . . As a lifelong firefighter who rose to become first deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, Feehan was directly or indirectly responsible for saving thousands of lives. As a suicidal terrorist who flew American Airlines flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; Atta murdered thousands, including Bill Feehan, who was helping a woman at the base of the North Tower when the building collapsed on him. Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the two men is repugnant. And yet, it must be said, both believed in the rightness of their causes with absolute certainty.” (Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2001/Jan. 7, 2002, p. 40)
Is there an “anatomy of a terrorist?” How is it that two wiggly baby boys could one day end up in the same place but for such different reasons? How could anyone come to believe the slaughter of innocents was the “right” thing to do? It would be a lot easier on most of us if we could believe that Mohamed Atta was totally insane, the victim of mad delusions. But could a truly crazy person work with the calm and careful purpose that Atta exhibited? Does it make more sense to assume that Mohamed Atta was simply evil? And if so, how did he get that way?
According to a description in Newsweek, based on interviews with family and others who knew him, Mohamed Atta would have seemed an unlikely candidate for terrorist action. Short and slim (in the highjacking of American Airlines, Flight 11 he was leader and pilot, the other four highjackers provided the brawn) he was considered a “mamma’s boy” by his father. Atta Sr. would complain to his wife that she was raising Mohamed as a girl. Even in his 20s he continued to sit in his mother’s lap from time to time. There was a further problem for a prospective highjacker: he absolutely hated flying! His sister, who was a doctor, had to provide medicine against cramps and vomiting every time he flew.
An interesting obsession of his, however, offered a premonition of the shocking way that he would choose to die. On the wall of Mohamed Atta’s apartment in Hamburg, Germany was a black-and-white poster of construction workers perched on a beam of the Empire State Building high above New York (taken back in 1930). According to his teachers and former classmates, Atta believed that high-rise buildings were a curse introduced into the Middle East from the West. In the Middle East the traditional method of construction has been one- or two-story houses with private courtyards. When this was done well it resulted in the kind of charming, bustling neighborhood life that tourists to the Middle East love to taste. The interior courtyards provided privacy, the beauty of the neighborhood provided dignity, and the whole fostered interaction and community.
In the 60s and 70s, however, Middle Eastern cities and towns became filled with impersonal and ugly apartment complexes. Atta’s own family moved into an 11th floor apartment in 1990, as he was graduating with an engineering degree from Cairo University. The building his own family lived in became for him a shabby symbol of Egypt’s embrace of Western ways. Secular Arabs had accepted the negative trappings of the modern world without attaining its wealth and freedom.
Atta began to study ways to reverse the situation and restore the old glories of Islam. A major opportunity came when his father decided to send him to engineering school at Hamburg Technical University in Germany. There he pursued a degree in urban-planning studies. His thesis was on the restoration of Aleppo, an ancient Syrian city, to its pure Islamic past– devoid of skyscrapers. He was awarded a B+ for the thesis.
But how did the mamma’s boy become a mass murderer? Atta’s progress from idealistic student to Islamic militant to terrorist seems to have been gradual. At first his goal was the improvement of urban life in the Middle East. Then in Cairo University he came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aimed to create an Islamic state and limit Western influence in Egypt through non-violent means.
Mohamed Atta’s gathering resentments were probably sharpened by the anti-foreigner attitude in Germany, where Muslim immigrants often feel like second-class citizens. He found refuge in the mosques of Hamburg, where the mullahs have a lot more freedom to speak than they do in Egypt. Recruiting for the terrorist underground sometimes occurs in these mosques. Atta is believed to have been specifically recruited into al Qaeda by Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen of Syrian descent (reported in USA Today on June 19, 2002).
In 1995, Atta went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, searching for a deeper commitment to his faith. In 1997 he traveled to Afghanistan and enrolled in one of Osama bin Laden’s training camps for terrorists. Egyptians were given special treatment in these camps, so Atta would have quickly felt at home. The camps were designed to solidify beliefs, fan the flames of hatred, and then train people for specialized roles in the mission of terror. Atta himself was chosen for a leadership role and trained in the arts of bomb making and chemical weaponry. While he was not intimidating in appearance, he seems to have had a hard stare that made it difficult for people to cross him. Power is more than just a physical thing.
When he returned to Hamburg in 1998 he established an al Qaeda cell that included two roommates, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, who also participated in the suicide highjackings on September 11. All three came from middle-class families, were skilled in computers and were highly educated. Once set on his course, Atta made further preparation by getting flight training in Florida, examining potential targets in the US, and finally heading for Portland, Maine, where he was to board a connecting flight to Boston with one of his terrorist “muscle-men,” Abdulaziz Alomari. In Boston they were able to transfer without passing through further security and the rest is history. A “momma’s boy” who hated skyscrapers found a way to destroy one of the two most massive towers in the world, at the cost of thousands of human lives. And he did so in the name of God.
According to Newsweek, Mohamed Atta carefully planned out his final moves. In a document he titled “The Last Night” he wrote to himself, “Be happy, optimistic, calm, because you are heading for a deed God loves and will accept. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.” And with regard to the last moment before impact, Atta wrote, “Either end your life while praying, seconds before the target, or make your last words: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammad is His messenger.’” Was Atta’s vision the inevitable product of Islam or did he misunderstand the faith he served so fervently? Does the Qur’an itself contain the seeds of suicidal terrorism or is al Qaeda a blasphemous misinterpretation of Mohammed’s original intentions? To be continued.
When Mohamed Atta’s plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center Bill Feehan was at his Brooklyn office. A 42-year veteran, he had held every imaginable job in the New York City Fire Department, from “proby” to acting commissioner. At 71 years of age he could have retired years before September 11. In fact, one of Feehan’s aides had sensed that he was about to call it quits. A memorial plaque for firefighters who died in the line of duty hung in the lobby of FDNY headquarters. It had room for 780 names. Over 136 years of existence the Fire Department had bid final farewell to 778 of its number. One day Feehan told a friend, “I want to be out of here before that plaque is full.” Little did he know at that moment that on a sunny day in September the list would grow by nearly 50%.
An aide called Feehan, “Hey boss! I think you better see this! A plane went into the World Trade Center.”
Feehan emerged from his office, looked out a west-facing window and saw the smoke swirling from the upper levels of the north tower. “Oh my God!” he said, “Let’s go!” He and his team raced across the Brooklyn Bridge to take charge of the fire companies responding to the tragedy. Although they did not know each other, Feehan was about to join Mohamed Atta in the rubble of the North Tower. They both arrived there by choice. Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta met their deaths in the same place because one man chose to destroy and the other chose to save.
The attack on the World Trade Center was intended as a blow against the United States and its Christian heritage. The results of that attack, however, were not limited to the target. The roll of those who died at Ground Zero included people from literally scores of nations and faith convictions. Usman Farman is a Pakistani Muslim who was working on the 27th floor of one of the Trade Towers on September 11. As he left the tower he fell stunned to the ground, perhaps as a result of flying debris. When a Hasidic Jew found Farman lying on the ground there was no hesitation. “He helped me stand up,” Farman reported, “And we ran for what seemed like forever without looking back. He was the last person I would ever have thought would help me. If it weren’t for him I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.” Did the terrorist attackers realize that scores of faithful Muslims like Farman would die that day, along with many others who had nothing to do with American policy? And the suffering of the survivors cuts across many lines of faith.
Among the people who died in the World Trade Center were Michael Baksh, a Pakistani Christian, Abul Chowdhury, an Indian Muslim, and Doris Eng, a Buddhist of Chinese origin. Did the terrorists care that in taking down the World Trade towers they were killing hundreds of people from nearly half the nations in the world? Did they have no discrimination at all in their hatred? Was Osama bin Laden simply a mass murderer without a conscience? Did he somehow find joy in the slaughter of innocents?
For many the blame should be placed squarely on Osama bin Laden’s religion, Islam. Note the strong words of archconservative commentator, Ann Coulter: “Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren=t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities: we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
This judgment, it seems to me, is blatantly unfair. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that terrorism is not limited to Muslims and to Islamic organizations. The list of terrorist organizations includes the Irish Republican Army, the Jews who blew up the King David Hotel in 1948, Puerto Rican nationalists, Basque separatists, the Shining Path of Peru, Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, the Italian Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Croatian separatists of communist Yugoslavia and the Japanese Red Army. None of the above involved any Muslims to my knowledge. And even a short visit to the Middle East makes it clear that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists either. Nevertheless, the tie between Islam and terrorism became particularly acute after September 11, and it is worth some effort to understand the reasons for it.
A Middle Eastern Perspective Ann Coulter’s attitude strikes me as the reaction of someone viewing the Middle East from a distance. In order to understand Osama bin Laden it helps to have spent some time in the Middle East and to have some appreciation of the role of Islam in Middle Eastern life and experience. I made my first trip to the Middle East in 1995. My family and I stayed in Palestinian Jerusalem for ten weeks. We ate Arab food and became friends with many. I think of Marwan, the shopkeeper, who always took time to talk about current events and give me advice on how to behave in an Arab community. I think of Gabriel, the travel agent, who had his ear to the Palestinian underground, and was careful to send us places only when it was safe to do so. I think of the nameless falafel vendor I rescued one day when an errant vehicle knocked over his stand. His gratitude was overwhelming. To this day he immediately recognizes me and greets me with a hug and a kiss, no matter how long I have been away.
I have now been to various locations in the Middle East more than a dozen times. The Middle East has become part of me now. As a New Yorker I have deep sympathy for the sufferings of the Jews. I am glad that there is a homeland Jews can call their own. At the same time my heart goes out to the Palestinian people, who share that land with them. I saw Israeli soldiers, often looking no older than 16, carrying machine guns with an air of authority. I saw Palestinian youths and shopkeepers being challenged, hollered at, and prodded with the weapons. I sensed their helplessness. Occasionally they shared their frustration and rage with me.
The “salem” in Jerusalem means “peace,” but Jerusalem is a very angry city. There is a lot of shouting, a lot of pushing and shoving going on, and not just between Israeli and Arab, or Christian and Muslim, but among Muslims and among Christians. In the Old City, the powder is dry and the fuse is short. My falafel friend almost came to blows one day over some dispute or other. I stopped walking by and hung around, in case he needed help, but after a few minutes things quieted down. Another time I watched Orthodox Jews march through the Arab section, shoving Arabs aside if they got in the way, secure in the knowledge that soldiers up on the walls would take care of things if anyone protested. A couple of times I was mistaken for an Israeli myself. The first time a Coke bottle glanced off my shoulder and shattered at my feet. It was dropped from a bridge above me by a laughing child, no more than seven years old. Another time I was missed by small stones thrown by three boys no more than ten.
I was surprised to learn the obvious differences between Muslims and Christians in Arab Jerusalem. If you go into a grocery store and see alcohol, you know that the owner is a Christian, a Muslim grocery owner would not sell alcohol. If you see an Arab woman dressed like a European, she is a Christian, a Muslim would dress far more modestly. Since most Israelis would line up with the Christians on these two points, I began to see how Muslims could come to view Christians and Jews as holding to an inferior faith. If, on top of that, Israelis act like oppressors and the Christian West does nothing about it, Judeo-Christianity as a whole is painted with a single stroke.
It is for reasons such as this that I have sensed some reserve toward Americans in the Middle East. On my first visit to Egypt, we traveled by boat from the port of Aqaba in Jordan to the Egyptian port of Nuweiba on the Sinai coast. The Americans were all directed to the first-class lounge, an air conditioned hall in the center of the ferry which had TVs, drinks and luxurious accommodations. But as we looked out the windows at the coastline of Saudi Arabia, passing in the midday heat, it dawned on me that there were no locals anywhere in sight. So I decided to go exploring through the ship. I discovered hundreds of Arabs scattered across the top deck in the hot sun, sitting on metal bulkheads and extended “park benches.” Some were trying to sleep right on the metal floor of topside. Many were wearing clothing that was dirty or tattered, this was clearly not the wealthy section of the ship.
A young Saudi, sitting in a bit of shade on the bench that ran along the side of the ship, noticed the American walking around and called to me in excellent English. He was very polite, but he jumped at the chance to open up some political issues. His view of the world was very different from mine, yet compelling in its own way. He shared his sense that the American government wanted to be seen as beneficent, yet its actions and demands were based on self-interest. Arab people like the freedom and openness of American society, but they don’t like the immorality and the “big stick” attitude toward other countries. He put his frustration in direct terms, “Why does everything always have to go America’s way?” This was a new way of looking at things for me. Until then, I had thought of Middle Eastern countries as the ones who were unreasonable and demanding.
A couple of years later I was getting off a plane with friends in Luxor, Egypt. A travel agent met us in baggage claim and gave us some instructions for the day. He then asked one of my friends what he did for a living. He said he worked for a Christian church. The agent’s eyes immediately brightened, “Then you are rich!” he said. This comment served as a summary of many Egyptian attitudes toward the Christian West, they see it as a different kind of world; uncaring, greedy, and rich. It is useful to have Westerners around, but their beliefs are not to be taken seriously.
The Grievances of Osama bin Laden Terrorist groups have long called themselves things like “Islamic Jihad.” In 1998 Osama bin Laden called a “jihad against Crusaders and Jews” to justify the bombing of the US embassies in Africa. For him this jihad justified any Muslim “to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they are found.” But within Islam, jihad is not a clear-cut concept. It does not merely describe military warfare in defense of the faith. A better translation for jihad might actually be “effort” or “struggle” (there are other words in the Qur’an for “war” and “fighting”). Often it describes not warfare, but the personal struggle to be a better person, a better Muslim. However one translates it, jihad is a powerful concept in the Muslim world. When justified by the course of events, it becomes a personal obligation that stands above all others.
Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad was based on the conviction that Americans have declared war “on God, his messenger and Muslims.” In other words, America and Americans have committed “crimes against Islam.” How could he possibly have come to such a conclusion? There are several factors. The first of these is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The history behind it looks very different to Arab eyes. 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. Nevertheless, world-wide sympathy for the plight of the Jews during the war resulted in a UN partition which ceded over half of Palestine to the Jews, although only a third of population was Jewish and Jews owned an even smaller percentage of the land. In subsequent fighting the Israelis gained control of the entire land and are building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza despite UN resolutions requiring the return of land conquered in 1967. To Arab eyes this looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes.
I do not want to be misunderstood here. I know that the story can be told very differently from the Israeli perspective. But I think it is important for our purpose to see through the eyes of the terrorist, as far as that is possible for us to do. 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. People living in perpetual poverty are dying at the expense of weapons purchased with the billions of dollars in military aid America gives Israel each year. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.
A second major grievance of 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. It is not surprising that bin Laden, himself a Saudi, was no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia, he was a greater threat to the sheiks of Saudi Arabia than he was to the United States. He believed that secular Arab leaders are mere tools of the West, using the power of the West to cement their own personal position at the expense of the Muslim masses. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of Islamic extremists they would not stand without American support.
In a Western-dominated world, Muslims seem to be humiliated on every side. The Israelis (Palestine and the regional wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973), the Serbs (in Bosnia and Kosovo), the Russians (in Chechnya and other Muslim republics of central Asia) and the Indians (in Kashmir and various parts of India) have all found ways to marginalize Muslim interests around the world. On top of these slights 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 an Islamic zealot to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.
Bin Laden’s Strategy for September 11 For bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a respected place in the world again? Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told bin Laden that diplomacy would not work. The West had been “negotiating” 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 territories 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) should have no further doubts after the Gulf War and the rapid takeover of Afghanistan in 2001. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable in conventional terms. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of suicide. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was terrorism, strategic suicide.
This gives us some insight into the mindset of 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 saw 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 “occupation” and re-unite Islam. Since the United States is the leading power in the world and the patron of many Islamic regimes, it has become the great enemy that motivates and controls an anti-Islamic agenda.
Defeating the United States in a conventional way is not a realistic option. But the kind of terrorism bin Laden unleashed burdens America with trillions 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, China and Israel would be helpless 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. We got a brief taste of this during the Arab Spring of 2011.
So Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists do not expect to destroy the United States directly. It is too powerful and too distant for that to happen. Rather, bin Laden’s strategy seems to have been 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 pressure from the United States forces those governments to join the US in fighting Islamic militants or to remain silent in the face of Israeli aggression, 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.
Could a bin Laden achieve such goals? He clearly believed the United States does not have the stomach to suppress a mass, popular uprising. Unlike al Qaeda Americans as a rule do their best not to hurt innocents. The same military that is virtually invincible in battle would have a difficult time handling an army of unarmed women and children. 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. To the degree that further terrorist acts in the US should occur, the American populace could easily sway toward an isolationist stance. If this isolationism should lead to withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and even the partial abandonment of Israel, the political world would have changed considerably in favor of the Islamic agenda.
So from bin Laden’s perspective war in diplomatic, economic or military terms would only result in the further humiliation of Islam. But terrorism has altered the battlefield odds. Since the targets vastly outnumber the defenders, al Qaeda has designed a war strategy in which it has significant advantages. U.S. power is weakened in that defensive action must be widely dispersed. Suicidal fervor creates a low-tech battlefield in which superior technology is neutralized as a weapon. Will all or part of bin Laden=s grand design ever succeed? The battle is far from over. September 11 continues to be a day that changed the world.
A little after 9 AM David looked at his watch. An airplane had just struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. From his viewpoint on the upper floors of the South Tower David could see black smoke pouring out of the impact area and drifting toward the east. Residents of the South Tower immediately began to evacuate the skyscraper as a precaution. But David calculated that it would take at least an hour to inch down to the ground in the already crowded stairwells of the South Tower. He hit the elevator button. The doors opened. People in the lobby behind him shook their heads.
David didn’t have time to explain. He thought, “If the ‘accident’ is really limited to the North Tower, the elevators in the south tower should be fully functional.” He got into the elevator with several others, but it remained half empty. As the elevator paused for a moment at the 78th floor, the second jetliner was about 60 seconds from impact. He called out to a woman friend and asked her to join him in the elevator.
“No,” she said, “I want to stay here and watch over the other people.” David said, “Well, good luck to you.” She responded, “Good luck to you, too.”
It was the last time he would ever see her. As the half-empty elevator’s doors closed, David would never forget the picture of all those faces looking at him. Back at his apartment, eleven blocks north of the World Trade Center, David watched the two smoldering towers. He didn’t realize that the wingtip of the second airplane had already ripped through the 78th floor elevator lobby, wreaking havoc among his former office mates. Although he had just come from the towers, it was hard to believe what he was seeing. Even as the South Tower came down, he turned his head to the left and watched the scene unfold simultaneously on the television, as if to verify that what he saw outside his window was really happening. Reality and fantasy seemed to have become one.
A short time later, and dazed with shock, Paul watched the screen of his television from the safety of Europe. Time and again CNN showed video of the second airliner approaching from the south and embedding itself completely into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the tower David had just evacuated. Then the television began presenting more personal images. Men in white shirts and ties, carrying bags; girls in jeans; police in uniform; suddenly all were running away from the cyclone cloud of death, running for their lives, gasping for breath, terror in their eyes. Soon after came “images from hell.” A man in a business suit using his tie as a filter in order to breathe. A woman with earrings and pearls around her neck, and boots covered with dust, her mouth open– a dark gaping hole in her ashen face, hands spread apart, eyes terror-stricken. Dirty, bleeding survivors trudging toward where? Home? The company’s other office? A friend’s place?
What televisions could not share effectively were the sounds, the feel, the taste and the smell of September 11. The video clips shared insight into the screams and the cries of panic and terror that accompanied the collapse of the towers, but they could not share the deafening roar, the trembling of the ground, and above all the taste of death. Those who were there say that you could taste the air more easily than you could breathe it. Even weeks later the acrid smell emanating from Ground Zero was nauseating. And in the middle of it all, came the realization that the burning of human flesh was a part of the mix.
After the collapse of the two towers the “action” was largely over. So CNN kept showing the same video clips over and over. As reality began to sink in, Paul was particularly riveted by the image of the second plane approaching from the south, dipping its wings to the left at the last second, and disappearing into the South Tower. As Paul viewed the scene over and over again he sensed an urge within to reach out into the screen, grab hold of the plane and save the towers and their occupants. “Is that what God must be feeling?” he suddenly thought to himself. “Did God want to prevent this as much as I do? Was he unable to stop it? Did He decide not to intervene? Was He there at all?” Paul found his thoughts getting more and more confused.
While Paul’s view of God was thrown into confusion by the events of September 11, others found themselves seeking God for the first time. It was truly a day that changed the world. There was the sense that twenty or even a hundred years from now, we would look back on this event as one that fundamentally altered the way we look at the world, an event of epic proportions like Pearl Harbor, the Protestant Reformation, or the Russian Revolution. It has left us a world that is less predictable than its predecessor. We can never again feel as secure as we felt at the dawning of that day. The world is at war, but it’s a war unlike any war in history. Three themes seem to be moving to the center of our consciousness: family, meaning, and making a difference in the world.
September 11 was a day that changed the world. In this book we will explore some of the changes in the military, political and economic landscape. We will peer, at times, into the murky glass of an uncertain future, trying to make sense of it all. We will discover the role the internet played in these changes. We will explore America’s frantic attempts to defend itself through high-tech weapons, electronic eavesdropping, a renewed interest in the dirty side of spying. We will strive to to understand the interplay between Christianity and Islam that seems to lie behind these events. We will explore the anatomy of a terrorist, the forces and ideas that could turn a mamma’s boy into a mass murderer in a few short years. We will also seek to understand the realities that drove Osama bin Laden into consummate hatred of America and its philosophy of life.
The Purpose of This Book (In digested blog form here)
Above all else we will explore the spiritual implications of this event and the changes it introduced into our world. September 11 changed the way millions of people viewed God and their relationship to Him. Many believers found themselves confused by His seeming absence in the face of enormous tragedy and pain. Many more, believers and unbelievers alike, found tokens of His presence in the midst of the tragedy. People began to find time for God in a world that seemed to have gone mad.
I am not talking about a rebirth of “religion” here. Suspicion of religion was not lessened by September 11. If anything the terrorist links to Islamic fundamentalism, and conservative Christian calls for revenge, raised fresh questions about the role of religion in building a just and peaceful society. At the same time, however, these events have highlighted the need for a higher Power and purpose for life. Any spiritual organization that wishes to meet that need, however, must take a careful look at its own motives and practices first. Like Judaism after the Holocaust, spiritual business as usual no longer seems appropriate. Flip and shallow answers are no longer welcome.
One more thing. I realize the peril of trying to put how I feel about September 11 into words. A New Yorker named Dan Fahrbach spoke at a memorial service a few days later. As I remember it he said something like, “We have used up all our big words on relatively small things. At a time like September 11 silence is unbearable, but speech is even worse. What happened cannot be described in words. But many people are discovering that there are words from long ago that speak for us. The pages of the Bible contain words that express the inexpressible. There are stories and sayings that draw out meaning at times and in places where no meaning seemed possible.”
In a world where shallow and confident answers have become suspect, the Bible is not afraid to ask the hard questions and explore dueling answers. The Bible portrays a God who is pleased when people care enough to shake their fist at him. He is a God who faced the agonizing death of His Son with purposeful silence. Such a God may be hard to understand, but He is never boring (even though some who worship Him may be). He may be hard to find at times, but when we find Him, He is worth the time we spent seeking Him. From my quest for God to yours, this book is about an experience that has never been more relevant than it is today, in the aftermath of September 11.
Babylon is portrayed as a prostitute in Revelation 17 and as a great city in Revelation 18. The judgment of Babylon is briefly mentioned in Revelation 17:16 with more details being given in chapter 18. The beast with its ten horns is the cause of Babylon’s downfall in 17:16, but that beast is no longer visible in chapter 18. The activities of the beast are portrayed in terms of its components; kings, sailors and merchants. In chapter 18 Babylon is described as an enthroned queen (18:7—parallel to Jezebel in 2:20) and as a great city, whose judgment is modeled on that of Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28. Since the great Queen of Babylon was Ishtar, the many parallels between Ishtar and the woman Babylon are relevant to Revelation’s vision accounts. The description of Babylon in Revelation 18 conforms well to an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cult image. The only cult image directly mentioned in the book of Revelation is the image of the beast of Revelation 13. So the connection between Babylon and the image of the beast is confirmed in Revelation 18.
Cities in the ANE were often personified as women, so the link between Babylon the woman in Revelation 17 and Babylon the great city in Revelation 18 is a natural one in John’s day. In Revelation 18 and Ezekiel 26-28, both Babylon and Tyre as cities are judged for the same two reasons, because they have killed the faithful (Ezek 26:2; Re 18:24) and because of pride in their wealth (Ezek 28:5; 18:7). Great cities of the ANE had at least three aspects. Each city was thought of as a community, as a religious center, and as a political center. Revelation contrasts Jerusalem, as the community of the faithful, with Babylon, the community of the unfaithful. Earlier, Rebekah demonstrated that the image of the beast represented the hypocritical community of the unfaithful in the church in 13:15-17 (analogy with the synagogue of Satan in 2:9). In the ANE, cities were also known as religious and political centers. Rebekah points out that the items of trade in Revelation 18 have religious overtones more than commercial ones. They are not all luxury items, but they are all items associated with ancient temples. This is compatible with the image of the beast, which is also a religious entity.
Rebekah Liu concludes her study of Revelation 17 and 18 with the question. Why is there no reference to the image of the beast in Revelation 17 and 18? Because the image of the beast is overwhelmingly present under the name of Babylon. The cult image of Ishtar was used in Revelation as a symbol for Babylon the great. This identifies Babylon with the only cult image in Revelation, the image of the beast. In the ANE context, the images of defeated nations were burned with fire. Since the image of the beast is not listed with the beast and the false prophet as being burned in Revelation 19, the burning of the image of the beast takes place in the burning of Babylon in 17:16. In the destruction of Babylon, the story of the image of the beast reaches completion.
Babylon in Revelation 17 has numerous parallels with the fall of Babylon in Daniel 5. Both chapters share the theme of imminent judgment with a subsequent swift fall. In Daniel it is a disembodied hand writing on the wall that announces the fall of Babylon. In Revelation 17 and 18 it is an angel who announces that fall. Both chapters have kings drinking wine from golden vessels (Dan 5:2; Rev 17:2, 4). But in Daniel 5 that banquet was in praise of the gods or idols of Babylon. That motif is missing in Revelation 17. But if one understands the Babylon in Revelation 17 as the idol image of the beast, then the parallels between Daniel 5 and Revelation 17 are complete in regard to the fall of Babylon.
Identifying Babylon with the image of the beast also fits with the cultural perspective of John’s day. In Revelation 17 Babylon is presented as a great prostitute who sits on many waters (17:1) and then a scarlet beast (17:3). The kings of the earth commit adultery with her and are intoxicated with her wine (17:2). She is dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls (17:4). She has a golden cup in her hand and a title on her forehead (17:5) and is drunk with the blood of the saints (17:6). This description of Babylon seated on a beast fits very well with ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) iconography, Babylonian goddesses are often portrayed as seated on various animals. In particular, this portrayal of Babylon resembles the cult image of the goddess Ishtar, the most revered goddess of ancient Mesopotamia. While the veneration of Ishtar goes all the way back to Sumerian times, it was very much alive also in John’s day and was known in the Hellenistic world of that time.
Ishtar was portrayed riding on a lion, so the composite beast of Revelation 17 seems to be a deliberate disfiguring of the Ishtar tradition. Instead of the lion, a symbol of victory, Babylon rides an ugly disfigured beast. Extra-biblical sources mention jewelry and clothing being dedicated to the Babylonian gods and goddesses and placed on the idols to be worn by them. These garments were scarlet, purple, and bluish-purple. Jewelry of gold, silver and precious stones would be attached to the garments of Babylonian cult images. Ishtar was also depicted as holding a golden cup in her hands. So the portrayal of Babylon in Revelation 17 fits with the general picture of a Babylonian cult image of a goddess.
The activities of Ishtar also parallel Babylon in Revelation 17. In Babylonian mythology, Ishtar was the manifestation of sex and eroticism. She played the role of a seductive woman flaunting her sexual attraction. The goddess was known as a prostitute and a patron of prostitutes. Prostitutes were called daughters of Ishtar in Sumerian love songs. Ishtar as a mother of prostitutes fits Revelation 17 very well. The goddess Ishtar also had a close relationship with the Babylonian kings as a companion in war and also as a symbolic sexual partner. She was a divine bride, having sexual relationships with kings through sacred marriage.
Finally, Babylon is called the mother of the abominations of the earth (Rev 17:5), the source of all abominations. In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) the term “abominations” (Greek: bdelugma) is often used to denote idolatry. So the reference to Babylon’s abominations connects the Babylon of Revelation 17 with idolatry. This association with idolatry is one further reason to interpret Babylon in Revelation 17 as synonymous with the image of the beast of Revelation 13:14-15. In a number of ways, the portrayal of Babylon parallels the major characteristics of ANE cult images. The only cult image found in Revelation is the image of the beast. Rebekah Liu suggests that the image of the beast finds its active counterpart in the Babylon of Revelation 17 and 18. The destruction of Babylon by fire in 17:16 and 18:8, 18, therefore, supplies the missing element in Revelation’s portrayal of the image of the beast. It is not destroyed by fire in Revelation 19 or 20 because it has already passed off the scene.
In Revelation 17 there are direct references to a beast and to a woman/Babylon who sits on the beast. In chapter 18 there are no references to a beast at all, but the woman is now described in terms of a great city. In Revelation 17 it is the beast that supports Babylon, in Revelation 18 it is the kings, merchants, and mariners who once supported Babylon but now withdraw that support. They are the ones who, presumably, burned prostitute Babylon in 17:16. So the beast seems to be present in chapter 18 in a more literal fashion, the political and economic powers of the world. As noted earlier, the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from 13-20 except 17 and 18, although it actually operates only in chapter 13. Since the beast can be present in Revelation 18 without being mentioned, is the image of the beast present in 17 and 18 without being mentioned? Is the lack of mention a clue that the image is very much present in another form?
Revelation 17 is, in a sense, a duodirectional text. It provides a large, interpretive summary of the sixth and seventh plagues of Revelation 16. It also points forward to chapters 18 and 19, summarizing in advance events that happen in those two chapters. The major themes of Revelation 17 are the beast and Babylon. The beast of Revelation 17 has several similarities to the beast of Rev 13:1-7. They look alike, are both associated with water and blasphemy, and act in similar ways. It also requires wisdom to understand either (Rev 13:18; 17:9). So identifying the beast of Revelation 17 with the sea beast is plausible. On the other hand, the beast of Revelation 17 is clearly distinguishable from Babylon, although Babylon also has features of the sea beast (Christian orientation, persecuting the saints, rule over the kings of the earth). Babylon and the beast are similar, they work together and yet are distinguishable. If Babylon is the image of the beast, it resolves the tension between the two. Babylon is the “cult-image” of the “god”.
The image of the beast appears in Revelation 13 and is not seen again. Babylon appears in Revelation 14 and dominates the scene of Revelation until its final destruction in chapter 18. Are the two one and the same? Babylon in 17:1-6 is also antithetically parallel to the woman of Revelation 12. They are both described in detail. They are both mothers. Both are defined in relationship to God, to His believers and to His enemies. Both are located in the desert. And salvation comes from the child of the woman of Revelation 12 while death and destruction come from the prostitute and her offspring.
Babylon in Revelation 17 is also antithetically parallel to the bride of the Lamb in 21:9 – 22:5. Both scenes start with the same bowl-angel (Rev 17:1; 21:9) inviting John to see a woman. In both cases John is carried away by the Spirit to where the woman is. Revelation 21:9 repeats the exact same words as Revelation 17:1 in exactly the same order. Revelation 21:10 repeats five words of 17:3 in the same order. Both women are adorned with jewels. Each has a name written on her forehead (17:5: 22:4). Both are cities, one is called great and the other is called holy. One is a prostitute and the other is a bride. Those who belong to Babylon are not written in the book of life (Rev 17:8), while those who belong to the New Jerusalem are written in the book of life (21:27). The heavenly woman is connected in some way to the prostitute. Babylon the Great is, in fact, a parody of the New Jerusalem. The two female figures are in direct contrast.
The close link between the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 and the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22 indicates that the New Jerusalem represents the community of the saints, the bride of the Lamb. The New Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the promises made to the overcomers in the seven churches. The inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are those who heeded the call to repentance in the seven churches. In contrast, Babylon the Great is the community of those in the churches who did not heed to call of the Spirit. Babylon represents humanity in chaos and rebellion against God. The stripping naked of the prostitute in 17:16 fulfills the warning of the Spirit to Laodicea and to those who gathered for Armageddon (Rev 16:15; 3:17-18). Both Babylon and the image of the beast are symbols for the unfaithful community within the Christian church. This understanding of Babylon links it with the image of the beast.