I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Egypt’s Mosque Attack Theology, Robert Mugabe & Secularizing Thanksgiving
We’ll see theology work back into the headlines, but this time it’s Islamic theology; we’ll see incomplete justice or incomprehensible crimes; we’ll see the fall of yet another tyrant and understand why Western academics support those tyrants; then we’ll see the New York Times try to secularize Thanksgiving.
THEOLOGY ROARS BACK INTO THE HEADLINES AFTER MOSQUE ATTACK IN EGYPT
Theology roared back into the headlines over the weekend but in this case it wasn’t Christian theology but Islamic theology. This has to do with the tragic attack that took place at a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian officials report that over 300 persons were killed in a mass attack and over 100 persons seriously wounded. What makes this a particularly ominous development is that this was an attack believed to have been undertaken by forces loyal to the Islamic state. Indeed the attackers arrived in a caravan of armed vehicles that were flying the flag of the Islamic state, and we’re looking here at something that has surprised many Western observers, we’re looking at the attack by the Islamic state on a mosque. That requires some kind of explanation. The first explanation is that this represents yet another departure of the Islamic state from the already murderous ideology of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had a basic rule, and that was attacked non-Muslims not Muslims. The Islamic state has not followed that rule, and the current state of violence in both Pakistan and now in Egypt indicates an escalation of Muslim on Muslim attacks in the name of the Islamic state. But why this particular mosque? Immediately after the attack was announced it was also mentioned that this was a mosque that was associated with Sufism, with the Sufi movement within Islam. That immediately informs us that theology is very much front and center in this story, that’s because Sufism is considered by most Orthodox Muslims to be not only heterodox but actually not even a legitimate form of Islam.
Immediate reports in the international media after the attack did often mention the fact that the attacked mosque was associated with the Sufi movement, but it’s also interesting to note that many in the international media failed to recognize the fact that since at least 2016 there has been an expanding pattern of attacks by the Islamic state upon Sufis. This attack took place in Egypt but specifically in the Sinai Peninsula; Christians hearing that geographical designation will certainly remember that this is where for 40 years the children of Israel wandered. It’s a desolate Peninsula and it is sparsely populated, but this attack took place in one of the regions few population centers.
After the attack I had to wonder how long it would be before major media began to ask the question: Does theology have anything to do with this? Almost right on time the Washington Post ran an article dated Nov. 25 with the headline, “Why Muslim Extremists Attacked This Mosque in Egypt.”
Similarly, the New York Times ran a headline on Sunday, “Why Does ISIS Kill Sufi Muslims? Because It Sees Them as Heretics.”
All that in a headline. Of course one of the most interesting aspects of all this is that the word heretic would appear in a contemporary headline in the New York Times under any circumstance, but as we remind ourselves over and over again theology matters, it always matters, it’s always lurking fairly closely under the headlines, it rarely, in this age, gets to the very headline itself, and that’s a part of the story here. But it’s also important to recognize that Western media trying to interpret this Islamic conflict have to recognize that there are two major branches of Islam: the Sunnis and the Shia. And it’s true that the Sufis can be members of either the Sunni or the Shia, and they are for the most part mutually hated by both.
The New York Times report gets it exactly right when it identifies the hatred of both the Sunnis and the Shia, but the Sunnis in particular, toward the Sufis by saying that the hatred is rooted in:
“the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act,” says the report, “of praying to saints and worshiping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as ‘shirk,’ or polytheism, [that] according to [a source identified as] Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam.”
But at this point, we simply have to note another problem with the Western media. It’s not just those who could fairly be described as Islamic fundamentalists who hold to this suspicion of Sufis; this would be a mainstream Muslim response. Alexander Knysh, identified as the author of two studies of Sufism, he’s also a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, spoke of the Sunni opposition to the Sufis saying,
“They believe Sufi shrines are the most egregious expression of that shirk. … You are turning to a mediator, who is inserting himself between the believer and God, and in this way it becomes a kind of idol.”
So now you have a specifically Islamic term, shirk, referring to this kind of polytheism or idolatry, and you also have the word heretic that appears in the New York Times headline. In this secular age and particularly with the kind of secular worldview that marks a newspaper like the New York Times, the word heresy or heretic is not an expected word in any headline. When it appears we also have to answer the question: Why this word; why now? The answer is very straightforward: You cannot possibly interpret or understand this horrible news coming out of Egypt without acknowledging the reality of the theological. The problem is according to that secular worldview that might be true in Egypt, in this case in the Sinai Peninsula, but it certainly wouldn’t be true here. Those behind the secular worldview are absolutely certain, or at least they say they are certain, that theology will virtually disappear, everywhere, but a news story like this reminds us that it hasn’t happened everywhere, yet. And it hasn’t happened even very close to the home of the New York Times, they just think it has.
FLAWED JUSTICE IN GENOCIDE CONVICTION OF RATKO MLADIC
Another major story on the international scene broke last week as the New York Times reported, “It was the closing of one of Europe’s most shameful chapters of atrocity and bloodletting since World War II.”
They say, “With applause inside and outside the courtroom at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, was convicted [last] Wednesday of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison.”
The Times went on to tell us, “It was the last major item of business for the tribunal in The Hague before it wound down, a full quarter-century after many of the crimes on its docket were committed.”
Speaking of the crimes of Ratko Mladic, we are told that from 1992 to 1995 it was determined that he “was the chief military organizer of the campaign to drive Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs” in order to create an ethnically cleansed society. In 1992 about 45,000 persons were driven from their homes as Drew Hinshaw and Lawrence Norman report for the Wall Street Journal.
In the year 1995, Mladic and his troops lined up and then executed about 8,000 men and boys, and they did so in what became known as the Srebrenica massacre, identified as “the worst killing on European soil since World War II.”
The numbers themselves are absolutely shocking, we’re talking about just one year, just one village, 8,000 men and boys executed in a straightforward attempt to try to exterminate the entire Muslim and Croats population.
From a Christian worldview perspective there are some very important issues to understand in this new story. The first is we are talking about justice very long denied. We’re talking about crimes that took place, in some cases, 25 years ago. We also have to face the fact that Ratko Mladic was not convicted of his crimes to a jury of his peers there in the former Yugoslavia; instead, this had to come at the hands of an international tribunal set up specifically to address the crimes including genocide undertaken in the Yugoslavian Civil War.
Janine di Giovanni, the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, reminds us of the fact that sometimes wars end but justice is never really served. From a Christian perspective we simply have to say that that sometimes actually needs to be restated as a usually. Di Giovanni also reminds us of the fact that justice, in this case a criminal conviction and a life sentence came, a quarter century after the crimes, means that it is very unlikely that this particular conviction or sentence is going to be a deterrent to those who would undertake similar kinds of atrocities.
Di Giovanni asked, “what kind of message does the process send to victims of current conflicts? For those living in conflict in Syria, in Zimbabwe, in Yemen? Will,” she asked, “Mr. Mladic’s verdict, 22 years in the making, inspire hope that justice can be delivered fairly and without delay? I think not,” she concludes. Di Giovanni notes, “Justice sometimes comes slow. But 22 years is too long for people to wait. The Nuremberg trials, in which 12 Nazis were sentenced to death, took place shortly after World War II ended. Tribunals,” she underlines, “should begin while the crimes and the evidence are fresh.”
Getting to an even deeper level, she writes, “The message we should send to those who continue to act with impunity is that they will be hunted down, that they will not escape justice. The mechanisms,” she says, “that ensure international justice need to be given more teeth and not appear exhausted, cynical and misguided, as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia all too often did.”
The Christian, the biblical worldview, emphatically affirms the imperative of justice, but at the same time it makes very clear that this kind of justice is never actually going to be adequately addressed by any human court. That doesn’t mean that a human court should not, it simply means that no court can actually come up with any punishment that corresponds to the gravity of the genocide. We also have to note the fact that she uses the phrase, “the mechanisms that ensure international justice.”
Here we simply have to note, there are no mechanisms that ensure international justice, and if anything this particular verdict and even the conviction affirms that very point, coming so long after the crimes and coming in a court that was set up on a temporary basis just to adjudicate these cases. One of the sad but real lessons of history is that when a people will not hold their own leaders accountable, it’s very hard, if not impossible, for any other authority to do so.
It’s also important to recognize that even though there is no question about the guilt of General Ratko Mladic, the reality is that he had hundreds and thousands of co-conspirators involved in this genocide. At this point, 22 years later, to call this justice served is a slander to justice.
WHY ROBERT MUGABE IS BUT ONE IN A LONG LINE OF THE LEFT’S TYRANNICAL HEROES
Next, also in the international scene, we have to observe the passing, at least from power, of one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. We’re talking about Robert Mugabe, for 37 years the strongman of Zimbabwe. It was Robert Mugabe who led a guerrilla effort over against the government of Rhodesia, effectively in 1980 toppling the regime and becoming the de facto dictator of a new nation that was renamed Zimbabwe. For the first several years he was the prime minister but from 1987 forward he was the president of the nation, and yet it was not in any sense a legitimate democracy. The elections that produced massive victories for Robert Mugabe were understood both internally and externally to be shams. And speaking of genocide, it is now very well documented and was known even at the time that in 1983 Mugabe and his party, known as the Zanu-PF, had also engaged in genocide, killing about 20,000 members of an opposing tribe. Mugabe, age 93, was toppled in a coup that he didn’t believe would actually come, he had good reason to believe that it would never come after 37 years of tyrannical rule. It’s also instructed us that when it did come, it came largely because of the fact that he’d announced a succession plan that involved the power going to his young wife, Grace Mugabe, who, if anything united the nation in terms of hatred of the idea that she might become president.
We’re talking here about the fall of yet another tyrant in the case of Robert Mugabe, one who repeatedly compared himself to Jesus declaring himself to be more important, even in his words, better. But there’s a particular angle to the fall of Robert Mugabe that should have our attention, it has to do with the fact that several major Western universities representing the intellectual elites and the liberal impulse in this country, had celebrated Mugabe as a liberator when he came to power, and had even awarded him honorary degrees. This was true the University of Massachusetts, it was true of Michigan State University, it was true in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. What makes those three universities most significant is that all three of them later, but much later, rescinded those honorary degrees. The University of Massachusetts gave the degree in 1986, rescinded it in 2008; the University of Edinburgh also gave the degree in 1986, rescinded in 2007; Michigan State University awarded the honorary degree to Mugabe in 1990, rescinded it once again in 2008.
Bret Stephens gets it exactly right as a columnist in the New York Times when he says,
“When the University of Massachusetts decided in 2008 to rescind the honorary degree it had awarded Robert Mugabe 22 years earlier, it noted that Zimbabwe’s dictator had once been seen ‘as a force for democracy and reform.’”
But then Stephens says, “Even then the self-deception was breathtaking.”
Later Stevens writes, “The scale of Mugabe’s killing, estimated as high as 20,000, might not have been known to the good people of Amherst in 1986: Mass graves,” he says, “would continue to be unearthed for years afterward. But,” he says, “there was no mystery about his methods. The real mystery”, he says, “is why Western liberals and progressives so often fall for the Mugabes of the world, and why they seem to learn so little from successive and inevitable disenchantments.”
It’s really interesting that Bret Stephens points to the left in the United States, and very specifically to academics, we are here talking about universities awarding and then rescinding these degrees, and he says that it’s because it appears that Western academics have a particular vulnerability to offering a form of worship to dictators who take power, supposedly in the name of the people. The most glaring of these by no surprise was Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba, and yet it also has to be noted that many of these academics also become apologists. Bret Stephens goes on to say there might be another explanation, and that is the fact that,
“Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to write a constitution for Corsica in 1765, Western thinkers have been tempted by the prospect of influence abroad, along with the power that comes with it, particularly when both are denied to them at home.”
Another way to put this would be to say that many on the left, particularly the academic left, see these revolutions as great and grand social laboratories. But by now we know that every single one of them turns out to be murderous, and every one of them, as Bret Stephens recognizes, fails and disappoints. And, of course, we’re not just talking about mass murder in the case Robert Mugabe, we’re also talking about spectacular, almost undefinable incompetence.
The headline in the Economist of London got straight to the point, and I quote, “The Man Who Wrecked a Country.”
The final words of Bret Stephens’ column deserve full citation. He says this:
“But Mugabe also had his apologists and admirers, and Zimbabwe’s tragedy is just a fuller version of a post-colonial story of disastrous ideological experiments accompanied by foreigners who cheered those experiments and then looked the other way when they failed. There needs,” he says, “to be a reckoning with them, too. The world’s poorest countries,” he concludes,“deserve better than to be the petri dish for Western experts who know too little and a field of fantasy for Western progressives who dream too much.”
On that story, Bret Stephens deserves to have the last word.
HOW THE NEW YORK TIMES WANTS TO SECULARIZE THANKSGIVING
Finally, we observe the fact that the Thanksgiving holiday is now over are yet another opportunity for secular confusion. Just consider an editorial that appeared in the New York Times, timed for Thanksgiving Day. It states,
“In these days of anxiety and alienation, Thanksgiving offers the warm embrace of inclusiveness. Particularly for many people with families and faiths rooted in other lands, no other holiday, not even the Fourth of July, has so great a capacity to make them feel American.”
The editors, again, we’re talking here about the New York Times, then go on to write, and I quote,
“Thanksgiving’s origins are also Christian. But it has evolved into something both secular and spiritual, a day devoted to family and amity. Perhaps,” say the editors, “that explains its unwavering appeal for believers and nonbelievers. … Thanksgiving,” they say, “is at heart more than parades, or football or even country; there’s no flag-waving or chest-thumping. It is about shared bounty and shared humanity.”
From a worldview perspective, the interesting thing to note here is that the New York Times seems to believe that Thanksgiving is only worthy of commemoration and national celebration if indeed it has successfully been turned into a secular holiday. You can read that editorial over and over again but that’s the inescapable conclusion.
Again, the editors say that Thanksgiving, “has evolved into something both secular and spiritual.”
They see that evolution, of course, as a cause of celebration in itself.
Finally, in terms of worldview analysis, let’s just remind ourselves of the end of that paragraph, “Thanksgiving is at its heart more than parades or football or even country; there’s no flag-waving or chest-thumping.”
The final sentence, “It is about shared bounty and shared humanity.”
Notice what’s absent. What’s absent, of course, in this secular redefinition and celebration of Thanksgiving, is, well, Thanksgiving, but then it’s virtually impossible to pull off anything you could actually call Thanksgiving from a secular worldview.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
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