Friday, January 28, 2011

Why the "Islamic Reformation" Won't Happen

I have been cheered a good bit by the protests against the autocrats which are now raging in Egypt and seem to be spreading through the Middle East generally. It's possible that old neo-con, George Bush, was right that liberty really is the desire of every human heart, and that freedom in South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan is inspiring a desire for something similar in other places as well. It's possible that Tunisia is the first domino, to be followed by the rest of the Middle East, everyone will open their societies, their cultures, and their religious beliefs to challenges from the outside world and Islam will be replaced with other, more peaceful religious beliefs or at least with a more moderate, peaceful version of itself. It's possible that the radicals and terrorists then become an embarrassment rather than a model of faithfulness. But I don't think any of this is very likely to occur.

Let me speak first about the revolutions now occurring: If there is any place less well stocked than the Middle East with classically liberal people (i.e., free markets, separate of mosque/state, limited government), I don't know where it would be. And the organized, the willful, and the bloodthirsty are usually those who come out on top during a revolution. Normally speaking, that means the various Islamist groups, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, or Lebanese Hezbollah, Gaza's Hamas, etc. So there's a high probability that even if revolution comes and the House of Saud, Mubarak, Baby Assad, Qadaffi, the Iranian mullahs, and even King Abdullah are overthrown, whoever replaces them might actually be worse. (I know, what could be worse than the Iranian mullahs? But such people do exist and want power bad enough to kill for it). So reformation probably isn't coming through some sort of "Cairo Spring" in 2011 a la Eastern Europe in 1989. We're probably looking more like either Tienanmen Square (if the army and police shoot the protesters) or at best, the March 1917 revolution that brought Kerensky to power before he got killed by Lenin in Red October.

Reformation also probably won't come through the realm of theology. Though there were a lot of causes bringing about the Protestant Reformation (including the flood of biblical manuscripts that came West after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks), the most major reason was theological: A plausible (I would say virtually airtight) case was made by the Reformers that Rome's teaching and practice had strayed from the Bible's teaching. Yet it is virtually impossible to do this within Islam, because the radical, Islamist version of the faith now overtaking the Islamic world's seminaries and mosques is the version presented in the Koran. There is no case to be made for a moderate, non-violent Islam, because it isn't in there to find. Or to say it another way: There won't be an Islamic Reformation in the future, because it already happened--and the moderates lost.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why Islamism Will Not Be Defeated

In my last post, I mentioned three possible alternative futures given the rise of political Islam (Islamism), of which the first is that Islamism is crushingly defeated and therefore goes quiet. This is possible, in that the world's mightiest powers are all non-Islamic: The U.S., Europe, India, China, Russia, Japan, Israel, and indeed most of the world does not conduct its prayers at a mosque, radical or otherwise. And Islam is strong in shame/face based cultures, so a massive defeat would result in a significant quieting and perhaps even a total repudiation of the Islamist idea. But it isn't gonna happen. Here's why:
  1. It is in the interest of many of the world's great powers that Islamists prosper. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is generally understood that we live in a unipolar world, a situation which is not very likely to change any time soon, as none of the potential contenders have anything like the strength required. Yet many of the nations of the world are not our friends and reason that if they cannot raise their own power to match, then at the very least they can try to tear a chunk off of ours. Thus Russia assists the Iranians with building nuclear reactors and the nations of the Islamic world (and probably China and Russia, if I had to guess) not-so-covertly funnel money to terrorist organizations abroad while they imprison them at home.
  2. We aren't committed to defeating Islamism. Oh sure, we want to deny Al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations place to plot and train for jihad against us. But we don't want to engage on all of the levels of conflict to defeat a committed, ideological enemy. Don't believe me? Let me present Exhibit A: The street protests in Iran against Ahmadinejad following his rigged re-election in 2009. Pro-democracy, anti-Islamist demonstrators filled the country, begging for the President to stand with them. What did they get? Bubkus. Or consider Exhibit B: Egypt is aflame right now with anti-Islamist, pro-democracy protesters. What did Secretary of State Clinton say? “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Seriously? This is the best we can do? I thought progressives believed in freedom. Not anymore, apparently.
  3. The non-Islamist world is in denial about its nature. Denial isn't just a river in Egypt, it's also the state of policy in Europe, the US, and the rest of the non-Islamic world. We continue to believe and act, as a culture, as if there is a peaceful, moderate Islam which will sweep to power any day now. Yet while it is obviously true that most Muslims are peaceful and moderate, it is not true that they will overwhelm the Islamists. The energy, momentum, and don't forget, guns and willingness to use them are all running the other way. So it is moderate Islam which will be silenced and the Islamist version which will be advanced, and comforting nostrums about the "religion of peace" will avail us nothing. It is past time for us to come to grips with the fact that if we want moderate Islam to flourish, it will do so only after the death of the Islamist version, and that this is going to require a whole lot more arranged meetings between the terrorists and Allah, courtesy of the 10th Mountain Division, 3rd Armored, and 82nd Airborne.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Rise of Islamism

Political Islam (or Islamism, if you prefer) was a severely constrained ideology prior to World War II. What kept it from rising was the presence of the great empires. The Ottomans ruled Turkey and much of the Middle East in their mostly benevolent, albeit decadent, fashion. The British and the French empires divided Islamic North Africa (along with the rest of that continent), and the Dutch ruled the Indies (what became Indonesia). The Brits also ruled India, and even made one of history's ill-fated attempts to rule Afghanistan. Back in Europe, the Habsburgs kept Islam from spreading West, having checked the Turks at Vienna's gates back in 1453, and fighting numerous skirmishes since.

At the close of World War I, the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and a number of independent states formed from it. The Ottoman Empire was likewise broken up and divided between the British and French. Then came the devastation of World War II. Japan had overrun the Indies, separating them from Dutch control for long years, while Holland's occupation by Germany had left her unable rise again as a world colonial power. Britain and France both stood in shambles, so it was not long before their empires were broken up from sheer inability to hold them together. Independence came quickly for a number of Middle Eastern states and also for India, which was divided and became Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. (The Brits had, of course, long since given up on Afghanistan).

Independence naturally brought chaos, and in much of the formerly colonized world, autocracies. And the central problem for any dictator is how to retain his hold on power. Since he is a tyrant, there is no end to the plots to overthrow him or to the legitimate reasons for doing so. Yet no dictator wants to end up the next Ceausescu. If they have to lose power, the Gorbachev gambit is much to be preferred. But the goal, of course, is not to lose power at all, since the outcome once that happens isn't exactly guaranteed.

But where to find legitimacy when you came to power illegitimately? Fortunately for many of these men, their own (at least nominal) faith, provides a tool which comes readily to hand. That is, the teachings of the Koran don't point a person merely toward moral improvement or the growth of one's individual relationship with God; it teaches that good Muslims should seek the spread of Islam over the entire world, by any means necessary, so that all the world will live in submission to Allah. Moreover, the Koran provides within its text the laws necessary for the establishment of the global theocratic state which is its goal. These things gave the otherwise illegitimate tyrant something like the ancient idea of divine right: They were rulers according to the will of Allah, given power so that submission to Allah might spread worldwide.

Most of these men probably had little or no desire to actually carry out these grand plans. They knew it was the 3rd World equivalent of Moynihan's "boob bait for bubbas," and besides, the infidels provided money (through oil) that provided access to all their favorite sins of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life.

That changed with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. Suddenly, there were men who took seriously the bits about dying in glorious martydom, fighting jihad against the infidel, re-establishing the Caliphate (theocratic rule by successors of Muhammed), and spreading Islam worldwide, by violence if necessary. These men were a threat. Their violence could lead to revolution and the Ceausescu ending the dictators most want to avoid. But the rulers had a card to play-plenty of money. So they played it, giving just enough funding to their wild-eyed brethren to keep them focused on the infidels, but not so much that they lost plausible deniability with the West and provoked a real retaliation thereby.

This is pretty much the situation as it stands today. But it seems unlikely to me that this situation will persist in the long-term. Instead, I think we are faced with one of three possible alternative futures:
  1. The Islamists are utterly defeated, and political Islam goes quiet.
  2. An Islamic reformation takes place, changing the nature of Islamic belief, such that violence is discredited.
  3. Islamists overthrow governments, and political Islam spreads.
I don't think all of these are likely futures, merely possible. But I'll explore each of these options in posts to come. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Genesis 1 Matters

I started our church through Genesis this past Sunday. I'm not doing the whole book in one shot, but in large chunks, punctuated by other series. The first chunk is chapters 1-11, which is the material about the creation of the world, the Fall, the Flood, and the rise of the pagan nations.

This is important material. These chapters tell us how the world came to be, what and why humanity is, what's wrong with the world, and what God is doing to fix it. Of these chapters, Genesis 1 is arguably the most important. In fact, in my opinion, Genesis 1 is perhaps the most important chapter, and verse 1 the most important verse, in the entire Bible. This is because on this chapter, and on Genesis 1:1 in particular, rest the entire philosophical and moral foundation for the faith of both Christians and Jews. Here's a partial list of what Genesis 1 gives us:
  1. A God who is both infinite and personal. Genesis 1 presents God as a Being of supreme power. Who but such a being can create everything (including sun, moon, stars, and the vast array of creatures and plants) in just six days? This God is personal, existing in fact in multi-personal ("Let us"-Gen. 1:26-27) relationship prior to the creation, and creating other personal beings.
  2. A God distinct from creation. Genesis 1 offers us nothing which allows for "the god inside each of us" or a pantheistic concept of God. God is clearly distinct from creation, and existed before it.
  3. God is profoundly intelligent. This seems obvious, but bears repeating: If God made the universe in all of its staggering complexity, then God possesses a level of intelligence that is literally incomprehensible.
  4. God is ordered, thus the universe and life are not random or the product of randomness. One of the first things even a casual reader of Genesis 1 notices is the structure of the text, with its regular patterns and orderly arrangements. The universe in all its complexity, nevertheless operates in similarly ordered, observable patterns. Science, indeed knowledge and learning about the world in any way at all, would be impossible in a random universe which was governed by no discernible laws and/or arranged in no particular fashion.
  5. God is moral, thus we have an objective basis for morality. God himself pronounces the creation "good" and all of it "very good." Such pronouncements assume at least the concept of "bad" or "evil" as that which is not good and approved by God. Knowing this, we can know that some standard of morality which is universal and objective (because it is based on God's character) also exists.
  6. A basis for universal and individual human dignity. Against the modern idea, based on evolution that, "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" (Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president, Vogue 9/1/89), human beings according to Genesis 1 are made "in the image of God." Thus every human being, including the mentally handicapped, the aged, and the unborn, are of infinitely more worth than even the highest of the animals.
  7. A basis for human relationships and knowledge. As creatures made in God's image, we are not only valuable, but personal. We can thus think, speak, express emotions, communicate, engage in inter-personal relationships and come to reliable knowledge of reality.
Why does all this matter? Because I find that far too many Christians (in particular, many of the ones who are my generation and younger who found the "emerging church" idea appealing) are willing to jettison Genesis 1 under the mistaken idea that it doesn't matter. But it does, and these are some of the reasons why. Take away Genesis 1, or explain it away in some post-modern fashion, and what you have left isn't a Christianity worth defending or believing in.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Welcome to 2011

Today is my first day back in my office (aka the place where my computer lives) after a little over a week off for the Christmas/New Years' holidays. We got to see both sides of our family, overeat, sleep in, play games, and take turns fighting off the stomach flu. (Thanks be to God that last bit was short-lived!). Anyway, since I am back in the saddle again, I am digging out from under the avalanche of stuff that accumulated in my absence, chiefly all the mail (e- and otherwise) and the beginning of a new sermon series on Genesis which is set to begin on Sunday.

So briefly, I thought I might kick off my 2011 blogging my 2011 Goals. In no particular order, they are:
  • Celebrate 15 years of wedded bliss with Karen in a cabin by a lake.
  • Lead breakfast devotions twice a week for our family.
  • Teach my children how to shoot, and get Sara through Hunter's Safety.
  • Re-read the entire Bible through again this year.
  • Finish The Hobbit and read the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia with the kids.
  • Lose the last 50 pounds separating me from my ideal weight and finish earning my "I ran 500 miles" T-shirt from my gym.
  • Preach the first 1/2 of the book of Genesis, all of Habakkuk, and 10 sermons on basic theology.
  • Personally share the Gospel with at least 10 people.
  • Write more blog entries. No doubt all of my readers (all 20 of you, plus Mom!) are waited with bated breath for this, but I really do enjoy writing, so I plan to do more of it.