Session nine of my talks; this one dealing with Islamic terrorism and related issues
LUBH 9 – Vain deliverance
We are going to be looking today at the roots of Islamic terrorism – for want of a better description – and what a Christian response might be. I have structured the talk slightly differently to the previous two despite my best laid plans but you will see why. I think you will be quite interested in the story. Now I have called this “A Vain Hope for Deliverance” and that comes from Psalm 33, which says this, “No king is saved by the size of his army, no warrior escapes by his great strength, a horse is a vain hope for deliverance, despite all its great strength it cannot save, but the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those whose hope is in His unfailing love to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.” Hence the picture at the beginning. An aircraft carrier is a vain hope for deliverance, a tank is a vain hope for deliverance, anything other than God is a vain hope for deliverance. So that’s my theme .
Now remember the three prongs that I’m using to analyse different issues, idolatry, wrath and living in the Kingdom or living in the light of the end. Now I think there are two aspects, just to rush over this quite briefly, two aspects to the way in which foreign policy can be affected by idolatry. And the first is precisely that we trust in our own strength to overcome problems. This is exactly what happened in Old Testament times and what the prophets chastised the kings of Israel and Judah for doing, they trusted in their own strength and then they were destroyed. But there is another side to the idolatry, which is I think to exaggerate the size of the problem. In this case terrorism. Because I think in both instances what’s missing is trust in God. In the first instance what’s missing is trust in God because there is too much trust in oneself, and on the other hand there is not enough trust in God, there is despair. “Oh woe are we, because these things are terrible.” So I think this is how our present understanding of relating to Islamic terrorism is compromised. Two forms of idolatry.
As I say, compare with Jeremiah’s warnings for example, or pretty much any of the Old Testament prophets who continuously criticised the ruling authorities for not trusting in God and then consequently bad things will happen to the country. Now wrath, remember, which I’m using in the sense that we experience the consequences of our actions, God’s grace doesn’t come in and save us. Well God uses the kingdoms of this world. We cannot read Isaiah or Jeremiah without this looming very large in our understanding. He uses Nebuchadnezzar to take all the people from Judah off into exile and he uses Cyrus to conquer them. And one of the great insights in the theology of the Ancient Israelites after the exile was realising that God wasn’t just the God of the tribe, He was in charge of everything, and this is precisely the insight that I want us to hang on to. That God is in charge of all the kingdoms, and that God can use, foreign kingdoms to chastise His chosen people in order to bring them back to faith in Him. It’s pretty much what I think will be happening. So chastisement from outside.
And then just briefly, living in the Kingdom, the phrase in the prophets, “Come let us return to the Lord for He has torn us and He will heal us.” That’s Hosea, we will be doing him in morning prayer. And also another quotation from the Psalms, “Do not place your trust in princes”. Tony Blair will not save, and it’s not just because he is Tony Blair, but John Major, Margaret Thatcher, whoever, President Bush, President Clinton, President McCain, Hilary Clinton none of them, none of them will save.
Right, so that’s really a rapid canter through of some background context, because really what I want to talk about today is this man named Sayyid Qutb. Now he was born in 1906 in Southern Egypt and very, very bright. He had memorised the entirety of the Koran by the age of ten. And he joined the Egyptian Ministry of Education and he was sent to the United States between 1948 and 1950, which seems to have completely unhinged him, or at least given him an insight into Western society, which I think has all sorts of grains of truth running through it. But he was radicalised by this experience and on his return to Egypt he joins the Muslim brotherhood, OK, which is one of the – I want to avoid using the word terrorist at this point because it is not necessarily, it is a movement of strict Islamic observance. Let me put it like that.
Well, he, the Muslim brotherhood helped Nasser to come to power in Egypt and then Nasser turns on them because he thinks that they’re not being supportive enough and Qutb ends up imprisoned on a regular basis and tortured under the Nasser regime. And this is profoundly important for understanding his philosophy. This experience of having been in the United States, and seeing Western society, and I’ll come on to what he didn’t like in Western society in a moment, but he had seen up close what Western society was like, and then he had supported a change of regime in Egypt, so an Egyptian comes to power and then that Egyptian turns on, the faithful Muslim community, and they end up torturing him. which is an inhumane result.
Well when he’s in prison he writes a commentary called “In the Shade of the Koran”, which is now I believe, the single most widely read commentary on the Koran, according to my sources. And he also wrote a little book called, “Milestones”, which has some extracts from his commentary, plus his letters from prison and other similar writings. And it’s that book “Milestones”, which has actually been incredibly influential. I’ll come on to that. Now he was actually in the end hanged in 1966 and the understanding is that when his verdict was announced he smiled because he realised that he was going to be a martyr. His understanding was that he was not going to be someone actively working to change the outside world, he was the prophet. And what he does is establish an ideology and “Milestones” in particular was designed to be used by the vanguard of the Islamic revolution. That’s a bit of a Western phrasing but that’s what it’s designed for. So he is really the thinker underlying much of the Islamist terrorism that we are experiencing. So he is a very, very important thinker in terms of understanding what’s going on and why. He is not the only source. But he is possibly the major one.
A quotation, “Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice because humanity is devoid of those vital values for its healthy development and real progress.” The overall heading for my talks is “Let us be Human”, that being human is what we were created for and there are various ways in which we are prevented from being human by idolatry and that’s exactly what Qutb is saying. There are some significant differences but there is a profound degree of overlap. Much of what I’ve said in previous weeks, he would heartily concur with.
Anyhow, he went to the United States 1948 to 1950 and there’s this one episode which he describes where he went to a dance and there were men and women dancing together, and worst of all, this took place in a church hall. And this was a sign of the utter decadence that Western society had collapsed into, through things like the idolatry of personal freedom and personal choice. Now more deeply, he objected to the way that in the West you have this division between Church and State. OK, and the way in which religion had become something privatised, something which didn’t have any necessary impact on how you lived your public life. Now this was absolutely anathema to him, because for him, for Qutb, if your declaration of faith had no practical out-workings in your life, it wasn’t faith. It wasn’t real, Now those of you who have come to some of my talks before will realise that I completely agree with that. It’s one of the ways in which Western understandings of Christianity have completely compromised its nature, that we have privatised it, that its fine, its all just a matter of personal opinion, and this theme, is one of the very, very important ones that I think which we as a community, not just in here but the wider Western community need to really think about and come to a decision over, because the criticisms which Qutb is placing against us and which are fuelling the terrorist approach to us, can’t be answered with our present understandings. But I’ll come back to that theme.
Another one, he felt that the family is destroyed by sensuality. Going back to this dance in the church hall, he has got this very lurid description of what American women were like in 1948, flaunting their sexuality and trying to manipulate men and play on their desires, and so forth. You know, what he would make of the situation sixty years on rather beggars the imagination. But it is interesting that his main point was that because the West had ignored, the givenness of male and female roles, men and women were prevented from fulfilling their basic true nature. What they were called by God to be. And one of the main results of this was that the family breaks down. Because the family can only continue if there is this specialisation of roles with the mothers concentrating on thesentimental and emotional formation of children and the men concentrating on dealing with the wider world, etc., etc..
And again, if you look at what’s happened in over sixty years with the profound breakdown of marriage and the raising of children, you know it’s not obvious that he’s wrong. You know we could have all sorts of debates about ways in which he is wrong, but it’s not immediately apparent that he is talking nonsense. This is one of the themes. And of course that material wealth is idolised which leads to social injustice. This is one of his major criticisms. In his understanding, all wealth belongs to God, and that although it is perfectly possible to have private ownership, the ownership carries with it certain duties and obligations, that the wealth is there to be used for the service and the good of the community, if you ignore that then you lose the right to possess the wealth. In other words it is the health of the community that has to determine what is done with the wealth. You know, what I was saying last week was rather similar, that we have these institutions which are simply geared around the reproduction and maximisation of wealth, which have been allowed to go off on completely their own track, without any regard to the wider human community within which they are embedded. Remember I was talking about it, you can understand it as a form of cancer. So again, lots of overlap.
And there is this word, and again it’s one of those words which I have only read I have never heard it pronounced – Jahiliyah, which means something like being trapped in slavery. It’s being trapped in a dehumanised condition. So if you are a Jahilee then you are dehumanised. And this is his word describing Western society. That Western society had turned away from God and therefore Western society was dehumanising and corrupt – it destroys people. And the response to Jahiliyah is to return to principally the Koran which is God’s commands to human beings. And at the core of this is an understanding which is profoundly compatible with the major segment of Christianity, the Augustinian strand, which is that submission to God gives us our freedom. You know, Augustine says “In God’s service is our perfect freedom,” it’s the same theology at root. That it is only by being centred on God and obedient to God that we become most fully ourselves.
And so for Qutb the Koran is God’s final word to humanity, it comes down dictated by God to us and so it cannot be improved upon, this is the final revelation, and human institutions which are not based upon the Koran are necessarily dehumanising, because they are imperfect, they rest upon human choices rather than the divine choice, so the only forms of human institution which leads to a flourishing of humanity are the ones based on the Koran. In other words Sharia law. And anytime a Muslim is obedient to one of these alternative authorities, think back to the link between the private faith of the heart and actually working it out in practice, which is very much a dominant theme for Qutb. If in practice you are forced to live your life under an authority which isn’t from the Koran, then that is in practice not being faithful. And so obedience to any non-Sharia form of authority, a Queen or a President for example, is itself un-Islamic and a betrayal of faith. Make sense?
Now Qutb is a direct influence on, the leading figures on Khomeini, Bin Laden was taught this by his brother, there is a very direct link, and Al Zawahiri I think I’m right in saying had been imprisoned with him. I’m pretty sure Al Zawahiri is also high up in Al Qaeda was also imprisoned at the same time. I think there is a big age difference but there is a direct link. And as I say, much of what he says is true. And this is a quotation from him, “Islam cannot accept any compromise with Jahiliyah either in its concept or in the mode of living derived from this concept, either Islam will remain or Jahiliyah.
And of course what flows from this understanding is Jihad. Now he has a distinct reading of Jihad and it’s to do with reforming the external situation before you reform your internal soul. Whereas Khomeini for example actually said the reverse, the first Jihad is inner reform, purifying the soul from which you engage with the outside. But for Qutb, you have to engage with the outside first, because if you don’t engage with the outside then that in itself will corrupt you.
There are two strands that Qutb emphasises – there is the preaching which is teaching the Muslim faithful how to understand the world correctly, which is what he is engaged with, and then there is what he calls the movement, and the movement is actually engaging with the external world in such a way as to challenge it and to destroy those things which are inhumane. Now it’s worth emphasising that it is understood as a movement of hope and liberation. That it is a way of removing oppression. Think back to Qutb being tortured in prison, by brother Muslims as he would see it, and he interprets that as the Egyptian authorities having been infected with this Western mindset which prevents full humanity from being expressed. And this he experiences directly because he is being tortured, and so the process of being tortured captures in essence what Western society, you know the world of inhumanness is doing to the community of the faithful. Make sense?
And so Qutb emphasises that it’s violence against the institutions which is imperative, it is not essential to attack people, although within some of the currents of thought people have pursued his logic. But he says that dying for Islam is a triumph. If you understand it – that you are fully human if you are faithful to the Koran and follow the Koran – and the world outside which is hostile and dehumanising, is destructive of life. If you give your life in the conflict between the two, for that which allows the most fully human, then you are assured of paradise, that is the ultimate statement denying Jahiliyah. You are denying what is inhuman. And this is the root or one of the roots of suicide bombing. This is what gives the ideological justification. But it’s violence against the institutions which is the key bit.
Just briefly some criticisms. For obvious reasons there are many, many, but just from a Christian point of view really it is very much about controlling the external forms and that control being driven by human choices. That God has spoken in the Koran and after that He is not really as engaged as He was because what humans have to do is simply live it out and act accordingly. So there is no sense of, something evolving or growing, something new being born which is a real difference between this concept and the Christian concept of the Kingdom. You know the Christian concept of the Kingdom is not finally under human control, it’s under God’s control and God will succeed in accomplishing it, you know, whatever we do, even though we are called to co-operate with the process and to live in the light of the Kingdom, God’s will shall be accomplished. And therefore it’s God driven. The final responsibility for achieving it doesn’t rest with human choice. And that seems to me a very big difference between Christian understandings of the Kingdom, which would otherwise have a lot in common with what Qutb is arguing for, and Qutb’s argument. And of course there’s no sense of play, no sense of God enjoying the process. And of course because it’s focusing on the externals, reshaping the external world, it is primarily an ethic. And one thing to add to that which is a wider expression of difference between Christianity and Islam is that with this understanding you can’t have God being humiliated on a cross. The idea that God can achieve things through weakness, through vulnerability, through being broken is completely outside the realm of this approach.
Now 23 February 1998, and there were some preceding ones to this but this is one to quote, Al Qaeda’s declaration of war, long before the invasion of Iraq and so forth, and it took the form of a Fatwa, an Islamic juridical declaration, so the ruling, the Fatwa, “To kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” You are familiar with that? So this is dead serious and the consequences we are all familiar with.
I just want to run through areas of strength of this position. One is that it is an ideology, we are engaged in this war against terror but you can’t destroy an ideology with bullets. Every time the West acts militarily it can’t change the way that this interpretation is working. It confirms this interpretation. Whenever you see the Abu Graib pictures, or you get the stories from Guantanamo and so forth, this is reinforcing this perspective. You know this perspective sees the West as inhuman. And so when the West displays itself being inhuman, it is confirming the ideology, it’s reinforcing it. So this is not an argument to say don’t ever use military force, but it is to say that military force won’t win. The ideology is coherent and attractive, it’s meaningful, it draws people to it, it offers an explanation of the world which allows people to understand what is going on and do something about what they wish to resist. And of course, success breeds success.
Second strength as it is an underlying theme of the entire series of talks, oil. This is where the oil is, the green is what has been used up, the blue is what hasn’t been used up although in practice I think you can chop it off about here. This is propaganda. Even so, it’s the Gulf region is where most of the oil’s left. And something to be aware of in the Gulf region, it’s all here in the red bits, and the red bits are the Shia populations. And something else to bear in mind, a picture I’ve used before, of the Straits of Hormuz, where a very large proportion of the world’s oil supply is shipped through there. In the previous talk I described this as the wind-pipe of Western civilisation. If there is armed conflict and if as the US military is planning on, according to one report, they expect Iran to be able to cut of the Straits of Hormuz temporarily, and they think that their Naval forces will be able to re-establish the free flow of oil through it, without causing too much harm. Put not your trust in princes. Cartoon, I thought you might like, George Bush – his new Iraq strategy – send more troops, increase aid, fight terrorists, did I miss anything? Well did I miss anything, I think there are questions marks about that cartoon but I thought you might like it.
The third strength is precisely terrorism itself, because it is low cost but very high impact, especially in terms of propaganda, in terms of maintaining morale. It engenders the sense that the good guys are winning and that the West, the inhuman ones are impotent, they have no moral strength. And of course it’s self-sustaining, it’s self-reproducing, once the ideology is out there, then people can form and gather as the July bombers did, without too much link elsewhere. I think there was some link with Muhammed Khan, in a sense Pakistan, but it is an indigenous phenomenon. And of course they can become financially independent. There is no command and control model necessary. So this won’t be stopped by use of force because it’s an idea.
Just briefly to think about the elements of Christian response. One is to re-emphasise the bit I’ve started with is about trusting in God, not trusting in our own strength but also not giving in to despair or anything like that. I think the response has to become a religious response. You know our society has to respond at the religious level. And of course you pray for your enemies and I think part of praying for your enemies is precisely understanding our enemies and recognising if they are speaking truth. Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, that’s what I mean by the abomination, you know in terms of Qutb criticising the West for becoming inhuman, the story of the twentieth century is not all that creditable in many ways and we need to hear the criticism and ensure that we don’t go down that path again because it would be so easy to turn the Muslim communities into scapegoats. You know where the July bombers came from in, is it Bradford, Leeds, to start ostracising them and I think that is precisely what we mustn’t do. Because again that would confirm and reinforce the ideology.
Practically speaking I think we should, one more reason, yet one more reason, let’s prepare to be without oil. Now there’s a chap called Bernard Lewis who is one of the most prominent and respected academic authorities on Islam, and he talks much about the sense of respect, social respect or face as in loss of face, in the Arabic culture, Arab and Muslim culture. And he says much of what is driving this anger is the sense of humiliation, that the anger felt within the Islamic community is precisely because they feel humiliated, they feel weak, and the thing is they are weak. This is coming back to the thing about don’t exaggerate the threat. And he talks about the prospects for civil war or reformation within Islam itself, because we shouldn’t think that Qutb’s ideology, although it’s influential, and I don’t think it can be seen as heretical, it is not all of Islam. And so there are those within the Islamic community who would vehemently reject what Qutb is arguing for.
And so there are lots of different strands of Islam and even of Islamism and so Qutb is not the same as for example the Wahhabi strand which is dominant or driven from Saudi Arabia and which is one of the main sources of financing radical mosques around the world and so forth, so I haven’t said very much about that, but that’s another strand. Or the Khomeini Shia strand which I have indicated before has a different understanding of Jihad for example. And there are differences but things to be aware of. In many ways Islam is profoundly weak. You know for the last two hundred, two hundred and fifty years, I suppose since Napolean went into Egypt, Islam’s been on the back foot and retreating, and what is sustaining the growth of Islam, especially the growth in the population of Islam at the moment, is oil income. You know vast amounts of money going through and although they are going to get another huge lug as people will realise that the oil is not going to be around forever, it’s finite. When there is no more oil income and their population has expanded hugely, what’s going to happen? That’s within fifteen, twenty years, and at the moment they have got this huge population spike, I can’t remember the exact figures, but something like 40% or 50% of the population in the country of Arabia is under 20, or that order, 25, vast numbers of young people are coming in, there’s a huge population spike, so this brief moment of difficulty.
Come back to a point about immigration which is something of political import at the moment, you might have heard this quotation, “Europe will be Islamic by the end of this century at the very latest, 50% of the babies born in Brussels are Muslim.” That quotation by the way is from Bernard Lewis. Now I think he was being deliberately provocative to make people think. But certainly if the demographic trends don’t change then his point is unarguable, but ninety years is a long time to say that the demographic trends won’t change. At the moment it is 7% of babies in the European Union are Muslim. But broadly speaking Europe’s population is shrinking and getting older and the main areas which are growing in population terms are immigrant communities and principally Muslim communities. In France I think it is going to be up to about 15% in ten years if it isn’t already. In France they are forbidden to do proper censuses which take religion into account, but they are talking about there being at least 10% now. But the issue… for example what happens in, you remember the riots in the Paris suburbs, where now the French Police request permission to enter the area because they say this area is Islam, this area it is Sharia law we don’t recognise your authority. Do you see how this links in to what Qutb is arguing for. That you have these establishments of Islamic areas. And of course this is happening in Britain, you have these requests to make an area of Bradford, Muslim. This is an area where Sharia law will be applied.
Very import caveat, not all Muslims are the same, 2004, I think it was a Sunday Times one, 60% of British Muslims want Sharia law. It seems to me that there does need to be, this is about internal things, I finished pretty much what I’m saying about foreign policy. In terms of immigration, in terms of this country, we do need a new settlement. I’m calling it a new Elizabethan settlement simply because in the history of this country we have had religiously fuelled, ideological conflicts which caused much slaughter. Now the first Elizabethan settlement was just about the wrestling between the Protestants and the Catholics and Puritans and so forth, and what you have is precisely what Qutb is objecting to, an element of privatisation of faith, it is saying, hang on, there needs to be an arena where your religious claims are put to one side in order to prevent the slaughter of one faction by another. And this is what was established originally under Elizabeth, of course it took a hundred years to bed down, you know it had to go through Cromwell and so forth, before we end up with our glorious revolution of 1688 when things really did settle down, and there was a long process of philosophical reflection and people like John Locke saying that religious belief has to be subject to reason. But one of the fruits of this which laid the ground work for enlightenment is establishing a public square wherein which people can speak freely without provoking religious slaughter.
So that is held together in this country by the Oath of Allegiance, the duty of loyalty to the Crown. And of course the Crown in practise delegates political debates to the political parties and parliament and so forth, but the Crown is the focus of unity and so the Crown establishes an area within which conflict can be played out. Now that is precisely what Qutb is objecting to. That you have a space created which relativizes religious claims to a certain extent. And the overriding point about this is that there is one rule of law. You know the law establishes this framework within which every citizen needs to work, every subject needs to live. And that is precisely what is being undermined by this ideology and those who are sympathetic to this ideology. You can’t have separate rules of law in the Kingdom. You can’t have a bit of Bradford sectioned off and saying English law doesn’t apply here, this is a Muslim area and we are going to have Sharia law. It completely undermines the sense of what we’ve got. As I say, it took another hundred years of further conflict before it got fully established.
But one of the things I think is essential in response to the threat is to re-assert the distinctively Christian origins for our present political arrangements. It is not an accident that Western society formed in the West, where Christianity was dominant. And the roots of things like human rights, lie in Scripture, they lie in St Paul, “neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek,” and so on. These things which even the most secular minded would want to support, cannot be supported and defended against this sort of ideological attack without acknowledging its roots in Christian faith.
Much of our, much of the difficulties that we face I believe, lies in a form of self-hatred, this idea that because the West has a terrible history which it does, because the West has all sorts of dehumanising effects which it does, that the West is therefore the root of all evil and therefore needs to be abolished. I think it is a very one-sided approach to just indicate where the West gets it wrong. Because in fact the West gets all sorts of things profoundly right. As you know I have just had a daughter, I want her to be educated, that requires a certain form of civilisation to effect it, to bring it into being and that form of civilisation is not possible under Qutb’s ideology. That seems to me something worth fighting for. It is part of full human flourishing – I want my daughter, I want all daughters to flourish and the specific form of this ideology would completely deny it, so I think there are things worth fighting for.
I think we do need to start speaking plainly and have a dialogue and I have qualms about some of the things that Jack Straw says about veils and so on, these are the things which we need to talk about as a community. We need to actually defend this public square. There aren’t to be areas which are cut off. And so this question of free speech, like the cartoons in Denmark, which no newspaper in this country saw fit to republish, this is reinforcing Qutb’s ideology, that the West is craven and weak, it has no spiritual backbone. I think we can be robust in defending the values which we affirm in our society without going down the road of abomination, I think you can hold the two together.
And of course ultimately and the whole point of what I am saying today, do not be afraid, that comes back to where I started, from Psalm 33, it is not our strength that saves us it is renewing our own spiritual roots and acknowledging the necessity of God in our lives and our communities. That is the only way forward.
Not all Muslims are Islamists. That’s why I’m trying to use that phrase, Islamists is not Islam. So I had a separate session on Islam and issues like went through the five pillars of the faith and the Haj, and all this sort of stuff. This is a particular ideology, it’s like an offshoot, a branch from Islam which is toxic, and which is dedicated to the destruction of Western society, and we need to do something about it. I’m saying we are not going to be able to succeed in resisting it by trusting in our bombs and aircraft and things, we need to renew our own civilisation in religious terms.