Understanding Islam in our culture

I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to print an important  article here from a source I trust implicitly. The source is Hillsdale College. The publication is Imprimis. If you don’t already have a subscription–get one; it’s free. If you don’t already support them, do so if you can.

The author of this piece is Andrew C. McCarthy, who is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. A graduate of Columbia College, he received his J.D. at New York Law School. For 18 years, he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, and from 1993-95 he led the terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 others in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a plot to bomb New York City landmarks. Following the 9/11 attacks, he supervised the Justice Department’s command post near Ground Zero. He has also served as a Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and an adjunct professor at Fordham University’s School of Law and New York Law School.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on February 24, 2016, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., as part of the AWC Family Foundation Lecture Series.

Islam–Fact or Dreams?

In 1993 I was a seasoned federal prosecutor, but I only knew as much about Islam as the average American with a reasonably good education—which is to say, not much. Consequently, when I was assigned to lead the prosecution of a terrorist cell that had bombed the World Trade Center and was plotting an even more devastating strike—simultaneous attacks on the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the United Nations complex on the East River, and the FBI’s lower Manhattan headquarters—I had no trouble believing what our government was saying: that we should read nothing into the fact that all the men in this terrorist cell were Muslims; that their actions were not representative of any religion or belief system; and that to the extent they were explaining their atrocities by citing Islamic scripture, they were twisting and perverting one of the world’s great religions, a religion that encourages peace.

Unlike commentators and government press secretaries, I had to examine these claims. Prosecutors don’t get to base their cases on assertions. They have to prove things to commonsense Americans who must be satisfied about not only what happened but why it happened before they will convict people of serious crimes. And in examining the claims, I found them false.

One of the first things I learned concerned the leader of the terror cell, Omar Abdel Rahman, infamously known as the Blind Sheikh. Our government was portraying him as a wanton killer who was lying about Islam by preaching that it summoned Muslims to jihad or holy war. Far from a lunatic, however, he turned out to be a globally renowned scholar—a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence who graduated from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Islamic learning for over a millennium. His area of academic expertise was sharia—Islamic law.

I immediately began to wonder why American officials from President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno on down, officials who had no background in Muslim doctrine and culture, believed they knew more about Islam than the Blind Sheikh. Then something else dawned on me: the Blind Sheikh was not only blind; he was beset by several other medical handicaps. That seemed relevant. After all, terrorism is hard work. Here was a man incapable of doing anything that would be useful to a terrorist organization—he couldn’t build a bomb, hijack a plane, or carry out an assassination. Yet he was the unquestioned leader of the terror cell. Was this because there was more to his interpretation of Islamic doctrine than our government was conceding?

Defendants do not have to testify at criminal trials, but they have a right to testify if they choose to—so I had to prepare for the possibility. Raised an Irish Catholic in the Bronx, I was not foolish enough to believe I could win an argument over Muslim theology with a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence. But I did think that if what we were saying as a government was true—that he was perverting Islam—then there must be two or three places where I could nail him by saying, “You told your followers X, but the doctrine clearly says Y.” So my colleagues and I pored over the Blind Sheikh’s many writings. And what we found was alarming: whenever he quoted the Koran or other sources of Islamic scripture, he quoted them accurately.

Now, you might be able to argue that he took scripture out of context or gave an incomplete account of it. In my subsequent years of studying Islam, I’ve learned that this is not a particularly persuasive argument. But even if one concedes for the purposes of discussion that it’s a colorable claim, the inconvenient fact remains: Abdel Rahman was not lying about Islam.

When he said the scriptures command that Muslims strike terror into the hearts of Islam’s enemies, the scriptures backed him up.

When he said Allah enjoined all Muslims to wage jihad until Islamic law was established throughout the world, the scriptures backed him up.

When he said Islam directed Muslims not to take Jews and Christians as their friends, the scriptures backed him up.

You could counter that there are other ways of construing the scriptures. You could contend that these exhortations to violence and hatred should be “contextualized”—i.e., that they were only meant for their time and place in the seventh century.  Again, I would caution that there are compelling arguments against this manner of interpreting Islamic scripture. The point, however, is that what you’d be arguing is an interpretation.

The fact that there are multiple ways of construing Islam hardly makes the Blind Sheikh’s literal construction wrong. The blunt fact of the matter is that, in this contest of competing interpretations, it is the jihadists who seem to be making sense because they have the words of scripture on their side—it is the others who seem to be dancing on the head of a pin. For our present purposes, however, the fact is that the Blind Sheikh’s summons to jihad was rooted in a coherent interpretation of Islamic doctrine. He was not perverting Islam—he was, if anything, shining a light on the need to reform it.

Another point, obvious but inconvenient, is that Islam is not a religion of peace. There are ways of interpreting Islam that could make it something other than a call to war. But even these benign constructions do not make it a call to peace. Verses such as “Fight those who believe not in Allah,” and “Fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war,” are not peaceful injunctions, no matter how one contextualizes.

Another disturbing aspect of the trial against the Blind Sheikh and his fellow jihadists was the character witnesses who testified for the defense. Most of these people were moderate, peaceful Muslim Americans who would no more commit terrorist acts than the rest of us. But when questions about Islamic doctrine would come up—“What does jihad mean?” “What is sharia?” “How might sharia apply to a certain situation?”—these moderate, peaceful Muslims explained that they were not competent to say. In other words, for the answers, you’d have to turn to Islamic scholars like the Blind Sheikh.

Now, understand: there was no doubt what the Blind Sheikh was on trial for. And there was no doubt that he was a terrorist—after all, he bragged about it. But that did not disqualify him, in the minds of these moderate, peaceful Muslims, from rendering authoritative opinions on the meaning of the core tenets of their religion. No one was saying that they would follow the Blind Sheikh into terrorism—but no one was discrediting his status either.

Although this came as a revelation to me, it should not have. After all, it is not as if Western civilization had no experience dealing with Islamic supremacism—what today we call “Islamist” ideology, the belief that sharia must govern society. Winston Churchill, for one, had encountered it as a young man serving in the British army, both in the border region between modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the Sudan—places that are still cauldrons of Islamist terror. Ever the perceptive observer, Churchill wrote:

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. . . . Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property—either as a child, a wife, or a concubine—must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

Habitually, I distinguish between Islam and Muslims. It is objectively important to do so, but I also have a personal reason: when I began working on national security cases, the Muslims I first encountered were not terrorists. To the contrary, they were pro-American patriots who helped us infiltrate terror cells, disrupt mass-murder plots, and gather the evidence needed to convict jihadists. We have an obligation to our national security to understand our enemies; but we also have an obligation to our principles not to convict by association—not to confound our Islamist enemies with our Muslim allies and fellow citizens. Churchill appreciated this distinction. “Individual Moslems,” he stressed, “may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen.” The problem was not the people, he concluded. It was the doctrine.

What about Islamic law? On this topic, it is useful to turn to Robert Jackson, a giant figure in American law and politics—FDR’s attorney general, justice of the Supreme Court, and chief prosecutor of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. In 1955, Justice Jackson penned the foreword to a book called Law in the Middle East. Unlike today’s government officials, Justice Jackson thought sharia was a subject worthy of close study.  And here is what he concluded:

In any broad sense, Islamic law offers the American lawyer a study in dramatic contrasts. Even casual acquaintance and superficial knowledge—all that most of us at bench or bar will be able to acquire—reveal that its striking features relative to our law are not likenesses but inconsistencies, not similarities but contrarieties. In its source, its scope and its sanctions, the law of the Middle East is the antithesis of Western law.

Contrast this with the constitution that the U.S. government helped write for post-Taliban Afghanistan, which showed no awareness of the opposition of Islamic and Western law. That constitution contains soaring tropes about human rights, yet it makes Islam the state religion and sharia a principal source of law—and under it, Muslim converts to Christianity have been subjected to capital trials for apostasy.

Sharia rejects freedom of speech as much as freedom of religion. It rejects the idea of equal rights between men and women as much as between Muslim and non-Muslim. It brooks no separation between spiritual life and civil society. It is a comprehensive framework for human life, dictating matters of government, economy, and combat, along with personal behavior such as contact between the sexes and personal hygiene. Sharia aims to rule both believers and non-believers, and it affirmatively sanctions jihad in order to do so.

Even if this is not the only construction of Islam, it is absurd to claim—as President Obama did during his recent visit to a mosque in Baltimore—that it is not a mainstream interpretation. In fact, it is the mainstream interpretation in many parts of the world. Last year, Americans were horrified by the beheadings of three Western journalists by ISIS. American and European politicians could not get to microphones fast enough to insist that these decapitations had nothing to do with Islam. Yet within the same time frame, the government of Saudi Arabia beheaded eight people for various violations of sharia—the law that governs Saudi Arabia.

Three weeks before Christmas, a jihadist couple—an American citizen, the son of Pakistani immigrants, and his Pakistani wife who had been welcomed into our country on a fiancée visa—carried out a jihadist attack in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. Our government, as with the case in Fort Hood—where a jihadist who had infiltrated the Army killed 13 innocents, mostly fellow soldiers—resisted calling the atrocity a “terrorist attack.” Why? Our investigators are good at what they do, and our top officials may be ideological, but they are not stupid. Why is it that they can’t say two plus two equals four when Islam is involved?

The reason is simple: stubbornly unwilling to deal with the reality of Islam, our leaders have constructed an Islam of their very own. This triumph of willful blindness and political correctness over common sense was best illustrated by former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith when she described terrorism as “anti-Islamic activity.” In other words, the savagery is not merely unrelated to Islam; it becomes, by dint of its being inconsistent with a “religion of peace,” contrary to Islam. This explains our government’s handwringing over “radicalization”: we are supposed to wonder why young Muslims spontaneously become violent radicals—as if there is no belief system involved.

This is political correctness on steroids, and it has dangerous policy implications. Consider the inability of government officials to call a mass-murder attack by Muslims a terrorist attack unless and until the police uncover evidence proving that the mass murderers have some tie to a designated terrorist group, such as ISIS or al Qaeda. It is rare for such evidence to be uncovered early in an investigation—and as a matter of fact, such evidence often does not exist. Terrorist recruits already share the same ideology as these groups: the goal of imposing sharia. All they need in order to execute terrorist attacks is paramilitary training, which is readily available in more places than just Syria.

The dangerous flipside to our government’s insistence on making up its own version of Islam is that anyone who is publicly associated with Islam must be deemed peaceful. This is how we fall into the trap of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential Islamic supremacist organization, to infiltrate policy-making organs of the U.S. government, not to mention our schools, our prisons, and other institutions. The federal government, particularly under the Obama administration, acknowledges the Brotherhood as an Islamic organization—notwithstanding the ham-handed attempt by the intelligence community a few years back to rebrand it as “largely secular”—thereby giving it a clean bill of health. This despite the fact that Hamas is the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, that the Brotherhood has a long history of terrorist violence, and that major Brotherhood figures have gone on to play leading roles in terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.

To quote Churchill again:  “Facts are better than dreams.” In the real world, we must deal with the facts of Islamic supremacism, because its jihadist legions have every intention of dealing with us. But we can only defeat them if we resolve to see them for what they are.

The Heart of the Matter

This morning, as I was reading for my ifit journal, I started, like many of you, in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses recounted the past 40 years of wandering by Israel because they rebelled against God and didn’t take the land filled with milk and honey. Thousands died, thousands more suffered, and finally Israel was ready to listen to God and enter into the promised land.

By the time you get over to Deuteronomy 4, you’ll read Moses saying to Israel, now listen. Obviously, that hadn’t listened and now they had another opportunity to get it right.

All of us have those opportunities, don’t we? Sometimes we take advantage and sometimes we don’t. Thank God, for the past couple of days I’ve been listening. . .intently. Doctors have been talking; I’ve listened. My family has been talking; I’ve listened. Dear friends have been talking; I’ve listened. The word of God has been speaking loud and clear; I’ve listened.

But one other thing has been quietly speaking to me, something that like me, you probably ignore sometimes–my body. For the past ten days or so, my body has been speaking quietly about an issue that was very serious. One that, in fact, could have been a matter of life or death. It really was the heart of the matter.

After the visit to my cardiologist and ambulance ride to the hospital (first time in my life I rode an ambulance as a patient), and hours in the ER, I spent the night in the cardiology ward waiting to hear from my doctor. Yesterday, the came into the room and carefully explained her concerns. I listened. A few hours later I was on a treadmill for a stress test and laying in a machine taking pictures of my heart.

Doctor Smith called me after I returned to my room–and I listened. She said it was time for a catheterization. In the cath lab, I met some great people all of whom were there to help me. I listened. The doctor even did the heart cath with me awake (never had that before). I had an artery that was 95% occluded. That’s what my body had been telling me for days. He was able to stent the area that was blocked and immediately I felt relief. It was pretty amazing.

I’m very thankful for the good doctors, nurses, and others who have attended to my needs the past couple of days. I’m extremely grateful for friends and family who have shown great concern. My lovely wife has not left my side. I knew she wouldn’t.

Beyond all this, I’m most grateful for God’s word.  After all, it truly is the heart of the matter. The Bible explains to us what it takes to know God. It tells us how to live, what to do and what to avoid. It shows us the path to personal peace. It leads us to the Cross of Christ.

Thank you dear Lord for your word and your presence. My heart is secure in your Son. I can rest, recover, and continue to serve.

ifit VS unfit

Matthew West’s song, Do Something, opens with the words, I woke up this morning. Thankfully, I did–just in a hospital bed.

My last blog was 48 days ago at the end of a 30 day intense workout schedule. I’ve been feeling great, working hard, leading fitness classes, and enjoying life.

Then, a few days ago, I started having some heaviness in my chest.  That thick feeling let me know something wasn’t just right and then a pain or two down the left arm sent me to my cardiologist yesterday.

After a short exam, during which the pain started up, the doctor gave me some nitroglycerine and the pain subsided.  What did that mean? I was headed for the ER by way of ambulance for a short stay (hopefully) in the hospital. Debbie sat with me just about all day in the ER before finally getting a room on the cardiac floor.  They must have hungry vampires up here ’cause I’m running short on blood.

Anyway, I woke up this morning–pulled up to the tray table, opened my computer and ifit journal, and began to read, meditate, and write (Deb brought me my stuff last night). I was reading in Psalm 42 this morning and these words just did a cartwheel off the page and into my heart,

The LORD sustains him on his sickbed, in his illness you restore him to full health. (vs. 3)

I’m not going to overspiritualize this, I’m just going to trust God. A little while after I did my ifit journal, I got my daily scripture email from one of my good friends. It was from Isaiah 40.  The end of that passage says,

They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength. (vs. 31)

OK, God, I get it, loud and clear. What I’m doing is right. I choose ifit over unfit. I’m going to keep on working hard to condition my body while I allow the Word of God to condition my mind.  This ain’t no either-or thing; it’s both-and.

I’m grateful for prayer warriors who’ve lifted me up, emailed, called, and texted. I might even get to go home this evening.  Either way, I praise my God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gives me life and sustains me.

If you know the song I quoted at the beginning of this missive, you know it’s time to DO SOMETHING!

Sunrise landscape render retouches

IFIT is a life-strategy.  It stands for I will be Faithful, Intrepid, & Teachable.  The IFIT journal is a daily bible reading that carries you through the entire bible in one year with a journal to write down your thoughts as you read. The fitness portion of the IFIT strategy is built around core exercise to strengthen and tone the entire body.

Last Day, Not Really

Day 30 – Tonight was a lot like last night, lots of people in the gym. I prefer the crowd a little thinner but, hey, it is what it is any you just have to adjust. And that’s what I’ve been learning to do during this 30-day challenge, adjust.

I thought the goal of this was going to be about adjusting my waistline. I did that. But it was really about adjusting my attitude. I didn’t have a bad attitude, just a wrong one. I went in with my OCD schedule in my mind thinking that if I made it all the way through the 30 days, I’d just tick off a list of accomplishments. Did I accomplish what I set out to do? Yes, and much more.

I’m fitter, slimmer, and stronger. Tick. I’m more capable of doing the work. Tick. I’m back in the gym on a regular basis. Tick. But now I’m not so concerned about “doing my time” on the gym floor. I do a lot of stretching with my equipment at home now. Fitness is bleeding over into more of my daily habits–especially nutrition. And in the future, when I miss a day because of the rest of my life, not only am I not going to worry about it (I hope), I’m pretty certain that’s not going to derail me.

When the warm weather returns, the bikes are coming out, walking and stretching are going to be a big part of my fitness time with my wife, the IFIT Fitness strategy at church will continue to grow, and hopefully I can help change people’s minds about the whole thing.

I live in the most obese state in the Union. For me, that’s sad. I don’t mind talking about to whoever will listen, but better than that, I want to show them that an old man still has a little kick.

Adjusting to aging is not easy, at least not for me. But I’m adjusting to that.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27 [ESV]

Running Again

Day 29 – This was a really good day at the gym; I didn’t go planning to do any running, but when I got there, the crowd was pretty overwhelming on the floor. In fact, the area where I do my warm-up stretch and the machines I usually use first were all occupied. I guess that’s a good thing because lots of people were working on their fitness.

I looked up at the track on the second level and, much to my surprise, no one was up there. My new Saucony’s were on my feet so it just made sense to go do some laps. My new running strategy at the gym is pretty simple. I don’t run on the treadmills much anymore and doing distance upstairs is not very attractive to me so I walk and sprint. Interval training/wind sprints seem to give me the most bang for my time.

Just a couple of miles of that kind of running really works out my legs. Afterward, I did some abductor/adductor stretching for my hips, several hundred crunches, and about a half hour of free weights. I’m trying to lift heavier weights to work my shoulders without getting a lot of bulk. I watch the guys around me who really look good with their big chests and arms and I really admire what they’ve done. It’s just not for me.

This session closed out with 10 minutes on the Stair Master and that really burned out my legs. Afterward, while I felt really spongy, I felt good at the same time because my body is responding better than I expected. The goal now is to just keep improving.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. Colossians 3:23 [ESV]

High Steppin’ Again

Day 28 – Sunday in the fitness center a church is fast becoming a favorite workout for me. Getting in to a stepping class and leading it is major fun, it’s sweaty work, and when I mess up trying to lead, everyone gets a good laugh.

This part of my workout learning curve is teaching me that variety really is the spice of life. The move from weight training and machines to speed stepping on a simple platform lets me know that physical training can be done effectively without much equipment at all.

As with any fitness class, there are people of all levels of ability participating.  Trying to help each person get the most out of the class is a real challenge–not to mention calling the class and trying to keep my own wind. But I do appreciate those who follow my lead. They push me to do better even if they don’t know it.

A Long, Slow Journey

Day 27 – I went to the gym late in the day today and being Saturday, not many people were there. That was a good thing for me. I had access to just about everything. Plus, I didn’t feel rushed to get out of someone’s way. So I stretched my time out and worked slower. That didn’t bode especially well for the cardio part of my workout, but it did give me the opportunity to concentrate on form.

Apparently, I concentrated a little too much because I came away with a strained muscle in my low back; not a lot of pain, just a pulling sensation that I know is not normal. I did my 1,000 crunches, stretched a bunch, lifted weights and walked some.

I came away today thinking the habit is now established. Going to the gym is neither an anticipation or a dread. Now, it’s just what I do–again. I hope this mindset stays with me throughout the Spring and Summer months. It’s mighty easy to skip a workout when the sun is shining and it’s warm outside.

The problem is that when you skip what is necessary you end up doing what is not and often what you shouldn’t.

Living In The Here & Now

Day 26 – As much as my mind dreams about the good ole days when I was thinner & quicker, my body needs a lot more rest these days. I’ve never been a heavy or long sleeper, buy now I find myself going to bed earlier so I can still get up at 4 AM every day. Doing that requires a more strategic choice of workout times.

On days like today, following a major workout session yesterday, a morning gym time is pretty much out of the question. Add to that systemic soreness and I wondered if I’d even feel like doing anything today.

So, I went to my new fallback. . .you guessed it, extensive stretching. It keeps me from getting stiff, it works out a lot of the muscle kinks, and allows increased circulation to relieve the nasty soreness.

It’s certainly not exactly the same as going to the gym and stretching on the mats, but it’s close. In some ways it may even be better. I don’t feel rushed, all the equipment is always at my disposal at home, and I can stretch multiple times a day without going out the door.

That’s been a big adjustment for me because my mind says you can only do gym work in a gym. I really do know better. It’s a mind game, for sure.

For now, I’m going to take a nap. . .before I go to bed. That’s what old people do.

Run Forrest, Run

Day 25 – Running is in my blood, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s still in my bones, especially my feet.  I love to run. More precisely, I love to sprint. Distance stuff is very hard for me.

I have new running shoes–so it was time to run. Laced them up tight, stretched myself out, walked a few laps to warm up my legs, and off I went. Wind sprints, my best friend for getting the heart rate up quickly and my worst enemy for shin splints. Today, I got my fair share of both. My new Saucony’s fit perfectly and with a good pre-run stretch, I was able to increase acceleration significantly. On a 1/16th  mile indoor track, ACceleration is not really the problem; DEceleration is.  The wall at the turns come into view quickly.

And still, I run. It feels good to get these old bones in motion. It feels good to still have a little kick left. And it feels good to have a much younger runner come by and pat you on the back with a smile and encouragement.

So, I run. Every time a little uneasiness begins to appear in my shins and feet, I think maybe it’s time to stop running. But, no, it may be time to slow down or run less often.  This one thing is true. . .runners run.

Soon, it’ll be warm outside and the days will be longer. I can’t wait. Then I’ll do some of that stuff I say I don’t like.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world. . . Romans 1:20 [ESV]

Another Day, Another Pain

Day 24 — Today, like most other days in this quest, I worked about as hard as I can work. Maybe, if I were still working with a trainer, I could work a little harder, but I doubt it. I’m pushing myself almost to the edge of my capability. No complaint here, unless talking about strain and pain is complaining. I don’t believe it is because it’s just a report about what happens to a senior adult body when you push it like a person much younger.

Oh, but I forgot–when I was a teenager and it was a football or track coach pushing me, it hurt then, too. And when I was in my 20’s running up and down the hills with my running partner, it hurt then, too. And when I was in my 50’s with a heart about to explode because I weighed too much, my cholesterol was too high, and my nutrition was horrible, it hurt then, too.

Now I’m in my 60’s, working harder than ever on nutrition and fitness and–it hurts.  I’m not hurting because I’m lazy or abusive to myself, I’m hurting because my muscles and bones are responding favorably to the work. And, I assure you, that’s a very good thing.

So, I’ll keep stretching, lifting, and running as long as I’m able. Maybe I’ll get to live to see all my grandchildren graduate and start their own careers and families.

Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers. Proverbs 17:6 [ESV]