The shock was absolute. The mind reeled at the magnitude of the destruction. Jumbo jets hit the two 110-story towers of the World Trade Center. The towers were aflame. In a little more than an hour both of them collapsed, killing thousands of innocent people. Then followed images of the smoldering Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A large section of it lay in ruins in which almost 200 more perished.
What we witnessed on Sept. 11 was a new type of terrorism that reached a new level of hate-inspired horror.
How could this happen, and what does it mean for the future? A bit of history is necessary for our understanding.
Factions among Muslims
Many factions of Islam exist, but the two largest are the Sunnis, the overwhelming majority, and the Shiites, a radical minority opposed to the governing Sunni classes. The civilized world's present troubles come mainly from radical and militant Muslim groups, mostly from the Shiite, or Shia, faction. But some of the perpetrators of this epitome of violence are emerging from the Sunni branch.
For instance, Iran, under Shiite control since the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini at the end of the '70s, has been a major sponsor of terrorism. But five years ago Afghanistan fell under control of the Taliban regime, which represents a radical Sunni faction.
Taliban interpretations of Islamic law are so strict that even fundamentalist Iran considers it extremist. When the Taliban took over, it imposed restrictions that included a ban on, among other things, kite flying, stuffed animals, paper bags, marbles and recorded music. Taliban authorities arrested soccer players for wearing shorts. The Taliban tightened already-oppressive restrictions on women to include the banning of white socks. Every inch of a woman's body, including her face, must be covered, they decreed. She must make no noise with her feet while walking. If she teaches young girls to read and write, she may be put to death.
With such a radical faction in control, Afghanistan became a natural haven in which fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, himself a fundamentalist Sunni, could find refuge.
The conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a related controversy that spills over into the rest of the world.
After Arabs conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 638 (see "The Birth and Spread of Islam"), Muslims controlled the Holy Land until 1917. The only time they didn't was during the 11th to 13th centuries, when the crusaders managed to sporadically control the Holy Land but were ultimately defeated and expelled.
It was not until the British defeated the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1917 that the Holy Land, then called Palestine, became a British protectorate for 30 years. In 1948 the creation of the Jewish state, Israel, led to the first Arab war against Israel.
So far Arabs have fought four wars against Israel-in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973-and lost every one. In the 1967 war the Israelis took control of Jerusalem but left the control of the Temple Mount to Arab religious authorities. The friction between the Israelis and the Arab Palestinians continues and contributes to the hatred extremist militant Muslims have for the West and in particular the United States, Israel's main protector.
Instead of creating the great Islamic world their forebears dreamed about, the Islamic world in recent years has lost economic, cultural and military ground to the more powerful and prosperous Western society. The Islamic world has also seen global communications penetrate its closed societies and expose its people to a flashy, materialistic lifestyle-one that appeals to many of their youths. Similarly, as women in Islamic countries have become better educated, fewer want to submit to strict Muslim laws.
This situation has fomented a great struggle between Western and Islamic values. Muslim extremist groups have used this situation to declare holy war against the West.
Center of world conflict
To serious students of the Bible, today's troubles are no surprise. God, looking ahead in history, long ago predicted the land of Israel would be at the center of the world's troubles. He said: "Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it" (Zechariah 12:2-3, emphasis added throughout).
Judah and Jerusalem could not become a center of conflict while the Muslim world ruled Jerusalem, since the whole Middle East was then under Muslim rule and Jerusalem was an insignificant place. It was only when the modern state of Israel came into being in 1948 that the balance of power and religion was forever upset in the region. After 1967 the conflict escalated because, after nearly 1,900 years, Jerusalem was again firmly in Jewish hands.
Just as prophecy foretold, the region reels as a drunken man who cannot find stability it is a true "cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples." Many insane acts are perpetrated under what can correctly be called religious drunkenness. Under its spell followers of militant Islam happily commit suicide, even at the expense of thousands of innocent lives (see "Religion of War or Peace?").
No doubt, with the presence of such radical elements, the Middle East will remain an area of even greater instability. This is likely to be especially true in the face of Western reprisals against terrorist attacks.
Where are these trends leading us? An important prophecy about the Middle East in the end time, in the book of Daniel, gives us some indications.
The prophecy first reveals the ultimate destiny of the Persian kingdom, of which Daniel was a high-ranking dignitary. Four prominent monarchs would succeed to the Persian throne. Surpassing the fourth in greatness would be a king of Greece, the head of a European nation, who would defeat the Persians (Daniel 11:1-3). This mighty conqueror, Alexander the Great, was prophesied to have a short reign and, at the peak of his power, perish.
The subsequent kingdom would divide into four parts and would not fall to any of Alexander's heirs (verse 4). This prophecy proved true when four of Alexander's generals eventually divided his kingdom among themselves.Then the prophecy focuses on the two Greek generals who would rule the areas north and south of the Holy Land. Seleucus would govern greater Syria to the north, and Ptolemy would reign over Egypt to the south. It then describes the struggle their dynasties would have to conquer the other's region, especially the territory of the Holy Land.
In the prophecy Seleucus is called the king of the North and Ptolemy the king of the South. As the prophecy progresses over time, other successors of these positions are mentioned.
Then the scene in Daniel jumps forward in history to the "time of the end" (verse 40). The king of the North would now become a far more formidable power, while the king of the South would hold in his power a great part of the southern kingdoms surrounding Israel-territories that today belong to the Muslim Arabs.
The prophecy proclaims: "At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through" (same verse).
The end-time king of the South apparently will head a federation of nations that are presently under Muslim rule. The nations under the king of the South that will be invaded by the king of the North will include "many countries," among them Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia (verses 41-43).
The king of the North is described in other parts of the Bible as the head of a great federation north of these southern countries.
Time of Christ's return
This king of the North will exist when Jesus Christ returns to earth: "And in the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their fullness, a king [likely out of Europe, as was the original king of the North] shall arise,... His power shall be mighty, but not by his own power. He shall destroy fearfully, and shall prosper and thrive; he shall destroy the mighty, and also the holy people. Through his cunning he shall cause deceit to prosper under his rule, and he shall exalt himself in his heart. He shall destroy many in their prosperity. He shall even rise against the Prince of princes [the returning Jesus Christ]; but he shall be broken without human means" (Daniel 8:23-25).
Revelation 17 describes an end-time dictator known as the "beast" heading a federation of nations, apparently in the territory of the former Roman Empire. This appears to be the same person as the king of the North, who also fights Christ at His return (verses 12-14).
This evil ruler will eventually conquer much of the Middle East, including Israel, and will set up a headquarters there. "He shall enter also into the glorious land, and ... shall plant the tabernacles of his palace between the seas in the glorious holy mountain [Jerusalem]; yet he shall come to his end, and none shall help him" (Daniel 11:41-45, King James Version).
During this time the world will suffer great tribulation, just before the coming of Christ to end the corrupt and violent rule of men.
The prophecy continues: "At that time ... there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book of life. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake ..." (Daniel 12:1-2). Mention of the tribulation and resurrection here identifies the fulfillment of this prophecy as just before and through Christ's second coming.
Bible prophecy foretells the rising of a king of the South who will play a significant role in end-time events. What will bring many of the Muslim nations to unite under such a leader?
Is it possible that an escalation of unconscionable acts perpetrated by extremist Muslim militants against the United States, followed by Western reprisals, will eventually lead to the beginning of a broad Islamic union under a charismatic religious leader to defend the Muslim cause? One way or another, a "king of the South" will provoke a future war in the Middle East.
This is a time to stay tuned and watch current events ever more closely. We have entered a different world. Peace and security will never be quite the same.
As the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 13:11, "now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed." GN