As most students struggle with the secular topics of science and history, we may not be fully aware that there is a cosmic war being precipitated around the world. In perpetual preparation for the imminent holy struggle, pious and devoted soldiers of the one true god have been battening down the hatches, buying up automatic weapons and training for this climactic struggle against their mortal enemy. In their eyes, the signs are everywhere, the foe is always growing in size and influence and they are true defenders of the faith. While you and I may not subscribe to this particular perception of reality, for the radical Christian fundamentalists in this country, and radical Islamic fundamentalists in others, this is the only reality, and day by day it is coming to pass.
Have no doubt: there are significant differences between the groups. Their methods of following through on their ideologies are intimately shaped by the environments in which they operate. In the Middle East, where decades of American intervention and support of dictators has fostered widespread antipathy towards the Unites States, and the volatile demographic of unemployed youth is sizable, the militants have a greater recruiting base to tap into. The general absence of a strong separation of church and state, combined with a lack of religious diversity, makes the religious rhetoric of extremist groups more resonant with a larger percentage of the population. Decades of autocratic oppression and intermittent civil and foreign wars have made the use of violence a more common recourse for discontented parties. In general, the unstable and tumultuous nature of much of the region has lent itself to conspicuous demonstrations of force as a means of implementing the fundamentalist vision.
The Christian extremists, on the other hand, use characteristically American techniques to disseminate their hatred and intolerance. The right to free speech, the great facilitator of social change and possibly the most important distinction of our democracy, is now used to spread messages of prejudice and bigotry, deface precious Islamic texts, and most recently, to create a slanderous and offensive video which would have been almost comedic in its sophomoric attempt at criticizing Islam if not for the calamitous events it precipitated. The right to bear arms, a freedom with only a long list of homicides to its name, continues to provide to these hate driven fundamentalists the weapons they have been using for decades to lash out in wanton violence. The freedom of religion, a right associated with the first colonists to this land, is now being abused to form paramilitary groups in the backyards of churches, tax-exempt property where God’s soldiers can train to kill Muslims, Jews or any other group that doesn’t fit into their narrow minded view of the world. These militant organizations are actually the most analogous to their Middle Eastern counterparts, as some openly aspire to establish for themselves in America the theocratic rule that the Taliban once held in Afghanistan.
What neither of these groups will ever acknowledge is that their respective activities are driven by a common group psychology imbedded in their religious traditions. A contemporary understanding of religion is that it evolved to promote group solidarity, and we can see this in one of the most positively perceived qualities of both Christianity and Islam: their ability to bring people together into an altruistic group through beliefs and practices. However, the problems of fundamentalism turn the ideological borders of the group into fortified bulwarks, and the way that the ardently faithful treat those outside their narrow faith community follows as a result. As the only people abiding holy law and carrying out the will of God, perceived threats to their group take on far elevated significance. For those who truly believe that they are the protectors of the faith, the faith must be defended by any means possible. Given this world view, the existence of even a relatively marginal opposing fundamentalist group confirms their notion of a cosmic conflict and both provokes and justifies an extreme reaction; in this strange way each of these radical groups simultaneously depends on and amplifies the fanaticism of the other.
Because of the absolute nature of these convictions, it does not matter to the warriors that the majority of the world does not share their views or their fervor. It does not matter to them that their vicious antagonists represent only the smallest, most extreme element within their religion. It clearly does not even matter to them that there exist reasonable people like United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who believe in and work towards ideals of open-mindedness, cultural integration and peaceful political change, because on September 11, 2012, these two groups killed Ambassador Stevens in the crossfire of their latest skirmish. And while there is little that can assuage the grief of having laid down yet another innocent life on the long road towards tolerant coexistence, let it be a small consolation that the hateful groups that contributed to his death are far outnumbered by the scores of people, Libyan and American, Christian and Muslim, who came together in spirit to solemnly mourn his passing.