Religion has been a source of social and spiritual advancement as well as grievous human conflict throughout history. In today's era of globalization, religion has also become a primary force of backlash against economic and political change.
Faith-based shot and shell have in many places vanquished peace and serenity in this season holy to the peoples of the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. These scriptures have become refuge for some and weapon for others as impersonal economic forces level protective walls of belief and national identity and provoke uncomprehending anger that must find focus.
In the Balkans, international peacekeepers patrol to keep Serb Christians from resuming their recent slaughter of Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims. Islam now appears as an integral part of the name of terror groups that routinely kill innocents throughout the Middle East and Asia. Jews in Israel are immune neither from the slaughter nor from calling on their faith to justify shedding the blood of their enemies.
History seems to have slammed into reverse gear around a world that was widely assumed a year ago to be moving in a straight line toward a more prosperous and secular future that would be shaped by stock markets and the Internet, not by turbaned zealots or theocracies that have or want nuclear trigger fingers.
Conflicts over land and other resources play central roles in the world's turmoil, to be sure. But fanaticism's renewed grip on power and politics stands out in these December days of Christmas, the Eid al-Fitr festival and Hanukkah -- joyfully celebrated as American soldiers hunt through caves in Afghanistan for bandits who believe they possess the sole truth that God provides to humans.
The bewildering, overwhelming array of choices made available by the global era fuels the rage and disgust that Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and their followers feel toward the West and the United States in particular. In following a perverted but clearly identifiable strain of Wahhabist Islam, these (and other) fanatics preach that purity and salvation lie in submission, not in choice. Choice is reserved for God.
It is not that religion has become politicized in the Arab world, Iran and much of Asia. It is that religion has become politics itself in these realms. The nearly simultaneous collapse of pan-Arab nationalism, the Persian empire and communism in the last quarter of the 20th century left a vast ideological void and a hunger for cosmic answers to life's problems.
American power has been drawn almost willy-nilly into the vacuum in the overlapping crises of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Central and South Asia. Part of the reason for U.S. strategic incoherence in this zone of instability becomes clearer with the downfall of the Taliban:
Washington does not intervene on religious grounds; but its actions have huge consequences for the balance of religious forces contending for power in this zone, where governments have by and large lost the confidence of their subjects because of corruption, incompetence or neglect.
America's reasons for helping Iraq militarily against Iran in the 1980s had nothing to do with religion per se. And for Americans the destruction of the Taliban this autumn was a response to terrorism, not a response to an especially barbaric form of worship. But in the societies that endure the consequences of American power it is often impossible to disentangle cause from effect on a scale this large.
Piecemeal U.S. interventions in the Persian Gulf over the past 25 years have in fact been important equalizers in a struggle between radical forces within the two main branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites.
American power helped blunt the Shiite ideological crusade launched by Iran's 1979 revolution, which has now crested at home and abroad. Sunni radicals in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan then sought to turn Afghanistan into a laboratory for extremism and terror -- an effort now thwarted by U.S. will and power.
President Bush's finest wartime quality has been his determination not to let the Afghanistan campaign turn into a U.S. war against Islam. Industrial democracies know they cannot justify or afford religious wars, which their citizens and allies would not long support.
But Americans -- whether policymakers, moviemakers, generals or working stiffs -- cannot ignore the role that religious backlash now plays in promoting social disintegration and ethnic conflicts abroad that require U.S. intervention to resolve. Globalization, it turns out, is not only about upwardly mobile stock markets and nifty wireless technology for yuppies without borders. The human spirit is still the arena of the world's most important struggle.