A conversation on the present relationship between the three Abrahamic religions should, I suggest, begin with recognition of the fact that the three religions share not only a common theistic faith but also a common biblical heritage. Moses, is for example mentioned no less than 79 times in the New Testament and 162 times in the Koran.

Even so the Abrahamic religions have a long history of clash and conflict that makes them easy prey for manipulation by religious fanatics and political opportunists. In this long history of conflict the past two decades happen to be the worst since the 13th century.

In this phase the followers of the Abrahamic religions have been exposed to ceaseless cacophony of mutually antagonistic religio-political claims and expectations, such as universal caliphate, manifest destiny, chosen people, promised land, jihad and the last battle between good and evil. There is as it were an impatience to sound the last trump to hasten the ascent to the heaven and descent into the hell of you know who.

More important than the claims themselves is the fact that each of the claims and expectations is presumed by its proponent to have divine sanction and support. This presumption is understandable, for millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims have been led to believe in a partisan god whose blessings can be invoked by his favorite supplicants in support of their self-serving and often violent and repressive enterprises. This explains why religion looms so large in the politics of certain parts of the world.

Two questions. First, there is that theological conundrum, for monotheists, of whether God in his singular majesty as the Master of the Universe, or of universes as the Koran puts it, could be expected to have the kind of concerns and preferences associated with the tribal gods in the pre-Abrahamic worldview? Next, why have the bleatings of the humanists and pacifists been drowned by the drumbeat of religious fanatics in societies as diverse as Pakistan and the United States?

Religious fanaticism has a long history but, blessed be the peacemakers, with long periods of reprieve. Its present phase can be traced to its rebirth or, more accurately, to its assisted birth during the period of Cold War as a countervailing ideology against the “godless” creed of communism. The religious forces in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim world were mobilized to face a common enemy together. That collective religious fanaticism, in that situation, was a military asset in waging jihad/crusade against the “evil empire.”

THE ALLIANCE of Abrahamic religions, despite many tensions, did work as a powerful tool against the common enemy and reached its peak after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the enemy disappeared from the scene rather suddenly.

While the rationale for the alliance of the Abrahamic religions got buried under the debris, religious fanaticism, nurtured in its most intense form during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, remained alive and well, though unfocused, like an enraged bull standing alone in the arena. Having no common enemy in sight the forces of fanaticism turned against each other, and that’s where we find them today.

The clash of fanatics, dignified as a “clash of civilizations” by some academics, is by now firmly established as work in progress, and hardly a day passes without some fuel being added to this fire. In fact it has given birth to a new class of entrepreneurs – owners of TV channels, magazines, newspapers, publishing houses – and authors, preachers and televangelists, whose business it is to sell and spread religious hatred. Once injected it spreads like an insidious disease, and is all the more dangerous for that very reason.

While there is in the making such a thing as an American theocracy, also the title of Kevin Philips’ book, Pakistani society could succumb to the pressures of its own brand of theocrats if the present socio-political trajectory doesn’t change course.

It’s a measure of their success that they have, with impunity, given themselves license to kill and the right to administer justice in their own way, wherever they can. Even respected religious scholars who had the courage to disagree have been killed or forced to seek asylum elsewhere.

However, the attack on Malala Yusufzai, a 14-year-old school girl, by the Taliban has shaken the conscience of the whole nation. Even the fence-sitters can now make up their minds, for it demonstrated the extreme fanaticism that we are dealing with.

The policy makers in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim societies have yet to fully grasp the truth that the religious extremists in the two camps pose a threat not so much to each other as to their own societies. And not only to the interfaith harmony but also to the rational and humanist worldview within every society where this malaise, whatever its brand, is allowed to fester.

It has already warped public opinion on a whole range of issues from the rights of women to the theory of evolution even in the United States. The religious fanatics, let’s hand it to them, have already brought about the greatest reversal in the evolution of human thought, while rest of the world watches helplessly.

The world stands helplessly by for it has not yet realized that the clash is not so much between good and evil as between two irrational forces, each against the other and both against Reason.

The writer is a Karachi-based Pakistani columnist, and has been writing op-ed pieces for more than 20 years, mostly for Dawn, the leading English daily of Pakistan.

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