The ringleader of the Sept. 11 terrorists, Muhammad Atta, left behind a five-page letter detailing the meticulous planning and preparation for the hijackings and attacks.
It also revealed the particular understanding of Islam that supplied the framework and motivation for Atta and others who were eagerly preparing “to meet God.”
Atta’s documents and numerous materials and proclamations by Osama bin Laden, coupled with a series of brazen attacks in London, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere, solidified the threat.
A network of militant Muslims – sometimes well organized and sometimes acting independently – shared a religious and political worldview that spurred them toward violent action.
The stunning “success” of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States and July 7, 2005, on London’s public transportation system, forced everyone to think about far worse scenarios.
What if the people perpetrating future suicidal attacks had access to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons?
In the decade since Sept. 11, media attention has focused primarily on violence connected to Islam. But Muslims are by no means unique.
Many devout believers within each of the Abrahamic communities are actively working to bring about their respective version of a theocratic state.
Numerous cocksure Christians, militant Muslims and extremist Jews openly proclaim they know exactly what God wants, for them and for everyone else.
These unwavering believers readily justify violence as a redemptive or required component to accomplish God’s plan. In the interdependent and heavily armed world of the 21st century, the thought and actions of these fundamentalists offer little more than a recipe for disaster.
None of these religions offers a permanent template that firmly establishes the proper interplay between religion and politics.
Rather, the structures defining and regulating this dynamic relationship have always been shaped in particular settings.
Drawing on their principles and teachings, the religions that have stood the test of time can and do adapt to changing circumstances.
Fundamentalists, however, believe they have a fixed template that dictates the way forward. Their roadmaps may appropriate a version of God’s truth that benefits their communities, but it is not a viable approach to our shared future on this planet.
Frequently, they offer detailed directions leading to apocalypse. They long for the end of the world as we know it and are happy to facilitate the conflagration envisioned as part of God’s plan.
Although the most blatant and overtly violent fundamentalists are relatively small in number, the threat they pose is both imminent and widespread. The events of Sept. 11 remind us that a small number of people can wreak havoc on a global scale.
Such actors lead us to acknowledge the next level of fundamentalists: the many millions of devout believers who embrace a rigid theological framework and take direction from leaders whose theology is tied explicitly to a political agenda.
These leaders deliberately engender fear and dehumanize others as they prepare the way for the theocracy they presume God requires.
These fundamentalists are not yet among the small fringe of suicidal extremists, but many are only one small step removed. They represent a ticking time bomb in the contemporary world.
Understanding the dangers that fundamentalists pose and exposing and challenging their worldviews are critical steps if we hope to fashion a healthier path forward in the 21st century.
Charles Kimball is director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of a new book, “When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” This column is an excerpt from his new book. For more information about and to order “When Religion Becomes Lethal,” click here.