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Pilgrims in Search of War

Three books on how the pilgrimages of the revealed religions turned violent.
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United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists. (Photo: Penguin/Random House)

United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists. (Photo: Penguin/Random House)

The most commonly circulated photograph of Moner Mohammad Abusalha shows a young man, dressed snuggly in a heavy sweater and woolen hat, cradling a tabby cat to his chest. As the feline burrows its head into Abusalha's beard, he strokes its fur and smiles into the camera with a special warmth that any cat fancier will recognize. The son of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Mo, as his friends called him, was a chubby kid from south Florida with a passion for basketball and video games. But in the fall of 2012, armed with a rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and just $20, Abusalha flew from Orlando to Istanbul, slipped over the mountains of the Turkish borderlands into northern Syria, and joined the regional branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra. On May 25, 2014, Abusalha detonated a massive truck bomb that killed scores of Syrian soldiers, becoming the first American suicide attacker to die in Syria. Before his martyrdom, Abusalha had taken the nom de jihad Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki, "the American father of the cat."

Abusalha is just one of tens of thousands of men and women who have traveled to Syria, Afghanistan, East Africa, and other war zones in the name of jihad over the past 15 years. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has charged at least 330 people worldwide with jihadist-linked crimes—ranging from murder to the funding of terrorist groups—according to national security expert and journalist Peter Bergen, whose new book, United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists, is fundamental to understanding a key facet of the fundamentalist-driven era we live in today, the pilgrim in search of a war.

Contrary to the "close our border" diatribes popular among contemporary conservatives, few of those 330 are foreign fighters. Eighty percent are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Few live in poverty; most, in fact, hail from middle-class backgrounds. More than half have attended college; STEM degrees are especially popular among future jihadists. Many, like Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the ISIS-pledging couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last December, are married with children. They come from Muslim and Evangelical Christian backgrounds. According to many counterterrorism experts and psychologists, these jihadists are not brainwashed drones—more often, they're mentally and emotionally stable individuals. They are, in the words of Bergen, "ordinary Americans."

Nearly half of the 330 have traveled abroad for training, inspiration, or simply to die. And despite the difficulties of evading local authorities and crossing unfriendly borders, more will undoubtedly follow. Early last year ISIS published a 50-page online field guide for promising American Mujahideen. Like some perverse imitation of a Lonely Planet guidebook, the manual's subtitle promises tips on "What to Packup. Who to Contact. Where to Go. Stories & More!" The jihadist journeys undertaken by Mo Abusalha and countless others have come to echo, according to Bergen, "an earlier generation of idealistic Americans who flocked to Spain in the 1930s to show their solidarity with the antifascists fighting Franco." The comparison is clearly meant to provoke. Are American partisans of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and ISIS listless but ideologically suggestible people who traipse off to fight in a war that is only partly their own? Or are these militants part of a longer arc of history?

Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve. (Photo: Penguin/Random House)

Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve. (Photo: Penguin/Random House)

An answer might be found in Tom Bissell's Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, an often humorous travelogue and densely researched history of Jesus' first dozen followers written by an atheist. In Bissell's account, the Apostles—a ragtag clique of Jewish fishermen, tentmakers, carpenters, and a single tax collector (Matthew)—saw the light, pledged their lives to the one Son of God, and, after a fair amount of schism, hit the road to become the original Christian missionaries.

The word apostolos, after all, originally referred to a messenger or envoy, someone sent on a mission, though not always from God. The Twelve, along with the so-called Seventy Disciples, were Christianity's first patrons and proselytizers. They didn’t call themselves Christians—outsiders called them Nazarenes—but referred to themselves as "followers of the Way," after Jesus' pronouncement, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Of course the way station to eternal salvation was then, as it remains now, death, and all but one of the Twelve met violent ends—the descriptions can be gag-inducing for modern readers—on their way to martyrdom and sainthood (only John, whom the Bible calls Jesus' "Beloved Disciple," died a natural death). For two millennia since, countless worshipers have followed the path to Christ that the Apostles laid. Christianity, like Islam, is at its best a religion of peace. But as Bissell follows in the Apostles' footsteps, it becomes readily apparent that the Twelve were holy warriors too—jihadists for Jesus: At home or striking out to distant lands, they promised to provide the only way to Heaven's gates. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth," Jesus says in Matthew 10:34. "I came not to send peace, but a sword."

Bissell's journey begins just south of Jerusalem's walled center in the valley of Hakeldama, the alleged site of Judas Iscariot's suicide and burial, an event which earned the area the name haqel dema, or "field of blood" in Aramaic. Few pilgrims tour Hakeldama today—though a Google search located one website that encourages Christians to visit the "picturesque setting whose infamous history of child sacrifices caused it to be identified with the hell of unquenchable fire and punishment"—and Bissell finds no signs or paths to mark the significance of the location. Besides "caves, mud, and bushes," Hakeldama offers only, from its surrounding ridges, a terrific view of the separation barrier, or Apartheid Wall, that chokes the West Bank off from itself. "Why the heck," another American asks Bissell incredulously, "would you want to see where Judas killed himself?"

From there Bissell's odyssey turns increasingly bleak—few readers, no matter their dedication to Christ, will wish to re-trace the author's grim pilgrimage—as he tracks the torturous endings (crucifixions, stonings, and dismemberments aplenty) of each Apostle turned martyr. And while little to no proof exists, beyond Scripture, that places each of the Twelve in his designated final resting place, the tortuous afterlives of each are often more arduous than their deaths. Bissell visits the Saint Thomas Basilica in Chennai, India, a city the old doubter probably never visited (when early Christian scribes detailed his mission in "India," they probably meant somewhere generically and exotically distant). Outside Kurmanty, Kyrgyzstan, Bissell spelunks a set of spider-filled catacombs that almost certainly do not contain the relics of Matthew, despite the recent claims of some shady Kyrgyz archaeologists.

At the end of his Apostolic adventures, Bissell finds himself exhausted, foot-blistered, and still a non-believer as he trudges toward the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, saintly home of James, son of Zebedee, brother of John, the first Apostle to be martyred, and undoubtedly the most passionately sanguine among the Twelve. In Luke 9:54, Jesus rebukes James for wishing to "command fire to come down from heaven, and consume" a Samaritan town. Eight centuries after his death, James, according to Spanish legend, is miraculously resurrected to lead an army at the Battle of Clavijo to drive the Iberian Muslims from those once and future Christian lands. The fact that Clavijo is a slice of historical hogwash nevertheless makes this story, like Matthew in Kyrgyzstan and Thomas in India, no less real. "The footprints they left behind," Bissell writes, "lead us to places we long to be led."

Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World. (Photo: Little, Brown and Company)

Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World. (Photo: Little, Brown and Company)

Like a modern-day Apostle, the writer Dennis Covington has often led his readers to place we long to be led, though we might not have known it before diving into his often dark and darkly intimate prose. His Salvation on Sand Mountain—first released in 1995—ranks as one of the strangest, scariest, and downright entertaining religious-centric reads of all time. Covington's newest, Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World, is even bleaker, and certainly less funny, than Salvation, a book which opened with the snake-handling pastor of an Appalachian church attempting to murder his wife with a venomous holy serpent. Part memoir and part spiritual journey, Revelation tracks Covington's fixation with locations where faith and violence converge, or, in his estimation, "places where religion bled." Diving back and forth in time, the author re-visits Birmingham, Alabama, of the 1960s and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the horror of which, he writes, led to a crisis of faith. He dredges up memories of reporting the Salvadoran Civil War, where, mired in a drainage ditch, as government forces fought guerrillas just inches away, he found his faith restored.

But it's ultimately to the perilous borderlands of Turkey and Syria where Covington takes the narrative, visiting a handful of times between 2012 and 2014. He lands in Antioch, the city where Christians were first called Christians, where he beds down in the local Catholic church and sneaks across the Syrian border into Aleppo, though it's not entirely clear why he travels there. Perhaps it's his cultivation of a deeply spiritual, yet entirely intangible connection to Kayla Mueller, an ISIS-kidnapped aid worker last seen in the city. Though at times it feels like a death wish, an experience he comes within a halo's breadth of fulfilling while dodging bombs and bullets inside the Great Mosque of Aleppo, its "walls and ceiling were spangled by bullets, like stars in an unholy universe." Most likely, it's another search to renew his flagging faith—"does it take going to war to find meaning?" he asks early on.

The answer is, of course, no. We can find meaning without war or religion. Meaning is found when we stare into the Grand Canyon's abyss or squint past a smoggy haze to take in the Beijing skyline. Meaning is found while crossing the street. There is as much, if not more, meaning in the perfect plate of cacio e pepe found in any number of Roman trattorias than in any one of the Vatican's holy relics. But, more often than not, it is at the limits of life's extremities where we locate that nebulous abstraction we call faith. Mo Abusalha was not going to find what he was looking for in a throwback basketball jersey or the newest release of Gears of War. Abusalha unfortunately believed in something greater, something for which he, and countless others, have died searching.

When Dennis Covington finally files away his passport, he remains a believer, though one beset by doubt. "I'm still not sure whether there's a God or not," he writes. "If there is, he must be as distant as those stars."