AQSAMenahemKahana:AFP:Getty

In a reminder that tensions in and around Israel and Palestine are still mounting, extremists on both sides ginned up a nasty confrontation in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Reading most of the reports, it seems as if the melee was provoked primarily by Muslim fanatics reacting against rumors that Israel was intending closer supervision of the site and possibly allowing Jews to worship there. There's no evidence backing the rumors, although some on the settler right clearly would like to up the ante.

It's useful to remember that this impasse is fueled by land but also, increasingly, by fundamentalism. The Israeli government is influenced more than ever by the burgeoning ranks of fundamentalist Jews for whom issues of land and peace are not political endeavors but apocalyptic religious duties. And, of course, to an even greater extent, the Palestinians have shifted from being a nationalist and political entity toward becoming a Muslim and religious force.

These are the forces Obama is battling.

They are the forces we are all battling: as religion coopts politics in places as disparate as the GOP base, the Israeli electorate, and the Muslim masses in the Middle East, the odds of a peaceful, worldly resolution along pragmatic lines lengthen. The trouble is: no grandstanding on civilizational lines can work. The key is to lower the temperature - as Maliki is trying to do in Iraq, as the more secular Green Movement is trying to do in Iran, as what's left of Pakistan's secular military is attempting in Waziristan, as Obama is trying to do on a much milder scale in the culture-religious ars at home.

But symbols like Al-Aqsa or the center of Baghdad remain critical stages for fundamentalist, sectarian drama - the kind that polarizes so deeply that the religious atavistic impulse emerges. It is still here. And still extremely dangerous.

(Photo: An Israeli policeman looks at Palestinian men as they try to extinguish a fire that started after youths set ablaze barricades during clashes with Israeli police in Jerusalem's old city on October 25, 2009. Clashes erupted between Israeli police and Palestinians in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the latest violence to shake Jerusalem's flashpoint site holy to Muslims and Jews. By Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty.)

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