Wars, civil and/or religious: Part II (religious war)
We in the modern west have grown unused to the concept of religious war. In fact, the very term seems un-PC, like the word "crusade." Wars of religion have come to be regarded as mere screens for other motivators: socioeconomic inequalities, political power struggles, racial differences.
It's probably true that few, if any, religious wars have ever been purely religious. But we cannot and should not ignore the force of religious differences as one potent motivator, both in the past and today, for wars. And please, don't subscribe to the notion that religion is therefore the root of all evil and all war; it most decidedly is not. But ideas have consequences, and religions are ideas with both consequences and legs.
I don't know about you, but I was the one snoozing at my desk when we took up subjects like the Thirty Years' War in European History during my junior year of high school. Catholics at war with Protestants? What? The Huguenots? Who? In my community, the Protestants and the Catholics were on good terms (although, come to think of it, there were virtually no Protestants where I grew up--it was all Italian, all the time), and the idea of a religious war between them was preposterous.
This was, of course, shortly before the resumption of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, in which the reality of war between Protestants and Catholics was restored. But this seemed a local skirmish that had less to do with differences of worship and more to do with what group would hold the reins of political power.
The split between Sunni and Shiite was even more remote. But it clearly has also had political as well as ideological/religious elements: the Shiite felt disempowered since 938 (!!) by the disappearance of the Twelfth Iman and the ascension to power of Sunni clerics for the next--well, for the next millennium, until the (Sunni) caliphate fell at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The ascendance of the Ayatollah Khomeini to the reins of Shiite dictatorship in Iran was, among other things, a turning point for the Shiite in terms of regaining power in the heretofore Sunni-dominated Muslim world.
Sunnis, on the other hand, experienced the loss of the Ottoman Caliphate as a nearly mortal blow, and have been struggling for a replacement ever since. Thus, the rise of various fundamentalist Sunni movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was part of the inspiration for al Qaeda. In a post-9/11 explanatory tape, Bin Laden himself cited the end of the Ottoman Empire as a catastrophe for which 9/11 was meant to be payback.
So, there are two religious conflicts going on in the Muslim world: a longstanding intra-religious one (Sunni/Shiite) that goes back to the tenth century and has heated up with the fall of the Caliphate, and a longstanding inter-religious war that goes back even further, but has recently been heated up with the fall of the Caliphate as well because that fall has been attributed to Western influence. Furthermore, both strains are outraged at what is seen as the decadence of the Western world, an influence felt more and more by Muslims due to the pace of modern life and communications, as well as actual hot wars in places such as Iraq, and the presence of the non-Muslim state of Israel on a tiny sliver of land that had been in Ottoman hands for centuries.
So, the conflict is nothing new; it just seemed quiescent for a while, and that calm was illusory. The relative "stability" afforded by Saddam Hussein's regime was the opposition his Sunni-led (although Shiite-majority) state provided to Iran's power. Those who criticized our invasion of Iraq on the realpolitik grounds that it would upset that particular balance may have been correct, although it's too soon to tell how things will ultimately play out.
(By the way, it's interesting that many of the same people on the Left who criticized the Iraq invasion on those grounds also criticized--ex-post-facto, as best I can determine--the realpolitik of our support for Saddam against Iran during the Iraq/Iran war of the 80s. Of course, consistency was never one of the Left's strong suits. But I digress.)
These forces in the Muslim world may be destined to battle it out, as they have for a long time. The difference is that today their battle affects us directly. In some ways it really doesn't matter to us whether Sunni or Shiite win, because the danger comes (as it often does) from the extremists and jihadis on both sides, and it's hard to judge whose are worse.
For the Sunnis, those extremists have been concentrated mostly in the form of terrorists, who tend to operate extra-nationally, across many states, and without being at the helm of one (ever since the fall of the Taliban, that is, when they lost the stronghold of state-sponsored Sunni terrorism, Afghanistan). Shiite extremism, on the other hand, has for decades been centered in a state, Iran, which has sponsored terrorists such as the Shiite Hezbollah, and which clearly has present-day nuclear aspirations.
Saddam was an anomaly, in a way. He was a Sunni in charge of a Shiite state, and he persecuted and murdered a large number of the latter, whom he feared. He was a vicious dictator in the mold of secular leaders such as Stalin (whom he revered and emulated), but he was not above using religion for his own purposes. He constituted a threat to the region during the Gulf War, was in violation of countless UN resolutions, and was thought by the entire world community prior to the US invasion of Iraq to have nuclear and chemical weapons, which would have posed a danger to his neighbors--and to the west, if he'd sold them to terrorists. Saddam was both a tyrant and a loose cannon, and it seemed to many to have been a reasonable roll of the dice at the time to take him out.
Like it or not (and most of us don't like it), ever since the late 70s, with the ascendancy of the Ayatollahs' theocracy in Iran (and perhaps even before), we have been intimately and inextricably engaged in the intra- and inter-religious wars going on in the Muslim world. The current Iraq crisis is one chapter in those wars. It won't be the last, nor is it likely to be the worst. And yes, indeed, those wars are both religous and political, as religious wars have always been.
[If I maintain the energy and inclination, tomorrow may feature Part III, on Europe's religious Protestant/Catholic wars. Or there may be another part, on the rise of nationalism, and what makes a nation a nation. Or none of the above. We'll see.]