The popularity of the Shia Sunni “Eternal Hatreds” myth is mostly about Iraq. It’s a bit sad really. The power of this meme comes from the desperate wish of the American thinking classes to find anything else to blame for Iraq. And Syria as well. If these two groups are destined to fight each other forever, then hey, it’s not really our fault. Bloody, endless warfare is just the natural state of the Middle East! Pay no attention to the fact that we isolated and brutalized Iraq for a decade, before destroying its government completely. Pay no attention to the funding and support we’ve been fire-hosing towards Sunni militants in Syria. This was all going to happen anyway!
I find the whole concept of religious war to be a bit over-sold. The standard go-to comparison from European history for the modern middle east is the 30 years war in 17th century Europe. In that war the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor went after some Protestant princes and 30 years later 25-30% of the German people had been killed. The Catholic-Protestant divide certainly had a lot to do with this conflict, but is that what it was really about? Not really. Catholic France spent a lot of time helping Protestant princes because they didn’t like the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire had gotten along for most of a century with both Protestant and Catholic princes and regions. The war was started by, and perpetuated by political actors who saw more opportunities for land and power. Sure, some of the actors were primarily motivated by religion, but not many. And even the most vocally religious actors, like Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant king of Sweden, and Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor, were pursuing very non-spiritual aims. Ferdinand’s attempt to impose Catholicism Empire wide was as much about administrative consistency and control as it was about doctrine.
This is all to say that war is a complicated state, and it’s never just about one thing. Wars can attain a life of their own. The roving mercenary bands of the 30 years war weren’t interested in conclusive battles, because that would mean an end to contracts and pillage. I fear that we may be reaching that stage in the Middle East at the moment. Throwing up our hands, and insisting on a simple religious explanation will not help us avoid that unhappy result.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Today we’re going to deal with one of the greatest myths about the Middle East. We’re told that The two main branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shias, have fought each other forever, and there’s nothing we can do about it. On the surface level this looks right. Sunnis and Shias are now fighting each other as intensely as they ever have. It’s pretty horrible. But It’s not a story about immutable 1400 year old hatreds. It’s a story about very recent history, and the politics of the past 30 years.
The first thing to know, is that this is not an even fight. Only 10-15% of muslims are Shia, and they only fully control two of the dozens of Muslim countries. If this were an eternal 1400 year battle, it would have been over 1200 years ago, and all the Shia would be dead. But the United States government really hates Iran, so we’re sold the story that this is somehow an even fight, and if we don’t help Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis, Iran’s gonna control everything. Like a lot of what the US government pushes, this is just ridiculous.
It’s politics that makes wars, not religion. The last intense bout of Sunni-Shia fighting happened between the Ottomans and the Safavid Persians in the 1600s and 1700s. This was religious, but only as a side effect. It was about Turkish and Persian power politics.
And that’s the problem of the Middle East today. It’s not that the region is special or different. It’s just that the cold war never ended in the Middle East. From World War II through the 1980s the United States and the Soviet Union competed worldwide. This turned a lot of places that are peaceful and prosperous today into war zones. Iraq and Syria are horrible, but in the 1980’s we had at least 10 separate Syrias going on. When the Cold War ended, the rest of the world got much safer. The Middle East didn’t get that chance.
The region only has to deal with one super-power now, but it’s also got to deal with a number of local powers. None of these powers will let the wars stop. The Shia-Sunni divide certainly exists, but that’s not what is at the root of these conflicts. It’s power and money. Same as it ever was.
If you want to learn more about the true problems of the region, I suggest you check out my essay Everybody’s Lying About Islam. Also, you may want to consider chipping into my Patreon account. YouTube just dramatically cut the revenue of all political news channels. If my Patreon funding doesn’t go up dramatically very soon, I’m afraid this channel may have to end. Thanks.