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…