The multiple ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are assuming an increasingly sectarian/religious character. The phenomenon is not new, but the scale and intensity are. Consider the roll call of recent events:
- Hundreds of Muslim pilgrims (including many Iranians) die in a stampede during the annual Haj to Mecca, triggering angry accusations from Iran about Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Islam’s holiest site/event.
- Bahrain accuses Iran of fomenting unrest among its Shiite population and severs diplomatic relations.
- Shiite Mosques are attacked by mobs across much of the Sunni Persian Gulf.
- Yemen has become a sectarian battleground with Iran backing Shiite forces and Saudi Arabia launching military operations in support of Sunni tribesmen.
- Syria has been dismembered in a civil war pitting Sunni jihadists against the Shiite-affiliated Assad government.
- Syria’s ongoing carnage has drawn in Iranian and Hezbollah forces in support of Assad while Saudi Arabia and Turkey support Sunni forces trying to bring down Assad.
- Saudi clerics responded to Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria with pronouncements branding Moscow an enemy of Islam. All this has been exacerbated by an increasingly overt contest for primacy in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia with the clerical leaders in both countries issuing inflammatory condemnations of the other. It’s Iranian ayatollahs vs. Saudi sheikhs and imams.
It was not always like this. There have been extended periods in the history of Islam when secular/religious leaders embraced a degree of religious tolerance — and civilization flourished. High points included the rule of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the 12th century; the Medieval Andalusia Empire in Spain; and the 16th-century Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent. Many Muslim communities throughout the Middle East have lived peacefully with non-Muslim neighbors for centuries.
But the recent pattern has been far more ominous with the rise of jihadists who see Islam as beleaguered and under threat, requiring a violent, sectarian response. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and overthrow of a Sunni, but secular, dictator helped set in motion a fateful chain of events culminating in the roll call of conflict noted above. The implications were eloquently spelled out in the recent comments of two Muslim scholars, Dr. Rami Khouri of the American University in Beirut and Prof. Madawi-al-Rashid at the London School of Economics. First, Khouri: “This is unprecedented and we do not have a roadmap. When political dynamics fail, people turn back to religion. We are in this terrible moment of transition where sect is very high in people’s minds.” And, Rashid: “The language of sectarianism involves elimination and purification and these are very dangerous words to use in any conflict. It makes it more difficult to see a space for dialogue and compromise.”
The West went through a similar experience in the “Wars of Religion” that convulsed Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Protestant Reformation. This was the era of the Spanish Inquisition and many analogous tribunals established to impose religious doctrine on pain of death. The wars were highly destructive and exhausted the energies, wealth, and manpower of much of Europe. They were finally brought to an end in one of the seminal diplomatic achievements of history — the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The treaty codified an understanding that the religious practices of a state or sovereign were not the business of other states or sovereigns. The days were over when a Spanish King would launch an Armada to overthrow the Protestant House of Tudor and restore Catholicism in England. The treaty also helped set in motion a cultural and political climate of tolerance for diverse religious practice within European states. It was far from complete or perfect — witness the decision of the Pilgrims to decamp to the wilds of North America in the name of religious freedom — but it was a striking break from the long medieval past.
The events at Westphalia brought an extended period of relative calm to Europe, but in time the practice of warfare in Europe returned with a vengeance. Those subsequent conflicts, including two World Wars, were driven by the geopolitical ambitions of state leaders sometimes powerfully animated by ideologies (Nazism, Communism) that acted as secular religions. The ultimate defeat of European Fascism and Communism led on prominent scholar to write a book pronouncing “The End of History,” i.e. the end of wars of religion and ideology. Not surprisingly, he was not a student of the Middle East.
The future of the Middle East at this point looks very dark indeed. Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have become more toxic if that were possible. As conflicts spread, the voices of sectarian intolerance rapidly gain strength. For jihadists like those of the so-called Islamic State, the world is radically binary. You are either a true believer — accepting every religious tenet of fundamentalist (Salafist) Islam — or you are a nonbeliever worthy only of death.
This mindset turns what may have started out as simple rivalry between tribes into an existential struggle. In the process, what once were communities fragment. A map recently printed in the New York Times noted that within Syria there are now more than 7,000 different rebel factions often fighting in close proximity. Another Muslim scholar with the Carnegie Center in Beirut summed up the unfolding nightmare: “The forces of extremism have been unleashed in a way we have never seen before. Is this the furthest we can go? Maybe not.”