One of the persistent comparisons between the West and the Muslim world has been the place of religious tolerance. We in the West have become so accustomed to religious pluralism that a sizable minority feels safe in denigrating the religious background of the West by taking it out of context, while defending those who hijack yet another religion by insisting that the majority of believers of that other religion don’t share the views of those extremists. Goose and gander deserve different sauces. Yet, we tolerate these, and others less self-contradicted, because we have developed a respect for the freedom of conscience, without which we would still be experiencing the internecine brawls that rocked our ancestral societies in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Observers of the Islamic world have noted the societal trajectories there. While the outlying societies, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have been largely able to co-exist with other religions (although these relationships have been strained in the past century), the core of the Muslim world, the Arabian peninsula, has been home to an intolerant fundamentalism which denies the validity not only of other faiths, but also militates against coreligionists who happen to follow a different interpretation. The Sunni-Shia divide, although subtle in practice, has been politically exploited over the centuries.
The current manifestation of Sunni-Shia rivalry stems mostly from the contest between Arabia and Persia, the two dominant forces in the Middle East. Where Arabia is overwhelmingly Sunni, Persia is incontestably Shiite. And in both, political power is exercised by those who have come to rely on fundamentalist interpretations. It’s as if Roman Catholics who decry Jews as “Christ killers” were in power, and struggle against Protestants who decry Roman Catholicism as “a cult” also in power. If this sounds familiar, look no farther than the Anglo-French rivalry of the 17th Century. Or even the York-Tudor rivalry in England in the 16th Century.
That the religious divisions in Christendom were exploited by politics should not be in contest. The political and diplomatic rivalries of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation continued into and past the Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, part of the core of that age survived in rivalry until well into the 20th Century, and may indeed be rearing its ugly head again. (By this I mean the England-France-Germany puzzle.) Sweden was eliminated as an effective player by the Napoleonic Age, and Franco eliminated Spain from the stage before Hitler took Germany on her last military hurrah.
It was the Treaty of Westphalia that effectively ended the dominant role of religion in geopolitics. Its formulation of cuius regio eius religio (“whose region, his religion”) not only established the modern concept of sovereignty (which is under attack today by both the United Nations and the Bush Doctrine, in subtly different ways), but by ending religion as a point of contention in international relations, it also opened the way for religious plurality within nations, although questions of religion in leadership roles lingered on. (Charles II, a Catholic, was dumped in favor of William and Mary, reliable Protestants. John F. Kennedy, too, was suspected of “Papist” inclinations.) The only notable exception to this day is Northern Ireland; but her troubles are born of sources beyond religion, although religion has been used as a convenient way to label political sympathies. But by and large, Christendom reconciled itself to the internal contradictions.
The Muslim world, particularly the Arab and Persian cores, is now facing a similar conundrum. Iraq is, most notably, at the border between the Sunni and Shiite worlds, as well as the border between Arabia and Kurdistan. Wilsonians have long decried the seemingly arbitrary borders in that part of the world, which were devised by the League of Nations in the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire, and which were further delineated by a United Kingdom eager to prevent consolidation of power in any one center, resulting in the lumping together of disparate ex-provinces of the Ottoman empire. (The machinations originally called for two Hashemite Kingdoms in Transjordan and Iraq. After the Second World War, the project in Iraq was derailed by the Ba’ath party, from whose ranks would later rise Saddam Hussein; but the kingdom survived in Jordan, where the line is continued by King Abdullah.) In a way, just as it was supposed to serve as a buffer for British imperial occupation forces, Iraq now serves as a buffer between Arabia (Saudi Arabia) and Persia (Iran).
The traditional mutual hostilities between Arabia and Persia were complicated during the Cold War, as the United States backed Saudia Arabia and Persia under Shah Pahlavi, and the Soviet Union backed Saddam Hussein of Iraq. When the Shah was toppled by the Iranian Revolution, however, the United States saw its interests threatened by an Iran (indeed, by an entire Islamist movement) that was hostile to both the US and the USSR. As relations with the Soviet Union approached a détente, and the Soviets became bogged down in fighting the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, the US found it convenient to avert its eye when Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab in control of a Shiite-majority nation, invaded Iran, a Shiite-majority non-Arab nation.
Post-modern scholars have bought into the notion that the Arab-Persian War was an expression of Sunnism versus Shiism. The same scholars fret today that Iraq’s Shiites will become pawns of Iran. They could not be more mistaken, though. Religion undoubtedly plays an important role, but the roles of ethnic tensions and geopolitcal realities may indeed be larger. Just as England reluctantly joined with France to fight the Germans, despite having sided with Prussia against Napoleon at Waterloo a hundred years before the Battle of Verdun, so too would Iraq define her future alliances through geopolitical reality. Her role as the crossroads of Sunnism and Shiism, of Arabia, Persia, and Kurdistan, and of tradition and modernity, ensures that she will continue to play an important role. Her status as a coveted ally is all but guaranteed.
The Arab League seems to have figured this out at last. Gateway Pundit reports that the chairman of the Arab League, which once denied and denigrated all of Iraq’s gains since the invasion, has come knocking at the door. And Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is welcoming the gesture, signalling a willingness to embrace an Arabia that has traditionally shunned his Shiite flock, a move that, among others he has made in the past, should indicate that he is not about to be a puppet of Tehran.
It has been suggested by many writers before that perhaps what the Muslim world needs is something akin to a Thirty Years’ War. I hope instead that they learn the lessons of Westphalia without going through any more bloodshed. Enough violence has been wreaked upon the region in the last contest of arms between Arabia and Persia. It is fitting that Iraq, which under Saddam Hussein initiated the last fight, is now best positioned to lead both sides out of their pre-Reformation hostilities, and on to a future that is hopefully much better.
[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]