By Bill Stewart
May 29, 2015
Underlying the extraordinary unrest across the Middle East is what can only be called a sectarian meltdown. It is not just Muslims who are affected but Christians, Jews and other religious minorities as well. But, that said, it is clearly the Muslims who are most affected, because they are by far the most numerous.
It is deeply ironic that the killings and unrest occur in the heartland of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Peace and love thy neighbor lie at the core of their beliefs, and all three believe that Jerusalem is central to their faith. So what has brought about what can only be called the bloodlust of the current rogue’s gallery of fanatics? What motivates the extremists, and why can’t they be stopped?
The more simplistic among us say it is religion itself that is the culprit, with each religion claiming to be the sole possessor of eternal truth. As error has no rights, those who believe otherwise are therefore a threat to that truth. What follows is either an uneasy truth between believers and nonbelievers or inevitable conflict. Others among the simplistic say it is all the fault of the United States, with a blundering foreign policy that has done far more harm than good. Both are wrong.
It is true that barbarism has often followed in the wake of religion. Right now, it is Islam that is in the dock, as sectarianism tears Syria and Iraq apart and the forces of the Islamic State militants shoot and behead their captives in a deliberate orgy of terror. It is useful to remember, however, that Christianity itself has been guilty of such orgies, not only against Muslims during the Crusades, but also against Orthodox Christians whom Crusaders slaughtered along the way to the Holy Land. During the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants alike burned each other at the stake to save their immortal souls.
In the Middle East, it isn’t just religion that plays a major role, so does secular culture. Moreover, around the world, quarrels are often petty. In Jonathan Swift’s wonderful social satire, Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver is shipwrecked in the land of the Lilliputians, who have gone to war over the “big end or little end” question, meaning which end of the egg does one put into the egg cup. It was serious business. The serious business of other cultures can seem absurd to others. In France, as well as in Afghanistan and elsewhere, there is the question of women wearing the veil or the burqa, covering the entire body. These are not called for specifically in the Quran, but they are ancient customs associated with Islam. The Quran does not forbid the education of girls, but the Afghan Taliban thinks otherwise. Tribal custom takes on the veneer of religion
The civil wars in Syria and Iraq, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have their origins in the early days of Islam more than 1,000 years ago, when the followers of Ali, Mohammed’s adopted son and son-in-law, felt only the descendants of Ali could lead the Muslim faithful. The others, the great majority, felt otherwise; therein lies the origins of the split between Shiite and Sunni. It’s a question of leadership. Little else separates the two, other than the Shiite’s deeply felt sense of historic betrayal and loss, and the need for purity in private and public life.
Nevertheless, an historic shift is underway in the Middle East, in which the ancient perceived grievances between Shiite and Sunni have once more risen to the fore, overriding the modern claims of ordinary Muslims for radical change in their lives, for an end to corrupt government, for a rise in their miserable standard of living, for a chance of an education and a new burst of freedom. Those legitimate claims are being subsumed by radical Sunni Islam, meaning the Islamic State group, or radical Shiite Islam, meaning the Shiite militia in Iraq fed by Iran and supported by the Baghdad government. Increasingly, those hopes and aspirations are now seen through the distorted vision of sectarian eyes, especially in Syria and Iraq, which have ceased to function as countries.
The problem is neither the Iraqis nor the Syrians have ever learned to live together as a people. Their first loyalties are to their tribes and clans, not to Syria and Iraq as nations. As an Egyptian historian once noted, “there is only one Arab country — Egypt. All the others are simply tribes carrying flags.” Cruel, but uncomfortably accurate. The current Iraqi government of Haider al Hamadi is an improvement over that of his predecessor, al Malaki, but it is still far too sectarian. Sending Shiite militia into Sunni dominated al Anbar province to recapture Ramadi sends precisely the wrong signal. But what else can he do? He, too, is trapped by the history of his artificial country. In the meantime, the tribal flags of division are flying.
Bill Stewart writes about current affairs from Santa Fe. He is a former Timemagazine correspondent and worked as a U.S. Foreign Service officer.