The Last Battlefield

Back in September, the blogger Riverbend – the thoughtful, eloquent young Iraqi woman who authors the blog Baghdad Burning – left Iraq along with her family. After four years of writing from a first-hand perspective about the chaos and violence that the U.S. occupation has unleashed on her country, Riverbend and her family finally decided that things had become too dangerous to stay, and it’s hard to blame them.

She writes about leaving her house for the last time, taking only the essentials:

The last few hours in the house were a blur. It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk- the one I’d used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we’d gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away- but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over- the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away.

and the fear and uncertainty involved in crossing the border into Syria:

The trip was long and uneventful, other than two checkpoints being run by masked men. They asked to see identification, took a cursory glance at the passports and asked where we were going. The same was done for the car behind us. Those checkpoints are terrifying but I’ve learned that the best technique is to avoid eye-contact, answer questions politely and pray under your breath. My mother and I had been careful not to wear any apparent jewelry, just in case, and we were both in long skirts and head scarves.

and, finally, her amazement at finding the peace long denied her after just a short trip over the border:

I wonder at how the windows don’t rattle as the planes pass overhead. I’m trying to rid myself of the expectation that armed people in black will break through the door and into our lives. I’m trying to let my eyes grow accustomed to streets free of road blocks, hummers and pictures of Muqtada and the rest…

How is it that all of this lies a short car ride away?

Riverbend and her family, now refugees facing an uncertain future in a new home, are just a few among millions who have been displaced by religious warfare, and not just in Iraq. After last year’s clash between Israel and Hezbollah, and now continuing street violence and political gridlock, Lebanon is another place whose stability seems increasingly tenuous:

[Edgard] Baradhi, a 29-year-old Maronite Christian electrician, is moving to Qatar later this month, joining thousands of Lebanese of all faiths and political inclinations who are emigrating for tranquility and higher-paying employment.

…Bishops of Lebanon’s Maronite Church estimate that 1 million, or one in four, Lebanese left during the past year. “The country is on the edge of an abyss,” they said in a Sept. 25 public letter urging politicians to settle their differences.

Indeed, it’s not just Lebanon and Iraq that have been blighted by sectarian struggle:

Across the Middle East and North Africa, it’s rare to have a conversation with a young person who doesn’t want to emigrate to the U.S., Canada, Europe or Australia. Internal conflict scars countries from Morocco to Iraq, and unemployment across the region tops 10 percent.

Although the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia are known for being industrialized First World countries with healthy economies, the obvious reason so many people want to emigrate there is more basic: because those countries, unlike Lebanon or Iraq, have a real separation of church and state, and are not convulsed by warfare between competing religious sects.

War in any form is a severe drain on the people and resources of a nation, of course, but religious war is especially destructive. Religious warfare is a vicious spiral, because it drives away a region’s intelligent, secular, educated professionals – the very people whose presence is most likely to foster peace and stability – and leaves behind only the violent, reckless fanatics who are willing to slaughter each other over a pointless patch of earth, thus leading to further violence and instability, and further promoting the economic collapse that breeds the fanaticism and reckless despair of the next generation of holy warriors.

Making things worse is that, unlike many forms of political or nationalistic warfare, religious conflict is particularly resistant to diplomatic resolution. When two factions are fighting over their form of government, or access to natural resources, those are material concerns rooted in the real world, where a compromise can usually be reached. But when the warring sides are each convinced that they best represent God’s will, that they are carrying out his wishes, then diplomatic resolution is almost impossible. After all, how can we of the true faith compromise with the enemies of God? If God has told us that we are to have this land, why should we accept anything less from other human beings? Why stop fighting when God has promised that victory is imminent?

As anyone can see from the religious conflicts still smoldering after centuries, humanity’s ability to hold a grudge in these matters is essentially limitless. There seems little hope that any of these battles will subside any time soon, though the rest of the world’s nations should do what we can to abate them. It may be that the best hope, in the long run, for any of these conflicts to cease is for the driving-out process to finish. Once there’s no one left in the disputed territories but fanatics, it may be that they’ll realize how pitiful and backward they’ve become compared to the rest of the planet, and finally decide to set their grudges aside and seek peace.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Polly

    This is only tangentially related:

    My wife and her family are from Beirut, Lebanon. My wife was too young to really experience the civil war 30y.a., but my F-i-L got the full blast. He could tell what size shells were passing overhead by the sound. One day, the “Christian” military goons (or police, I don’t know if there was a distinction) were looking for “donations.” They brought him to the station for questioning and put him against a wall and fired a machine gun in an outline around him. Then he offered them a substantial amount of money and he was free to go.

    There are no liberators, only factions – some with less awful agendas than others. Religion has always been about obtaining power. Those naive enough to believe it’s something else had better be careful or they’ll end up as sheep to the slaughter.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    Although the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia are known for being industrialized First World countries with healthy economies, the obvious reason so many people want to emigrate there is more basic: because those countries, unlike Lebanon or Iraq, have a real separation of church and state, and are not convulsed by warfare between competing religious sects.

    I doubt that people want to emigrate here because of our separation of church and state. That is a luxury (assuming that people from these regions even know what it is, or if they do, that they do want it) relative to safety, security, and much better way of life. Perhaps it is because of the separation that we have these things. But to think that the people running to Syria and dreaming of emigrating to the U.S. with the dream of church/state separation is a little bit of a stretch.

    Once there’s no one left in the disputed territories but fanatics, it may be that they’ll realize how pitiful and backward they’ve become compared to the rest of the planet, and finally decide to set their grudges aside and seek peace.

    I would think that the higher percentage of fanatics in the country, the less likely we are to have resolution.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    But to think that the people running to Syria and dreaming of emigrating to the U.S. with the dream of church/state separation is a little bit of a stretch.

    I don’t think so at all. Consider this quote from the second article I cited:

    Mustafa Shahrour, a Shiite Muslim computer technician, says he’s going to Saudi Arabia this month to work in a restaurant. “Everything here has become about who you support, if you’re Shiite or Sunni or Christian,” he says. “I don’t want to live like that.”

    …“I’m not coming back until Lebanon is a secular state,” he says.

  • Xav

    Europe is not a country, it’s a subcontinent. It contains many diverse countries.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    Making things worse is that, unlike many forms of political or nationalistic warfare, religious conflict is particularly resistant to diplomatic resolution. When two factions are fighting over their form of government, or access to natural resources, those are material concerns rooted in the real world, where a compromise can usually be reached. But when the warring sides are each convinced that they best represent God’s will, that they are carrying out his wishes, then diplomatic resolution is almost impossible.

    I wonder if it is the issues or the conviction of the people arguing the issues that ultimately control whether compromise can be reached. I think that the conviction of a person is more important than the issue at hand. For example, I am not as attached to religious ideas as,say, a radical who is willing to kill for a point of theological minutiae, therefore a religious idea will probably be easier for me to compromise on than another idea, such as stopping the war in Iraq, which I feel very strongly about.

    I am also curious if you are proposing that the conflict in Iraq is a religiously motivated conflict. Certainly religion plays some role, but I think that to give it a major role would be fallacious.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    On the contrary, Matt, I think religion is the major driver behind the civil war in Iraq. As with other disputes, like Northern Ireland, the fighting may also be over temporal matters – but the religious split is first and foremost, and the only thing that even gives the warring sides a way to identify and label each other.

    That’s the explanation for the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque, the repeated suicide attacks on Shi’ites on pilgrimage to the holy site of Karbala, the religious militias of Muqtada al-Sadr (who calls his force the “Mahdi Army“, named after a mythological Muslim savior figure), the anti-Shia rhetoric of al-Qaeda members like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the attacks on people whose names betray a particular religious affiliation, and so on.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    It would be interesting to talk to people about this. I wish I had taken the opportunity while I had it! I am not convinced that religion is the *driving* force behind the war. I certainly agree that the lines drawn have religious names, but I am not convinced that religious ideas are the major issue. I think that if the people in Iraq had comfortable homes and incomes and food and boats and motorcycles and X-Box and Nascar and stability and tranquility, then the religious fervor would look more like it does here.

    I am not certain, but this warfare in the name of religion may actually be the symptom and not the pathology.

    Thoughts?

    Matt

  • bassmanpete

    But to think that the people running to Syria and dreaming of emigrating to the U.S. with the dream of church/state separation is a little bit of a stretch.

    I don’t think so at all. Consider this quote from the second article I cited:

    Mustafa Shahrour, a Shiite Muslim computer technician, says he’s going to Saudi Arabia this month to work in a restaurant. “Everything here has become about who you support, if you’re Shiite or Sunni or Christian,” he says. “I don’t want to live like that.”

    …“I’m not coming back until Lebanon is a secular state,” he says.

    That may apply to some but definitely not all. Here in Australia, and also in the UK, there are imams declaring that democracy & Islam don’t mix, denigrating Western values, denouncing women for the way they dress & for daring to speak out on issues that, in their opinion, only men should be discussing.

    Others bring their ethnic rivalries with them; Serbs & Croats from the former Yugoslavia immediately spring to mind. These rivalries often erupt into violence, particularly at soccer matches between teams supported by the opposing groups.

    Once there’s no one left in the disputed territories but fanatics, it may be that they’ll realize how pitiful and backward they’ve become compared to the rest of the planet, and finally decide to set their grudges aside and seek peace.

    It’s more likely that they’ll continue to fight until one side is completely wiped out, that seems to be the way of fanatics.