History matters: Juan Cole on religious conflict in Iraq

History matters: Juan Cole on religious conflict in Iraq June 19, 2014

Juan Cole’s “Who are Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and what did we do to them?” is a very helpful short read of the long view. It’s a good summary of the history of sectarian strife between Sunnism and Shiism, and Iraq’s long history of being stuck in the middle of that conflict.

Sunnism and Shiism as we know them have evolved over nearly a millennium and a half. But the difference between them begins after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD (CE) in western Arabia. Muhammad, the son of Abdallah, had derived from the noble Quraysh clan. Those who became the Shiites insisted he should be succeeded by Ali, his cousin and son-in-law (and the next best thing to a living son). This dynastic principle was rejected by the group that became the Sunnis. They turned for leadership to prominent notables of the Quraysh, whom they saw as caliphs or vicars of the Prophet. The first three caliphs were his in-laws, but Sunni principles said that they needn’t have been – any prominent, pious male of the Quraysh would have done.

There is a vague analogy to the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, on the difference between seeing Peter as the foundation of the Church and of seeing Paul as that.

That last bit about Peter and Paul is fascinating. It’s a not-quite-right yet not-quite-wrong description of the Catholic/Protestant split that conveys, I think, the difficulty for Christians like me of trying to understand the Sunni/Shiite dynamic from the outside.

Imagine two Muslims chatting at a peaceful Baghdad cafe some time in the 1620s. They’ve heard the distant news of the Thirty Years War (which wasn’t called that yet, obviously) and the devastation it was spreading throughout Europe and they’re trying to make sense of it.

“Why are those Christians always killing each other?”

“You have to understand that some Christians are Catholics and some are Lutherans. It’s vaguely analogous to the Sunni and Shiite branches of our own religion …”

Despite sectarian pluralism, Iraq was at peace during the 17th century due to imperial rule. At that time, most Christians — Catholic or Protestant — imagined that would be the only way to bring peace to Europe. It took another century for Europe and some of its colonies to realize there was another, better alternative: secular government with a guarantee of equal rights for religious minorities.

It was foolish to think that voting and elections could bring “democracy” or “freedom” to post-Saddam Iraq without first establishing a bill of rights guaranteeing secular government and legal protections for religious minorities. Attempting the former without the latter just puts religious freedom at stake in every election. That’s a guaranteed recipe for sectarian civil war.

We know this not just because of the long history of sectarian strife in Iraq that Prof. Cole summarizes so well. We know this because of the long history of sectarian strife in Europe and even in New England. When a change in government means a change in official religion, then peaceful transition in political leadership is impossible.

The resurgence of sectarian strife in Iraq has led to more calls for the U.S. to bomb something or someone in that country. We’ve been bombing that country since 1991, almost without pause. It hasn’t worked so far. The only theory for why it could work is the idea of re-establishing sectarian detente through imperial rule — but with the American military playing the role once played by the Mongols, the Safavids, the Ottomans and the Baathists.

That’s the wrong model. It’s not what we want for us, so we can be reasonably sure it’s not what anyone else would want either. And in the long run, it doesn’t work.

Here’s one famous version of the only model that does work:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Without that, you’ll have either sectarian civil war or imperial rule. Always. Everywhere.

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