The Is­lamic wars of re­li­gion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

“It’s just dy­nas­tic pol­i­tics, in other words, not some in­evitable geopo­lit­i­cal jug­ger­naut. But it was sim­i­lar dy­nas­tic pol­i­tics half a mil­len­nium ago that trig­gered the worst phase of the Chris­tian wars of re­li­gion.”

On Fri­day, Saudi Ara­bia’s Sunni Mus­lim rulers be­headed their coun­try’s lead­ing Shia Mus­lim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seek­ing “for­eign med­dling” in the king­dom.

On Satur­day, an an­gry crowd of Ira­ni­ans — all Shia Mus­lims, of course — at­tacked the Saudi Ara­bian em­bassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, put a car­toon on his web­site com­par­ing Saudi Ara­bia’s head-chop­ping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other ex­e­cu­tions on the same day) to the mass ex­e­cu­tions car­ried out by the Sunni ex­trem­ist ‘Is­lamic State’ group.

So on Sun­day, Saudi Ara­bia broke diplo­matic re­la­tions with Iran — and all the pun­dits started talk­ing about the Sunni-Shia “war of re­li­gion” that is about to en­gulf the Mid­dle East.

This raises two ques­tions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of re­li­gion ac­tu­ally look like? And sec­ond, has ev­ery­body in the Mid­dle East taken leave of their senses?

The first ques­tion is best an­swered by look­ing at the history of the Chris­tian wars of re­li­gion, ca. 1520-1660.

The Mus­lim world now, like “Chris­ten­dom” in the 16th cen­tury, is made up of many in­de­pen­dent coun­tries.

And the cur­rent phase of the Mus­lim wars of re­li­gion is be­ing fought out be­tween Shias and Sun­nis in Iraq, Syria and Ye­men, just as the first phase of the Chris­tian wars of re­li­gion was fought out mainly be­tween Catholics and Protes­tants in in­di­vid­ual coun­tries.

From the start of the con­flict in Europe, how­ever, each Euro­pean state tried to help its co-be­liev­ers in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries as well, and al­liances were in­creas­ingly shaped by re­li­gious con­sid­er­a­tions. In the sec­ond phase, th­ese al­liances dragged most of Europe into the cat­a­strophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the mid­dle of Europe but in­volv­ing armies from as far apart as Swe­den and Spain.

The main bat­tle­ground, Ger­many, lost be­tween one-third and one-half of its pop­u­la­tion. No­body won, of course, and in the very long run ev­ery­body just lost in­ter­est in the ques­tion. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.

Those who live at the ge­o­graph­i­cal ex­tremes of the Mus­lim world — In­done­sia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia and even Egypt in the West — will cer­tainly not suf­fer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia mi­nori­ties in th­ese coun­tries. But for those who live in the heart of the Mus­lim world, from Ye­men to Tur­key and from Le­banon to Iran, the fu­ture may be much darker.

And so to the sec­ond ques­tion: has ev­ery­body in the Mid­dle East taken leave of their senses? Not ex­actly, but many play­ers have lost sight of the big­ger pic­ture.

Ge­orge W. Bush’s in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003 un­leashed the sec­tar­ian de­mon in the re­gion. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 fright­ened the re­gion’s dic­ta­tor­ships and ab­so­lute monar­chies into in­creased re­pres­sion and greater reliance on ap­peals to sec­tar­ian loy­alty. Then King Ab­dul­lah of Saudi Ara­bia died a year ago, and the king­dom spun out com­pletely.

Saudi Ara­bia un­der its pre­vi­ous mon­archs was very cau­tious and con­ser­va­tive in its for­eign pol­icy. It sub­si­dized var­i­ous ex­treme Sunni groups in other coun­tries, but it clung tightly to its Amer­i­can al­liance and never en­gaged di­rectly in ad­ven­tures abroad.

The new Saudi king, Sal­man, is 80 years old and in­firm, so in prac­tice most de­ci­sions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Sal­man (aged only 30). There is in­tense com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the two men for the suc­ces­sion to the throne, and the de­ci­sions com­ing out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever be­fore.

The past nine months have seen a ma­jor Saudi Ara­bian mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion against the Shia side in the Ye­meni civil war, the cre­ation of a Saudi-led al­liance of al­most all the Sun­ni­ma­jor­ity Arab states, and now the ex­e­cu­tion of a Shia leader in Saudi Ara­bia that was clearly cal­cu­lated to cause a diplo­matic breach with Iran.

It’s just dy­nas­tic pol­i­tics, in other words, not some in­evitable geopo­lit­i­cal jug­ger­naut.

But it was sim­i­lar dy­nas­tic pol­i­tics half a mil­len­nium ago that trig­gered the worst phase of the Chris­tian wars of re­li­gion.

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