By Chris Beall
In my previous article, I discussed the normalization of flagrant human rights abuses inherent in forced historical analogies between the Middle East and Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. However, this does not mean that history is unimportant in attempting to understand today’s conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. While the deployment of the Thirty Years’ narrative seeks to cram today’s sectarian conflicts within the interpretive boundaries of a very different place, from a very different century, a far more productive methodology would explore the history actually relevant to these conflicts: that of the Middle East itself. Rather than succumbing to the ignorance—perhaps willful ignorance—wrapped up in the Thirty Years’ model, the Middle East’s own past events (political, social, and economic) shed light on the complexity and nuance crucial to the fight for peace and human rights in the region.
In a rare and refreshing article by Shireen Hunter, Director of the Carnegie Project on Reformist Islam at Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, writing for Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Hunter combats the Thirty Years’ narrative. Such “commentaries convey a sense of inevitability and permanency about Sunni-Shia conflict, not only in Iraq but also elsewhere in the Muslim world where there are substantial Shia minorities,” Hunter writes. Prefacing her argument with the fact that Sunnis and Shiites have lived aside one another, overwhelmingly in peace, since the original Islamic schism, Hunter points to modern history (post-1979) and regional politics to explain the current escalation of sectarian conflict. Of particular note, Hunter highlights the unsupervised aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent “Western strategy of instrumentalizing sectarian differences to forge a regional alliance against Iran.” This seems important. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, Hunter’s analysis allows us to realize that both the U.S. and “the West” possess a share of ownership in these crises. Whatever shortcomings we face in influencing combatants on the ground, this recognition leaves us plenty of space to alter our conduct—operative space within our direct control.
I would add to Hunter’s analysis that the Western interventionist policies that have fueled these conflicts in fact run more deeply than modern history alone. Centuries of European colonialism did a number on the world, and the Middle East is no exception. As the Ottoman Empire gradually declined at the end of the 19th century, European focus increasingly shifted toward the Near East. By the turn of the 20th century, there was an almost obsessive fear in colonial circles, who were worried about the threat “pan-Islam” posed to European colonial holdings, notes Middle East scholar Zachary Lockman in his book Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. Lockman cites a 1901 French colonial journal, quoting one orientalist who wrote, “Although Islam as a religion was basically finished, the colonial powers still faced a serious threat from pan-Islam, which might foster anticolonial revolts in a number of Muslim lands at the same time. Therefore the goal must be ‘to weaken Islam… to render it forever incapable of great awakenings.’ ‘I believe,’ this scholar wrote ‘that we should endeavor to split the Muslim world, to break its moral unity, using to this effect the ethnic and political divisions… In one word, let us segment Islam, and make use, moreover, of Muslim heresies and the Sufi orders.’” (Notice, by the way, that while these fears were always overblown, they represent the exact opposite of our current fears regarding essentialized sectarianism).
This was not just some colonial conspiracy, either. When Britain and France inherited large Ottoman territories at the end of World War I, such intentionally divisive policies were carried out into practice. Much has been made of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially plotted today’s boundaries of the Middle East according to the logic of Empire, rather than any social or demographic accord with the populations actually living there. But equally important are colonialism’s less talked about “divide-and-rule” administrative strategies. In the same way that Britain ossified the Indian caste system and popularized the Hamitic Hypothesis among Hutus and Tutsis, colonial administrators looked to amplify existing divisions within Islam in the Middle East. Colonial powers used these divisions to elevate minorities into domesticated positions of docile power. It was not so much that these sectarian divisions actually mattered, but that figures like Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence forced them to matter.
And so Britain placed a Sunni Hashemite king on the new throne of Shia Iraq, while the French loaded the military in Sunni-majority Syria to the brim with minority Alawites. These inverted sectarian power structures have seen much turbulence, and are still to this day under violent contestation. Such colonial inversions might not have been a source of violence themselves. The whole area had, after all, been relatively peacefully administered by foreign Ottoman Turks for a couple of centuries. But along with inversions of political administrative and law-making power came new, near kleptocratic concentrations of economic power in the form of Western-modeled capitalism. Whatever your feelings on Marx, it seems clear that such material hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate and exacerbate over time. Through violent post-colonial periods of both monarchy and authoritarianism, sectarian minorities often held dominating control over society’s means of production. To take just one consequence: it was, in large part, the radical and unadulterated redistribution of these economic hierarchies in post-2003 Iraq, which convinced enough Sunnis to don black balaclavas and call themselves ISIS.
The point is not that the West is the root of all evil in the region—another common narrative, as problematic as forced allusions to the Thirty Years’ War. Rather, my point is that if we cannot even realize our own equity in these contemporary sectarian disasters, then it seems intuitively less likely that we will recognize and properly navigate the contours of equity belonging to the region’s indigenous shareholders. This, unfortunately, is the exact substance that eventual peace will be forged of. If the roots of these conflicts are political—as opposed to immutable and religious—then their solutions can also be politically crafted. Both the United States and the wider West do have important interests in the region, not the least of which involve protecting human rights and promoting liberal values. For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the West does not play some eventual role in extinguishing this sudden rise of sectarian tension. We should seek ways of understanding what’s going on over there.
But calling today’s Middle East the Thirty Years’ War is both ideologically self-serving, and immensely counterproductive. It entirely muddles the possibility that this is all just senseless bloodshed. The possibility that each life lost is not one step toward peace and sectarian reconciliation (à la Westphalia), but rather a step in the other direction: a senseless prolongation of hostilities that only ratchets up the cycle of violence, deferring peace and planting the seeds of tomorrow’s human rights disasters in the collective memories of all parties involved.
Heuristics are great when they facilitate understanding. Really. But here, blind acceptance of this Thirty Years’ War narrative is more like taking a shortcut through a swamp. As long as we opt for this route, chances are that peace will come later, not sooner. One can only hope that this realization does not take thirty years.
Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
Photo credit: Alessandra Kocman/Creative Commons