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The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: alternative lenses, imperialism and colonialism (part 2 of 2)

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


The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: forced analogies and human rights (part 1 of 2)

By Chris Beall

With the recent escalation in Yemen between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Arab coalition forces, journalists, commentators and policymakers have resurfaced a popular story to explain the latest wave of fighting in the Hadramaut. It goes something like this: whatever the particular circumstances of this individual conflict, what we’re really witnessing in the sectarian warfare across the contemporary Middle East is a theological realignment and reformation of Islam itself—a prolonged umbrella conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that resembles the scope and significance of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

Whatever its original source, this story has gained remarkable traction over the last few years. With the rapid ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the virtual unraveling of Syria and Iraq along sectarian lines, commentators from a variety of backgrounds have deployed this narrative to explain the truly horrific bloodshed that has unleashed in the region. Whether one looks to the easing of Iranian sanctions or the implosion of the Arab Spring, 17th-century European history seems to be on everyone’s tongue. For the last three centuries, the Thirty Years’ War has never been more in vogue.


I’ll leave a detailed exegesis of this old European conflict to the historians. Essentially, the series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 were fueled by Catholic-Protestant tensions, resulting from unsustainable post-Reformation political arrangements throughout the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. What was planted as structural insufficiencies in the Peace of Augsburg sprouted into the violent fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire, and then, through the vying international interests of competing great thrones, blossomed into devastating decades-long warfare that was truly continental in scope. Although the protracted conflict saw its share of opportunism and side-swapping, the course of the internecine bloodshed basically played out along Christianity’s sectarian boundaries.

In today’s discussions, there are two important takeaways from the Thirty Years’ War. The first concerns the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an eventual end to hostilities, and is commonly cited as the birth of the modern nation-state international system. The idea, crudely, is that subjects no longer paid sometimes-competing allegiances to the throne and the clergy, but instead envisioned themselves as discrete social units (or “imagined communities”) paying undiluted loyalty to an authorized sovereign administering specified and legal territorial borders. On one hand, 30 years of shifting war fronts earns you territorial boundaries that reflect at least some demographic and socio-religious logic, while on the other hand, the passions and ferocity of religion itself are subdued and partially supplanted by nationalism.

The second important takeaway from Thirty Years’ War is how three decades of combat truly ravished the continent, killing an estimated eight million people. In Germany alone, one-fifth of the population was lost to violence, disease and starvation. The war also devastated Europe’s early 17th century economy, leading marauding armies to loot and prey on civilians, thereby inviting atrocities perpetuated by all sides of the conflict.


Considering the first lesson above, there are tempting reasons to want to believe that the current sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites is a development that mirrors the Thirty Years’ War. To do so endows an undercurrent of nationalist sacrifice to all of this violence— that whatever blood might get spilled in places like Iraq and Yemen, it’s all for the greater good as this long-troubled region earns its own Peace of Westphalia. At which point, of course, peace and stability will undoubtedly flourish.

However to accept this idea inherently implies an acceptance of that second above point as well, and this inseparability plays out in the commentary. For example, Richard Haass, in his July 2014 article for Project Syndicate: “Policymakers must recognize their limits,” Haass writes. “For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.” Such nonchalance is nothing short of chilling, when you consider that the “condition” Haass so casually mentions takes the form of mass executions, kidnappings, beheadings, sexual enslavement, sectarian cleansing and literally lighting people on fire in cages. It should also distress us that Haass is not exactly making these comments from his mother’s basement: he is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of America’s most accomplished diplomats and an active advisor of both Democrats and Republicans.

Many onlookers, including myself, have argued that military intervention—especially U.S. military intervention—in Syria and Iraq would do more harm than good. I, for one, still believe that. But to confuse this with the idea that today’s Middle East involves any less of a “problem to be solved,” and that both the US and the international community should sit idly by (with, out of all fairness to Haass, an occasional drone strike) and await some naturally occurring grand peace is an absurdity. A far more reasonable course of conduct would involve using diplomacy and American soft power with the intensity and resources we seemingly devote only to hard power—but such a policy argument is beyond my scope here.

My point is simply that to mindlessly compare today’s sectarian wars in the Middle East to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War both normalizes and practically endorses the rampant human rights abuses that such conflicts have wrought. While it is certainly tempting to accept this analogy, and keep our hands clean in the process, realize that to do so involves a political decision, and an impulse forged more by ideology than any facts on the ground. It’s one thing to connect dots and recognize patterns. Surely, there are commonalities between Sunni-Shia and Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, or any sectarianism, for that matter. But it’s something else entirely to enslave our thinking to our own forced analogies, out of nothing but the desire for heuristic simplicity and cookie-cutter interpretive models. Recognize also that when we allow such limited thinking to bleed into our policymaking (and considering the comments of both Haass and Leon Panetta, I think that we do), there will be monstrous consequences for human rights in the region.

In the second part of this series on the Thirty Years’ War narrative and the Middle East, I’ll look at more useful interpretive models to analyze the recent conflicts.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Palamedes Palamedesz/Public Domain