Is the conflict in the contemporary Muslim world so unusual, given that Christians were doing similar things 400 to 500 years ago? Is it really a phenomenon that involves “Muslims,” or is it more a matter of conflicts peculiar to a particular region? To what extent are the stakes in the conflict “religious,” as opposed to “political”?
These were the main questions posed at a two-day conference held by the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York with the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University as well as Reset: Dialogues on Civilizations, an Italian nonprofit group.
The conference, titled “Religious Wars in Early Modern Europe and Contemporary Islam,” took place in New York in October and brought together historians and social scientists from around the United States and across the Atlantic to consider such questions.
The central purpose of the conference was to explore the extent to which the conflicts among Christians in early modern Europe and Muslims in the contemporary world are, in fact, driven by religious concerns, and the discussions provided a chance to contribute to resolving the conflicts that exist today. The conference was also intended to highlight the importance of the comparative method as an avenue toward understanding.
Despite certain questions about the value of comparing a time/place (early modern Europe) with a rather short stretch in the almost 1,500-year life of one of the world’s great religious traditions (contemporary Islam), participants engaged in vigorous discussions on how to think about these two cases of major conflict.
This scenario characterizes some of the fighting in contemporary Iraq: A number of Sunnis have taken up arms with the Islamic State (or ISIS) against a regime that systematically privileged the country’s Shiites and disadvantaged the minority Sunnis. In short, the religious character of a conflict is not a straightforward matter of a conflict between representatives of different religious factions.
One major difference between the cases, the discussions revealed, had to do with the religious identities of the early modern European Christians being new and thus drenched with potential for conflict, while the religious identities (often) at odds in the contemporary Islamic world are very old. Indeed, they originated from the problem of succession after Mohammed’s death in the early-seventh century, but this has not meant that Sunnis and Shiites have been at each others’ throats ever since.
New religious identities and their implications for early modern European politics were crucial causes of the conflicts in early modern Europe in ways that cannot be the case in the contemporary Islamic world.
Yet Christians came, over time, to accept one another and to forswear deadly conflict arising from religious disagreements. Much weight in this development is attributed to the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which first articulated the axiom, in Latin, of cuius regio, eius religion (“whose the rule, his the religion”). This first peace treaty settling wars among Catholics and Protestants regulated the affairs of Catholics and Lutherans only; it took almost another century of bloody warfare, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), to extend the understanding to those adhering to the Reformed (especially but not only the Calvinist) faiths.
The Peace of Westphalia that ended these devastating conflicts is widely regarded as having privatized religious faith and muted it as a cause of “domestic” strife. While the treaty had little to do directly with the idea of “sovereignty,” it helped consolidate a growing shift in Western Europe from a pattern of dynastic regimes marked by overlapping, cross-cutting forms of religious and political rule to a more coherent system of territorial nation-states.
Notwithstanding the shift to territorial states, the relationship between religion and politics remained close until at least the American and French Revolutions, which inaugurated forms of politics that were to be decisively separated from religion; in one case the divorce was friendly, and in the other it was notably hostile. The relationship between religion and politics has not been the same since.
To what extent is the conflict among Muslims a sectarian conflict? For all the apparent evidence of an antagonism between Sunnis and Shiites, it turns out that this is a very difficult claim to vindicate. There are, in fact, three kinds of conflicts among Muslims today: 1) those between Sunnis and Shiites; 2) those between Sunni moderates and Sunni extremists; and 3) those among different Sunni extremists themselves.
These conflicts, which may have either of the characteristics of “religious war” outlined previously, are variously intermingled with more straightforwardly “political” conflicts. Hence the Sunni/Shiite split is undergirded and (as a general rule) promoted by the regional great-power rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the religious and national differences here are overlaid and perhaps exacerbated by an ethnic distinction between Persian and Arab.
The ethnic (and indeed national) distinction plays a decisive role between Kurds and their oppressors, whether Arab or Turkish — despite their all being Sunnis. Meanwhile, the threat of the Islamic State has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran together, in limited fashion, against a common extremist enemy. This marriage of convenience reminds us that there is nothing “primordial” about the Sunni-Shiite divide, even if it goes back, as a historical matter, to the very origins of Islam.
In addition to these conflicts across the sectarian divide, Sunnis may also be at odds with each other. The rulers of a number of Gulf monarchies recently withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar because they thought that the tiny country was offering too much support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Arab states have feared for decades as a serious challenger (those ambassadors have since been returned to Qatar). The Brotherhood was, of course, the major force behind the Arab Spring in Egypt, and its democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown by the military not long after he took power.
Finally, the various factions battling the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad have hardly been “on the same page” as the conflict has unfolded. The jihadists in Syria — of which there are many, joined together in a large number of shifting militia groups — do not necessarily share the same goals regarding the post-Assad future.
For example, the Islamic State has been engaged in intense conflict with Al Nusra Front in Syria over dominance in the opposition to Assad. The Islamic State is a renovated version of Al Qaeda in Iraq (with the addition of disaffected ex-Baathists, or supporters of Saddam Hussein), but it has been disowned by Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as too radical. Nonetheless, the Pakistani Taliban leadership has endorsed IS and its goals, regardless of Pakistan’s close relationship with Al Qaeda.
In sum, the divisions among Muslims over politics in the Middle East and South Asia are multiple, cross-cutting and shaped by sectarian, national, ethnic and great-power interests.
The entire endeavor of the conference vindicated the value of comparison in understanding social life and political conflict. Religion and politics remain deeply enmeshed with one another, but not always and not everywhere, and it is possible to disentangle them for analytical purposes. The hope is that an accommodation between religion and politics will allow those in the Islamic Middle East and South Asia to come to a stable and satisfactory arrangement with respect to the religious pluralism that inevitably obtains in any country. But there is also some worry that there is no substantial social base for such an outcome, and that authoritarian leaders will continue to step in to regulate matters when no other actor presents itself on the scene.
That is a somewhat pessimistic conclusion but seems consistent with the facts on the ground.