Ghosts of religious wars past

A century of horror in Europe should alert us into involvement in the Middle East

"I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen."

Martin Luther, reply to the "Diet of Worms," April 1521

As Sunnis and Shiites tear their societies apart throughout parts of the Arab world, old ghosts are indeed rattling from the eastern Mediterranean and Levant to the northern Arabian Gulf. We watch with horror and near disbelief as radicalized elements on both sides of the Islamic faith take up arms in Iraq and Syria in increasingly vicious ways. But in the West, we have seen this play out before: in the Christian faith, during the wars of the Reformation.

From the early 1500s to the mid-1600s, Protestants and Catholics tore Europe apart, killing perhaps a third of the population in parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, with brutal casualty rates in many other parts of the continent and the British Isles. Coincidentally, this was the moment when Christianity was about 1,500 years old - roughly the length of time since the founding of Islam to the present.

Then, as now, this was not purely religious fury at work. In Europe, Martin Luther's reforms spread rapidly across the continent, leading to the variously named wars of the period: the Eighty Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the French Wars of Religion, and several others. In England, the religious fanaticism was manifested first as King Henry VIII sought to break his marriage to the Catholic princess of Spain, Catherine of Aragon.

In the Arab and Persian worlds today, geopolitics and economics are clearly at work as well. Iran seeks to dominate as much of the Middle East as it can, and it is willing to use the genie of Sunni versus Shiite to allow it a dominant voice in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. On the Sunni side, the Persian Gulf monarchies have incautiously supported radical Sunni groups, resulting in the germination of not only al-Qaida and its subsidiaries, but also the emergent Sunni terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

As in the European wars of the Reformation, the potential for all this to spread is high, and the ability to extinguish it is low. That is a bad combination indeed. The use of religious fury and internecine warfare, once permitted to take root and coupled to the energy and resources of geopolitics and economics, is difficult to stamp out.

What can we do?

First, be involved. We must recognize this is a lethal mix indeed of religion and politics and do all that we can to stabilize the situation. Simply avoiding it will ultimately cause terrible effects in the United States and Europe as radicals come back. But at the same time we need to recognize that fundamentally this is not our problem to solve. The ultimate solutions must come from within Islam and the region. This means working with the more moderate regimes and pushing for balance in the treatment of Sunni and Shiite.

In the case of Iraq specifically, we have to push Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to build a more inclusive regime, stop the political prosecution of Sunni politicians, and lead the Shiite-dominated government back to working with the Sunni sheikhs. We have to provide material military assistance quickly, including intelligence, weapons, helicopters, ammunition, cyber-support and perhaps Special Forces advisers. That may mean working with Iran - strange bedfellows to be sure - but perhaps there will be a grain of goodness in that as well.

Second, we should recognize that this is probably a long-term challenge. While we can hope to avoid another hundred years of wars la the European Reformation, it is clear that this is not a single momentary challenge. The United States needs to play the long game here, meaning crafting a broad strategy for the region and for dealing with both the religious and geopolitical aspects of this challenge.

A third important aspect of this is to try to separate the geopolitics (Iran versus Saudi Arabia, for example) from the religious (Shiite versus Sunni). Doing so will be challenging, but creating common cause against vicious and totally radicalized groups like ISIS may make this easier. There may be creative openings with Iran in this regard in the immediate defense of Iraq's fragile government and polity.

A fourth approach is to point out and try to involve as positive role models and interlocutors the Islamic-majority nations that seem to be working reasonably well in finding geopolitical and religious balance, including Turkey and Indonesia.

The wars of the Reformation in Europe lasted more than a 100 years. It will require a deep effort within the Islamic world to head off the further violent politicization of this world faith, and leadership by men and women of good heart will be vital to breaking an emerging cycle of violence. We should do all we can to help.

James Stavridis is a retired 4-star Navy admiral and dean of the Tufts University School of Law and Diplomacy. He wrote this for Foreign Policy magazine.


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