Historical analogy done wrong

Let’s see what people are saying about Iraq…say, what’s this?


Oh, that looks interesting. I mean, there are a lot more immediate, contemporary reasons why Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are rebelling against Baghdad (and why Syria’s Sunnis, many from the same old tribes as their Iraqi cousins, are still waging a civil war against Assad, for that matter), but the Sunni-Shiʿa fault lines certainly help to frame and exacerbate the conflict. Plus I love me some history. So, let’s see what ghosts we’re tal–


Well if you want to go back that fa–wait, what? 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.

Hi, hey, wow, 1500s, you say? That sure is a long time ago. Say, here’s a funny historical tidbit; did you know that the first (maybe second depending on how you keep score of these things) war between the group we now call “Sunni” and the group we now call “Shiʿa” happened in 680? Crazy, right?

Then there were, like, a bunch of other Shiʿa rebellions, and some wars between Sunni and Shiʿa kingdoms, and a few Shiʿa leaders were killed by Sunni rulers, and in 1501, only 16 years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Iran was conquered by a Shiʿa dynasty who spent the next couple of centuries, on and off, at war with the Sunni Ottomans in modern Turkey? Who knew?

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 Qaeda and its subsidiaries, but also the emergent Sunni terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

OK, gross misuse of historical analogy aside, this is just bullshit. The idea that Iran is solely manipulating sectarian strife to its advantage while the poor, innocent Gulf monarchies are just “incautiously support[ing] radical Sunni groups,” like some kind-hearted soul might drop a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket before going online and finding out that the Salvation Army hates them some gays, is so wrong that it fails basic tests of logic. Iran would much rather that its pal in Damascus not currently be embroiled in a civil war that, the longer it continues, makes it more likely that he’ll be unable to regain control over Syria regardless of whether or not he technically “wins” the war. It’s not “Sunni versus Shiite” dynamics that give Iran “a dominant voice in Iraq” so much as it’s the fact that Iraq is majority Shiʿa, and its political system somehow keeps returning close Iran ally Nouri al-Maliki to the PM’s office. Iran would frankly be in better shape if this whole mess were not happening. The Gulf monarchies, meanwhile, have been throwing money at every Levantine Sunni group they could find ever since we Americans turned Iraq from a minority-ruled Sunni state into a majority-ruled Shiʿa one, precisely in the hopes that they would be able to destabilize the Shiʿa governments in Iraq and Damascus (I’m treating the Alawite Assads as Shiʿa, for simplicity’s sake), hopefully leading to Assad’s overthrow, and thus give those Gulf states a nifty client smack in the middle of the region while also depriving Iran of same.

But anyway, you were butchering history?

Second, we should recognize that this is probably a long-term challenge. While we can hope to avoid another hundred years of wars à la the European Reformation with long and lingering effect, 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.

Hah, yeah, the Reformation sure has had a long and lingering effect. And it is very smart to realize that this whole “Islamic Reformation” you’re talking about is probably a bit of a long-term thing.

Hey, did you know that even today, over 13 centuries later, Shiʿa in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere commemorate the day in 680 when that first sectarian war ended? I know! Can you believe that?

The wars of the Reformation in Europe lasted more than a hundred years, and tragically, they sputter along in divided Northern Ireland today. 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.

Wow, a hundred years, and still sputtering along even today, a whole five centuries later. I hope those folks in the Islamic world can make it through their obviously similar sectarian conflict more quickly, maybe if they use the European experience as a guide or something? I mean, sure, the split in Islam began to form literally at the moment of its founder’s death rather than 15 centuries later, and there’s not really any kind of “reform” involved in the Sunni-Shiʿa dispute, and the Sunni-Shiʿa split is more than twice as old as the Catholic-Protestant one, and, well, there’s not really any way in which these two things are like each other beyond the “religious schism” headline, but I’m sure that the Muslims can learn valuable lessons from the Europeans anyway, because it just feels right that Europeans should be teaching the unfortunate non-Europeans of the world these kinds of valuable lessons.

Historical analogies are powerful things, when done right. Using the Reformation as some kind of historical example to help explain the far older, far deeper sectarian divide in Islam is not how you do historical analogy. It’s simplistic, ignorant, and ethnocentric. It would be one thing if Admiral Stavridis, the guy who wrote the piece, had at least acknowledged some basic facts about the Sunni-Shiʿa division and then tried really hard to tease out some possible parallels with the Reformation and the wars that followed, but this piece just wants to argue that Europe’s holy wars can teach them Muslims a thing or two. They can’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.