The Ghosts of Religious Wars Past Are Rattling in Iraq

How the lessons of the European wars of the Reformation -- hundreds of years old -- can help stave off the lethal mix of religious radicalization and politics.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons


"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. The period’s religious fervor collided with the Catholic Spanish Empire’s desire to maintain domination in parts of central Europe.

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).

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 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 advisors. All of this and 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 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.

Another 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. This should include encouraging religious leaders within Islam to speak out for tolerance, working with regional organizations (e.g., the Arab League), and engaging the United Nations.

Reformation can be a bloody business indeed, as history has shown with the Christian faith. Playwright and novelist Grant Morrison said, "Idealists and reformers all become executioners in their turn. The road to utopia ends with the steps of the scaffold, the endless moment of the guillotine." That rings unfortunately true in parts of the Islamic world at the moment.

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.

 Twitter: @stavridisj

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola