Preventing a religious war in the Mideast

Attacks on sacred Shiite sites by the Sunni militants creating an 'Islamic State' in Iraq and Syria are risking a wider war in the Middle East. The world should help prevent such a major war of religion by applying lessons from previous wars between competing faiths.

AP Photo
This image made from video posted on a militant website July 5 purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.

The Sunni militant group that has created an “Islamic State” across a swath of the Middle East has begun to attack the sacred shrines of Islam’s minority Shiites. This tactic aims to incite a violent response by the perceived heretics and help unite all Sunnis behind the group’s leader, who calls himself “Khalifa Ibrahim,” or caliph Abraham, after the ancient prophet.

The attacks run the risk of igniting a wider war of religion, perhaps drawing in Iran, which is largely Shiite, and Saudi Arabia, which is mainly Sunni. This would be a dangerous course. A major war of religion has not occurred on the world scene since the Thirty Years’ War in 17th-century Europe. That war saw different Christian faiths driving a conflict that ended up wiping out entire populations.

If the Middle East now descends into a Sunni-Shiite conflagration over defining the true faith of Islam, the rest of the world can hardly remain as a bystander. For one, wars over theology and religious traditions are particularly brutal. Each side, in claiming divine superiority and setting up certain individuals as God’s chosen, may be prone to more easily fight to the death.

A good example was the video released Saturday that shows a sermon by Khalifa Ibrahim (who has also used the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). In it he tells Muslims: “I was placed as your caretaker.” By claiming he speaks for God to others, he in effect denies each person’s individual relationship with God. And by resorting to the force of arms, he denies that a person’s spiritual commitment should be won by peaceful means, such as invitation, grace, or by example of good works.

World leaders must persuade those Muslims eager to fight over doctrinal differences to learn from previous religious wars. In Europe, the treaties that ended the Thirty Years’ War, known as the Peace of Westphalia, set the seeds not only for modern ideas about the role of state but also other ideas that blossomed during the Enlightenment. These included a charitable tolerance between faiths, the avoidance of using state power to impose particular religious views, and the achievement of national unity based on civic values that transcend denominations. In America, those lessons were enshrined in a constitutional provision to protect the free exercise of religion against government intrusion.

Europe still grapples today with the challenges of religious tolerance and the rivalry of doctrines, such as whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear face veils in all public situations. In the United States, religious groups that oppose abortion are struggling not to be forced to participate in paying for abortions under "Obamacare," even indirectly. Defining the boundary between private faith and public expressions of it, or between temporal authority and spiritual authority, is sometimes difficult. But resorting to violence to settle such disputes has been largely given up in the West and many other places.

In the 1648 pact that helped end the Thirty Years’ War, the various parties agreed on a “universal peace” that would rely on seeking the welfare of one another and creating “a good and faithful Neighbourhood.” That remains a higher truth for all to learn. Europe had to pay a high price for its mistake. Yet the experience led to progress in embracing a more universal view of humanity. That lesson can now serve Shiites and Sunnis who may be drifting toward a larger war.

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