When my mother was a little girl in Germany, the local Lutheran and Catholic churches truly hated each other. (In Europe, you do not see the “church on every corner” like you do in the United States. People tend to stick together in larger denominations). People had fist fights, and were hateful to those of the other denomination. One of the meanest things they often did was dump large cartloads of horse/cow manure on each others church property to stink up the place before major holy day celebrations.
Pretty stupid, huh?
That all changed in 1945, when the communists took over. The government now hated both groups, and they were forced to band together and even hold services in the same building, as churches were bulldozed or confiscated.
There is nothing like an external threat to bring people together.
The purpose of the story above was to lead into an article on the current events in Iraq, but I have decided to broaden it into a general discussion of what has been going on in the Islamic world for well over a decade. I don’t want it to be overly long, so generalizations will have to be used.
In general, Islam is experiencing a civil war. It is not a straight forward conflict like the American Civil War, with two major sides, but is more like most other civil wars, with various factions coming together and breaking apart as events unfold.
First, what is Islam? I am planning on a posting devoted to this, but here is the quick version. In 610 AD, Muhammad, a merchant in Mecca, was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that he would be the messenger of God. The messages of the previous prophets, the last being Isa ibn Maryam (Jesus son of Mary), had become corrupted, and God wanted everyone to get His real ideas. The Five Pillars of Islam are Testimony, Prayer, Alms-giving, Fasting, and Pilgrimage. Muhammad preached for everyone to repent and follow God, he and his followers were driven out, they were able to return in greater numbers, and eventually won over the local populace.
Muhammad died in 632 AD, around the age of 62, and that’s when things went wrong. There was a succession struggle over who would become caliph over the Ummah, or the religious leader over the people of the faith. The Sunni (followers of the Tradition) used democratic elections to chose their leaders, as is done in Judaism, believing that God will influence the voting. The Shia (followers of Ali) believe that God picked the prophet, and only God can pick his successors. Ali was son-in-law to Muhammad and did reign as the fourth caliph, but was murdered in 661. Fighting broke out and sporadic repressions of Shia followed for centuries.
Shia now make up 10-20% of the Islamic world, but compose around 40% of the population of the Middle East. Spread throughout most countries, they mostly dominant in Iraq and Iran and some smaller countries. One of the easiest ways to spot Shia clerics on the news is that they wear rounded turbans.
Islam has some smaller denominations as well, mostly offshoots of Sunni or Shia, and their usual participation in events is to be persecuted by one of the bigger factions.
The next factor is conflict between Progressive and Conservative. After the Crusades, the Golden Age of Islamic Learning came to an end, and a religious and intellectual fundamentalism took over. This allowed them to be militarily strong for awhile, even leading Muslim armies to the gates of Vienna in 1529, but the technological and social development was no longer there, and they rapidly fell behind other imperial rivals, resulting in most of their lands being occupied by foreigners at one time or another. With the internet and worldwide communications, Muslims can see the good and bad of other cultures, and a polarization of admiration/revulsion has occurred. Some fundamentalist countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are trying a gradual approach of modernization to ease the internal problems. (As one example, over 300.000 women were allowed to seek employment outside the home. Along with the economic boom this has created, young Saudi men are having to deal with forward young women hitting on them at work!)
Hand in hand with the factor above is Haves versus the Have-Nots. There is an image of the Middle East as composed of rich oil shaikhs, but this is nowhere near reality. Again, the interconnected world has shed light on the situation, and an economic rebalancing is occurring. Many wealthy nations have various forms of welfare states, and are trying to integrate more people into the workplace, while in others, unemployed men take up arms to feed their loved ones. (As an aside, my father used to say that if the US Air Force had dropped Sears catalogs instead of bibles and propaganda pamphlets into Eastern Europe during the Cold War, communism would have fallen before 1960!)
External factors are also a major factor. The Arabs were really screwed over in the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, despite fighting for the Allies (The Ottomans fought for the opposing Central Powers). Most of the modern borders come from that time, and in no way reflect the ethnic/religious boundaries of the region. (Just look for Kurdistan on a map. It only exists in the hearts of millions of Kurds). Western countries occupied them as colonies, and the state of Israel was seen as neo-colonialism as Europeans were allowed to occupy land and throw out the locals. The Cold War followed, and various interventions by foreign powers for control of resources cause resentment and anger. Muslims have to decide whether to support/oppose the foreign influence, and the decisions have layered consequences.
So, let’s go back to Iraq to finish up. Iraq is an ancient land, and one of the possible birthplaces of Abraham listed in the bible. Under the Ottoman Empire it gained some autonomy, but was occupied by the British in 1920. While a Shia majority country, the British installed a Sunni king (from Syria) and established a Sunni government. A military coup ended the kingdom in 1958, and Saddam Hussein took over in 1979. He started a war with Shia Iran the same year, and lost a decade later. He occupied Kuwait in 1990 (a dispute over oil and money), and was driven out in 1991. An economic embargo was imposed, and foreign powers encouraged revolts among the Shia and Kurds, all brutally put down. The United States invaded in 2003 and installed a Shia government that promptly started given payback to the Sunnis. Currently, a Sunni revolt is headed towards the capital, and the Sunni Kurds are letting it happen, strengthening their hold on their own lands. (Update 2017. A coalition of forces are slowly destroying the Islamic State.)
Now, multiply this over the entire region and you might have a better idea of reality on the ground. The closest Western analogies I can come up with is a combination of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and the Revolutions of 1848 and 1989.
There will be no overall “winner” in this Islamic civil war. Different factions will be victorious in various regions, always with one eye over their shoulder for possible foreign interventions. Eventually, an new equilibrium will emerge, and events will cool down for awhile.
This is a real human tragedy, and one that affects the entire world, whether someone wants to believe so or not. The cartloads of horse manure seem tame by comparison.