Sunnis and Shiites

Headlines like this in the Washington Post shock us in civilized Western societies. 100 dead in 24 hours in Baghdad; scores of bodies turning up at morgues, tortured, decapitated, with notes that say “this is how all Sunnis will end up” etc. And yet, we don’t know our own history in the West: it took a Thirty Years War, ostensibly fought because of sectarian differences between Catholics (Sunnis) and Protestants (Shia), in which a number of nations participated (with religion, apparently, as the pretext for territorial gain and political control), that took place on German soil and decimated the population of Germany, killing approximately 25% of the population in the process, before an even shaky equilibrium or peace was possible between Catholics and Protestants in the West. Should we be surprised at 100 dead bodies a day resulting from sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites? Should we not more appropriately be bracing ourselves for their Thirty Years War? Can we expect them to learn from our mistakes? I have my doubts.



  1. I’m not so sure I got them mixed up. Maybe you could explain your reasoning. Are you basing it on the Shia preference for mysticism and comparing that to Catholicism? I was thinking more along the lines of foundation and orthodoxy.


  2. I wonder if the Thirty Years War is a good analogy. The religious wars in Europe came fairly soon after the Protestant reformation, and Catholics and Protestants hadn’t yet learned how to live together, given the established link between religious and secular authority. By contrast, Sunni’s and Shiites have been living side by side for centuries. And the issues in the Thirty Years War went beyond religion, with Catholic France fighting on the predominantly Protestant side.

    I don’t think this is really a religious war anyway, it’s an ethnic struggle for power, which we’ve seen many, many times in ethnically divided countries (e.g. the Balkans).


  3. I was thinking Catholic preference for mysticism and reverence for various saints, similar the Shia and their reverence for later clerics. Catholics may be more foundational, but they have arguably more unorthodox set of doctrine.


  4. The renaissance provides many useful analogies to the situation in the Middle East. One has to be careful, of course, and look at the differences as well as the parallels.

    One aspect that is quite similar is that politics had become a mass phenomenon but the governmental capacity of states was quite limited. That’s why the Thirty Years War took so long and was so bloody. May be, that point warrants a separate post.

    In Iraq, many people are involved in the bloodshed in their neighborhoods but there seems to be little command and control. There is no discipline among the combatants. People are killing for fear. That can go on for a long time.

    Given the track record of the American administration, there is no reason to believe that the Bushies will ever be able to do what it takes to improve the conditions in Iraq.


  5. Shiites and Sunnis have been fighting each other from day one, i.e., 656 AD. Iran is the heartland of the Shiites whereas Saudi Arabia is the heartland of the Sunnis. Tension and war between these two will never stop; millions of bystanders have and will die in the process.


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