Let’s continue our examination of the potential for the Syrian civil war to turn into a sectarian conflict. For most Westerners, it is difficult to make any sense out of why Sunnis and Shi’ites would be on the verge of all-out conflict. The entire situation seems like the Baptist shooting at the Methodist because one sprinkles and the other demands total immersion. In many ways, this analogy is an apt comparison, but the context is completely different. Westerners live in a world that has experienced the impact of secularism which has pushed religious questions to the back burner as well as creating an atmosphere of tolerance.
The Middle East is part of a context that has firmly resisted the impact of secularism and sees such an emphasis as evil. In contrast to the West, religious questions are the major concern in the East (outside of money). Tolerance is often not considered a virtue. Even though most of the issues between these Moslem groups happened centuries ago, the resentment continues.
Decades ago when I visited Israel for the first time, I was surprised to discover that distrust and animosity over the Crusaders continued. Christian Crusades occured a millenium ago but the fires still burned. For the first 300 hundred years of their existence, Christians were pacifist, by the Middle Ages that position had been swallowed by concepts that supported war. The history of Islam is quite different with warfare existing from the beginning while Mohammed fought with a sword. The rapid spread of Islamic faith was further spawned by the sword. These two contexts have a direct bearing on what is occurring today.
In the seventh-century a war broke out in Islam over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad. These battles gave rise to the existence of today’s Shiites. In the warfare, the prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab was captured and taken to Damascus. Today Shiites believe she is buried beneath the gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab. Currently, Shiite fighters help the Syrian government control the area around the burial sight. Consequently, Damascus has not fallen.
Here’s another dimension of the current struggle. Many Shiities see the Syrian civil war as the fulfillment of a Shite prophecy predicting the end of time. A devil-type of figure called Sufyani will raise an army in Syria and march into Iraq to kill Shiites. The leader of the town of Qatar has become the chief backer of Syria’s Sunni rebels. Consequently, Shiities have come to see the Qatar leader as Sufyani and are expecting the worst. This belief sets in motion a migration of young soldiers going to Syria to protect the variety of Moslem faith that they hold.
Secular Westerner tend not to take these prophecy stories seriously. And that may be a serious mistake. Religious beliefs provide extraordinary power in an armed conflict. While we do not often speak of it in these terms, Nazism was fundamentally a religion as well as a political system. Rational Germans acted irrational because they believed Hitler was a quasi-god. As Nazi leaders were hung at the end of World War II, often their final words were “Heil Hitler.” Even if prophetic pronouncements are immediately discarded, they must be respected as prime motivation tools in a war.
These convictions are rising to the surface with new power in the Syrian conflict. They provide a dangerous context for what may be ahead.