There Is No Thirty Years' War in the Middle East

Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau’s The Battle of Rocroi.

Such explanations say more about Europe than about the Middle East.

The Thirty Years’ War started in 1618 as a conflict between various Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire. It brought devastation and major population loss to the heart of Europe. Many observers of today’s Middle East have found similarities with that distant past.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, for instance, contended that several analogies exist “between what’s happening in the Middle East and what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War several centuries ago, namely the rising of religious identification as the principal motive for political action.”

Many public figures expressed similar opinions, including Leon Panetta (“we are looking at kind of a 30-year war”), Andrew Sullivan (“the thirty years’ war brewing in the Middle East”) and Brendan Simms, according to whom “the root of the Thirty Years War, just as with many Middle Eastern ­conflicts today, lay in religious intolerance.”

Others have analyzed how the Thirty Years’ War ended, providing a “model” that could bring peace to the Middle East. Pulitzer winner Jack Miles wrote that “the Peace of Westphalia [in 1648] re-drew parts of the map of Europe. Peace in the Middle East may yet do the same.”

Each of these approaches is part of an ongoing process of the region’s “medievalization,” or the tendency to juxtapose an allegedly medieval Middle East with the modern, secular, normative West.

The Thirty Years’ Wars had indeed little to do with “religious identification.” Catholic France, for instance, supported the intervention of Protestant Sweden, led by Gustavus Adolphus, against the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic League.

Both the Thirty Years’ War (a non-proxy conflict) and the many proxy wars in today’s Middle East show that religious issues alone can explain little. Four centuries ago, France, the Habsburgs, the German princes (whose conversion had little to do with theology and much with asserting their power) and other regional players clashed for very practical reasons. The same applies to the present-day Middle East, where cleavages and sectarian strife have much to do with economics, the short- and long-term effects of nationalism, and ongoing geopolitical dynamics.

In this respect, the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and, more recently, the United States’ nonintervention in Syria, have been perceived by Saudi Arabia as indirect aid to Iran’s strategies. Largely as a consequence of this, over the last five years Riyadh has invested an enormous amount of resources in opposing the rise of any government or party that, in the Arab world, could have represented a credible alternative to the “Saudi model.” This also explains Riyadh’s decision to support the Egyptian army in the coup against former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

It is mainly to these considerations, and thus to Iran’s increased role in the region, that the continuation of the Middle East’s many proxy wars should be linked.

On the other hand, to imply that the region should make up for the centuries that divide it from a normative West is not only orientalist, but also tends to simplify a more complex picture. Early seventeenth-century Europe was facing the repercussions of the Protestant Reformation, which had started one century earlier. On top of this, the fanaticism that characterized Catholic-Protestant relations had no parallel in the history of the Middle East.

For many centuries, Sunnis and Shia—but also Christians, Jews and other religious groups—have lived side-by-side in the region, reaching a level of coexistence higher than any registered in most of the rest of the world.

In this sense, the thesis of the existence of a “1400-year war” between Sunnis and Shia, increasingly mentioned nowadays, is problematic, and tends to overlook that belonging to a certain sect had for centuries been just one, often secondary, way of expressing one’s identity.

This should not suggest that communal conflict was historically unknown. Instances of Sunni-Shia violence have been documented as early as the Middle Ages. Yet, their nature and scope are hardly comparable to more recent times. As noted by Fanar Haddad, “in early medieval Baghdad, there were sectarian clashes, but that is extremely different from what you have in the age of the nation state.”

It is meaningful that as recently as 2003, about 40 percent of Baghdad's population—that is, a quarter of whole Iraq—was composed of people born from Sunni-Shia mixed marriages; Baghdad's Iraqis called them “Sushis.”

The tangible reality of “Sushis” has today been largely replaced by an alternative vision, which prefigures—and often advocates—a “balkanization” of the region. This approach is rooted in the early 1990s and was expressed in an article (“Rethinking the Middle East”) by Bernard Lewis in Foreign Affairs in 1992.