The Saudi-Iran Confrontation is a lot like Catholics vs. Lutherans...Or Maybe Not
Munster is one of Germany’s prettiest cities, its cascading red tile roofs a symbol of European prosperity. It wasn’t always this way—over 90 percent of Munster’s old city was destroyed by Allied bombers in October of 1944 while, six months later, a British tank brigade demolished what was left. But that fight is a footnote to Munster’s other historical claim, as the cradle of Christian radicalism—with the city once ruled by a bloody ISIS-style dictatorship.
In 1534, John of Leiden, a radical Protestant, led his followers into the city center and proclaimed himself king of an Anabaptist theocracy. Over the next weeks he instituted polygamy, required that everyone be re-baptized and proclaimed Munster the “New Jerusalem.” A reign of terror took hold: women who didn’t want new husbands were raped or beheaded, non-believers were executed, and dissenters fled. The new theocracy appealed to thousands, who flocked to the new Christian caliphate from southern Germany and Holland in anticipation of the end of days.
It didn’t end well. Martin Luther, who’d started the Reformation seventeen years before, denounced the Anabaptists and Count Franz von Waldeck, Munster’s Prince-Bishop, besieged the city. After a one year bloodbath, sparked when the Anabaptists turned on each other, Waldeck reconquered it. On January 22, 1536 John and two of his followers (martyrs, as they were styled), were publicly tortured, then executed and their remains displayed in three iron baskets hoisted up the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church. It took about ten years for the bodies to dissolve, but the baskets remained and replicas can still be viewed today (pour encourager les autres, presumably), 479 years later.
In an era where historical analogies are common, the Munster Rebellion has become a hand-hold for intellectuals who compare it with the Islamic State. Most recently, Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis pointed out the similarities between the Munster Rebellion to the rise of ISIS: both were founded in the midst of political chaos and religious fervor, both are shot through by sexual oppression and both were undergirded by the promise of salvation. Thousands of true believers are flocking to Raqaa, just as thousands once flooded to Munster. Achterhuis even compares Barack Obama to Waldeck; President Obama recoils from “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, he argues, just as Waldeck delayed sending his soldiers into a city barricaded by wacky millenarians.
Achterhuis’s Munster analogy is not unique. Over the last ten years, historians, policymakers and editorial writers have regularly compared what is happening in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shias to what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War—a vicious bloodletting pitting Protestants against Catholics to which the ISIS-like Munster Rebellion was a sober precursor, a kind of historical “coming attractions.” In fact, while the Munster Rebellion analogy is only now gaining popularity, comparing the later (1618-1648), Catholic-Lutheran face-off in the Thirty Years’ War to the Middle East’s sectarian conflict is now so common that it has become the latest fashion, an in-the-know intellectual accessory. It might be chic to buy Prada, but the truly informed cite the Thirty Years’ War.
Jack Miles, the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions argues that “just as Sunni and Shia today refuse to recognize one another as equally Muslim, so Protestants and Catholics back then refused to honor one another as equally Christian.” That view is seconded by Martin Zapfe, a scholar at Zurich’s Center for Security Studies who sees parallels in a Middle East beset by the “disintegration of order, the interaction of sectarian zeal and secular power struggles, and the emergency of a self-sustaining war economy”—just like Munster in 1534 and Europe in 1618. Miles and Zapfe have been joined by former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (“I see some parallels between what’s happening in the Middle East to what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War”), Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (the similarities are “many and sobering”), former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war”), as well as columnists David Brooks (“After The Fall” in the New York Times) and Andrew Sullivan (“The Thirty Years’ War Brewing in the Middle East”).
Of course, as with all such analogies, the comparisons are inexact and perhaps, as some suggest, even dangerous. Professor Jeffrey Record, a strategist at the Army War College who has written extensively on policymaking and history, points out their use often tells us more about a person’s views than about history, arguing that pro-interventionists regularly (and tiresomely) use Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler as a reason to use force, while anti-interventionists just as tiresomely invoke the Vietnam “quagmire.” He calls this the “fantasy realm of historical counterfactualism.” Analogizing the Sunni-Shia split causes the same kinds of problems.
The Thirty Years War was sparked when, in 1618, a group of Protestants threw two Catholic regents, and their secretary, from the windows of Prague Castle. This famous (well, for historians), “Defenestration of Prague” has no Middle East parallel, unless you conclude that Saudi Arabia’s beheading of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, several months ago, is a Sunni defenestration—an attempt to bait Shia Iran. But even that comparison has its limits—since Prague’s three Catholics survived (they landed in a dung heap), while al-Nimr clearly did not.
There’s something compelling in comparing Munster to Raqaa, Waldeck to Obama and the Thirty Years’ War to the Sunni-Shia divide, but there’s a reason why “it’s more complicated than that” is a default phrase for historians the world over. Sunnis versus Shias are like Lutherans versus Catholics? How do those who cite the religious character of the Thirty Years War explain why Catholic France supported the intervention of Protestant Sweden against their Catholic co-religionists? And, let’s not forget the Dutch, who escaped most of the war’s destruction, while funding the Swedes—a role, analogizers now say, that is akin to the stance taken in the Middle East by (one guess)—yes, Israel which, presumably, supports the Protestant (er, Sunni) Saudis. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe the Shias are the Protestants. It’s hard to tell.
“Stop Calling the Middle East Conflict a Thirty Years’ War,” international relations scholar Jack Weller pleaded in the Stanford Political Journal back in 2014. Describing the analogy as “cheap historical shorthand” that “obscures more than it reveals,” Weller points out that “the problems of today’s Middle East and 17th century Europe are fundamentally different in scope and cause, and it’s not generally useful to lump them together.” Then too, he pointedly adds, the analogy “paints a picture of a world where the Middle East is just a few centuries behind progressive Europe, and there’s nothing we can do but wait for the laggards to catch up.”
The Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack agrees. “The idea that what we’re seeing in the Middle East is the result of ancient religious hatreds that go back hundreds of years just isn’t accurate,” he says. “Are there tensions between Sunnis and Shias in the region? Sure there are tensions. But historically, there have been high levels of tolerance between Sunnis and Shias, and much more so than was the case in Europe between Catholics and Lutherans. When we invaded Iraq, forty percent of Baghdad’s population, which was a quarter of all of the people in the country, was the result of mixed marriages—Baghdad’s Iraqis called them ‘Sushis.’”
“We think of the Thirty Years’ War as a religious struggle, but that was only a part of it. The wars were political. This was about the creation of German nationalism in northern Germany, which just happened to be Lutheran, which was opposed by the Hapsburg’s, who were Catholic.”
Pollack who has spent the last year researching the issue as a part of an Atlantic Council task force studying the causes of Middle East instability; laughed aloud when I asked him about the Thirty Years’ War analogy. “That’s amazing,” he says, “because I’ve been dealing with that comparison for the last year, at least. The analogy breaks down if you think about what’s happening as like what happened between Lutherans and Catholics. But the analogy works when you realize that the region’s two state competitors, Saudi Arabia and Iran are using the Sunni-Shia divide to strengthen their positions. You gain power by targeting other groups. It’s not that the Sunni-Shia divide has led to instability, it’s that instability has fueled the Sunni-Shia divide.”
The region’s problems are primarily political, Pollack argues, not religious—a theme that was explored in a section of the Atlantic Council’s recent report that specifically references the Thirty Years’ War. “The region’s problems are domestic unrest, state failure and civil conflicts,” Pollack says, “but the proliferation of civil wars is the one that really stands out, as we’ve seen in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.” That doesn’t sound like the Thirty Years War—except that, actually, it does. “We think of the Thirty Years’ War as a religious struggle,” Pollack notes, “but that was only a part of it. The wars were political. This was about the creation of German nationalism in northern Germany, which just happened to be Lutheran, which was opposed by the Hapsburg’s, who were Catholic. Both sides used religion to fuel the conflict. It was a disaster.”
Which helps to explain why Catholic France sided with Germany’s Lutherans: they were engaged in a “rebalance” in Europe, gaining power at the expense of the Hapsburg (and Catholic) Holy Roman Empire. We’re seeing the same thing now in the Middle East. “The current conflict has its roots in a rebalancing of regional power towards Iran,” religious scholar Reza Aslan says. “The truth is that that rebalance is being opposed by Saudi Arabia, which is using sectarian terms to widen the conflict. The same is true for Iran.” Aslan adds that for both Saudis and Iranians, a face-off over influence “actually devalues their competition. So they put their national interests in religious terms, as a fight between Sunnis and Shias.”
Aslan cites the civil unrest in Bahrain in 2011 as a prime example of how religious divisions are used to fuel a protest over a lack of political rights. “The Saudis described the demonstrations as an Iranian-backed sectarian revolution, as an attempt by Shias to wrest power from Sunnis,” he says. “There wasn’t any truth in that, but that didn’t matter to the Saudis who purposely turned what was happening in Bahrain into a religious war. Just last year, they did the same thing in Yemen, claiming they were fighting a Shia insurgency. It’s absolutely appalling, and we let them get away with it.” Aslan’s solution is to “de-sectarianize” the Saudi-Iranian confrontation, a view that Pollack seconds, while noting that doing that “can be best accomplished by dampening the Saudi-Iranian rivalry”—a political, not religious, initiative.
There’s no doubt: Raqaa is not Munster, Obama is not Waldeck, and the Sunni-Shia face-off is not the Thirty Years’ War. But the comparisons are seductive for a reason, as they help explain a highly complex set of events (like the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, the fight in Iraq and Syria and the execution of a Shia cleric) in terms that we know—or think we know. Put another way, historical analogies are useful (and the Thirty Years’ War analogy is particularly useful), but only so long as we get the history right—when we understand that the Thirty Years’ War had nothing to do with God. It was about power. And that’s true today, in the Middle East.
Mark Perry is an author, writer and foreign policy analyst living in Arlington, Virginia. His most recent book is The Most Dangerous Man In America, The Making of Douglas MacArthur. His work appears regularly in Politico and Foreign Policy.
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