Washington–It was 35 years ago last week that a group of Islamic revolutionaries swept through the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 60 Americans hostage while opening a new chapter of violence in the Middle East. What began as a student movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran was quickly overtaken by Muslim extremists who had a very different, more fundamentalist agenda in mind. While the three decades of conflict that have defined the region since 1979 is rooted in a lengthy list of grievances and injustices, the blood-feud at its core — and the motivations of the increasingly barbaric cast of characters involved in the war in and around Syria — is an ancient schism that goes back to the very origins of Islam itself.
In fact, as the renewed bombing campaign by the United States in Iraq and Syria enters its third month on the heels of the news that the U.S. will roughly double its troop level in Iraq, it’s increasingly difficult to see a way forward for the U.S. or to feel that the growing web of extremism surrounding the conflict is anything but a trap. This is a holy war, a fight for the soul of Islam in endless search of new battlefields — which is precisely what it is has been in fits and starts since the year 632. In fact, a look back at roughly the same period of time from Islam’s earliest days — the three decades between the death of Mohammad and the rise of the Umayyed Dynasty on the same Syrian landscape scarred with suffering today — is to see that while the names and armies change, the essential conflict remains the same.