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.
It is a story that starts at the very beginning, with the man that Muslims believe was God’s last prophet on earth. While it would have shaped the Muslim faith in profoundly different ways if Mohammad had forcefully and unquestionably named a successor toward the end of his life, he did not. Because of it, upon his death in 632, Islam split.
A minority of Muslims felt that the leadership of Islam should come from Mohammad’s bloodline and believed that the Prophet had selected his young cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to take his place. A majority of Muslims doubted this story and not only believed that faith and the state should be kept separate, but that leadership should pass to a respected member of the community.
The majority, known as the sunnah, or “way” of Mohammad in Arabic — later the Sunnis — won the argument. The minority, known as the Party of Ali, or “Shi’atu — the Shiah — lost.
The first two Sunnis chosen as caliph, or leaders of Islam, were respected former companions of the Prophet. The third caliph was an aging and unremarkable former companion whose eventual incompetence was matched only by his growing nepotism and megalomania. When he refused to give up power, he was murdered by rebels while reading his Quran.
The leadership of Islam then finally passed, 24 years after the death of Mohammad, to Ali — who, in his first act as leader declared amnesty in the name of God to all involved in the third caliph’s murder. This triggered two conflicts immediately.
First, the daughter of the first caliph, hoping to find a person she deemed to be better suited to lead, charged Ali with plotting the third caliph’s murder, raised an army of like-minded Muslims, and led it into battle against Ali — the first Sunni-Shia civil war in Islamic history.
No sooner had Ali triumphed in that battle than he faced another mutiny: Muawiya, the Governor of Damascus, of the Umayyed clan — who was cousin to the third caliph and who believed that he should be the successor — also declared war on Ali and led his Syrian army into battle.
Fighting on Ali’s side was a group of deeply devout Muslims, called the Kharijites, who not only believed that God’s law should be state law, but that all non-believers (as they defined them) should be forcibly removed from Islam. Proving to be fierce warriors, they led a near-total route of the Syrian army. But at a decisive moment, as recounted in Reza Aslan’s terrific book on the origins of Islam, No god but God, Muawiya had his soldiers place the Quran on the tips of their spears and beg for mercy.
Ali accepted their surrender, which enraged the Kharijites, who believed that Ali’s display of mercy was a sin and a betrayal. As the governor’s insurrection went to court, Muawiya rebuilt his army and re-declared war. But on the eve of a second battle between the Sunni and Shiite forces, a Kharijite extremist stabbed and killed Ali with a poisoned sword as he prayed. With Ali gone, Muawiya became Caliph, moved the Muslim capital to Syria, and built an empire that eventually stretched across Europe and Asia.
Fast-forward 1,400 years and the same exact themes are present across the region again today. Sunni and Shiite forces fighting to the death, not simply as a matter of religion, but as a matter of politics. Sunni leaders willing to cynically use religion to advance their own interests on the field of battle. And a group of extremists so zealous in their enforcement of what they perceive to be righteous that they are willing to punish or even murder anybody who disagrees — even if it is a blood relative of the prophet.
There have been centuries when this battle lay dormant, where Sunni and Shia not only co-existed, but intermarried. But as the Council of Foreign Relations observed in a recent guide on the Sunni-Shia divide, “The transformation of Iran into an overtly Shia power after the Islamic revolution (of 1979) induced (Sunni) Saudi Arabia to accelerate the propagation of Wahhabism, as both countries revived a centuries-old sectarian rivalry over the true interpretation of Islam.” Wahhabism, of course, is the ultra-fundamentalist Sunni school that has brought 7th-century barbarism back into the modern world while providing the fanatical fuel that has driven nearly every extreme Sunni terrorist today, from the hijackers of 9/11 to many of the ISIS militants raping and murdering their way across Syria and Iraq.
While Sunni Muslims make up roughly 80 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, in the Middle East, the ratio is closer to 50-50, if you don’t count Egypt. For decades, Iraq was a majority Shiite country ruled by a brutal Sunni government. After Saddam Hussein fell, the tables were turned, and new U.S.-supported Shiite leadership humiliated the Sunni minority. Meanwhile, with the help of its strong Shiite allies in Tehran, the Alawite minority government in Damascus, on off-shoot of Shiism, has terrorized a relatively secular Sunni majority.
The proxy war playing out in Syria today — with Saudi-backed Sunnis fighting Iran-backed Shiites while off-the-rails ISIS warriors try to shape their own caliphate across the region — is, as the Council on Foreign Relations observes, “the last chance for Sunnis to limit and reverse the spread of Iranian power and Shia influence over the Arab world.”
And yet, the middle of this morass is where the United States has chosen to insert itself today, ostensibly with the support of Muslim allies, including Saudi Arabia. But in reality, it does so without even the support of its supposed NATO ally, the increasingly Islamist Turkey, which continues to refuse to allow the U.S. to even use its air bases or to engage ISIS fighters just across the border in Kobani.
As journalist Nicholas Kristof recently put it, “We can’t want to defeat ISIS more than the countries in its path, and right now, we do.” Or, as Stratfor chairman George Friedman argued in an essay shortly after the U.S. committed to its renewed bombing campaign, “Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the United States. So long as they believe the United States will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, or act on the margins, or even hinder the Americans.”
There are many things the U.S. can do to help degrade and destroy ISIS, as President Obama claims as his goal — from cracking down on the oil black market to deny ISIS its lucrative oil revenue to infiltrating its propaganda networks. But letting ourselves get buried deeper into the middle of this centuries-old sectarian morass should not be one of them.
Mohammad’s great gift, it was said, was creating one community out of many competing clans. The burden should be on the Prophet’s descendants to prove whether the faith he inspired — and the lessons he imparted on the faithful — are strong enough to fashion one truth that all of them can finally share.