Syria's religious war
The rebellion may have begun as a nonsectarian protest against Bashar Assad's corruption, but it is quickly being dominated by Al Qaeda and other radical and terrorist forces.

Reuters

Demonstrators chant slogans and wave Syrian opposition flags during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Raqqa province, east Syria, May 17, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • If there was a moment when the US could have intervened in Syria, it looks like it has passed.

    Tweet This

  • The tradition of religious tolerance we take for granted today was paid for with generations of bloodshed.

    Tweet This

  • A lasting solution can only be found when the people on the ground are ready and willing to take it to heart.

    Tweet This

If there was a moment when the United States could have intervened in Syria, it looks like that moment has passed.

Shiite militants, including Hezbollah - partly at the behest of their paymasters in Iran - are racing to the defense of Bashar Assad's regime. According to a witness account in the New York Times, there were some 11,000 Hezbollah fighters in the besieged town of Qusair alone.

A Shiite religious student in Najaf, Iraq, told the Times that his colleagues believe the leader of Qatar, a backer of Syrian rebels, is a long-prophesied demonic figure who, it is foretold, will raise an army in Syria to wipe out Shiites in Iraq. As a result, devout Shiites are racing to defend their faith.

Sunnis around the world, meanwhile, are being called on to join the fight, with the material support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn. of Lebanon issued a fatwa calling on followers to support the rebels "by words, money, medical aid and fighting."

The hugely influential Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, a Sunni Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, called on Sunnis everywhere to come to Qusair's aid and proclaimed Hezbollah "more infidel than Jews and Christians."

In the Middle East, them's fighting words.

It's tempting to compare what is going on in Syria to the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that presaged World War II in many ways, chief among them the way fascists and communists used the belligerents as proxies for the larger conflict brewing in Europe.

The Assad regime, essentially a puppet of Shiite Iran, is a devil we know well. However much the rebellion began as a nonsectarian protest against Assad's corruption, it is now rapidly becoming dominated by Al Qaeda and other radical and terrorist forces. One such rebel group has reportedly been involved in the slaughter of Christians - not the kind of crowd many Americans have an interest in supporting.

But beyond the bad guys versus bad guys aspect, the Spanish Civil War analogy has its limits. A better comparison may be to the bloody upheavals that tore apart Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.

Christianity benefits from dogmas and doctrines more conducive to the separation of church and state than those found in Islam, starting with Jesus' injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. When the Roman Empire fell, the seat of political authority transferred to Constantinople, but the religious authority remained in Rome. This created room, conceptually at least, to distinguish political authority from religious authority. But the divine right of kings rendered that distinction operationally moot for centuries.

It wasn't until the bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants - as well as different denominations of Protestantism - had exhausted much of the continent that Europeans came to recognize "the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword," in the words of historian C.V. Wedgwood.

In short, the tradition of religious tolerance we take for granted today was paid for with generations of bloodshed.

Several centuries of war and religious persecution may not seem all that heartening a precedent. But things move much, much faster now. For instance, it took the West several millenniums to learn how to lift its people out of poverty. The rest of the world leapfrogged countless intermediate steps by learning the West's lessons.

Between 1981 and 2001, for example, China alone lifted 680 million out people of poverty when it accepted the basic wisdom of markets. It came to that lesson only after it exhausted itself testing the barbaric limits of communism, killing tens of millions of its own people trying to make an unworkable theory work.

Edmund Burke was right when he said, "Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other." What is happening in the Middle East is a horror. But some lessons can only be learned after exhausting the worse alternatives first.

There may yet be a role for America to minimize the horror. But a lasting solution can only be found when the people on the ground are ready and willing to take it to heart.

 

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 27
    MON
  • 28
    TUE
  • 29
    WED
  • 30
    THU
  • 31
    FRI
Monday, October 27, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
State income taxes and the Supreme Court: Maryland Comptroller v. Wynne

Please join AEI for a panel discussion exploring these and other questions about this crucial case.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 9:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America

Join Lerman, Wilcox, and a group of distinguished scholars and commentators for the release of Lerman and Wilcox’s report, which examines the relationships among and policy implications of marriage, family structure, and economic success in America.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
The 7 deadly virtues: 18 conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell

Please join AEI for a book forum moderated by Last and featuring five of these leading conservative voices. By the time the forum is over, attendees may be on their way to discovering an entirely different — and better — moral universe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
A nuclear deal with Iran? Weighing the possibilities

Join us, as experts discuss their predictions for whether the United States will strike a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the November 24 deadline, and the repercussions of the possible outcomes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
The forgotten depression — 1921: The crash that cured itself

Please join Author James Grant and AEI senior economists for a discussion about Grant's book, "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.