Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University.
It’s tempting to explain the seemingly endless Middle East strife in sectarian terms. In Iraq, for example, it’s Sunni extremists vs. Shiite moderates. In Syria, it’s Shiite President Bashar al-Assad vs. Sunni rebels. And in Yemen, it’s a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Some observers have even suggested that the whole region is on the verge of an epic religious conflagration on par with the Thirty Years’ War, which tore Protestant and Catholic Europe apart in the 1600s.
By this telling, Sunnis and Shiites have been locked in a vicious, intractable conflict since the seventh century, when a disagreement broke out over who should succeed Muhammad. Shiites backed the prophet’s cousin Ali; Sunnis backed his trusted adviser Abu Bakr. This scuffle culminated in the historic defeat of Ali’s family at the battle of Karbala, circa 680. As the story goes, the sects have been killing each other ever since — and will continue to do so until they stop obsessing over ancient history.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this historical narrative is that it ignores everything that happened between 680 and, say, 1980. Op-eds about the “ancient” and “age-old” Sunni-Shiite warfare rarely reference this crucial 13-century period — a.k.a. the entire time during which Sunnis and Shiites were supposedly in conflict. Like everywhere in the world, people in the region were definitely fighting during this time. Historians could even provide a couple good examples of battles along Sunni-Shiite lines. But sectarian identity was seldom the chief issue that brought people in the Middle East to war.
In part, that’s because sectarian labels were once more fluid, shifting in response to political circumstances rather than existing as fixed identities. Shiism, for example, often served less as a creed and more as a set of arguments available to those seeking grounds on which to challenge their rulers. It’s a distinction nicely captured in the language of the scholar Marshall Hodgson, who, in the 1950s, wrote not only about Shiites but also the “Shiitically inclined.”
Consider, for example, the ninth-century Abbasid Dynasty (based in modern-day Iraq), celebrated for cultural contributions such as “The Arabian Nights” and the number zero. Historical accounts treat the dynasty as the most famous Sunni caliphate in Islamic history. But when the first Abbasid caliph seized power, he was challenging another Sunni dynasty, the Umayyads. In doing so, his propaganda championed a Shiite belief — that Islam’s leadership belonged to those, like him, who were more closely related to Muhammad. Thus, the noted scholar Bernard Lewis declared the Abbasids’ victory over the Umayyads a “resounding success” for Shiism, adding that at this point, Shiite doctrines “differed to no great extent from those of Sunni Islam.”
But after claiming the Shiite mantle in revolt, the Abbasids defended Sunni orthodoxy against Shiite groups rising in revolt against them. And when, a century later, the Abbasid caliphate fell to a Shiite dynasty called the Buyyids, the revolutionaries were perfectly content to keep a line of Sunni caliphs in power as their figureheads.
In time, doctrines and counter-doctrines were increasingly codified by Sunni and Shiite theologians. But even today, these identities are seldom the all-consuming markers of political allegiance that extremists on both sides would have us believe. In the 1980s, many Shiites fought loyally for Saddam Hussein against Shiite Iran. Likewise in Syria, many Sunni businessmen initially supported the Shiite Alawite Assad regime, to which they owed much of their wealth. Meanwhile, many democratically minded Shiite Alawites joined the opposition in calling for an end to Assad’s authoritarian rule. And of course, for families happily formed from across sectarian lines, the irrelevance of these identities is as much personal as it is political.
The point of this history is not that a present-day eruption of sectarian warfare is impossible. It really is a possibility — not because of anything that happened 1,000 years ago, but rather because of how people today explain what happened 1,000 years ago. And sadly, when people start insisting, against all evidence, that they have been constantly at war for 13 centuries, that’s almost always a dangerous sign.
Rather than framing their struggle in political terms, sectarian groups like the Islamic State are framing it in purely religious language. Religiously motivated anti-Assad rebels, for example, denounce the president’s supporters not as advocates of a despotic, violent regime, but as Shiite infidels. And some Shiites inevitably explain the Islamic State not as a home-grown terrorist organization, but rather as the latest manifestation of the Sunni tyranny they have endured for more than a millennium. To give substance to these claims, some civilians even trace details of Syria’s conflict back to the wars of the Umayyad Dynasty.
Recent relations between Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran provide an excellent example of just how quickly history can be rewritten to serve contemporary politics. Since the two countries became involved on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, articles about their relations have often mentioned that they have been rivals since the 16th century. And the Ottoman-Safavid wars of that period certainly are an excellent historical example of a conflict that, for all its geopolitical motives, relied heavily on sectarian rhetoric.
But the past few centuries of Ottoman-Safavid relations looked totally different just a decade ago. In 2006, the Turkish and Iranian governments were rapidly improving bilateral relations, signing trade deals and coordinating efforts against Kurdish separatism. Both governments used nonsectarian rhetoric to emphasize their shared values and regularly spoke of the long history of Turkish-Iranian harmony. Amid this surfeit of goodwill, it fell to historians to challenge the widely accepted claim that Turkey and Iran had neither fought nor changed their border since the Ottomans and the Safavids signed a peace treaty in 1639.
So as Turkey and Iran try to improve their relations once again, have the two countries been enemies or friends this whole time? A bit of both, obviously. The most recent full-fledged war between these dominant Sunni and Shiite states ended in 1823. Meaning that, measured purely in terms of years since the last actual war, the Turkish-Iranian rivalry is historically on par with our country’s rivalry with Britain (conclusion of last war: 1815) or Britain’s rivalry with France (also 1815).
Over the past decade, extremists have dedicated themselves to reducing the region’s complex identities to a simple Sunni vs. Shiite divide. It’s an invented history. But unfortunately in these efforts, success tends to breed success, and sectarian narratives quickly become self-fulfilling. Imagine how easily a liberal Shiite Alawite who hated Assad might conclude, after hearing rebels extol their commitment to killing Alawites, that his own survival was tied to the dictator’s. Cases like these are a depressing reminder that those who peddle bad history as an excuse for killing each other all too often succeed.