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Religion Matters
Are People Killing Each Other Today Over an Election Dispute in Arabia More Than a Thousand Years Ago?

While it would be wrong to think that the conflict in the Middle East is only about religion, it would be even more wrong to downplay just how much of the conflict actually is just about religion.

Published on: June 25, 2014
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  • Pete

    Mr Berger wonders if Arabs killing each other more today over an election than a thousand years ago.

    Actually, yes. And they’re killing each other for every other reason under the sun.

    And why? Well, not exactly ‘why’ but ‘how.’

    If the Arabs could kill only with the weapons they themselves could design and manufacture, then the death toll among these savages would be miniscule.

    What’s the solution? How about banning all modern technology from being brought into Arabla since the people there have repeatedly demonstrated that they lack the maturity to handle it. .

    This would include banning not only tanks, jets, small arms but also TVs, cell phones, cars, etc. That would calm the situation down might fast, indeed one could say that would be the Christian thing to do.

  • Anthony

    “Motives are rarely pure, and history is not a seminar in either theology or economics.” Over and above that, what can be added (social reality is a messy business).

  • Arkeygeezer

    The three players in the Iraq drama are the Sunni moslems, Shi’ia moslems, and the Kurds. The Iraq Sunni moslems, and the Iraq Shi’ia are more motivated by religious differences than secular differences.

    The Kurds, on the other hand are an ethnic group motivated by territorial concerns. There are a variety of religions practiced by the Kurds, with the largest being Sunni moslem. The Kurds are the most cohesive group of the three.

    • Curious Mayhem

      The Kurds are, by large majority, Sunni Muslims. But they are not Arab. Their language is an Indo-European tongue, Indo-Iranian branch, and a cousin of Persian (Farsi) and Armenian. They are possibly the descendants of the Carduchoi of antiquity.

      The Sunni and Shi’ites of Iraq, as popularly identified, as Arabs, at least by culture and language, a Semitic tongue related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Amharic and other languages of Ethiopia. Ethnically, when you get down to it, a mixed bag.

      The only real Arabs, ethnically, are the Beduin of the Arabian peninsula.

  • mc

    A fairly good take but what’s with the use of the singular Shi’i when the plural Shi’a or Shi’ites is required? Also, the Shi’ite ulama do not claim to have privileged access to the twelfth imam, though Khomeini’s followers encouraged a deliberate ambiguity on the point. Nor are they exceptionally inclined to the ecstatic aspects of religion. I’m in complete agreement with the criticism “really-aboutism”, which resembles know-nothingism in its insistence that the truth of things is simple.

  • Curious Mayhem

    (I was replying to an interesting comment about Islamic sects and the rise of Christianity which seems to have vanished.)

    Doubtful. Once they became distinct from the Jews, the Christians were pretty consistently persecuted by the Romans, until Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century. The common Roman term for Christianity was “noxious superstition” (foeda superstitio). That’s not to say that the Pauline church, made up largely of gentiles, didn’t try to ingratiate itself with Roman authorities.

    BTW, the Maccabees (Hasmoneans, or Hash’mona’im) were second century BCE, say 160 BCE, well before the Romans occupied Judea.

    Most Jews, inside and outside Judea, were not supporters of the Sicarii and Zealots. Only the misrule of the last few Roman consuls goaded much of the populace, including the largely pro-Roman elite, into supporting the first Jewish revolt against Rome, in 66. Many of them turned back, especially in the north (Galilee), to being pro-Roman within a year or two. Hence the Galilee was spared the destruction of 69-70 CE.

    The southern part of Judea (around Jerusalem) was much more dominated by the Zealots. While the core leadership were fanatics and apocalyptics, some of them seem to have been common criminals (viz. the two others crucified with Jesus), while yet others were pushed out of normal society and ruined by the Roman system of tax collection. Many of the tax contractors (called “publicans” in the New Testament) were little better than gangsters and extorted their targets for far more than they owed, keeping the difference for themselves. That Jesus had a tax collector or two in his movement would have been a sign of his power to call the wicked to repentance. The later rabbis regarded any repentance by a tax contractor as doubtful.

    Anyway, while they disliked Roman rule, the later dominant pharasaic or rabbinic leaders of the Jewish diaspora largely condemned the leaders of the revolts against Rome and downplayed, for example, the nationalistic and military aspects of Hannukah in favor of its religious significance.

    The unfortunate thing about the modern Middle East is the immense wealth the oil exports place in the hands of two especially violent sects, the Shi’ite faction that controls Iran and the Salafi (Wahhabi) sect of Saudi Arabia. There was no analogue to that in ancient times.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger notes that social scientists have difficulty taking allegedly religious motivations at face value. “Real” motivations must be secular. To illustrate that tendency, I would point to remarks made by sociologists Robert Brym and John Lie in their introductory text written when G. W. Bush was in office: “What President Bush ignored [when he denounced radical Islamic beliefs after 9/11] were the political sources of this fringe form of Islamic extremism.” Al-Qaeda was supposedly motivated by political opposition to U. S. support for nondemocratic Arab governments. Obama seems to agree. His policy of apologizing for American imperialism, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and exchanging five . . . uh, freedom fighters for a deserter who pretty much shares Obama’s view of America was supposed to pacify the Middle East.

    Obama must feel betrayed by ISIS. Don’t they realize I’m on their side? Why don’t they love me? Oh, I get it– they’re trying to help Ur-isolationist Rand Paul get elected! Then they will really be able to develop democratic governments in peace. Surely they must want what I want: “social justice.”

    Berger’s recognition of both political and religious motives is an indictment of those who deplore the “religioniaztion” of issues (and regard only politics as real) and those who seek political power only as a means to theocracy (and regard only religion as real). Angels may exist despite the incapacity of social scientists to believe in them, and issues of human decency can be fruitfully addressed without consensus on angels. Religion and politics are both real.

  • FredO

    The snide “Religion and other curiosities” banner betrays the writer’s obvious disdain for religion, so the conclusion that the Shia-Sunni dispute is essentially religious is no surprise.

    Take off your secular blinders, sir—people have been killing each other in multifarious ways for millenia. Let’s not forget the 80-100 million killed by secular regimes in the 20th century.

    • Breif2

      Sunni and Shia religious leaders call on their religious followers to combat their religious opponents in the name of religion, but you know better: this has nothing to do with religion. You apparently are more knowledgeable about Islam than its leading religious leaders, and you know what is in the hearts of its ardent adherents. No wonder you value religion; you are the Lord God Almighty!

      • Breif2

        On a more general note, I urge you to take off your own blinders and not leap to conclusions regarding writers you obviously know nothing about. For example, the banner is hardly snide but rather an example of Berger’s understated scholarly humor. It is becoming tiresome to read comments by people projecting their simplistic manichean attitudes on Berger.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Thanks for a good review of the particular differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islamic beliefs. But we should not allow our attention to these details cloud our understanding of the whole.

    Mohammad is not a “prophet” of any authority whatsoever. The Koran and the Hadiths are NOT legitimate guidelines for 21st century humans anywhere. Islamic “law” is a complete crock of baloney. The utter fib of Islam is polluting the minds of well over a billion people. The ONLY peace with any of them is with those who, in private reality, do not take the nonsense seriously—and that portion of the Muslim Community is shrinking.

    Wherever a saturation of Islam resides, there will be people passing laws or trying to pass laws against “blasphemy” of The Big Falsehood and “apostasy” (aka, escape) from The Big Falsehood. Every day, new suicide volunteers are being created to advance the “The Big Falsehood” via killing people.

    The world must recognize that there is not a Muslim anywhere (who takes The Big Falsehood seriously) who is not wishing for either the conversion or conquest of all the non-Muslim “infidels”. (And the Muslims who don’t really take the dogma seriously have a very, very, very hard time getting out of it.)

    We Westerners need to stop pretending that we can or should “respect” this religion even an inch. We are not called to be “haters” of people (ever), but we are called to call a big falsehood “A BIG FALSEHOOD”. There is no other hope for reversing the march of millions into the mental tyranny which is Islam.

    • Gray99

      Excellent explanation of Mohammedans.

  • Gary Novak

    In response to FredO:
    In “The Structure of Freedom” (1991) Berger wrote: “This particular dream has possibly created more suffering and pain than any other in history, and the redemption it has aspired to has been a most terrible delusion.” Can you guess which dream he is talking about? You may think that the obviously secular Berger is talking about religion. But, in fact, he is talking about socialism. He hasn’t forgotten about the millions killed by secular regimes, and Breif2 is correct in saying you don’t know what you’re talking about. However, I think Breif2 also misunderstands your position. I don’t think you are claiming that the Shia-Sunni conflict has nothing to do with religion but only that it is unfair to blame religion for the killing since secularists are quite good at it without the benefit of religion.

    Breif2 is correct to say that Berger’s characterization of religion as a curiosity is not disdainful. A curiosity is not an absurdity. Religion is curious in the sense that it inspires and merits reflection. That would sound disdainful only to someone who thinks that the essence of religion fits on a bumper sticker: “God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.”

  • Peter Barlow

    This is a good analysis of the Middle East’s religious question, but does not convey the degree to which the branches of the religion exist in an atmosphere of intense mutual suspicion. Since the peace of Westphalia and the end of (more or less) Europe’s religious wars, there seems to have been a kind of tacit agreement in the Western world not to fight about religion. This has been supported by the decline of religion as a social force in many places, particularly in the last century or so.
    Contrast this with a vibrant, living sense of historic memory, mutual hatred and charges of heresy on both sides, as a layer in a region beset with tribal and linguistic differences. Economics play a role, as they do everywhere, in exacerbating old hatreds. I have lived in this region for 24 years, and I would suggest that nobody from Europe outside the Balkans or possibly Northern Ireland or the Basque region can comprehend the degree to which hatred can exist.
    And the loyalties of Shi’a to ayatollahs and to Ali are intense, which word does not really convey the full depth of the loyalty in English. Thus, current conflicts involving IS must take into account the fear by Sunni of Shi’a encirclement, the desire by Shi’a to avenge the death of Ali. and the very ancient ethnic attitudes of Arabs and Iranians.
    Shi’a Islam might be described as Islam with an oriental component, and it would seem that certain ideas in the Middle East such as Gnosticism were adopted, if not formally. The Sunni variant is, as Berger points out, simpler and far less exotic.
    It is worth considering the possibility that IS is not really part of the ancient mosaic of hatreds and loyalties, but a far more modern approach (see Bolshevik, anarchist, nihilist, Jacobin) grafted onto an ancient tree.

  • Dhatri

    love the jokes!!

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