The internet headline from the respected but oxymoronically-named Christian Science Monitor this morning said, “Car bombings hit Shiite pilgrimage, underscoring Iraq’s sectarian divide”. It was not an unusual headline, just another bloody day in Baghdad with at least 63 dead as minority Sunnis target the now-majority Shiites. This violence has been proceeding regularly with 670 deaths from 18 attacks in Iraq in just the last 12 months.
Elsewhere, Kurds were similarly targeted. They are a sect strong in the north of Iraq, where most of the oil is. Meanwhile, a bloody civil war has broken out in Syria to the west of iraq, and again the principal cause appears to be religious, sectarian differences. The regime in power there, Assad’s tribe, is Alawite, a sect with close ties to Shiites. The passions are now so high that the Assad forces have taken to placing children on tanks as human shields and stories of slaughter and torture are common.
For those who might be interested there is an insightful quiz about the differences among Islamic sects imbedded in the Christian Science Monitor article. I got 10 out of 20 questions right, but that’s OK because it is really one of those things designed to educate. They will tell you right or wrong and provide information after each question. By the end of the quiz it was my impression that the differences among the sects seem to be insubstantial, even trivial. At the heart of the differences between the biggest groups, Sunnis and Shiites, is the question of who really succeeded Mohammad in authority. The quiz says,
The schism between the Sunnis and Shiites is rooted in disagreement over who would succeed Muhammad as Islam’s leader. The Shiites believe that his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was the rightful heir, while Sunnis believe the mantle fell to Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law.
Seems pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? I am reminded of one of the classic Star Trek TV episodes in which Kirk, Spock and company sought to intervene between two warring tribes on an alien planet. It turned out that the principal difference between them was that the bodies of one race were pigmented white on the left side and black on the right, whereas the other race was just the opposite. I find that no less bizarre than what separates Shiites from Sunnis, but such beliefs have already resulted in an all-powerful theocracy in Iran where, since 1979, their supreme religious leader is seriously considered God’s (Allah’s) deputy on earth.
It might seem easy for us Americans to look down our noses at the sectarian violence that pervades the Middle East these days, but I must tell you that we may be closer than we think to such passions and violence ourselves. The American Civil War, I submit, is evidence enough of the potential of political and economic motives toward violence, branded patriotism in the process, but adding religion to the mix makes it all the more passionate. Consider, please, this example from a letter to the editor of this morning’s Joplin Globe (6/13/2012) here in the Bible belt:
“It’s sad when a great country like ours that was founded on Christian ways now has a president and vice president that are not Christians and don’t believe in the Bible. If they did they would know what they said about same-sex marriages is an abomination to God, which means it is disgusting to him. But they did it to get the gay vote and their money.”
The author, Mr. Clovis Steele, accuses the president and vice-president of being “not Christian”, despite ample evidence to the contrary. But it must be noted that the vice-president is a Catholic and the president is a somewhat generic Protestant of a non-white religious flavor. These sects may differ, I suppose, from Mr. Steele’s. In making his assertion however, which he bases on the same-sex marriage political decision, he sets up a political requirement which would seem to be at odds with the Constitution. In other words, he seems to be saying that a politician commits apostasy if he separates his official actions from the tenets of his own religion, even for the benefit of people of faiths different from his. His assertion of the fallacy that the U.S. was founded “on Christian ways” would seem to confirm this. As stated clearly in the First Amendment, the U.S. was specifically founded to exclude any official religion.
The political divide this election year has been made even more divisive by religious issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. What then, I wonder, might be the result if a man who espouses a strictly minority faith, one considered by some other Christian denominations to be a “cult”, were to succeed to the Presidency? Might the United States then be headed the way of Syria and Iraq, to widespread sectarian violence fueled by militias better armed than the police? That would be ironic indeed, especially since America is the chief cause of the complete economic and political mess that is present-day Iraq, a country formerly held effectively in a state of non-violence (at least collectively) by a ruthless dictator.
Passions derived from religious differences are deeply embedded in human nature, and we are playing with fire when we allow them free rein. That would be the opposite of tolerance.