In the latest Foreign Affairs, political scientist John M. Owen IV starts to make the case that we can compare the current state of unrest in Islamic territories to the European wars of religion of about 450 years ago, in an article titled “From Calvin to the Caliphate.” It’s a point that I’ve wanted to write about for some time now, but haven’t gotten around to yet. Reza Aslam has made a similar observation in the past.
Too bad Owen IV misconstrues what’s taking place today and so makes the wrong comparison and draws the wrong conclusions. Owen characterizes today’s wars in the Islamic world as a battle between secularism and Islamism, the idea that the original religious laws as laid down by Mohamed in the Koran should guide society and government. He compares this battle to the more than 100 years of almost constant warfare between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th century. The comparison, as we will see, is very apt, but the terms of comparison are incorrect. The contemporary element in the comparison is not a war between secularism and Islamism, but between two forms of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. In several nations we see a struggle between the secular and religious, just as in United States and Israel, but the major wars and the larger battle today are between two kinds of Islam.
The comparison between two eras of warfare in which the antagonists represent two forms of the same religion resonates in many ways: Both the Reformation era wars and the current ones between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen came about 1,500 years after the original establishment of the religion. In both cases, the religious wars begin a short time after the war zone, once unified under a religious autocrat, broke apart; the Reformation Wars came a hundred or so years after the emergence of nation-states from the ruins of a Christian Europe led by the Papacy; today’s wars in Islamic territories come about a hundred years after the breakup of the Islam-based Ottoman Empire. In both cases, the major battles are in transitional territories in which neither form of the religion predominates: in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, it was the German territories; today, the worst battles are in a transitional zone between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. In both cases, an influx of new military technology developed in another part of the world exacerbated the conflicts, making them more brutal and deadly: during the Reformation it was gunpowder, imported from China; today it’s primarily American military technology.
By asserting that the important battle today is between secularism and religion, Owen views the current state of unrest in the Islamic world completely from a Western perspective. Westerners of course identify with the secular over the religious, at least when applied to other cultures. Today’s secular world culture is, for better or worse, the American consumerist culture, and whenever new countries embrace our model, we are bound to make a lot of money out of it.
The opposition of the secular to Islamism enables Owen to imply a good and a bad side to the war, but in doing so, Owen insults the Moslem religion. Owen clearly prefers secularism, and subtly treats Islamism as inferior. He doesn’t take sides, however, when it comes to discussing the 17th century wars.
The illustrations that accompany the article visually communicate that while both sides of the Reformation Wars had their reasons, Islamists are nothing more than barbaric thugs. On the left side of the page we see a bearded white man dressed in Renaissance garb, clutching a large white cross to his side in one hand and raising his other hand as if to make a point. On the opposing page we see the Islamic soldier also with one hand pointing up, but the other hand contains an automatic weapon, and except for white sneakers, he is clothed entirely in an ominous one-piece black outfit that covers all of his face except his eyes. The look in the Christian’s eyes is one of fear. The look in the Moslem’s eyes is menacing and dangerous. This conflation of a pious scholar with a terrorist goon drains the blood from the extremely bloody Reformation wars, while subtly delegitimizing Islamism by reducing it to violence. Incidents of war-related barbarism were common in both the 17th century and today, but the imagery suggests that only Islamic wars have driven men to despicably inhumane acts.
Owen’s article is a piece of a propaganda machine that spews out justifications for American actions in the Middle East almost on a weekly basis. Framing Middle Eastern unrest in terms of the secular versus the religious provides our leaders and our country with the ideological rationale to intervene. It also allows us to take a side with which we are sympathetic, the forces of western modernity. By contrast, focusing on the fight between two forms of a religion which has few adherents in the United States might strike most as not our business.
The real reasons we are fighting a series of disastrous wars and actions in Islamic territories are economic and political: controlling sources of oil, developing markets for our weapons industry, supporting our Saudi and Israeli allies (who themselves are at odds), and the still unknown real reason the Bush Administration decided to take down Saddam Hussein and destabilize a country sewn together after World War I from three distinct regions and cultures.
Concealing political and economic motives behind idealism also characterized the Reformation wars, in which religion stood as a proxy for the various economic interests of the German principalities, France, Spain, Sweden and other countries. Behind the fight between Sunnis and Shiites stands the geopolitical elbowing of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and probably of Egypt and Turkey as well.
Owen ignores these points of comparison, which would help make the case for pulling out our troops and drones. His intent in “From Calvin to the Caliphate” is not to learn from the past, but to use a misreading of history to provide further justification for American imperialism.