The Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 was the last major religious war in Europe, and it was a lulu.
I challenge anyone who’s not already a student of European history to wade through that Wikipedia article linked above–it’s dense with brain-fogging facts. The gist of the story seems to be that the war was a religious one (Catholic vs. Protestant) but, like most religious wars, it was also a jockeying for power and territory based on regional and other differences. The war could almost be said to have been a mini-World War, because it encompassed so much of Western Europe before it was over, and caused such widespread death and devastation.
…instrumental in laying the foundations for what are even today considered the basic tenets of the sovereign nation-state. Aside from establishing fixed territorial boundaries for many of the countries involved in the ordeal (as well as for the newer ones created afterwards), the Peace of Westphalia changed the relationship of subjects to their rulers. In earlier times, people had tended to have overlapping political and religious loyalties. Now, it was agreed that the citizenry of a respective nation were subjected first and foremost to the laws and whims of their own respective government rather than to those of neighboring powers, be they religious or secular.
So what we have here is a long-term and devastating religious war that splintered Europe for a while but ultimately ended up building the foundations for modern nationalism, an allegiance that transcends religious and ethnic differences and unites the residents of a certain geographical area in a perception of relative unity. Of course, nations often have a predominant (or even state) religious identity, and often consist mainly of a particular ethnic group, but they are virtually always some sort of amalgam, and the most successful nations manage to transcend those internal divisions.
Nationalism, however–even in Europe–is a relatively recent phenomenon, solidifying mostly in the nineteenth century. Before that–in the immortal words of Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill, who said it in a very different context–all politics was local.
How does nationalism relate to the current crisis in Iraq, and to the rest of the Arab world? One aspect of the current struggle is that a certain hefty percentage of the Iraqi population–although we don’t know how large a group this is–sees its allegiance as religious rather than national. Saddam exacerbated these divisions by favoring Sunnis and persecuting Shiites, and the early post-war atmosphere perpetuated this pattern, with Sunni-on-Shiite violence predominating. For a while, the calming words of the Shiite cleric Sistani stayed the hand of Shiite retribution, but that’s no longer the case, and we do see a cycle of violence and a struggle for power occurring.
This could be countered by nationalism, which is trying to dominate factionalism. That’s why the debate as to whether federalism could be a solution in Iraq is such an important one. Federalism is a tool to deal with the unification of a group made of disparate elements: e pluribus unum, after all.
How do nations get born? Some are lucky–they share a language and, more importantly, a sense of being a nation. Nationality doesn’t rest on any one characteristic, but is more of a perception: “Many students of nationalism are eventually led to the (almost tautological) conclusion that people belong to a certain nation if they feel that they belong to it.”
Nationalism a uniting force that can be countered by two opposing principles: a fracturing one and a pan-uniting one. The first is the fracturing force of regionalism, religious and ethnic and political differences; factors that can splinter an entity that might otherwise be poised to unify or that already was unified under a strongman or outside force (the breakup of Yugoslavia is a good example of the latter, likewise the USSR).
The second principle countering nationalism, the pan-uniting one, exists through allegiances that transcend even that of the nation, and dictate loyalty to a more international group.
Thus, one of the linchpins of anti-Semitism has always been a perception of Jews as an extra-national force of global reach (and evil designs, of course). Another example is one I remember from my youth, when some people objected to the Presidential aspirations of the Catholic JFK because they didn’t “want the Pope running the US.”
Pan-Arabism, or even unification of the entire umma, has always been a dream for some in the Arab and/or Muslim world. Even Saddam was originally a pan-Arabist, and although he retreated from that overt stance quite early on, he apparently never quite gave up his aspirations to be the dominant power in the Arab world. And of course Iran, likewise, wishes to establish a new pan-Islamic Caliphate under Shiite rather than Sunni rule.
So, paradoxically, some of the conflict in Iraq is of the divisive (or local) variety: various home-grown groups jockeying for position, power, and revenge, while some of it is fueled by the unifying, pan-Muslim vision, which relies on foreign powers such as Iran to stir the pot, feeds into the local groups, and is likewise broken down along Sunni-Shia lines. The countering force to both would be nationalism, federal or otherwise, of a type that respects differences and allows each faction its say and its rights.
The war in Iraq was supposed to help usher in such an era. Some never thought it would be easy (I count myself among them). Some, no doubt, underestimated the difficulties that lay ahead. As I’ve written before, dictatorships offer one solution to the dilemma–they can impose nationalism with a strong and tyrannical will, and the ruthless power to back it up, but at great human cost. The other way–the way that’s being tried in Iraq–can lead to chaos and civil war, which has other costs.
The United States is somewhat unique–and definitely fortunate–in being a nation whose greatest unifying force (other than geography) is a shared set of ideals and principles, and with a Constitution that aims to establish and protect (relatively successfully, so far, despite the “Bushhitler” proclamations) the rights granted therein.
Our postwar occupations of West Germany and Japan managed, somehow, to counter the forces of anarchy there and allow stable nations to re-establish themselves. The key word might be “re-establish;” both countries had a strong sense of nationality prior to the war (in each case, probably too strong, a fact which helped lead to their aggressiveness in World War II). Both nations had also experienced the devastion of a prolonged world war and utter defeat.
Current opinion is divided on how strong Iraq’s sense of nationhood is: whether it was artificially imposed by the somewhat arbitrary division of the Ottoman Empire post-World War I, and then artificially continued by Saddam’s dictatorship–or whether is draws on a strong sense of togetherness based on an ancient and proud history. In dispute, as well, is whether Western notions of human rights can be grafted onto it.
One thing is for certain: there are many strong forces trying to dictate otherwise, who are not interested in a unified Iraq with a strong constitution that guarantees the human rights of all its inhabitants.