The wave of conflicts currently taking place in the Middle East makes us realise that we are facing religious-political wars like those in Europe in the 17th Century.
This follows on from the phenomenon of exploiting religion in the service of political goals, which has begun to spread again, but this time in the Middle East.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Arab world was teeming with nationalist ideas that transcended the boundaries of sects, sects, religious and ethnic affiliations of all kinds. In that era, the post-colonial era, slogans flourished to create a comprehensive national Arab identity.
Iraq and Syria, for example at that time, were proud of being an ideal model for the homelands of religious and ethnic minorities that succeeded in coexisting peacefully under the banner of citizenship. They also used to work with Egypt to consolidate the concept of Arab nationalism.
However, these ideas have diminished since the mid-1980s, and the sectarian conflict began to permeate the societies of the region and divide its peoples, turning into an open sectarian confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites.
Some attribute the revival of sectarian fanaticism in the Middle East to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was considered a revolution against national ideas and an awakening of the Shiites who consider themselves oppressed everywhere.
Consequently, the Sunnis’ reaction in the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, which was described as the Arab war against the Persians, came to awaken the dormant war since ancient times between the Shiites and Sunnis since the killing of Imam Hussein by the Sunni Umayyads in the Battle of Karbala in 680.
This confrontation has evolved to spread throughout the region, extending the circle of sectarian conflict from Iraq and Syria to include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon. It has dismantled government institutions in the whole region, and transformed its geography into a battlefield under public slogans and names.
Thus, sectarianism that reflects real religious differences has become linked to the preservation of power and resources. As a result of these ambitions, the matter has evolved beyond sectarian boundaries to include other tribal and ideological conflicts. The primary aim of these is to gain power, even if this leads to the destruction of the Middle East region.
A good example of this is what is currently happening in Libya and Tunisia. The conflict in Libya, which espouses the Sunni sect, is a tribal struggle for power and influence, and in Tunisia, which also espouses the Sunni sect, the conflict is taking place between the secular state and the religious state.
Indeed, the conflict in the Middle East today that takes religion as a cover to hide the reality of political ambitions is the same conflict that occurred in Europe in the 17th Century and is known as the Thirty Years’ War. This was a series of bloody conflicts that tore Europe apart between 1618 and 1648 CE.
At the beginning, its battles took place in Central Europe (especially the territory of present-day Germany), but the conflict later expanded to include most of the European powers present in that era, except for England and Russia.
This war broke out initially as a religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants, but ended as a political struggle for control of other countries, between France and the Habsburgs.
Therefore, religion was not the only cause of wars, which also included revolutions, regional aspirations, and great-power struggles. For example, by the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Catholic France was allied with Protestant forces against the Catholic Habsburg Empire.
The war largely ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The most important lesson that we can learn in the East from this reconciliation is that it was based primarily on confronting the lies that clerics used to repeat to inflame the masses and ignite discord.
This reconciliation helped to understand the issue of true religion and religiosity, as this issue was superficial and based on myths that were used by some clerics in their dealings with members of society, especially the simple ones.
The reconciliation also called for upholding the interest of the people and not the interest of the clergy, and thus focus on the intellectual aspect to build states that guarantee all rights.
This similarity between the conflicts in the Middle East and the religious wars in Europe in the 17th Century can be seen more deeply through the wonderful classic Mother Courage by the German writer Berthold Brecht, who is considered one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century.
Although the events of the play take place in the 17th Century, the main aim of it is to raise the awareness of the masses of how religion can be used to absent the minds of the masses to achieve political goals in reality.
This play is viewed by many as the greatest play of the 20th Century, and maybe the greatest anti-war play ever. In it, Brecht used the technique of alienation, which aims to make events strange and questionable to stimulate critical thinking among the audience.
The viewer realises the real goal behind the false religious slogans and also realises that the real loser in these wars is the simple citizen who supports these Wars thinking that he is protecting his religious identity.
The play has already been presented in many Arab countries due to its conformity with the current political reality, and the theatre department at Purdue University will revive this classic and broadcast it for public display on the Internet next April.
Dr Marwa El-Shinawy, PhD in American Theatre and member of the Higher Committee for the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET)