The spectacle of so many Muslims prepared to make bloody, protracted war over their slight religious differences strikes Americans as not merely horrifying but also simply baffling. Why do they do that?, we find ourselves asking, and, perhaps more urgently, Where will this end?
One good way to engage these questions is to ask why we don’t do that. That we do not ought rightfully to surprise us because as a people we care intensely about religion, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, we do not in the least shrink from violence. The U.S. is both the most religious of highly developed states, given our high rate of religious affiliation and participation, and the most violent, given our astronomically high rate of death by armed violence. Why is it then that we, who are statistically so ready to gun each other down for other reasons, do not do so for religious reasons?
THEN: CATHOLIC VS. PROTESTANT. NOW: SUNNI VS. SHIA
The answer is rooted in our origin as a state descended from a group of Christian colonies founded when the Protestants and Catholics of Western Europe, emphatically including the British Isles, were tearing themselves apart over religion and wrecking the infrastructures of their own countries in the process, just as the Sunni and Shia are doing in Iraq and Syria today.
We are appalled at the spectacle of a beheaded American reporter. Imagine how appalled we would be at the spectacle of a beheaded American president. But just that was the spectacle that the Calvinists (Puritans) of Britain mounted for the edification of their country when they beheaded the Anglican King Charles I in 1649. That execution came midway in a religious civil war that lasted fully nine years (1642-1651) and cost Ireland (which suffered a reign of terror comparable to that of ISIS) and Britain more lives, proportionately, than the two islands would lose in World War I.
Devastating as the English Civil War was, its violence is dwarfed by that of the contemporary Thirty Years War (1618-1648) on the European continent. That war
began as a regional struggle in Bohemia, quite like the localized Sunni-Alawite conflict in Syria, but it ended with Europe in flames from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. If Turkey and Iran are both drawn into the current Middle East conflict, that conflict will have spread similarly from the Aegean Sea to the Persian Gulf. The near-total collapse of civil society in the worst-affected parts of Europe during the early seventeenth century led to plague as well as famine, just as the spreading conflict in the Middle East and Pakistan has brought about a recurrence of polio.