From Magdeburg to Mosul: Iraq, Syria, and the 30 Years War

July 2, 2014

Mark Twain’s supposed quip that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” has been in the back of my mind as I followed the recent events in Iraq. The fall of Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar, images of prisoners massacred by ISIS fighters and the frenzied call to arms of local militias in Baghdad form a strident counterpoint to the almost serene takeover of Kirkuk and the expansion of the Kurdish Regional Government. And, if we listen carefully, we can hear the underlying leitmotifs of Turkey and Iran, amongst others.

The rhyme of this symphony of death is not to Vietnam. No, this rhyme is to an older, darker and far more discordant conflict, one which saw the cynical manipulation of sectarian violence devastate central Europe and bankrupt the powers that paid for and supported that violence. I am speaking of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), whose ending, the Peace of Westphalia, underlies the modern system of nation states.

The roots of both conflicts stretch back well over a century, and center around unresolved questions of religious freedom, personal and corporate identity and power politics. Both conflicts are, on the surface, presented as “sectarian” and “religious” while, at the same time, carefully avoiding the simple fact that many extended families contain members in each of these “sects.” And in both conflicts, extremist religious doctrine and propaganda support the systematic de-humanization of opponents.

There are two rhymes between the Thirty Years War and the current conflict in Iraq and Syria that are germane. The first of these is the development and use of extremist religious doctrine and dehumanizing propaganda as an aide to religious and ethnic cleansing. The second deals with the most plausible responses to their use.

The use of propaganda (visual, musical, poetic, etc.) to at least partially dehumanize one’s opponents is certainly not new. It is, in fact, necessary in order for people to overcome their natural inhibitions on killing others, except in immediate self-defence. But partial dehumanization can, and does, slip into complete dehumanization when coupled with absolutist religious doctrine, as seen in some of the ISIS propaganda released this month (e.g., here, here and here; warning, all are quite graphic).

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once defined religion as:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

In order for a religious doctrine to successfully dehumanize opponents, its “conceptions of a general order of existence” require several points. First, they must be exclusive: you either are or are not amongst the “elect”. Second, the purity of the act of killing non-believers must negate any sins committed during that killing. Third, the act of killing unbelievers must become “natural.”

The naturalization of killing is apparent in ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s June 11th audio message where he notes:

The Rawafid [i.e. the Shi’ites] are a defeated nation, God forbid that He should grant them victory over you. They are polytheists, worshippers of animals and people.

Using the term rawafid — “those who reject” — is a reference to the original Sunni–Shi’a split in the seventh century ce. The key accusation, however, is that “[t]hey are polytheists, worshippers of animals and people,” and hence, subject immediate death, at least according to ISIS.

Accusations of a similar sort are, inevitably, hurled back at ISIS. For example, a recent gathering of Shi’ite poets on June 13 contains the following statements:

ISIS people, Jerusalem is in the hands of the Jews

Only a few kilometers separate you from Palestine

If you throw the agal of your keffiyah, it will land in Tel Aviv

Your prostitution matches that of prostitute Israel

Or is it forbidden?!

Fighting Israel is haraam?!

They are your brothers. You were breastfed on apostasy together.

Similar accusations, of course, floated throughout the propaganda conflict both before and during the Thirty Years War. Indeed, the use of pamphlets and broadsheets by all sides bear a startling resemblance to the current social media campaigns, and accusations of apostasy rained down on all sides. By 1630, however, killing the “other side”, whoever that might be this week, was as naturalized as the individual ebb and flow of individuals between the different confessions.

In November of 1630, Johann Tserclaes Count of Tillybesieged the city of Magdeburg and on May 20th, 1631, Tilly and Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim entered the city and proceeded to slaughter upwards of 90% of its population. Tilly defended the slaughter by saying, “I’ve promised three days for pillaging and slaying. The soldiers must have some amusement after so many fatigues!”  Pappenheim later wrote:

I believe that over twenty thousand souls were lost. It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God with us.

A similar naturalization of killing shows up in one of the recent ISIS propaganda videos. This piece, showing several ISIS members playing with a decapitated head, has the following dialogue:

He died of natural causes

This guy dies of natural causes by a knife … It cut his throat.

Natural causes … the mujahideen … natural causes for an apostate.

But what is often forgotten in this rush to naturalize the killing of opponents is that the very grounds on which that killing is justified comes under the scrutiny of everyone affected. No society can long survive control by sociopaths who kill whoever they wish when they wish. And if that sociopathy is religiously supported, then the very core of that religion comes to be questioned. This is what the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz termed theodicy, or in other words, why a “good” God would allow evil.

But theodicy is not solely the concern of philosophers and theologians. It is or, rather, should be, the concern of statesmen. In the Thirty Years War, every combatant ultimately derived their sovereignty from the Christian conception of God (barring the Ottoman Empire). In the current wars in Iraq and the Levant, every combatant derives their sovereignty from Allah (barring the Americans). So what happens when the grounded belief in God / Allah is destroyed by the naturalization of killing?

For the Christian West coming out of the Thirty Years War, the answer was inescapable: reinforce the sovereignty of God even at the cost of accepting many variant forms of Christianity as both individually “valid” and legally protected. The treaties of Osnabrück and Münster that formed the basis of the Peace of Westphalia helped to construct the religious and political basis of individual rights within the overarching sovereignty of God. The alternative was continual warfare and the total destruction of any popular belief in God, and hence, the legitimacy of Western states.

This is the challenge that now faces the Muslim world. Will it come up with an Islamic equivalent of the Peace of Westphalia, or will it allow Islam to be subverted to the control of sociopathic killers? There are many Islamic scholars including, I will note, Ali Al-Sistani, who appear to be aware of the dangers of unrestrained religious warfare. Let us hope that he, and others, will manage to convene their own Islamic version of the Peace of Westphalia.


Marc W.D. Tyrrell, Ph.D., is a symbolic Anthropologist who teaches Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies.


Photo credit: Freedom House