In 23 May 1618, in the European city of Prague, a group of Christian Protestants literally threw out the window two representatives of a Catholic prince. This act of defenestration, which could have been no more than a local uprising, triggered a thirty years war in Europe, eventually involving most of its great powers – Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, England – plus a myriad of States that made up the German empire of the time, which was also the central battleground.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about Christianity. Nor is the purpose of this text to analyze the why, how and when of European wars in the seventeenth century. But History has lessons for us and I often find a degree of comfort in looking at things from a long-term perspective. Not just regarding the future, but also the past and the present it brought us. To realize the slow machinations of History that take place above the immediate moments of panic or joy, the snail-like rippling on the ponds of time. And when you do that, there’s a serenity and confidence that pierces through the daily storm, no matter how much it feels like it’s about to swallow us.
This text is about Daesh. I was going to write on something else, but then things in Palmyra took a turn for the worst and Galina wrote about it here at Polytheist.com. While I agree with some of what she says and wholeheartedly support her call for polytheists to honour the gods of Syria and Iraq, regardless of the traditions each of us follows, I disagree on other points and decided to give my own perspective. So this is about Daesh and our reaction to it. It’s about the importance of not playing the game on their terms and keeping our heads cool. And it’s about hope. Take a deep breath and pour a little something for Lady Spes.
Know your enemy
The first thing you need to keep in mind is that Daesh is not your average Islamic gang on steroids. It’s on a dosage of something you’d give to horses, yes, but its goal is not merely to wage war on the West. Rather, it aims at immediately carving out a state from existing Arab ones. Which means that it needs functioning institutions, resources to keep them going, a population with reproductive capacity and a standing army capable of holding territory. They’re not playing hide and seek – they’re out in the open and very vocal about it.
This makes them look far more threatening, but in reality that’s an illusion produced by a skilful use of media. And the reason for that is that, because they want to build a viable state, they need to invest their resources into it instead of financing attacks on Western countries. That’s why lone wolves are all we’ve seen so far: it’s cheaper for Daesh to let people do things on their own initiative, using their own money. They may inspire or give a nudge, but weapons and manpower are best used to defend territory. Because they need territory: you cannot be a caliph without it and if you’re not a caliph, then you lose the right to call yourself leader of all Muslims. So why waste resources on blowing up buildings in London or New York? Why lose men on suicidal attacks in the West when Daesh needs them to hold its ground in Syria and Iraq?
This doesn’t mean they can’t pull a desperate stunt or go on an occasional shooting spree to keep a sense of fear going. But even the possibility of a dirty bomb going off in a Western city, while not impossible, is nonetheless made less likely by the need to build a proper state. Which is why, according to reports that came out last month, Daesh has used mustard gas not on Europe or America, but against the Kurds in Iraq. They need it to hold their ground.
So despite their constant boasting, publicity stunts and public frenzy, they’re not going to move on the West anytime soon. In a way, it’s like an echo: Daesh does something terrible, the media – ours and theirs – amplifies things and it sounds like there’s a huge monster at the end of the tunnel. In reality, it’s a mad pig whose magnified noises make it sound bigger than it really is. They may claim they’re going to conquer Turkey or India and half the world along the way, but that’s little more than wishful thinking. If anything, they’re currently being driven from the Turkish border by Kurds, Turks and Syrians with Western air support. And even if they do try to advance northwards, because they need the supply route to their “capital” in Raqqa, that means they’ll be pouring resources into a campaign that’s next door to a NATO member state. And by this I mean Daesh’s men will be easier to spot and strike, because they’ll be in sight of stationed allied troops. The battle for Kobane proved that.
Furthermore, keep in mind that this is also a religious war. Not between monotheists and polytheists – let’s face it, there’s not that many of us in the region – but between different factions of Islam. By proclaiming itself a caliphate, Daesh has declared that all other Arab States are null and void and would only gain legitimacy if it held Mecca and Medina instead of expanding north or west. And as Sunni radicals, they have a much greater and closer target in Shia Muslims and Iran. Which is why it’s important to bring Tehran back into the international fold and keep Saudi Arabia stable, regardless of how uncomfortable our relations with Riyadh are. Because the only places where Daesh has conquered any territory are failed or failing states. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria – countries where central authority is either weak or has collapsed altogether, allowing gangs and militias to fill in the power vacuum. Do you really want to consider the prospect of Daesh gaining legitimacy in the Muslim world by ruling Mecca and Medina because Saudi Arabia became a failed state?
Let’s talk like it’s 1618
In a way, the Middle East is going through its equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years War. It started as an uprising and morphed into an escalating conflict along religious lines, expanding to several states, fracturing some and feeding on intolerance between opposing theological views. We’ve seen this before. Only instead of pitting Catholics against Protestants, with different countries championing one side or the other, it’s a struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Just as French Protestants rose in rebellion against increasing intolerance from Catholics, so did Sunnis in Iraq in the face of a sectarian Shia government. Just as Sweden invaded the Holy Roman Empire in support of German Protestants, Saudi Arabia has been intervening in Yemen to aid Sunni factions. Just as the Thirty Years War unleashed fresh waves of brutality and witch hunts, so too the Middle East is beset by renewed horrors and intolerance. And just as Christian Hungarians and Czechs allied themselves with Muslim Ottomans, or French Catholics supported German Protestants, because it served their survival, common or self-interests despite religious differences, so too modern countries find themselves in unlikely positions. Like the US cooperating with Iran or Sunni gulf countries bombing the equally Sunni Daesh. This is not to say that the two conflicts are the exact same thing. There’s a repeating quality to History, yes, yet the devil is in the details and today’s are not those of the seventeenth century. But having said that, there are signs that what followed in Europe after the Westphalia Peace of 1648 may slowly unfold in the Middle East.
The Thirty Years War was the last great chapter in the religious conflicts born out of Luther’s breach with Rome in 1520 and the subsequent end of western Christian unity. The war wasn’t immediately followed by general religious tolerance, because History is a slow-motion process and not a series of instantaneous bursts where things are born fully grown, like Athena out of Zeus’ head. But it was a stepping stone. It basically took over a century of intense bloodshed and horrors for European elites to seriously consider mechanisms of religious coexistence. And then it took yet another century or two to get there. John Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration are a good sign of that process. We Westerners are not more tolerant and inclusive because we’re somehow born that way. And yes, despite our many flaws, we are more tolerant and inclusive than, say, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Jordan. Try being an openly gay polytheist in those countries. But that is so because we went through historical experiences that shaped our ways and views, experiences that the Middle East did not have. They didn’t go through the Thirty Years War, the Enlightenment, the American and French revolutions. Nor did Islam have its Vatican II. As Richard Haass once said on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria, the Middle East missed much of modernity. But that may be changing, because the horrors unleashed by Daesh, coupled with the Arab Spring, are confronting many in the Muslim world with the shortcomings of their own status quo. Iraqis and Syrians are openly satirizing the so-called “Islamic State”, earlier this year one of Egypt’s top clerics called for a reform of religious teaching and people are debating what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world.
It’s not a revolution, but it doesn’t have to be one. We may want things now, ASAP, and call for immediate change, but History doesn’t work that way, even when there are revolutions. It’s a series of slow and often overlapping processes that can last for generations: there was still plenty of religious intolerance in Europe after the Thirty Years War, it took almost a century for France to move from the revolutionary chaos of 1789 to a lasting and democratic republic, the US needed an identical amount of time and a civil war to abolish slavery. And don’t chastise yourselves for it, my American readers. A federation like the United States is a lot harder to manage than a small European nation-state, many of which, by the way, only fully abolished slavery in the nineteenth century as well. The truth is, change takes time to operate. It may seem a lot faster when we flip the pages of a History book, but in everyday life it can be excruciatingly slow. And yet it moves. Change happens. We may not see it in our lifetime, but it happens. Our task is to work patiently towards a goal, to seed the fields even if we do not reap the harvest. Do not try to get everything done now. Instead, be patient and take a long-term view of things. Which is also true for Daesh’s demise.
As much as we would like to go in and fight, to defend Palmyra with our own hands or have boots on the ground, that would likely do more harm than good. See, one of the things about Islamic extremism – and Daesh in particular – is that it’s not just militant and militarized: it’s also romantic! To many, it is a modern version of the adventures of a knight in shining armour or the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s medieval crusader. And as any good romanticism, it harkens back to an idealized past of purer and nobler ways. That’s why thousands have flocked to Syria and Iraq, including Europeans and Americans: they’re drawn by the prospect of adventure and a life-fulfilling cause. Which is an appeal that is expressed in Daesh’s medieval views and worked to perfection in its propaganda videos. And if you don’t have much of a life to being with, no long-term goals or steady job, the idea of physically fighting for something greater than yourself, no matter how twisted, can be enticing. Especially when, apart from the ideological side, you also get one wife or more, plus a wage. Yes, Daesh pays its men. Like I said, they’re trying to build a proper state.
So imagine what it would be like if the US and its European allies were to go into eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Like a new invasion of the latter, which worked out so well (not!). Or if hundreds or thousands of Americans and Europeans started going on their own to fight against Islamic extremists. How do you reckon Daesh would spin that? If you’re thinking “new crusaders”, you’re right! They would pour renewed calls for holy war all over the media, working the memory of the Christian crusades – which is still very much alive in the Middle East – to boost its propaganda and draw thousands more to their cause. Even more so if the western fighters were open polytheists. Then you’d really be giving Daesh a fight it would cherish, because it would be just like in the days of Mohammed and they could claim to be the prophet’s defenders. There’s something of a re-enactor’s pleasure in it.
I know humans have a tendency to strike back when someone strikes us. It’s a natural response to aggression and the harder we hit, the better we feel. And when we see the images of statues and temples being hacked or blown, people being tortured or horribly murdered, children being raped or brainwashed, we want to strike back. Hard! Preferably yesterday! But Daesh is an ideological movement with a propaganda machine. Like Fox News, it feeds on human emotions – fear, anger, hate – and you’re not going to beat it by playing its game. You need to deprive it of oxygen, not throw truckloads of it into the fire. Which means that instead of trying to be a pagan viking, legionnaire or warrior that goes off to fight monotheistic radicals, we need to think like a cold strategist.
In practical terms, this means that those fighting Daesh on the ground should be Muslims, preferably Sunnis. Because that way, they won’t be able to spin it as a new Christian crusade, a horde of infidels or a pagan onslaught against Mohammed. It will be the people they’re suppose to stand for that will be fighting them, which amounts to sucking out the oxygen. Western powers can help – e.g. airstrikes and arming the Kurds – but the bulk of the effort must be made by Middle Easterners themselves, both militarily and politically. Because there is a political side to this conflict, rooted in a daily intolerance of minorities and differences, just as it was the case in Europe’s religious wars. And yes, it will take time, as there’s no quick solution. But for crying out loud, it took six years to defeat Nazi Germany and that was an all-out-war on European soil! Don’t expect it to be any faster with Daesh, given the need for a less direct approach and the fact that we’re talking about a region with a different historical experience, hesitant leaders, weak states and dominated by a religion with huge unsolved problems of its own. A lot of things we take for granted in the west are still very much in its infancy in the Middle East.
What to do
This doesn’t mean we should stay put and wait. Like I said, we need to patiently seed the soil, even if we don’t get to reap the harvest. And there are things we can do. For the Gods, our polytheistic communities and the overall sake of Humanity.
We can start by not voting for people who think the solution is an all-out assault on the territory controlled by Daesh. One would think that the invasion of Iraq had served as a lesson on what not to do and of how a Western-style democracy cannot be simply imported into a country that lacks a Western historical experience. Change takes time.
If you work in the fields of archaeology and antiques, remain vigilant. Keep an eye out for stolen artifacts being illegally sold and report it to the authorities. And if you’re in the position to safely and legally help getting historical pieces out of war-zones in Syria and Iraq, go for it!
You can help refugees, which can be done in a myriad of ways without having to set foot in the Middle East – which, as we all know, may turn out to be a bad idea. You can take part in a campaign to collect money, food and clothes, donate those things yourself (or both!) or volunteer to work in a shelter. If you fulfill the requirements, you can even adopt or host one or more refugees, which is what several families in Europe are doing as we speak. Also, write to your political representatives if you think your country’s asylum policy should be improved – as thousands of Icelanders have done.
And because every human action has a religious counterpart, you can also adopt a Middle Eastern deity. By this I mean bringing one or more god/desses of Syria, Iraq and Arabia into your religious life, housing them and honoring them as guests, just as one would house human refugees. On a similar note, one can organize group or open ceremonies to Middle Eastern deities. And go public about your polytheistic identity. Be vocal about it. If people are focused on monotheistic extremists who turn their faith in one god into a religious dictatorship, remind those around you of the virtues of non-dogmatic polytheism. Of how it embraces diversity and tolerance, something of which you yourself should stand as an example. And for every sacred stone that’s hacked, let there be a hundred prayers and offerings; for every temple blown up, let there be twice as many made of words and gestures. Until the day comes when the Gods will once again be welcomed in their own land. Even if we do not live to see that day.
Seriously! Take a deep breath. It’s not that Daesh is harmless. It clearly isn’t and is obviously a threat to modern civilization. Nor should its crimes go unpunished, but be duly recorded and in time presented in a Nuremberg-style tribunal. And yes, the destruction of Palmyra is an act of religious intolerance and a crime against our common heritage. But however shocking and infuriating, you’re not going to turn back the clock or solve the problem with a heated response. Attempting to defeat crusading fanatics with a counter-crusade that can embolden them is like trying to put down a fire by throwing more firewood into it. Rather, you need to deprive them of the stream of emotions that gets them going, which can only be achieved if we keep our heads cool in the face of Daesh’s constant boasting and threats. So we can see them for what they are: an echo, a social media-fed beast that projects the image of an unstoppable monster. It’s not that the animal at the end of the tunnel is harmless – it clearly isn’t! – but it is less dangerous than what it likes to portray itself as. So take a deep breath. Pierce through the propaganda screen, rise above the immediate emotions, the daily storm, and gaze at the blue horizon.
Persevere and patiently seed the soil. Palmyra’s temples may be destroyed, but new ones can be erected if the beliefs and practices they once housed persist and grow. Be vigilant, but know your enemy. Put it in perspective so you won’t be controlled by it. Resist the urge to strike back harder and instead act with as much serenity and clear-thinking as possible. Look at things from the vantage point of History and be hopeful, be optimistic. The world yet moves and change operates, even if the clouds are dark, even if the night is long. Remember that line from the movie Gandhi and persist with confidence, devotion, optimism:
There may be tyrants and murderers and, for a time, they may seem invincible. But in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always!