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In the century following Martin Luther’s 1517 publication of his Ninety-Five Theses, Europe descended into conflict. The Christian-on-Christian violence reached its apex in the Thirty Years’ War, one of the deadliest of all time. It was not until the Peace of Westphalia that Catholics and Protestants agreed to live and let live. Westphalian tolerance was not a legacy of religious principle; it was a legacy of stalemate, slaughter, and exhaustion.
For over a generation, Islam has been fighting its own internecine war. Shia and Sunni fought the Iran-Iraq war. They fought in post-Saddam Iraq. They fight today in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran threaten a nuclear arms race tomorrow.
That fight is complicated by Islam’s relations with the West. Western targets are used to bolster jihadist bona fides, both for terrorist networks and WMD-seeking Islamist states. Meanwhile, Western nations intervene to advance their own interests — commercial, political, and defensive. Of the Iran-Iraq War, Henry Kissinger remarked, “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.” The US nonetheless threw its weight behind the party it saw as the lesser of two evils. Sunni and Shia engage Western powers as allies and foils, prolonging Islam’s Thirty Years’ War.
Europe’s respect for freedom of conscience — including the freedom to blaspheme — was the result of painful experience, an experience the Muslim world never had. I wonder whether the Muslim world will ever learn to live and let live without undergoing similar pain. No one wishes for death and destruction and devastation, especially not for innocents caught in the crossfire. But history suggests that tolerance becomes a value only when intolerance becomes intolerable.