The history of religious conflict in the Middle East carefully leaves out periods of coexistence

The exodus of Christians from the Middle East is real and tragic. So are attempts by the Saudis to reheat divisions between Sunnis and Shia. Are we right to view the region as a place of sectarian strife, asks Robert Fisk. Or is religious coexistence in the Arab world much stronger than antagonism and violence?

Monday 19 August 2019 18:05
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An Iranian Christian lights candles during the Christmas Eve mass at the St Gregor Armenian Catholic church in Tehran
An Iranian Christian lights candles during the Christmas Eve mass at the St Gregor Armenian Catholic church in Tehran

There are two stories that I and my colleagues have been writing about the Middle East for more than 40 years. Both are wrong. The first is that the next war will be about water. Or the lack of it. I started writing about the conflict over H2O when I visited Aleppo and found that the Queiq river – which was supposed to run beneath the fine white stone bridges in the city centre – only reached the outskirts as a two-foot wide stream of sewage.

Turkish dams had destroyed the Quieq. Then Turkey decided to build dams on the Tigris – and the waters of that great river started to fall in Iraq. The Lebanese claimed that the Israelis were stealing water from the Litani river in southern Lebanon. There were secret pipelines in deep valleys invisible from the air, they said. I trudged with UN soldiers through the actual river, downstream, in these dark ravines. But there were no pipes.

And there’s been no war. The second, far more sinister, story we’ve all covered is that the Middle East is a sectarian quagmire in which religion and faith have created an age-old antagonism between Muslims and Christians, between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims and between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The region is therefore permanently at war, its people poisoned by sectarian hatreds and doomed to eternal conflict – which we civilised westerners must occasionally step in to sort out.

Didn’t the French and British arrive in Lebanon in 1860 to stop the Druze slaughtering the Christian Maronites? Didn’t the British have to intervene to stop fighting between Muslim and Christian Palestinians and Jewish immigrants in Palestine between 1920 and our humiliating retreat in 1948? Didn’t the Americans and British and French and Italians arrive in Lebanon to end a Christian-Muslim civil war in 1982? Didn’t the Americans have to send their troops to separate Sunni and Shia death squads in 2004 and 2005 and 2006?

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