A group of people blow up a religious shrine, and suddenly the threat of civil war grows several fold.
Ultimately it is because there are a whole lot of people in a small area who have decided to ignore a basic, fundamental moral principle "Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free."
Because they have forgotten this principle, they attack anybody belonging to the other religious sect. They march to a mosque belonging to the other sect and proceed to destroy it, in revenge for the damage done to their mosque, without a thought given as to whether they are harming those who did them harm, or some innocent substitute for those who did harm.
Accepting and embracing the principle, "Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free," implies taking no action to harm another until one has made sure that they are guilty. This means waiting for an arrest and a trial before an impartial jury. If it can be established beyond a reasonable doubt that the people accused were actually those responsible would the state then seek punishment, then it would be permissible to punish those people, and only those people.
Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free.
As described above, this principle accompanies another principle of, "Presume innocent, unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
So, those who belong to one Muslim sect in Iraq who come upon somebody or some structure belonging to the other sect are advised to presume that the person or those who worship in that structure are innocent, and thus not deserving of harm. As a result, there can be no justified attack. The result is peace.
I know that it is sometimes tempting to presume guilt. People tend to be very quick to judge others, jumping to conclusions that would, if true, justify lashing out in anger at others. The problem rests with dealing in the ‘if true’ aspect. Emotion gets in the way of judgment; we cannot deny that people do a poor job of making sense of a situation when they have a stake in the outcome.
This is why, among rational people, the first two principles already given accompany a third principle that, each person be given a hearing before an impartial judge (and jury). He must have an opportunity to tell his side of the story to those who have no stake when it comes to deciding if his story is more accurate than the story told by his accusers.
This illustrates the importance of condemning anybody who seeks to stack the courts with judges that are not impartial. It means that there is no merit in picking and approving judges based primarily on the criteria that they will side with one side or the other on disputes which may come before that judge. Such a judge cannot keep the peace.
In Iraq, a Sunni judge or a Shiite judge with strong religious ties simply cannot be trusted to resolve disputes between Sunni and Shiite factions. Judges in such a situation must be secular, capable of looking for solutions by applying principles that supersede religious differences. They have to be people who are capable of appealing to principles such as “Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free,” and “Presume innocence unless guilt is proven,” and “Prove guilt by presenting the case to those who have no passionate ties to one side of the dispute or the other.”
All of this falls under the generic heading of "Respect for the rule of law." Without this, there can be no peace.
There are some in Iraq who see the wisdom of respect for the rule of law. Over the next few days, we will discover if there are enough people devoted to these principles to keep the peace in that country.
There are some people everywhere who do not like these rules. They consider one who holds and defends them to be 'soft on crime.' They assert thta they have an infallible sense of who is guilty and who is innocent and bristle when others put rules such as these -- designed to make sure that the guilty are punished and the innocent go free -- in the way of exacting a more immediate revenge.
Religion At Work
On a related note, I know that there are atheists out there who look on events in Iraq, shake their head, and say, "This is another fine example of religion at work."
I cannot share this view.
I suspect that if there ever were a community made up entirely of atheists, that they would have their own conflicts. I can easily imagine followers of Ayn Rand's version of capitalism insisting on the right to violent self defense against any who touch what they consider their property entering into a civil war against Marxist atheists who takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his need.
Atheists have no magical immunity from civil war.
Societies get their immunity from civil war by promoting respect for the rule of law and the institutions (other than guns and bombs) used to debate and decide what the laws are to be.
This means a state with laws that are worthy of respect. It means a state where the innocent can trust that they can live free, giving them an incentive to live free -- as opposed to a society where innocent people fear being taken off the street, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. The former society has laws worthy of respect; the latter does not.
A group of people who believe that God commands punishing the guilty and letting the innocent go free, creating impartial courts for the purpose of hearing disputes, bringing to those courts only those for whom there is evidence of guilt, and seeing to it that a person suffers as little harm as necessary unless guilt has been proved, should have the same ability to live in peace with his neighbors as the atheist living by these same principles.
Whether a society can live at peace is not determined by whether it is made up of religious people or of atheists. It is determined by whether the society is made up of people who accept and agree to live by the principles mentioned above.