While international diplomacy may stop the Syrian government from gassing its citizens, it fails — as have all previous diplomatic efforts — to address the root cause of Middle Eastern volatility: religion.

At its core, the Syrian civil war is not really between two political parties but rather between two religious factions: the Shiite government (supported by Iran and Hezbollah) and the Sunni rebels (supported by Saudi Arabia and al-Qaida). These Islamists have fought each other for almost 1,400 years.

More broadly, Jews, Christians and Muslims in this region have been at each other’s throats for millennia because their cultures are based on competing, conflicting, and uncompromising faith-based dogmas. Their respective scriptures have encouraged bloodshed as the preferred means for asserting dominance and settling scores.

We must accept Middle East culture as profoundly different from ours. For example, Islam and democracy are, by definition, incompatible. A recent Pew Research poll affirms most Muslims favor living in theocracies governed by Sharia, the moral and religious law of Islam. Given this reality, it is no wonder that political negotiations, economic incentives, military threats and initiatives to democratize theocrats have never brought tranquility to the region. Why do we waste time pursuing these guaranteed-to-fail approaches for peace in Muslim countries?

Religion is the elephant in the room. No reasonable person can deny it, yet world governments and the media ignore that reality. This inconvenient truth is also absent from local, national and international discussions.

U.S. outrage over Syria’s use of chemical weapons is puzzling, if not hypocritical, when most Americans belong to religions that have sanctioned their own forms of savagery and brutality to fellow human beings. Is death by chemical weapons really more gruesome than being burned at the stake, having limbs torn apart on the rack, dying from plagues, being stoned to death, suffering a lifetime of beatings while enslaved, and, for those not of a particular faith, spending an eternity in hell? Have American religionists ever formally rebuked their ancestors’ cruelty or their deity’s barbarism?

We must stop kidding ourselves that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are religions that promote only tolerance, respect, peace and love. To those who question or reject this observation, freethinkers advise a critical analysis of the respective holy texts. Pay close attention to the intolerance, disrespect, violence and hatred directed toward nonbelievers and it becomes apparent that religion, above all else, has instigated the centuries of hostilities in the Middle East.

Fearing no reprisals from moderates within their sect or from outsiders, and ready to die for their ideology, Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists, in and out of government, are emboldened to kill infidels — anyone who doesn’t think as they do. Let’s be clear and rightly fearful: While chemical weapons achieve local goals, nuclear weapons will achieve global ones.

Unless religion is accepted as the underlying cause of the Middle East’s history of instability, no lasting peace will come to these failing societies … or to those in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa.

Additionally, if Muslims do not collectively repudiate extremism, parents, teachers and clergy will continue to pass on its frightening legacy to future generations.

The sad realities of the Middle East are its pervasive religious culture; its tenacity of extreme faith-based beliefs; its refusal to reconcile scriptural differences; and its absence of unified, central and reasonable clerical leadership.

The unsettling reality for our nation is that our commitment to protect Israel, and our own economic and national security interests in the region, will inevitably draw us into any major conflict.

Because selective religious “truths” are non-negotiable, highly emotionally charged and defended to the death by millions, the Middle East’s future will, unfortunately, be one of continued volatility and perhaps even self-destruction.

Gil Shapiro, a Tucson podiatrist, is the spokesman for FreeThought Arizona. Email him at gdshapiro@comcast.net