Blog author's note: This post was originally published Oct. 21, 2006 on "Been Some Places, Seen Some Things." In an ongoing effort to consolidate relevant posts and because I am much too busy reading to do any recreational writing, I offer you this, a little gem from my archives...
I must admit, I didn’t know - much. Apparently I am not alone and I am in good company. Last Tuesday, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Jeff Stein, national security editor for the Congressional Quarterly entitled, “Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?” Like I said, I didn’t know. And although the article doesn’t really explain the difference (I will, my curiosity was piqued), he is surprised, as am I, that those in the highest levels of government don’t have a clue.
I am majoring in government-journalism at Sacramento State. That could mean several different career paths. As much as I have any influence over it (not much I’ve learned, but that’s another story), my path is heading towards journalism (as opposed to government or PR) with a specialty in government reporting. Within that area, foreign policy interests me the most. Therefore, I should have known the difference as well. The key difference between my ignorance and say, oh… FBI National Security Branch Bureau Chief Willie Hulon’s is not a matter of trivia – it’s life and death.
The following is taken directly from Stein’s column:
Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.
“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.
Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”
To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. “Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he replied, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”
I couldn’t paraphrase it any better. It is that last quote that is particularly telling.
Perhaps Hulon and Everett (and others - some very highly placed) should pay attention now as I will briefly explain the difference not only between these two religious sects, but also a little about the ethnicities involved.
Although I still don’t have great deal of detailed knowledge of Islam, or for that matter any religion, I will try to explain why these two branches of Islam differ. According to a variety of sources, it has to do with the lineage of the prophet Mohammed. It is somewhat complex, but there is some dispute about which of the descendants should be followed. It could be likened to the various different branches of Christianity or perhaps a better analogy is the split between Judaism and Christianity.
Not to muddy the waters even further, but within the Sunnis and the Shiites, there are further divisions and factions, which probably lends a little more accuracy to the Jewish/Christian paradigm. The issue is complex indeed, but there are those whose job it is to understand our enemy and I’m afraid, as Stein so aptly points out, that this very basic crash course is more than many of them know. But wait, it gets even more complex; again, I will distill it down to my level of understanding.
In the region, there are several different ethnic groups as well. For instance, the Iranians are not Arabs, but Persians – and mostly Shiite. The Iraqi’s are mostly Arab, except for the Kurds. Most of the Arabs in Iraq are Shiite like the Iranians, but not Persian. Most of the rest of the Arab world is Sunni, as are the Kurds, but the Kurds are not Arab. Are you taking notes?
For those that have a hard time understanding how Muslims can kill each other so persistently, ruthlessly and unconscionably, perhaps remembering the slaughter among those of differing sects of the Christian faith will help put it into perspective. Maybe historical accounts of Christians killing Jews will lend a better understanding. Realizing that all three major religious divisions have a common root probably won’t help much, but it is true enough that all three are “Abrahmic” spin-offs.
So perhaps our “leaders” don’t understand that we’ve inserted ourselves smack-dab into the middle of a religious-ethnic-territorial war that is hundreds of years old. Maybe they underestimated the complexity of the demographic makeup of the region. Perhaps if they had done their homework, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Maybe it’s not too late to find a solution. It’s time to cram – finals are coming.