Sunni or Shiite?

Here we are, enmeshed in a low-grade civil war, and our fearless leaders can't tell the two sides apart. Jeff Stein has been asking assorted congressmen, intelligence analysts and counterterrorism officials a fundamental question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" Needless to say, the results are depressing:

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."

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.'s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

"Do I?" she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. "You know, I should." She took a stab at it: "It's a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it's the Sunnis who're more radical than the Shia."

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda's leaders follow?

"Al Qaeda is the one that's most radical, so I think they're Sunni," she replied. "I may be wrong, but I think that's right."

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials' puffery when they came up to the Hill?

"Oh, I think it's very important," said Ms. Davis, "because Al Qaeda's whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you've got to understand, and to know your enemy."


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Sunnis vs. Shias--Conquerors and Conquered-- An Hypothesis

In the 7th Century the Arab tribes swept out of the Arabian Peninsula, driven by hunger, thirst, and greed, on a mission to conquer the world. The pretext was a new religion that demanded converts, promising heaven and X virgins to those who died fighting to gain those converts.
The first targets were the lush, rich, decadent kingdoms of the Fertile Crescent,Persia was next. In these regions the Arab conquerors were later to become Sunnis. The conquered peoples in the Fertile Crescent and Persia were to become Shias. The religious differences are but masks to sanctify the economic reality. That is usually the purpose of religion.


Are there any studies that have looked at the DNA of the Palestinians? I think that they are descendants of Cananites and Philistines, Semitic tribes that co-existed with the Israelites in what is now Israel and the West Bank, not Arabs at all. Or has anyone compared the DNA of Palestinians and Israelis?