Jeff Stein reports in the New York Times about his adventures in Washington trying to find officials who could tell him the difference between a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite Muslim. While someof our leaders apparently know the difference, the ignorance he found int he majority drives the article. Ranging from FBI counter terrorism officials to congress peopel who sit on intelligence committees, he found many who hadn’t a clue.
Sunnis are the majority group in Islam. Shia are primarily found in Iran & Iraq and have polulations in neighboring areas (Syria, Lebanon). Al Qaeda is Sunni, Hezbollah is Shiite.
If we were to judge by what we hear reported from Iraq, we’d interpret Sunni – Shia relations as akin to Protestants and Catholics in Norther Ireland: Two communities with much in common that nonetheless want to kill each other. Al Qaeda, we read, wants to foment civil war, partly because it makes the US look bad, partly because more of the dirty, evil Shiites will suffer and die.
While there is conflict between Sunnis & Shia, much of this seems to me to be driven by their master states. Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahabbism (an 18th century reform movement in Islam, and the dominant contributor to Al Qaeda’s understanding of Islam), funds much of the expansion of Islam around the world using their petrodollars. Iran, home of the Islamic revolution, stands behind the big Shiite movements of the world, (like Hezbollah).
Years ago when I had a conversation with a scholar from Iran, he played down the differences between Sunnis & Shia. He said their commonalities are more extensive than their differences. Of course, that may have just been wishful thinking.