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|Posted December 18, 2006|
Ahmad Al-Rbaye/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images
|Conflicted Shite cleric, left with a Sunni cleric last year in Baghdad.|
By DAMIEN CAVE
SURPRISE quiz: Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite? Which sect dominates Hezbollah?
Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.
Speaking only for myself, he told reporters, its hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.
Not that hes alone. Other members of Congress from both parties have also flunked on-the-spot inquiries. Indeed, some of the smartest Western statesmen of the last century have found themselves flummoxed by Islam. Winston Churchill in 1921, while busy drawing razor-straight borders across a mercurial Middle East asked an aide for a three-line note explaining the religious character of the Hashemite leader he planned to install in Baghdad.
Is he a Sunni with Shaih sympathies or a Shaih with Sunni sympathies? Mr. Churchill wrote, using an antiquated spelling. (I always get mixed up between these two, he added.)
And maybe religious memorization should not be required for policymaking. Gen. William Odom, who directed the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, said that Mr. Reyes mainly needs to know how the intelligence community works.
Yet, improving American intelligence, according to General Odom and others with close ties to the Middle East and the American intelligence community, requires more than just a organization chart.
A cheat sheet is in order.
The Review asked nearly a dozen experts, from William R. Polk, author of Understanding Iraq, to Paul R. Pillar, the C.I.A. official who coordinated intelligence on the Middle East until he retired last year, to explain the region. Here, a quick distillation.
|What caused the original divide?|
The groups first diverged after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and his followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.
The group now known as Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the prophets adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shiites favored Ali, Muhammads cousin and son-in-law. Ali and his successors are called imams, who not only lead the Shiites but are considered to be descendants of Muhammad. After the 11th imam died in 874, and his young son was said to have disappeared from the funeral, Shiites in particular came to see the child as a Messiah who had been hidden from the public by God.
The largest sect of Shiites, known as twelvers, have been preparing for his return ever since.
|How did the violence start?|
In 656, Alis supporters killed the third caliph. Soon after, the Sunnis killed Alis son Husain.
Fighting continued but Sunnis emerged victorious over the Shiites and came to revere the caliphate for its strength and piety.
Shiites focused on developing their religious beliefs, through their imams.
|Is one group dominant today?|
Surveys have shown that Sunnis represent about 85 percent of the Muslim world, with the largest populations in Indonesia and other Asian countries, including Pakistan.
In the Middle East, the lines blur. Sunnis have clear majorities in Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia. But in Iraq and Iran, Shiites are the largest sect. Yemen meanwhile is both Sunni and Shiite.
|Are there divides within each sect?|
In nearly every country of the Middle East, Shiite and Sunni are simply umbrella terms. Islam, like Christianity, continued to split over the years based on divisions over interpretations of sacred texts, the role of mysticism, and whether old tenets of the faith should be updated.
Among Shiites, there are twelvers but also the Ismailis, who recognize only seven imams, the Zaydis, who differ over the identity of the fifth, and a handful of smaller offshoots.
Sunnis, while generally more unified, nonetheless count among their faithful both secular groups and the orthodox, including the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who interpret the Koran with puritanical zeal.
There are also non-Arab Muslims like the Kurds, who are majority Sunni, and Iranians, who are mainly Shiite, plus members of other religions. In Lebanon, for example, there are no fewer than 17 different Muslim and Christian sects.
|How does this divide play out in the region?|
Depends on the country. Iraqs Shiites resent centuries of Sunni rule, while in Syria, the chessboard flips: the Alawites, a minority Shiite sect, rules over a Sunni majority.
Saudi Arabia has a Sunni ruling class that is allied with the United States, and helped produce a Sunni insurgency, Al Qaeda, which aims to topple the countrys leadership.
As for Iraq, both sects contribute to the violence. Members of Shiite militias loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr have been accused of shooting their way indiscriminately through crowds believed to be drinking alcohol. Sunni extremists justify mass car bombings against Shiites because they are acting as takfiris, or excommunicators, who have ruled by fiat that Shiites are not Muslims.
|It is just about religion? Are there any circomstances in which Sunnis and Shites get along?|
Religious fervor may be an exaggerated indicator of whether any individual will turn to violence. A recent Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries found that radicals are no more likely to attend religious services than moderates.
Specific local circumstances, down to the clan, tribal and neighborhood level, can spark or contribute to the friction. Sometimes disagreements between the faiths, however sincerely felt, can be a stand in for greed, fear or humiliation. Iraqis of both sects who fled to Syria and Jordan generally get along, said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director of the International Crisis Group.
All these differences are meaningless, Mr. Hiltermann said, until they are exploited for political ends by actors seeking to mobilize support for their cause, whatever it may be.
In Iraq, the split between Shiites and Sunnis seems to be growing more irrational. And as the conflicts worsen, theres no telling how vicious the divide may become.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, December 17, 2006.
For those who express interest in reading more about the history of Islam, please refer to: The Philosopher of Islamic Terror
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