A View From The Handbasket

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
They all look alike to me.
Posted by neros_fiddle at 4:37 PM
Via Billmon, here's an enlightening article from the NYT.

The question of the day: what's the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite? When right-wing podium-pounders from the president on down are telling us that bearded Mecca-facing wackos are massing at the borders waiting to eat our ever-more-numerous children, it seems important for us to understand the nature of Islam and the reasons for much of the Middle East's chronic unrest. So surely the people entrusted with keeping an eye on the wackos are up on the most fundamental (no pun intended) aspects of the religion?

First up, the FBI's head of national security, Willie Hulon:

“Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference,” he said. “It’s important to know who your targets are.”

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. “The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,” he said. “And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.”

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. “Iran and Hezbollah,” I prompted. “Which are they?”

He took a stab: “Sunni.”


Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”


OK, so he's just guessing. But he's new on the job, so we'll give him a break. Surely, seven-term Congressman Terry Everett, vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence, could do better:

“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.”

That's certainly encouraging! And how about Congresswoman Jo An Davis, who is tasked with monitoring the CIA's Islamic intelligence gathering operations?

“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.”

Who can argue with that?

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