Oh, What’s The Diff?

Terrific op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Jeff Stein, national security editor of Congressional Quarterly. He’s been conducting a little experiment…

FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

Here are some of the answers:

A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.’s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau’s new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “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.”

A member of the House intelligence committee:

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.”

Another committee member:

“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.”

Now we’re not talking theology. Stein’s asking his repondents who’s who right now. Do they know that Hezbollah is Shiite? That Osama bin Laden is Sunni? Stein says that some of his interviewees are able to answer these questions easily. But all too many, he says, “don’t have a clue.”

“How can they do their job,” Stein asks, “without knowing the basics?”

58 thoughts on “Oh, What’s The Diff?

  1. Right. The author of the Op-Ed said very clearly that he wasn’t asking his interviewees about theology. He was asking them the much simpler question of who is Shiite and who is Sunni in the various conflicts the US in engaged in. Anything else they could answer was gravy.

    The theology and history is happening here because some of us are interested in deepening our understanding, and others are willing to share…

  2. Interesting Sikh-related historical facts in relation to Shia Islam:

    Ali is regarded by many as the “father of Sufism”, which of course has some overlaps with Sikhism too.

    Guru Gobind Singh owned one of Ali’s swords, which I believe is presently housed at a gurdwara in Punjab (Anandpur Sahib, I think — someone please confirm). It is also rumoured that Ali’s sword was used by the Guru during the Khalsa baptism ceremony at the first Vaisakhi in 1699 — he used it to stir the “amrit” mixture which was then given to inductees to drink as part of the ceremony.

    I’m not sure if this means that the Guru was indirectly supporting Ali’s claim as the rightful heir to the leadership of the Ummah, but it’s an interesting idea.

  3. Actually Indians (both non-Muslims and Muslims) should be interested in finding out the differences between Shias and Sunnis.. I guess almost all the terrorist attacks carried out so far are by Sunni groups such as Lashkar-E-Toiba / Jaish-e-Muhammed etc.. don’t know if that means Shias in India are relatively better placed.. I don’t know if I can safely assume people with ‘Ali’ in their names can be treated as Shias.. and ‘Omar’ as Sunnis..

  4. Yeah, it’s probably more useful for US policymakers to learn about the historical relationship between Sunni and Shia (btw – you can just say “Shia,” Shiite is an old-fashioned way of saying it, though with much more comic potential 😉 in Iraq than the history of the schism in the early years of Islam, and the theological difs…I’d rather they read Yitzhak Nakash than old fiqh texts. Or Nikki Keddie and Juan Cole on Shia political mobilizations.

    Juan Cole, btw, wrote his first book/diss. on Indian Shia, and it’s quite interesting – Avadh/Oudh was a major Shia centre and the Nawabs of Avadh had close ties with Najaf and Karbala, and were patrons of religious establishments in those Shia centres of learning (I think some members of the Avadh royal clan even used to go there to die). There are streets named after the Nawab of Avadh in either Najaf or Karbala, I forget.

    If you go to Lucknow even today, you’ll see the classic taziyas that are shiny colourful reproductions of the mosque of Imam Ali in Karbala. Indian Shia are not crazy about the Sunnis (esp of the Deobandi variety) and have set up their own Personal Law Board, and a few years ago even allied temporarily with the BJP in Lucknow, IIRC, to piss off the Sunnis. Shia in general have a stronger clerical structure and give more importance to a marja’ (or exemplary person/cleric, rather like a guru) so in a sense are more concrete-community-driven and maybe that’s why they haven’t been drawn to the kind of radical idealism that some Sunnis have been….

  5. To respond to no von Mises’ comment which I just saw – there’s less “ethnification” of religious difference between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East the way there is between Hindu and Muslim in India. But Iraq probably comes close, because Shia here, even though ethnically Arab for the most part, had close clerical-religious ties to Iran and were often suspected of being pro-Persian (and “Ajami” or “persian” was a common epithet for Shia throughout the region). Where you’ll find more ethnification of the Sunni-Shia distinction is in Pakistan, actually, because many of the muhajirs who came across from UP were Shia, so the religious distinction fed into the sons-of-the-soil vs muhajir clash.

  6. Some very interesting comments, SP. Taziyas, btw, can be quite beautiful. Here is a picture of a taziya being prepared in the great city of Ahmedabad.

  7. To add to the interesting trivia: Ayatollah Khomeini’s family has an Indian connection (to Oudh, actually). From the NYT :

    Khomeini’s family are Musavi seyyeds; that is they claim descent from the Prophet through his daughter’s line and the line of the seventh Imam of the Shi`a, Musa al-Kazem. They are believed to have come originally from Neishabur, a town near to Mashhad in north-eastern Iran. In the early eighteenth century the family migrated to India where they settled in the small town of Kintur near Lucknow in the Kingdom of Oudh whose rulers were Twelver Shi`a — the branch of Islam which became the official state religion in Iran under the Safavids and to which the majority of Iranians adhere today. Ruhollah’s grandfather, Seyyed Ahmad Musavi Hindi, was born in Kintur and was a contemporary and relative of the famous scholar Mir Hamed Hossein Hindi Neishaburi whose voluminous history of the religion, the Abaqat al-Anwar, is sometimes described as the pride of Indian Shi`ism.