Livin' it up, American style

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

So what exactly is the difference between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites?

A Congressional Quartely reporter has been asking that same question of people in Washington who should know the answer, such as counterterrorism officials in the FBI and Congressmen who sit on House and Senate intelligence committees. Overwhelmingly, people don't know the answer. They don't know whether Al-Qaeda, Iran, Hezbollah, or Iraq are Sunni or Shi'ite. So much for knowing thy enemy. But, I'm sure as most normal Americans were reading this article in the New York Times, they were wondering the same thing. What is the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites and why do those differences matter regarding peace in Iraq?

They are different branches of Islam that resulted from a disagreement over the line of sucession in the religion. After Muhammed founded Islam in the 7th century, he had 4 elected successors, called caliphs. The Sunnis believe that these caliphs were his rightful successors, and that their heirs are the leaders of Islam. These heirs ruled the Arab world until the Ottoman Empire broke up after WWI. The Shi'ites, also called Shias, thought that Muhammed's successor should have been a family member, or been one of the Imams choosen by God himself. Shi'ites therefore thought only the 4th caliph, a relative of Muhammed's, was a legitimate successor. The Shi'ites do not recognize the authority of elected spiritual leaders, (unlike the Sunnis) and instead follow a line of Imams they believe were choosen by God.

The Sunnis represent the majority of Muslims, about 85-90%, and also control the governments of every country in the Middle East, except Iran. Most of the Shi'ites are found in Iran and Iraq, and in large minority communities in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon. Despite the majority Shi'ite population in Iraq, the government was controlled by Sunni Saddam Hussein and his secular Ba'ath Party. This longtime power imbalance has contributed to the animosity now seen in Iraq, and the difficulties the US will have in creating a coalition government. If a government is created based on majority rules, the Shi'ites will have the majority, as they represent 60% of the country's population. But will a Shi'ite majority government be able to resist getting revenge on the Sunni minority that had been repressing them for decades? Many of the positions in the government are still filled by the Sunnis who held them under Hussein, and they are reluctant to give up the power they have held for years. The Sunni minority is also based in the center of the country, around Baghdad, while the Shi'ites are spread around the outer edges of the country. And where does the 20% Kurdish minority fit into all of this? The US needs to balance all these concerns as it tries to form a new government. It is disturbing that government officials who work on Iraq every day don't know the basic differences between the religions and what that means for peace in Iraq.

By the way, Iran and Hezbollah are Shi'ite, Iraq under Saddam and Al-Qaeda were/are Sunni. Years ago, the US had supported Saddam, because they saw a Sunni controlled government in Iraq as a counterweight against Shi'ite controlled Iran. So now, with Saddam gone, have we created a playground for Iran to support Shi'ite insurgents as it hopes to create the second Shi'ite led country in the otherwise all Sunni Middle East? Will Iraq become a hotbed for Hezbollah, an Iranian backed, Shi'ite, anti-Israel terrorist group? I guess one could try to argue that at least with Saddam gone, there will be no more collaboration between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. Except... Saddam was never friendly with Al-Qaeda, as the 9-11 commission reported. And really, why would a radical group whose main mission is to overthrow un-Islamic regimes and install Islamist ones collaborate with a leader whose government was secular and socialist? Perhaps if American officials had had just a basic understanding of Middle Eastern religions and geo-politics, we would have approached the whole war on terror and war in Iraq much differently.


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