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Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?:
Tuesday's New York Times had this rather remarkable essay on the Opinions page.
Daniel S (mail):
we are doomed.
10.18.2006 1:38am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
It's important for US officials to understand that Iran and Iraq are majority Shiite, important for them to understand that most of the rest of the Middle East is majority Sunni, and important for them to understand that both Sadaam and Osama are Sunni. But that's not what Jeff Stein asked. He asked what the difference is between a Shiite and a Sunni. Why he asked that, I do not know, unless to be a wiseguy.

Does it make a whole heck of a lot of difference what the specific doctrinal differences are that caused the schism after the death of Mohammed? Stein doesn't explain why it would.

The fact is, there are mass murders occurring in Iraq practically every day. The key question is whether the government can stop it, and if so how. To the extent that motor vehicles are critical to the accomplishment of these crimes, it seems like there must be all kinds of techological fixes that might allow the authorities to better monitor motor vehicles (e.g. requiring all motor vehicles to constantly transmit their identifications and locations). There are issue of Big Brother, but such solutions may be necessary. I care much more about whether government officials are thinking about things like that, than about whether they're contemplating the doctrinal differences between Shiites and Sunnis.
10.18.2006 2:03am
Prince Charming:
I can't wait for all the blog comments saying that we are LUCKY that U.S. officials don't know anything about Islam, and that only a liberal who hates America would waste time on that rather than fighting the enemy.

(On another front, Mr. Hyman, what do you mean requiring all motor vehicles to transmit locations? How on earth do you regulate that? Where does the money come from? What does it achieve? How do you punish the bad guys who won't do it? It seems incredibly silly to me.)
10.18.2006 2:10am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
Prince Charming, your alias is not the alias I would have chosen for you.

Several car rental companies in the US have used GPS systems to monitor locations and/or speeds of the cars they rent. See here, for example. My point is that our country's big advantage is technology, but I haven't yet heard about any creative technological solutions to the rampant civil strife in Iraq. We need creative tech solutions. Whether my innocent little suggestion could work or not, I do not know, but I suspect that something like it would indeed be practical, whether you think it's silly or not.
10.18.2006 2:17am
David M. Nieporent (www):
It actually seems to me that the author undermines his case with his analogy. Of course one needs to know which people/countries are Sunni and which are Shiite, but if I heard the question, "Do you know the difference between..." I'd assume I was being asked for an explication of the difference in beliefs. But of course one doesn't need to know anything about Catholicism or Protestantism to understand Northern Ireland; all one needs to know is that they represent two separate ethnic groups, and the Irish are Catholic and the British are Protestant.

Now, of the people he asked, one didn't know which sect Iran represented; that's pretty bad. But some of the others interpreted the question the way I did, and were trying to discuss theology. That's something they don't particularly need to know.
10.18.2006 2:18am
Prince Charming:
Sorry you don't like the alias, Mr. Hyman. But I think there is a pretty big difference between stopping an insurgency of armed guerillas from trying to blow you up in a war zone and trying to keep tabs on the whereabouts of a fleet of rental cars.
10.18.2006 2:26am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
The armed guerillas in Iraq are getting around in a fleet of motor vehicles. If each motor vehicle in Iraq had GPS capability, then the authorities could be alerted any time a motor vehicle went outside of its authorized region. Also, motor vehicles that were near an abduction could be more easily located. And, motor vehicles lacking a GPS device could be easily detected.

Look, I'm not making a detailed proposal here. All I'm saying is that I'd rather have government officials thinking about creative technological solutions to the carnage in Iraq, rather than pondering the doctrinal differences between the attendees of various and sundry mosques.
10.18.2006 2:33am
neurodoc:
I had skipped over this piece because the headline and accompanying cartoon caused me to think it just some silliness. Unsettling, to say the least. If the questions were as reported by Stein, they were a quite reasonable attempt to determine whether those who should know could say who was who and where the geographic, ideologic, political, and other fault lines were between them. Stein was not after whether these officials could elaborate on less consequential theological differences between Shia and Sunnis. Unfortunate, though, that he did not sample some Democratic representatives so we might know whether they are any better informed than their Republican colleagues. counterparts. I doubt they are. (And based on a conversation with a Signal Corps colonel with 33 years of service home for awhile from Iraq before returning there, as well as simple common sense, I think it very, very unlikely that any "technologic fix" is going to take care of the IED problem and turn this around for us. Indeed, I think that a silly notion, risible if risible were somehow possible in this context.)
10.18.2006 2:36am
Prince Charming:
What are you going to do, give a $100 ticket to terrorists who refuse to put a GPS on their truck? Or give them points on their licenses that will increase their insurance rates? Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that is a successful strategy for winning the GWOT.

More broadly, if there were an easy tech solution in Iraq, it would have been done already. We have been fighting this war for longer than we fought the Nazis in WWII; it's not like it never occcurred to anyone to use technology to save lives. (But then, if the folks in charge don't know a Sunni from a Shiite, maybe it hasn't.....)
10.18.2006 2:41am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
I didn't suggest a technological fix to the IED problem. I suggested that there might be a technological fix to the problem of abductions and other "in person" murders involving use of a motor vehicle. The problem of improvised explosive devices is more complicated, mainly because they detonate long aftar the murderer has left the scene, and it's impossible to determine precisely when the IED was installed. (If I get called "silly" one more time, I may have to resort to more colorful language.)
10.18.2006 2:42am
Ricardo:
While it may not be necessary to be versed in Islamic theology to tackle the problem of terrorism in Iraq, the point is that you do need people who understand the culture, history and politics of the country. It certainly does not speak well of U.S. officials that they seemingly lack such basic knowledge.

For instance, if the hoped goal of the Iraq war was a unified democratic country -- and I do think that this was the sincere aim of some Bush administration officials -- it helps to know you are dealing with a country more like Northern Ireland (where Protestants and Catholics fight each other) than Germany (where they don't). And if you want a peaceful resolution, you have to know why there is violence in the first place. Violence in Northern Ireland is incomprehensible without knowing about Ireland's modern history and the same is true for Iraq.
10.18.2006 2:42am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
What are you going to do, give a $100 ticket to terrorists who refuse to put a GPS on their truck? Or give them points on their licenses that will increase their insurance rates?


No, if ANY vehicle is moving down a street, and ANY law enforcement official detects that it is not properly equipped with a GPS device, then the vehicle can be impounded and/or an investigation can be made and/or defensive measures can be taken and/or the owner can be fined. Geez.
10.18.2006 2:46am
Anonymous1L:
The article talks about domestic counterterrorism officials. I don't see why it is so important that they can articulate these distinctions. If we're talking about CIA analysts, or diplomats or something, then sure, that's different. But domestically, I don't see where a better understanding of the distinction would really lead agents to more effectively root out terror. While bin Laden and al-Qaeda may be predominantly Sunni, that's hardly a reason to give Shiites a pass.
10.18.2006 2:49am
Prince Charming:
Wait, Mr. Hyman, you're in a war zone and you're going to impound cars or start an investigation? How on earth do you do that? Where is the impound lot in a war zone? And who are these investigators? And how do you "fine" the owner? Be realistic: In a war zone, your only option is to do nothing or to give the passengers in the car a quick trip to Allah. And if you do the latter, the terrorists will start taking the GPS devices out of the GOOD GUYs' cars to make sure that the US forces start blowing up innocent people and causing lots of havoc.

All in all, this discussion reminds me of Marie Antoinette's supposed response when told that the poor of France had no bread: "Why, let them eat cake."
10.18.2006 2:55am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
Prince, I'm not going to bother trying to explain this to you any further. I'm talking about the streets of Baghdad, the neighborhoods of Najaf, the suburbs of Fallujah. Murderous gangs are walking into places of employment, into places of worship, into residences, and executing people and/or abducting people for later execution. Their primary tools are cars, trucks, SUVs, and the like that are used to transport them, their weapons, and their victims. If you think that there's nothing that can be done to better monitor vehicle movement in Iraq, then that's your problem, not mine. We can only hope that some of our military and civilian leaders are a bit less dismissive and condescending than your highness appears to be.
10.18.2006 3:02am
Prince Charming:
Mr. Hyman, I am sorry if I have upset you. It just seems that your idea makes no sense. You are not factoring in the difference between a war zone and the suburban US, and that is leading you to make a recommendation that wouldn't work. Fortunately, our military commanders and civilian leaders have enough common sense to see that. Or at least the former do. Anyway, on to other things.
10.18.2006 3:12am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
You do upset me, Prince. I wonder if anonymous commenters here would have the same attitude if their real names were used.

Incidentally, it should be straightforward to make sure your vehicle's GPS device hasn't been removed, before driving your vehicle. But maybe there's another tech solution besides GPS, that would be more practical for monitoring traffic. The point is, this is a more important subject than parsing differences in religious dogma, that's all.
10.18.2006 3:30am
Prince Charming:
Again, Mr. Hyman, my apologies if my argument against you're idea upset you. In terms of the GPS, though, the bad guys would just replace the devices with dummy devices that look like the real thing but have no signal. Very easy circumvented, actually.
10.18.2006 3:39am
guest:
Sometimes I miss the moderated comments...
10.18.2006 3:55am
plunge (mail):
The actual article shows a lot more lack of knowledge than being able to state the theological differences. That may be one interpretation of the question, but the answers implied things like not understanding that this potential schism was even important (wow, now that you explain it, I can see how that might make things hard). I mean, we're on the cusp of civil war, and our leaders don't even have an inkling of WHY?

That's scary. But then, when you spend 1% of your time on actual policy and 99% on trying to sell those policies in the most simplistic manner possible to voters, what do you expect?
10.18.2006 4:24am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
There seems to be an assumption that the satellite knows where the GPS devices are, rather than that the GPS devices know where they are and the satellite doesn't.

A GPS device sits silently and tells nobody about its existence, listening to satellites say where _they_ are.
From this it deduces where it is.

I think this sort of mistake was responsible for the Greek theory of sight, where sight radiates from the eye and hits the object seen. It does have going for it that it explains very simply why, when you put your hand in the way, you see your hand instead. But alas, it is backwards.

Rental car companies have access to the GPS and ask it where it's been, when they get the car back.
10.18.2006 5:29am
BGates (mail) (www):
The Prince is right, Andrew - if GPS were required in civilian cars, the insurgents could just stop murdering police officers and bombing mosques, and spend all their time putting fake GPS devices on cars. The police would then have to pull over lots of vehicles...why, it could become the most widespread inconvenience in the history of Middle Eastern vehicular traffic.

Back to the original subject, I didn't know until just now when I looked at the Wikipedia page on Shia Islam that there's also a significant number of Shia and Sunni in Afghanistan, a nation which has a much more recent history of civil war than Iraq, which as far as I know is staying together at the moment.
10.18.2006 5:32am
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
Ron Hardin, you are quite correct that a GPS unit alone would not transmit anything to anyone. That's why I mentioned at 1:03 AM the need for a transmitter. Such transmitters are quite common. See the lojack system, for example. And BGates, lojack is designed to prevent tampering. And in any event, it should be simple enough for a driver to do a quick test before pulling out of the driveway.

But you people are missing my basic point, which is that these are the types of issues that our security experts should be concentrating on, rather than fussing about the nuances of religious dogma. There are distinct sects within Shia and Sunni Islam, and I doubt that Jeff Stein knows a blessed thing about any of them --- nor need he.
10.18.2006 6:09am
A. Zarkov (mail):
I can see why we should expect virtually anyone to know the geographical distribution of the two major Islamic sects, but do policy makers and administrators really need to know the origin of the split in Islam? Do they need to know that in the call to prayer the Shias perform wudu and salat differently by placing the forehead on hardened clay from the Karbala instead directly on the prayer mat? I think not. Stein is playing gotcha journalism. You better bet he won't ask Alcee Hastings embarrassing questions if he becomes chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. And he has plenty to be embarrassed about.

More interesting and more important are the theological differences between Islam and the two other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. For example why did the Supreme Being create the universe in the first place? The Islamic answer is quite different and tells us a lot about the basic incompatibility of Islam with the West. Anyone care to venture an answer?
10.18.2006 6:20am
Anonymous Reader:
Yeah, it "seems" like gotcha journalism, but I think we could all agree that it's very important that the "decision makers" know the differences. It would be like asking why the black panthers and KKK wouldn't get along if they were in the same room. Yeah, you could police the situation and keep things neutral, but that doesn't SOLVE the problem, it just maintains the status quo. Which is one of the problems with treating terrorism strictly as a law enforcement function. It doesn't necessarily stop terrorism, it just maintains the peace. I will say that it has to be a mixture of the two.

As for the technological ways to combat terrorism, well that's just plain s-.... nevermind.. :-)... Iraq isn't necessarily a bustling metropolis... it would be near to impossible to implement that type of idea in that country or even in Baghdad.

Anonymous Reader
10.18.2006 7:30am
Pete Freans (mail):
I'm just about finished a book titled The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by author Vali Nasr who is a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. It is required reading if you truly want to understand what is popularly referred to as "sectarian violence" in Iraq. It foretells a very somber situation but not without delicate, but by no means foolproof solutions to the violence.
10.18.2006 9:01am
JB:
What's important to know, as has been said, is that this is a 1400-year-old feud among people who really dislike burying the hatchet. I.E, getting them to play nice together is really hard/impossible. The details of why they're fighting don't matter, the fact that they've been fighting for 6 times the lifespan of our nation does.

I wonder how many people would have supported the war had they known that victory, as originally defined, involved settling the most central dispute in Islam.
10.18.2006 9:21am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I do think that the religious split here is relevant, at least to some extent, in this war. It is one of the dynamics that is relevant. For example, the fact that Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite is extremely relevant, but so is the fact that Iraq is majority Arab, and Iran, majority Persian. The religion brings them together, and the ethnic differences keep them apart.

Another place where religion is key here is that Ahmadinejad is not only Shiite, but that he apparently believes in the imminent return of the occulted twelfth Iman, and that that would be a good thing, is esp. troubling, given Iran's nuclear ambitions. Would he be willing to utilize nuclear weapons if it would bring back Iman Muhammad al-Mahdi? This apocolyptic vision is one of the key differences between the two major sects of Islam, and one of the most radical of the apocolyptic sects may end up with his nuclear weapons at his disposal.

The difference here I think is that even though OBL might be willing to utilize such against us, he doesn't run a nation-state. Even Saddam Hussein could almost be trusted not to bring on a nuclear holocast through the use of such weapons against us, through a well founded fear that we would retaliate. But maybe not so when the president of such a nation-state may want to hasten such an Armagedon.

On the other hand, the author makes his own mistake in suggesting that Iraq is verging on civil war. The proper term for a situation where 85% of the population has the guns and justification for revenge is not civil war, but genocide. And the Sunni Arabs haven't helped their cause by blowing up a lot of the Iraqi police and army personel who are somewhat trying to stand in the middle. (I should note that the Iraqi Sunni Arabs know this, which is why they are now approximately 15% of the population now, down from 20% under Saddam Hussein - wouldn't you run in their position too?)
10.18.2006 9:49am
Aultimer:
To the excuse-makers, does it change your view if Stein gave partial credit to the question's targets who replied "Sunnis are the Iraqi minority that ruled the Shiites under Saddam", or "Shiites are the majority in Iraq and Iran, Sunnis are the majority everywhere else"?

I don't think the question, as reported, required a theological response and folks inside the beltway are more comfortable than most answer different questions than the ones asked, so I'm more appaled by the lack of answers on the important "difference".
10.18.2006 9:56am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Pete,

Thanks for the suggestion. I have requested the book from the local library system here and should have it within the month. Here is the Amazon link for anyone else who is interested.
10.18.2006 10:03am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I am not convinced that the actual theological debate between these two branches of Islam is all that important (with the exception of maybe Ahmadinejad in Iran), but rather, that they are major theological differences that are well over a millenium old. Somewhat akin to the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but until recently, maybe not as bloody. Yes, at the margins, they matter, but probably not if you are trying to predict whether a Shiite Arab Iraqi is more likley to jump towards his Persian Shiite brethern or his Arab Sunni brethern.
10.18.2006 10:14am
Anderson (mail) (www):
but do policy makers and administrators really need to know the origin of the split in Islam?

Love the spin here. That's not what Stein asked. A functioning knowledge of how the Sunni/Shiite split works in today's politics was enough to win the lollipop.

The FBI official didn't even know that Iran and Hezbollah were Shiite.

For that matter, I'm nothing but a health-care attorney, with two kids, who glances over the paper and the blogs more days of the week than not ... and somehow, over the past 5 years, I've managed to pick up a rough notion of the origins of the Sunni/Shiite split, let alone the lineup in today's Middle East. And it ain't even my job to know it.

At some point, defending the pathetic becomes pathetic itself.
10.18.2006 10:17am
magoo (mail):
"The Islamic answer is quite different and tells us a lot about the basic incompatibility of Islam with the West."

There was a time, not too long ago, when intelligent people spoke about the basic incompatibility of Judaism with the (Christian) West. I hope that, 50 years hence, the assertion quoted above will strike us as just as jarring and reprehensible. The Muslims I've met here in the West are some of the kindest, most decent people in the world (not <i>despite</i> their religous beliefs, but <i>because</i> of them). Their religious and personal commitment to the poor, in particular, should put many westerners to shame.
10.18.2006 10:30am
Wombat:
Does knowledge of the beliefs of specific sects of Christianity on Predestination, Number of Jesus' Siblings, or Salvation by Grace Alone tell us anything about the wars in Europe in the 16-19th centuries? Not really.

Is not knowing which sect Iraq's neighbors, espeically Iran, are from, worrisome? Yes, but with the caveat that both then and now the alliances did not squarely line up with the religious views.

Is the lack of knowledge of those with Congressional oversight on these matters specifically more worrisome? Not really. "...who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.'s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information" could mean that every year some CIA director gives him/her a report saying "recruitment was down X% over last year in country Y". How does knowledge of the specific tenets of country Y matter, especially when the focus is on a by country, not a by religion, basis anyway - does recruiting a Algerian Shiite matter at all for Iranian intelligence collection?

As far as the FBI chief goes - that only gets a half worry from me, as, after all, the FBI historically has been tasked with domestic intelligence work (the CIA handles international work). Then again, nowadays everything, including threats, are global, but one has to ask how knowledge of specific beliefs helps with false positive/ false negative signal intelligence work, for example.
10.18.2006 10:54am
Lively:
One thing both Sunni and Shiite agree on is the Muhammad Cartoon Episode and the Pope's recent comments. Both had same reaction...tells me they are both dangerous.

magoo said:

Their religious and personal commitment to the poor, in particular, should put many westerners to shame.


You must not be aware that Muslims that are on a killing rampage in Africa now. They are not helping the brethern of the world.
10.18.2006 11:05am
magoo (mail):
Lively...very much aware....also aware of countless atrocities committed in the name of other religions...wouldn't conclude that those religions are fundamentally incompatible with civilized society
10.18.2006 11:14am
Anonne:
What is disturbing is that even if they don't know the why's and wherefores of the schism, they should know who is who. It is embarrassing that public officials involved in the war on terror don't instantly know that Al Qaeda is Sunni, that Iran and Hezbollah are Shia. I mean, every day we see the attacks from one group on another, and it is apparently meaningless to certain people.
10.18.2006 11:18am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Yawn ... can't we get in 50 or so comments about Prof. Kerr's obvious partisan bias in relaying this item? And in finding it "rather remarkable"? Passion bait!

(Dibs on naming my future band "Passion Bait," btw.)
10.18.2006 11:20am
Thales (mail) (www):
Clearly the New York Times (and Professor Kerr) needs to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for revealing the heretofore secret ignorance of our public officials and thereby emboldening The Enemy. Representative King will be launching an investigation imminently.
10.18.2006 12:16pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
revealing the heretofore secret ignorance of our public officials

I think they've got a pretty darn good affirmative defense there.
10.18.2006 12:29pm
anonVCfan:
Anderson, don't you have something something you're supposed to be working on?
10.18.2006 12:40pm
A.S.:
The article was pretty depressing, and it appears that some of our governmental leaders are pretty ignorant.

That being said, I think the question asked - "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" is a pretty bad question. I have no idea what the author was trying to get at. He protests that he wasn't looking for theological explanations, but it certainly is not clear what he WAS looking for. If he wanted to figure out whether our leaders knew that Iran was Shiite while Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda is Sunni, he could very well have asked those questions directly.

I ask this question: What is the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? Is the answer: Catholics live in Ireland and Protestants live in England? No.

This was very much a "gotcha" question. Some people were "got". Based on their subsequent comments, they look like they would have been "got" even with a non-"gotcha" question. But that doesn't make the question itself a good one.
10.18.2006 12:48pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"There was a time, not too long ago, when intelligent people spoke about the basic incompatibility of Judaism with the (Christian) West."

That's might be true but still irrelevant. To get a deeper insight into Islam it's useful to read Franz Rosensweig's Ausgewaehlte Schriften zum Islam. He wrote this in the 1920s, and you can get some of the material from the recently published "Star of Redemption" which provides a not-so-ideal translation from the original German. As to why did Allah create the universe? For no particular reason. It was essentially an arbitrary act. He might not have bothered. In contrast, the creation was an act of love for the Judeo-Christian Supreme Being. Muslim theology assumes Allah creates every isolated thing from scratch at every moment. (Kind of reminds you of the "many world's hypothesis" in quantum mechanics.) This causes Islam to slip back into a kind of monistic paganism where individual will is crushed out of existence. You need to understand these fundamental aspects of Islam to understand jihad, and to understand the essential incompatibility of Islam with the Judeo-Christian West. No amount of negotiating is going to solve the problem we face with a reinvigorated Islam. It makes no difference how many "nice" Muslims you meet. The problem isn't going away.

See "Spengler" over at the Asia Times for more detail. In particular, "Oil on the flames of civilizational war."
10.18.2006 1:30pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
And if someone had replied, 'As a matter of fact, I do know the difference. Do you know them difference between them and the Ismailis?' how would Stein have answered?

How would the posters here have responded? Does anyone here know where to find Ismaili Muslims?

(Hint: They are the most powerful Muslims of all.)
10.18.2006 1:57pm
Elliot Reed:
A. Zarkov - getting your impression of Islam (all of Islam) from a Western book written in 1920 is like getting your impression of American constitutional law from an Arabic book on the subject written in 1920. Actually, it's worse; let me enumerate some of the problems:

1) It's a serious error to try to extrapolate people's lived behavior from some abstract theological point. Consider the Catholic/Protestant arguments of old: "Protestants believe that they are saved by their faith alone, which means they're free to sin as much as they want. Why be virtuous when Heaven is assured either way? Don't trust them!" "Catholics believe in the Pope as a source of moral authority, which means that they will take orders from Rome when those come down. Don't trust them!" The problem here is that it's very easy for an outsider to misunderstand what theology means to the lay believer, especially if the outsider is prejudiced against said believers.

2) Religious texts and doctrines are no less meallable in the hands of the believer than constitutional texts and doctrines are in the hands of judges who want a certain result. When Christians were inclined to support slavery, they read support for it into the Bible. When liberal Westerners want to support gay rights today, they read support for that into the Bible. Knowing what the Koran says on a given topic tells you no more about Islam than knowing what the Constitution says tells you about what the Supreme Court will do.
10.18.2006 2:14pm
JDNYU:
A.S.:

"If he wanted to figure out whether our leaders knew that Iran was Shiite while Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda is Sunni, he could very well have asked those questions directly. "

You mean when he was talking to Willie Hulon, the FBI man:


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."

Wrong.

Al Qaeda? "Sunni."

Right.


Is that a clear enough question? Or more gotcha?
10.18.2006 2:20pm
A.S.:
No, that's exactly the questions that should have been asked in all the cases. As I noted in my response, based on these officials' subsequent comments, he could have written an article ridiculing them just as easily if he had solely used questions like the ones you posted above.

But, for some reason, he decided to use as his main question something that was very ambiguous.
10.18.2006 2:49pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
something you're supposed to be working on?

The good-for-nothings are *settling* the case, hence no need for my beautiful, beautiful discovery requests ... sniffle ...
10.18.2006 3:06pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
he decided to use as his main question something that was very ambiguous.

And the headline (of that published op-ed, and this post) is even more ambiguous, asking a third question. (Do you ask him to name the shortstop for the Yankees? Do you ask him to pronounce shiboleth? Do you observe his epicanthic folds? Do you see how many hours he waits to drink milk after eating meat? Does he do "spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch" or "spectacles, testicles, watch, wallet"?)
10.18.2006 3:34pm
NickM (mail) (www):
There is one other religious difference between Shi'a and Sunni Islam that should be important for U.S. policymakers. Shi'a is far more hierarchical, while Sunni for the most part lacks a central religious authority. In practical terms, almost any Sunni Moslem can become an imam empowered to issue fatwas, but he may have a very narrow reach of followers, while there are few Shi'a clerics with that power, but each one reaches a much larger number of followers.

Nick
10.18.2006 7:47pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Unless you are planning to convert, it makes no difference. The only Muslim doctrine that matters to infidels is that allah has promised world dominion to Islam. All Muslims believe that, although some are willing to leave it to allah to arrange that glorious day, others want to hurry him along.

My point is that Stein obviously knows as little about Islam as the dullest clodpate in the DC Green Zone. Ditto for the NYT editors.

And up to this point, I'm not persuaded that most VC posters are that much further ahead, either.
10.18.2006 8:43pm
Lev:

I'm just about finished a book titled The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by author Vali Nasr who is a Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.


A very interesting book.

Offhand, I would say the Saudis and bin Laden are more Wahhabi than Sunni.
10.19.2006 1:13am
Colin (mail):
Unless you are planning to convert, it makes no difference.

I would prefer our executive and legislative authorities to understand these basic facts. It would be nice, for instance, if it was widely understood that Al Qaeda and Iran are arms-length coreligionists.

The only Muslim doctrine that matters to infidels is that allah has promised world dominion to Islam. All Muslims believe that, although some are willing to leave it to allah to arrange that glorious day, others want to hurry him along. My point is that Stein obviously knows as little about Islam as the dullest clodpate in the DC Green Zone.

I don't think that a failure to be over-simplistic counts as "ignorance."
10.19.2006 12:08pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Well, it is not a 'basic fact' that there are 2 main divisions of Islam.

If anybody is going to pretend to understand Islam, it would be a good idea if he:

1. Knew about a third sect that has more than 100 million adherents and has its own fish to fry.

2. Understood that Urdu is not associated with either Sunni nor Shia sects. It is primarily (though not exclusively) associated with that other, unnamed sect that none of these geniuses have ever heard of.

This discussion reminds me so much of John Kerry, who never missed an opportunity to tell me how much smarter he is than me, but never said anything smart.

It is not obvious from any of the above 50 posts that anybody here knows anything at all about Islam. I don't claim any expertise myself.
10.19.2006 1:51pm
Colin (mail):
I don't follow your reasoning. It certainly is a 'basic fact' that there are two important strains of Islam. Whether there are additional divisions doesn't affect the fact that there are at least those two, or detract from the author's point that authorities who presumably should know better too often don't understand what those divisions are. Is your criticism that the author didn't give a detailed description of every Islamic schism? Or, as seems likely given your non sequitor swipe at Kerry, is this just more partisan bile?
10.19.2006 3:02pm
markm (mail):
I agree that the initial question was badly phrased - if you stand in front of a Baptist or Catholic church in the USA and ask the people coming out what the difference is between Protestants and Catholics, you'll get frozen stares and mumbling about the Pope. But this was like having someone in charge of security in Northern Ireland that wasn't sure whether the IRA are Catholic or Protestants.

"Does it make a whole heck of a lot of difference what the specific doctrinal differences are that caused the schism after the death of Mohammed? Stein doesn't explain why it would." No, what's important is that you know that there's more than one side over there, and who's on which side - and some of these officials clearly flunked that.

Nor was the Sunni/Shi'ite split caused by doctrinal differences. It was caused by two factions vying to inherit Mohammed's power. Whenever that happens in a religious context, the splitters then invent doctrinal differences to rationalize their opposition, but it's the pursuit of power that started it. Anyone who doesn't recognize that power conflicts are far more common than true doctrinally-driven conflicts hasn't got a chance of understanding medieval history or today's Muslim politics.
10.19.2006 5:54pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
That's just it. There are not 2 main sects. There are several. At the very least, the one that has the nukes needs to be counted. And it isn't Shia nor Sunni.

Most of you -- probably anybody over 50 -- know the name of the leader of the most important sect, you just don't know what his job is.
10.19.2006 9:20pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
the splitters then invent doctrinal differences to rationalize their opposition, but it's the pursuit of power that started it.

There's also something akin to the founder's effect. More familiar to VC readers, as a general rule, in modern times, in the US, the Democrats are liberal, but liberals are in favor of more gun control, and the Republicans are conservative, but conservatives are in favor of less gun control. I don't think an understanding of the roots of either party explains this, nor is it of fundamental importance in understanding any particular gubernatorial race.

It was once explained to me that Shiites have been the Minority Party for so long, that they've become allied with all sorts of dissident causes. (That is, they support cause X not because support of it follows from believing that after the death of the Prophet power should have gone to the Imams rather than the Caliphs, but rather because those that believe the other way oppose that particular cause.)

(I couldn't tell a Pharisee from a Saducee either.)
10.20.2006 12:09pm