On Feb. 22, 2006, Iraqi insurgents blew apart the holiest Shiite shrine in Iraq – the Golden Mosque – transforming sectarian strife into a nascent civil war. Since then, Iraq has catapulted into an internecine bloodbath of bombings, beheadings, torture and sectarian slaughter. Sunni Arabs have been pitted against their Shiite neighbors, and intra-sectarian power struggles have frequently driven Sunnis to battle Sunnis and Shiites to clash with Shiites. The casual observer might wonder if, perhaps, something was lost in translation. When we said democracy, could the Iraqis have heard it as destroy the fuck out of everything?
Clearly, it is a complex situation. And that isn’t even to mention the regional warfare exploding across Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. But why should you care, right? What use is it to know the name of Abu Assad al-Whatever? Our elected officials are the guys who matter, and they know what is going on, right? Right?
Apparently not. Last year, journalist Jeff Stein asked some FBI counter-terrorism officials if they knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They didn’t. When the Democrats took the Congress after the midterm elections, Stein asked the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes, if he knew the distinction between the two main sects of Islam. Reyes – apparently not a fan of knowing things he probably should – was also flummoxed. When asked whether Al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite, he responded by saying, “Predominantly – probably Shiite.” Wrong.
When asked about the religion of Hezbollah, he fumbled a bit and jokingly asked whether or not he could “answer in Spanish,” which is cute and a bit funny, although I’m pretty sure that Shiite doesn’t have a Spanish translation. Anyway, in an act of benevolent generosity, here’s a (by no means complete) cheat sheet for all those politicians reading my column:
Sunnis: The vast majority of the world’s Muslims, Sunnism is considered the orthodox sect of Islam. Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr was the rightful successor to Muhammad.
Shiites: Generally considered to be less than 15 percent of the worldwide Muslim population, Shiites believe that the true successor to Muhammad was his cousin, Ali. Shiites also rely on hierarchical leaders for guidance in the form of Ayatollahs.
Iraq: Although Iraq was led by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni, albeit secular, Baath Party, the country is 60 percent Shiite. The remaining 40 percent are mostly Sunnis, comprised of both Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who are also Sunnis, but shouldn’t be lumped together with their Arab brethren.
Iran: 90 percent Shiite with a theocratic government. On our “to bomb” list.
Al-Qaeda: Predominantly Sunni, not Shiite. And by predominantly, I mean entirely. And by entirely, I mean they think Shiites are heretics who should be killed.
Hezbollah: Shiite militant group located in Lebanon but backed by Iran and Syria.
GOP: A bunch of rich, white guys. Usually old. Although they don’t know the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, they are pretty sure that one group hates us for our freedom, while the other group hates us for our cooking.
Joking aside, the region is much more complex than the above list lets on. Each group has differing, often conflicting goals. Dealing with each organization requires nuance and delicacy, neither of which yields great talking points. That would explain presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who responded to a question about bin Laden at a recent Republican debate by stating that, “This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and Al-Qaeda … this is a worldwide jihadist effort.” Romney’s misleading association of these differing groups is great for producing vapid political slogans, but is most certainly a prescription for a disastrous foreign policy. Politicians from both political parties frequently proclaim similar things, and they should be called on it. Every candidate should be asked how his or her policies towards Hezbollah would differ from those of Hamas. And when they group those organizations with Al-Qaeda, they should be asked why they choose to do so. Anyone running for national office should have at least an elementary understanding of the actors in the region, and although knowing the difference between Sunni and Shiite is certainly not enough, it is at least a start.