Late last year, a reporter from Congressional Quarterly asked some of the leading members of Congress if they could describe the difference between the Sunnis and Shia. Guess what: most couldn't. If the people who are helping decide our policy in Iraq can't get it straight, what about the rest of us?
With so much sectarian violence roiling Iraq, this seemed like a good time to get some clarification. I posed "10 Questions on Iraq" to one of the leading experts on the Middle East, the Director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, and CBS News consultant Fouad Ajami.
1. We've heard so much about Sunnis and Shia. What are the main religious differences between them? What do they have in common?
Big, complicated history. It begins with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, leaving no male heir. The majority Sunni (literally orthodox, mainstream) community subscribed to the rule of the first three Caliphs who succeeded him. The minority movement, the Shia (literally the Partisans) of his son-in-law, Imam Ali, husband of his daughter Fatima, asserted that succession belongs to the Prophet's family, to Ali in the first, and to the Prophet's grandsons and their descendants. In the great civil war in the House of Islam that played out in the later years of the seventh century, the Sunni governments won, the Shia "martyrs" and oppositionists lost. In 680, The Prophet's grandson, Imam Hussein, the hero-martyr of Shi'ism was killed in southern Iraq on the plains of Karbala. And with this, the great wound in Islam deepens forever. What Sunnis and Shia still have in common is belief in the unity of God, in the Prophet Muhammad, in the Quran. They are separated by temperament and by how they look at history.
2. Why are Sunnis and Shia politically divided? Could you tell us about the history of the two sects in Iraq?
The first question goes to the heart of this second one: They differ about legitimate power, and who should hold it. The Shia believe that power belongs to the pious, and to The Prophet's family; the Sunnis believe that power and order have legitimacy of their own. In Iraq the Sunnis and the Shia are both Arab through and through. Iraq became a battleground between the (Sunni) Ottoman empire and the (Shia) Persian empire. The Sunnis, though a minority in Iraq, have ruled that country for centuries. The Shia were cut out of political power, and successive regimes in that country (the monarchy, the military regimes since the Revolution of 1958 that overthrew the monarchy) were based in the Sunni community. With the Shia holy cities and seminaries of Najaf and Karbala on Iraqi soil, the Shia clerics have had great say over the life of the Shia community.
3. Over the past few weeks, we've seen what appears to be a resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq. Why is this happening now?
The sectarian violence is precisely what the Arab Sunni jihadists have sought to trigger, in alliance with the Saddamists. Last February, they attacked the sacred Shia mosque in Samarra. The result was predictable: The Shia were drawn into the fight. And now the Shia have extremists of their own, and death squads and avengers – the boys of Moqtada al-Sadr in the slums of Baghdad.
4. Is there any hope for Sunnis and Shia to live together peacefully in a democratic Iraq? Or is the ultimate solution some way of separating them into different states—as Senator Joe Biden has proposed?
In the long run, the Sunnis and the Shia are doomed to live together. In the past Iraqis prided themselves on the high rate of inter-marriage between Sunnis and Shia – Sushi is the label so many of these people go by, for wit. Partition will not work. Baghdad can't be divided, and the Sunnis would be stranded in regions without oil. I have great respect for Senator Biden and have talked with him at great length over the years about Iraq and other Middle Eastern subjects, but he is off target here.
5. Two Shiite mosques and five Shiite-owned businesses in Detroit were vandalized earlier this month. The head of the Michigan Council on American-Islamic Relations said that many in the community believe it was an attack by Sunnis, though this hasn't been proven. Is there also a Sunni-Shia divide among Muslims in the United States?
There is a Sunni-Shia divide in Detroit, in Amsterdam, wherever Muslims live, alas. Detroit because of the automotive industry, and the history of labor migration by poor Lebanese Shia, may have a Shia majority, though of course in the Muslim world as a whole the Shia are a minority.
6. Qatar recently held a conference intended to bring Sunnis and Shia closer together. How do you think sectarian fighting can be curbed in Iraq and elsewhere? Does it require a military or a political solution?
The conference in Qatar is o.k. as far as it goes. The problem is that there is in Qatar a very hugely influential Sunni cleric, of Egyptian background, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who is fairly strict and not given to kind thoughts about the Shia. The answer is both cultural and political: The Sunni Arabs will have to accept the claims of the Shia; for their part, the Shia must, with time, rid themselves of the attitude of opposition that has marked their history.
7. We know that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, honorable people. But what do you say to people who ask why almost every terrorist is a Muslim?
I say there is a painful truth here, and that one of the Arab world's most influential and liberal journalists, the Saudi Abdulrahman al-Rashed, head of Al-Arrabiya television channel based in Dubai, bluntly observed that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all (most?) terrorists are Muslims. What is clear and indisputable is that violence and terror are on the loose in Islamic lands – and in Islamic communities in the West – and that it has religious support given it by free-lance preachers who have bent the faith to their own interpretation.
8. What motivates Islamic extremism? Is it repressive governments—the lack of democracy—as the president has said? Is it economic disadvantage?
Economic disadvantage is part of the story, but that interpretation misses a lot. The boys of 9/11 (the Egyptian Mohamed Atta, the Lebanese Ziyad Jarrah who piloted the plane forced down in Pennsylvania on that sad day) were not poor. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden come from aristocracy and a merchant dynasty, respectively. It is, in part, the will to power, and a belief that Islam – as interpreted by these men – ought to prevail.
9. We seemed to have much of the Islamic world on our side in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Why are we now so unpopular there? Is it just Iraq, or is it more than that?
Good question, but a seductive one. We did not have the Muslim world on our side after 9/11. Huge numbers of Muslims believed we got our comeuppance on that day, while others were embarrassed. Iraq complicated our lives, but the American position in Islamic lands was never brilliant to begin with. We befriend the rulers in the Arab world, and we are caught in the crossfire between the rulers and populations that resent them but can't overthrow them. We are the perfect scapegoat for every problem under the sun. Anti-Americanism is the weapon of mass distraction, a clever man once said.
10. What is the biggest misconception Americans have about Islam?
People think that Islam is on the boil, overly political. But for the vast majority not caught up in radicalism and sectarian violence, it is a faith that provides solace and comfort, people still go on pilgrimage, give alms to the poor, turn to Islam for meaning, for a bit of shade, if you will, in a turbulent Islamic world. From Indonesia in the east to Morocco in the Western-most land of Islam, there are 1.2 billion Muslims. There is fanaticism among a dangerous minority, and ordinary life for the vast, silent majority.