In August 2006, Peter Galbraith, the former ambassador to Croatia, revealed that in the run-up to invading Iraq President Bush did not know that Muslims in the region were split into two sects, Shiites and Sunnis, and that these two sects had been in conflict for over a thousand years.
Now that the president has led United States forces into the middle of an escalating civil war between the two sects, you might think his Republican cohorts in Congress would have a basic knowledge of the issues that divide the two sides. If so, you would be wrong:
Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.
“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.
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.”
To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. “Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he replied, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”
Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
“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.”
Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?
“Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” she replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”
Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?
“Oh, I think it’s very important,” said Ms. Davis, “because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.”
The schism between Shiites and Sunnis started with a conflict over succession of leadership after Mohammed departed the planet around 700 C.E.:
Sunnis have their historical roots in the majority group who followed Abu Bakr, an effective leader, as Muhammad’s successor, instead of his cousin and son-in-law Ali. The Sunnis are so named because they believe themselves to follow the sunnah or “custom” of the Prophet. Shi’ites are those Muslims who followed Ali, the closest relative of Muhammad, as Muhammad’s successor.
One take-away from the story of the schism between Shiites and Sunnis is that these are people who can hold a grudge of centuries. This would have been a factor for the president and the Republicans to have considered before we invaded and pissed them all off.