For the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”
A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?
The news is not good. According to Jeff Stein, the national security editor of the Congressional Quarterly and the interlocutor responsible for the NYT op-ed quoted above, most intelligence and law enforcement officials--and members of Congress--don't know the basics: who are the players, and what do they want?
To his credit, [one clueless Senator who couldn't answer when asked] 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.”Um, yeah.
Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite? Jeff Stein, The New York Times, October 17, 2006