Thursday, October 19, 2006

Take the Test


Jeff Stein had a grimly humorous op-ed in Tuesday’s Times. “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” followed Stein around official Washington as he finished off several interviews by asking officials whether they knew the difference. Some did, but most greeted Stein’s query with a blank stare:

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.”

As Stein writes, Rep. Everett’s curiosity is commendable and refreshing; hopefully he brings those qualities to his job on the Hill every day as well. Still, I was feeling pretty superior to these poor Hill wonks who can’t be bothered to crack a book or get a briefing from the hundreds or thousands of authentic Middle East experts in the capital region.

So I took Stein’s test myself after having read the article, without looking at reference materials. Here’s what I know: The Sunni-Shi’a split developed after Muhammad’s death; the Shi’a accepted Hussein, who was Muhammad’s ... son-in-law? while Sunnis wanted to ... elect a new caliph? Have a hereditary succession?

I know that Shi’ite descendants of Muhammad are entitled to wear a black turban. The Shi’a have a persecution complex that centers on the martyrdom of Hussein. The Sunni have a superiority complex due superior numbers and control of Mecca.

The two sects pray differently, Sunnis with arms ... in front of them? and Shi’a with arms crossed over their chests—I think. But I couldn’t tell you for certain what the actual differences in philosophy between the two sects are, if any truly major differences even exist. My mind seems to focus on trivia such as turbans.

And this is from someone who has spent years studying Classical Arabic. It’s embarrassing.

How did you do?

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

1 comment:

PHKushlis said...

I did just fine on the test but I then taught Islam and Politics for several years. But your point about the ignorance of people who should know better is well taken.

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