Um, one has 5 letters, and the other has 6?

This is among the scarier things I’ve read recently. It’s by Jeff Stein, the National Security editor at Congressional Quarterly:

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?


A few weeks ago, I took the F.B.I.’s temperature again. At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau’s new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “Yes, sure, it’s right to know the difference,” he said. “It’s important to know who your targets are.”

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. “The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following,” he said. “And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following.”

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran — Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. “Iran and Hezbollah,” I prompted. “Which are they?”

He took a stab: “Sunni.”

This entry was posted in Iraq. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Um, one has 5 letters, and the other has 6?

  1. Sounds dramatic, but is it?

    I read that article and, feeling ignorant, looked up both denominations. I am no wiser as regards the conflict.

    In Northern Ireland there are Catholics and Protestants. I think I know heaps about them: Henry VIII, hierarchy versus individualism and all that. But I can hardly relate that to the conflict in any useful way. Presumably British politicians and would-be peacemakers understand the difference between the two but how, actually, has it assisted them to resolve the conflict?

    Isn’t the essence of the matter that there are two groups who see themselves as different and see themselves as being in conflict and see a need to do the other side down? Once they have adopted those identities and accepted the need to defend and fight, it becomes self-fulfilling.

    So I conclude that there’s not much point in an outsider understanding the doctrinal ins and outs. The peacemaker’s need is to break the participants’ preoccupation with their mutual differences.

Comments are closed.