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Late Nite FDL: Let’s Talk About Sects

al askari mosque

(Al Askari Mosque, Samarra, Iraq, before and after the bombing of February, 2006)

Something that enabled the Bush administration to foist its illegal invasion of Iraq on the public and has deeply complicated its execution has been widespread ignorance on the part of Americans about the political, cultural, and religious history of the region and the true nature of the relationships between the main ethnic and religious groups on the ground.  

Via Raw:

Former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith is claiming President George W. Bush was unaware that there were two major sects of Islam just two months before the President ordered troops to invade Iraq, RAW STORY has learned.


A year after his “Axis of Evil” speech before the U.S. Congress, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans, one of whom became postwar Iraq’s first representative to the United States. The three described what they thought would be the political situation after the fall of Saddam Hussein. During their conversation with the President, Galbraith claims, it became apparent to them that Bush was unfamiliar with the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites.

Galbraith reports that the three of them spent some time explaining to Bush that there are two different sects in Islam–to which the President allegedly responded, “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!”

I read that and snorted through my nose.  But then I realized that if someone asked me to explain the difference between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, I wouldn't be able to tell you much more.  So, I enlisted the aid of up and coming young blogger Jebediah from the excellent blog Foreign Policy Watch to give us a primer on what our President was too busy riding his bike and clearing brush to learn before he launched his cataclysmic war.

From FP Watch:

The division dates back to the time after Muhammad's death in 632, in the area which is now known as Saudi Arabia, when the next leader of the Muslim nation had yet to be decided. One group of people (who would later become known as the "Shiites") believed that the ruler should be a member of the prophet's family, while another group (who would later be called the "Sunnis") believed that Muhammad’s successor should be chosen from amongst those who were most qualified. While Shiites desired the succession of Muhammad’s cousin “Ali” as the next leader, Sunnis opted for “Abu Bakr,” a close friend to the prophet. The Sunnis quickly prevailed and Abu Bakr was installed as Muhammad's successor.

To break it down and possibly over-simplify it, the Shiia follow the bloodline of Mohammed and the Sunnis follow the Qur'an and the Hadith, a sacred Muslim text that details the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed.  Conflicts arose from this disagreement between the two sects culminating in a bloody civil war in 656.  Differences hardened and the religion formally split five years after the outbreak of the war.

Since the split, several religious differences have emerged between the two groups. Shiites, for example, have more of a formal religious hierarchy than Sunnis do. For Shiites, those who are descendants of the prophet are particularly important and are often looked to for spiritual and social guidance. For Iraq’s Shiite population, for example, the clerics Ayatollah Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr are prominent, influential figures because of their positions as descendants of Muhammad. In the picture, you’ll notice that both Sistani (in the banner to the left) and Sadr (right) wear black turbans around their heads, a symbol that shows lineage to the prophet.

For Sunnis, on the other hand, there does not exist the same religious hierarchy. To them, elevating descendants of the prophet to positions of power is an incorrect interpretation of the will of God. Instead, they hold the Qur'an and the teachings of Muhammad to be the primary sources of information on Islam. Shiites and Sunnis also disagree somewhat in their interpretation of certain passages of the Qur'an and the Hadith (the words and actions of Muhammad) and they also differ in the manner in which they pray.


Sunnis make up roughly 85% of the Muslim population in the world. In the Middle East, most countries have majority Sunni populations. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf states are all Sunni-dominated.

Shiites, on the other hand, maintain majorities in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Lebanon. Iran, in particular, has a very large population of Shiites. Over 60 million, in fact, which is more than in any other country in the world. In the map to the right, you'll notice that the light green Sunni-dominated areas cover far more territory than the dark green Shia-dominated areas.

Professor Juan Cole of Informed Comment
makes a very important point in this NPR interview from earlier this month.  For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sunnis and Shiites have lived in Iraq largely free of conflict.  It was our invasion of that country that inflamed the sectarian tensions and created an environment of chaos that has given birth to a Medieval bloodbath:

JC: The degree of rancor and hatred and sheer brutal violence that's going on in Iraq right now between Sunnis and Shiites is, I mean, I think you have to go back to the 1500's to find another period in which it was this bad. 

NPR: So, it sounds like the political aspirations of different powers within the region are exacerbating these theological and cultural differences between people, as is often the case in ethnic violence.

JC: Yeah, I don't think that people in Iraq are ultimately fighting over Sunnism and Shiism very much, now.  One prays with their hands at their side.  Another prays with their hands folded in front.  I don't think that people are killing each other over those kinds of minor differences.  They're killing each other because these religious ideologies are being marshalled in a quest for power.

In short, political operators in Iraq are cynically manipulating the faithful in order to further their own ends, rather like the GOP turning to the Christian Right whenever it needs to swell its election numbers and fill its coffers.  Some people may take exception to that characterization, but to my thinking it's a distinction of degree rather than intent.

Professor Cole says today:

PS I see a lot of pundits and politicians saying that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq have been fighting for a millennium. We need better history than that. The Shiite tribes of the south probably only converted to Shiism in the past 200 years. And, Sunni-Shiite riots per se were rare in 20th century Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites cooperated in the 1920 rebellion against the British. If you read the newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s, you don't see anything about Sunni-Shiite riots. There were peasant/landlord struggles or communists versus Baathists. The kind of sectarian fighting we're seeing now in Iraq is new in its scale and ferocity, and it was the Americans who unleashed it.

See Brian Uhlrich's comments on this, linking to Issandr El Amrani re the New York Times op-ed by Lee Smith. Contrast to this better overview in NYT recently.

I remember a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown observed Lucy filling Schroeder's head with a bunch of nonsense. He observed that it would take the poor guy 12 years just to unlearn all the silly things Lucy had taught him. It is the same with Americans and the Neocons on the Middle East.  (emphasis mine)

If we as bloggers, readers, and members of the public are going to push back against the gushing fountain of misinformation and ignorant rhetoric that spews forth from Pox News and The Glenn Beck Network, we owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can about what's really going on.  In my opinion, you can never be too rich or too well-informed. 

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