Jeff Stein wrote in NYT 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?”
The split occured immediately following the death of Mohammed, and related to who should be his successor. Shias feel that Imam Ali, cousin of the Prophet, husband of his daughter Fatima, father of Hassan and Hussein and the second person ever to embrace Islam. should have been the first caliph and that the caliphate should pass down only to direct descendants of Mohammed via Ali and Fatima. Sunnis gave their allegiance to Abu Bakr, who lead prayers in prophet's mosque in the last few days of prophet's life, as the first caliph because they felt his old age would be a wiser choice to the young Ali.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?
They all want power. Iranian Shias want Tehran to be the center of the world caliphate; Iraqi Shias want Bagdad to be the center, The Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) want it to be Egypt, the Wahabbis (Sunni) want it to be Mecca. Everyone wants power.After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants?
They would, but the conflict is really about independence. Most of Ireland is Catholic, and the Protestants in Northern Ireland fear being a minority in a Catholic Ireland, and so want to remain a part of Britain, which is Protestant.In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.