We’re in Deep Shiite

UPDATED: Jeff Stein, national security editor at the wonderful Congressional Quarterly, has a terrifying Op-Ed in the New York Times:

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?

Then he asks Willie Hulon, Chief of the FBI’s brand new National Security Bureau, this question:

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.’


Al Qaeda? ‘Sunni.’



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.’

Mr. Everett is considered a shoo-in for re-election this November in his district of Alabama.

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

‘Do I?’ she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. ‘You know, I should.’ She took a stab at it: ‘It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.’

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?

‘Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,’ she replied. ‘I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.’

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?

‘Oh, I think it’s very important,’ said Ms. Davis, ‘because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.’

Al Qaeda must be Sunni because they are more radical… oh. my. God. You don’t have to be an Islamic scholar, lady, but if someone said the IRA must be Catholic because they’re more radical, well, that’s what you just said.

Clap… clap…. clap…. oh, bravo.

If I were one the CIA spooks who had to testify to this woman about recruiting spies in the Islamic world, I’d go straight to the CIA cafeteria and get recruited into the private sector. Same work, but better pay. Good chance of less testifying, too.

Jo Ann Davis is heavily favored against her Democratic challenger Shawn O’Donnell in Fredericksburg, Maryland, and has ten times as much money raised. You can read more of Jeff Stein’s interview with her, including her thoughts on CIA reform, here.

UPDATE: Radar Magazine has a great rundown of Americas Dumbest Congressmen, which doesn’t include Davis or Everett. Classic. Is Radar supposed to be the new Spy Magazine?

The Discussion: 10 Comments

Good Gawd, y’all! There is no excuse for such ignorance , especially in our elected officials. 15 minutes of Googletime would give these dolts at least a small modicum of understanding. Lazy b*sturds are too busy chasing money. Oneword: Electionfinancereform

October 18, 2006 @ 1:09 am | Comment

Holy crap. I know this, more or less. I thought it was bad when I had to explain to a studio executive that you won’t find Shia in Al Qaeda. BUT THAT WAS FOR A MOVIE!!!

October 18, 2006 @ 1:13 am | Comment

Holy crap, that’s scary, especially this far into the stupid war. That’s just like Paul Wolfowitz saying before the war that Iraq doesn’t have any important religious sites like Mecca so we won’t have any religious conflicts “after the war.” Idiots.

October 18, 2006 @ 1:51 am | Comment

Terry Everett is considered shoe-in? Don’t you mean a shoo-in? (Unless you’re going to kick someone into office.)

October 18, 2006 @ 2:36 am | Comment

@R Tapp: I dub thee unofficial PKD copy editor and defender of the lexicon. Good catch.

October 18, 2006 @ 4:16 am | Comment

Makes me think of brilliant bit on Saturday Night Live, where Will Forte illustrates the differences among Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds…in song. Turns out Tom Cruise and toasters are Kurds.
Sunni, Shia, Sunni, Shia, Sunni Shia Kurd Kurd Kurd

October 18, 2006 @ 5:20 am | Comment

FYI, an excellent primer on the Shia/Sunni differences can be found at http://www.slate.com/id/2105120/

October 18, 2006 @ 10:51 am | Comment

Hey Kevin, thanks for the link – a great way to get some perspective on the internal conflicts within Islam.

One gets the feeling that Islam (and its Shia/Sunni divisions) is where Christianity was 200 years ago. Discounting the whole Ireland issue, as I think we’ve long given up on that being a Protestant/Catholic issue.

October 18, 2006 @ 2:49 pm | Comment

Fredericksburg, Maryland? Do you mean Fredericksburg, Virginia?

October 19, 2006 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

I was doing a google search this a.m. re: differences in Sunni and Shiite, for my own personal understanding as a citizen of this country. I am so glad I found this article by Jeff Stein of the Herald Tribune. It is unbelievable that these people in powerful positions are not only “not informed” of vital facts concerning their so-called “positions in government”; but, obviously don’t care.
If anyone can forward me the e-mail address of Jeff Stein, it would be appreciated.
Joy Radford

October 25, 2006 @ 9:19 pm | Comment

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