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?
After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? 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.
But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?
The basics indeed. Imagine someone trying to understand modern American politics without being aware of the differences between evangelicalism and Protestant liberalism, or of the divisions within those groups. Or think of someone studying the American civil rights movement without knowing who Moses was, or ever having read the story of the Hebrews' flight from bondage in Egypt. They'd be able to understand the broad outlines of the movement, its goals and accomplishments, but wouldn't be able to appreciate the richness of Rev. King's and other leaders' rhetoric, or the way that so many Americans' consciences were convicted and moved to activism through their skillful appeals to common faith.
Similarly, if you have no idea who Ali or Husayn were, or how the story of their martyrdom and years of oppression by Sunni rulers animates Shia politics, it's all just a bunch of dudes in robes.
This isn't to say that in-depth study of Islamic history is a prerequisite for understanding Middle East politics, but a basic familiarity with it makes a huge difference. I think that one of the things preventing Americans from an accurate conception of politics in Arab societies is the idea, fostered by people like Peretz, Pryce-Jones, and Patai, that Arabs practice an arcane, inherently violent sort of tribalistic politics that our superior rational Western mindset cannot grasp. This is just nonsense. The politics within different societies may be driven by culturally specific stories and traditions, but that doesn't mean that the politics of those societies should be incomprehensible to us. The notion that "they don't think like we do" is itself a form of racism, coming as it so often does in the guise of "hardheaded, clear-eyed analysis." Politics, in my opinion, to a great extent, is politics. But I digress...
In any case, it certainly shouldn't be too much to expect that the head of a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.'s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information should know the difference between Sunni and Shia.