From the 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?”
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? (...)
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?
My curiosity about our policymakers’ grasp of Islam’s two major branches was piqued in 2005, when Jon Stewart and other TV comedians made hash out of depositions, taken in a whistleblower case, in which top F.B.I. officials drew blanks when asked basic questions about Islam. One of the bemused officials was Gary Bald, then the bureau’s counterterrorism chief. Such expertise, Mr. Bald maintained, wasn’t as important as being a good manager. (...)
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.”
Al Qaeda? “Sunni.”
AND to his credit, Mr. Hulon, a distinguished agent who is up nights worrying about Al Qaeda while we safely sleep, did at least know that the vicious struggle between Islam’s Abel and Cain was driving Iraq into civil war. But then we pay him to know things like that, the same as some members of Congress.
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.”
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.”
It’s not all so grimly humorous. Some agency officials and members of Congress have easily handled my “gotcha” question. But as I keep asking it around Capitol Hill and the agencies, I get more and more blank stares. Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night."
I would expect any counterterrorism official who works on the Middle East at all to know not just the basic 'who's on what side?' question, but the more difficult 'what's the difference?' question. (Answer, given without checking: the Shi'a split off from the Sunnis very early on, over the question of the succession to the Caliphate. The fact that the Shi'a candidates lost has given them an affinity to martyrdom somewhat akin to that provided to Christians by the example of Christ's crucifixion. The Sunni basically accept the Shari'ah, or Islamic law, as handed down through generations of Muslims, along with various sayings (haditha) and so on. The Shi'a are split into a variety of sects (Sevener, Twelver, etc.), but tend to be more hierarchical than the Sunnis. They also accept different versions of the non-Qur'anic texts (haditha etc.) Neither is 'more radical' than the other, since both have moderate and radical factions.)
But surely anyone in anything remotely resembling a position of authority over such things should know such basic facts as: that Iran and Hezbollah are Shi'a, while al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, most Palestinians, etc., are Sunni. They should also know that several of the Gulf States have sizeable Shi'a minorities who have for the most part not been fully included politically, and that one possible result of the increasing power and radicalization of Shi'a Muslims is that these minorities might become restive. And of course they should know that Iraq is split between Shi'a and Sunni, with the latter further divided between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds; and thus that Iranian influence over at least some parts of the Shi'a population is hard to avoid, even given the fact (which they should also know) that relations between the Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a have not always been particularly smooth.
I mean: this is Middle East 101. Everyone who is in a position to make or oversee our foreign policy or our counterterrorism efforts should know it. In a sane world, the fact that they don't would be flatly unacceptable.