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Ear to the Ground

Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?

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Posted on Oct 19, 2006
Clueless in D.C.
Composite: Blair Golson

Perhaps Alicia Silverstone would be a more appropriate choice to prosecute the so-called war on terror.

Many of the elected officials and law enforcement heads playing leading roles in America’s counter-terrorism fight still don’t know the difference between Iraq’s two main religious groups.

That’s like British counter-terrorism officials not knowing the difference between Irish Catholics and Protestants.


N.Y. 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?

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.

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By Bukko in Australia, December 21, 2006 at 5:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mate, you’re asking me? I’m an Anglo-Saxon. I sometimes take care of Muslim patients at my hospital, but they dress like other Aussies. If you ever want to know something, Google it! Type in “diffeences between Sunnis and Shias” and you’ll have more info than you know what to do with. Too bad U.S. Congressmen, including this Democrat Reyes who’s been appointed to head the House Intelligence Committee, can’t do that. (Reyes didn’t know either—three months after this story came out!)

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By jim padden, December 20, 2006 at 11:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

thanks burrco. but I need more. Do sunni and shia have different dress, hair style, head wear??  How easily can they hid their sect?

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By Bukko in Australia, December 8, 2006 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m not Muslim, but I’ve read a bit about the issue, and here’s what I’ve picked up. Prejudice between Sunnis and Shiites is deeply engrained, as it used to be between Protestants and Catholics. Remember how they used to butcher each other in the Hundred Years’ War, the French massacres of the Hugenots, etc. Sadly, even though there was distaste between the Muslim sects before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was not the same level of everyone vs. everyone else violence that we see now.

One of the easiest ways or killers to tell is by a person’s name. Shiites tend to be named after revered figures from their side of the sectarian divide. If your given name is Hussein and you’re stopped at a roadblock up by a Sunni death squad, you can expect an electric drill bit through the eyeball. Surnames can also provide a clue.

There are apparently differences in pronunciation of some words and phrases, especially religious verses. Imagine that, if your life depended on the way you said a prayer! Religious icons are also a dead giveaway (morbid pun intended.) That matters in a society that’s very religious and where people like to show which side they’re on. I have seen news stories that also say a person’s sect is mentioned on official identity cards. Not an easy way to live, when your brand of religion is that crucial and that hard to conceal.

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By jim padden, December 8, 2006 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How do sunni’s tell the difference from shiite.  Do they have different cloths??  Same basic people but can you tell one from another walking down the street??

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By American Soldier, Para, October 24, 2006 at 10:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When I was taking incoming fire, me and my men, responded with the best American answer, the shia stop’s here,buddy!
  Give me a break, it matter’s to them, only to the goon’s bent on chaos, revenge, murder.
  Our Warrior’s, need to be given a better plan , we all agree, in the meantime,#29737, I’m not rich, but I’m not afraid of a coffee spill, either. All of the hippies, drunk’s in Congress, haven’t solved anything, never have, never will.
  Take’s a better plan than Pres. Bush’s, Rummy, we all agree, ya think. Time to cut our loss’s, regroup, go after the terrorist that are the real enemies of this country!
  I’m proud of my service, my brother’s,on the front line’s. I hope our people get a new direction, military leader’s will speak out and get this mess straightened out.
  We fought a bloody ,horrific civil war. Did England, France interfere? and the hate and loathing continued for generation’s. Even in the North, people soured on dying for Lincoln’s war. Read ya history, before ya run ya mouth, did God favor either side? Did the South run out of Men?Supply’s,they were starving, the North had the blockade ,it’s called a seige. It took many year’s, deadliest war in American history, and changed us forever. Have we ever recovered? Did we learn anything?
  Is Iraq in a civil war? Who’s supplying the militia’s? Is there safety in being Sunni, living in Baghdad? Maybe in the green zone, yeah right, it’s about internal force’s , seem’s to most, causing the violence. Yes, there are terrorist cell’s there, and we’ve wounded them, killed many of them.
  The Bush admin, still doesn’t see this as civil war, are they right? Have the retired General’s told the truth about Sec. Rumsfeld’s refusal to do it their way, after all they were the one’s in command on the ground! Lot’s to consider, and in the meantime, my buddie’s are in a hostile place, have you been there? I have and it’s a shame if we just leave it to the f—kin thug’s there. Because when you smack ‘em in da face, they fall. They are murderer’s, rapist, and they hope the American’s will run scared, f—k ‘em, we’ll leave with our face’s toward’s the Enemy. When that day happen’s we’ll march out Proud! We did all anybody could do and more, we held up the American virtue, we stood up to evil and tried to protect the innocent Iraq’s. We didn’t make the policy, we take order’s, salute and march on!  Airborne!

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By Joel, October 21, 2006 at 10:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In this world we could put a large number of people together. Somehow neutralize all of the religious and racial info they had been programed with and they would get along pretty well.

Turn the switch back on and let them know the other peoples beliefs and the fight would be on .

How bizarre, why do we let ourselves be programed by those with evil and selfish agendas.

The older I get the more I know how little I understand about the human species

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By Ron Vermette, October 20, 2006 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Iraquis seem to have no problem recognizing who’s who. It is strange that the American media seems to have no interest in finding out from them what they want(apart from us leaving their country, of course}.

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By Guitarsandmore, October 20, 2006 at 8:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The point no one is addressing here is that if you burst into a room with your AK 47 and your body armor looking for terrorists you could not possibly tell a Sunni from a Shiite just by looking at them.  Nor could you tell if they were a member of Al Queada.

These differences are religious and philosophical not physical.

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By Bukko in Australia, October 19, 2006 at 10:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I can tell! A dispute over the line of succession to the Prophet, with the Sunnis winning and the Shiites having their man Hussain slaughtered by the victorious faction. That’s why the Shiites carry a grudge to this day, and the Sunnis are as worried about them as much as they are about us infidels.

I read a good book about the history of Islam (up to the late 50s when it was authored) written by someone who was sympathetic to the faith but not sycophantic. Quite the bloody religion, but the same can be said about Christianity. That’s why I know why the U.S. is following in the footsteps of Hulagu. Does anyone know what’s REALLY in the Kaaba?

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By Frank Goodman, Sr., October 19, 2006 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When I was growing up and becoming interested in politics and government, I often encountered the question, “What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?” I did not know, and my father could not tell me. My mother had a simplistic explanation and my older brother said that they were the same.

I was likewise confronted by questions like, “What is the difference between Baptists and Methodists?” And other religion comparisons. Most people could not identify what they mean by the different names for different denominations of Christians, let alone the difference between the schools of Islam, or of Judaism.

Then the difference between communism and socialism was demonstrated by naming USSR and Sweden. Sweden was socialist and good, while USSR was communism and bad.

Now I know that Democrats are for tax and tax, spend and spend. Republicans are for give tax breaks to the rich and to hell with the poor.

The actual difference between Shiite and Sunni goes to a disagreement as to who should succeed the prophet as caliph. A few trivial rituals and some clothing differences and who is boss of all Muslims in matters of faith and law round out the actual differences. The essence of Islam is not in question, but trivial pursuit goes on.

Now let us find the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant Episcopal.

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By Colonel, October 19, 2006 at 12:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How do the Sunni and Shiite square Islamic schism with the Prophet’s clear injunction against sects?

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By coffee brown, October 19, 2006 at 9:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the architects of 911, white supremacist billionaires who think they can torture and disappear me for saying so, don’t care about sunni or shia. they’re killing little brown people, filling up their SUV’s and farting prime rib all the doo dah day.
oh, by the way, rich white boys-I AM NOT AFRAID>

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