Don’t know your Islam?

Don't know your Islam?Jeff Stein, the national security editor for Congressional Quarterly, has been doing some brilliant reporting lately. Yet it’s all so simple. Ask the leaders of our nation, particularly those in positions of power in intelligence, national security and international affairs, to explain the basic differences between Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

In his latest piece, Stein takes on Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the recently appointed chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for his failure to understand even the most basic differences among Muslims. If we are to defeat Islamic extremists, it might help to know the differences, right? Check out this snippet:

Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism’s major players.

To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

A few months ago, Stein took on the Republican leaders in Congress in a widely discussed New York Times column. As I watched Stein on CNN, I wondered how well those interviewing Stein would answer the questions he poses to the politicians. How would the average religion reporter fare, or American reporters in the Middle East?

Kudos to The Washington Post for carrying this Reuters article on the CQ piece. The Post editors appropriately recognized it is big-time news when Congress’ designated top intelligence overseer doesn’t know basic differences in Islam.

The challenge of course is translating these Sunni-Shiite differences into everyday parlance. Ask simple, basic questions and include that simple, basic information. It won’t create news every single time, but it can’t hurt to ask and include the answers. Perhaps if every newscast and article on anything relating to Islam tagged the Muslims in the story by their school of thought, we would have a more informed electorate. At least it could help these poor politicians out a bit next time Stein corners them for an interview.

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  • Tyler Simons

    This is a scandal. Stein’s doing probably the most important work in the political press right now.

    As I watched CNN commentators interview Stein, I wondered how those being interviewed by Stein would answer the questions poised to the politicians.

    You mean “those interviewing,” right?

  • Jerry

    I would have thought it obvious that national politicians would have a one or two page cliff notes orientation to Islam including such details. But clearly that’s not the case for far too many. Given the state of the world today, I do agree that such ignorance needs to be highlighted until such politicians are shamed into learning a few things or perhaps face defeat in the next election for being so ignorant.

    It would be helpful to know a few more details, like the battle of Karbala happened in Iraq and that battle is alive today for many Muslims, especially Shi’a. But that is icing on the cake.

  • dpulliam

    Thanks Tyler for catching that typo.

  • Will

    As far as non-politicians go, I also think of how many writers I have seen depicting an Iranian character speaking “Arabic”.

  • Jim Dahlman

    I write a religion column for the Johnson City Press, a mid-size paper in northeast Tennessee. I ran this a couple of weeks ago. It’s pretty basic stuff when it comes to describing the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Even so, I received a number of comments, including several from people I know who are fairly knowledgeable, who said they finally “got” the differences between the two factions.

    It’s more than a little disturbing to realize that we’re investing so much effort and money — not to mention human lives — without even rudimentary understanding of the Iraqi crisis. How can we hope to work out any credible approaches?

    As for Reyes: Is it possible to impeach congressiional representatives?

  • Umar Abdullah

    “In his latest piece, Stein takes on Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the recently appointed chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for his failure to understand even the most basic differences among Muslims.”

    This problem exists with the majority of the American population, not just Rep. Silvestre. Perhaps the American media should make an Islam101 with the help of actual Muslims to help educate the country rather than keeping their country ignorant.

  • Sarah Webber


    Thanks for the article. I appreciate the reminder of how the divisions started.

  • albion


    At the very least, one could write to Nancy Pelosi strongly urging her to find someone qualified to head the committee.

  • Dennis Francis

    We tend to forget that traditional news no longer has information and the public interest as its top priority. Who am I kidding “Remember the Maine” was just as insipid as the New York Times’ drum beat to Operation Iraqi Freedom or as it was originally called Operation Iraqi Liberation. News and current events are simply another entertainment slot for the networks that are owned by mega corporations. The Pravda correspondent must be laughing uncontrollably as he reads the U.S. papers or watch the Television News.
    News has to make a profit. There is no profit in educating the public if it doesn’t boost ratings. NPR and Christian Science Monitor are still my sources for above-ground news. If I want the truth I watch the Daily Show.

    Much love to my blog brothers and sisters.