It’s been reported that when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were planning the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 someone cautioned Bush: “If we invade Iraq, we could be stirring up a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites.” Bush responded: “I thought they were all Muslims.”
There, in a nutshell, we have the heart of the problem that has plagued the United States and Western Europe for at least the last 20 years, namely a naïve, or overly simplistic, view of two key components of the Middle East’s ethnic and religious quandaries.
On the occasion of a U.S. military drone strike that killed Iranian Major Gen. Oassem Soleimani, a Shiite, the need for us in America to achieve a better understanding of the central divide among Muslims worldwide comes once again to the fore.
To all too many of us here in this country, “those people” — as they’re often referred to — are just “all Muslims,” aren’t they?
As a comparison, wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics swirled all across Europe in centuries past, and indeed not many years ago members of the two faiths were stoning or beating or actually shooting each other in the streets of Northern Ireland.
Thanks to courageous ecumenical dialog and peacemaking, relations between Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox Christians are today markedly improved over 19th- and 20th-century skirmishing.
Shiites and Sunnis have also had their periods of détente, and even friendly coexistence. However, in Syria and Iraq today, bitter theological and cultural differences have resurfaced and are responsible, in part, for a recent onslaught of internecine warfare in numerous towns and cities in Iraq.
But what of those differences between Sunnis and Shiites? Their points of discord go back all the way to the 7th century, when a schism over who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed broke followers of Islam into Sunnis and Shiites. Sunnis said Abu Bakr, the first caliph (ruler), was the rightful heir to Mohammed’s powers while Shiites looked to Ali, the Prophet’s son in law.
Both Sunnis and Shiites hold to “the five pillars of Islam”: (1) profession of faith in Allah, the one true God, (2) prayer five times daily, kneeling and prostrate, (3) alms giving, (4) fasting, especially during the feast of Ramadan, and (5) a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Sunnis, however, are more legalistic or some might say “fundamentalist” in their reading of the Koran. Shiites allow for more flexibility of interpretation.
A major division involves the status of religious leaders of the two sects. Sunnis look to clerics to lead them, but invest their clerics with no divinized power. Shiites, on the other hand, believe their imams are direct descendants of Ali, lead sinless lives and are immune to human error.
A third, and very consequential, component of Iraq is the Kurdish population. Kurds are predominantly Muslim (some following Sunni practice, some Shiite), though a minority of Kurds adhere to Christianity, either evangelical Protestant or Coptic rite Catholic.
The Kurds lean strongly toward a creation of their own territorial entity. That goal suffered a severe setback in October 2019 when President Donald Trump ordered U.S. troops that had been protecting the Kurds in Syria to withdraw.
And now, because of the drone strike on Soleimani, militant forces within the Shiite community, notably the terrorist groups Quds Force and Hezbollah, may be planning reprisals against U.S. troops and/or civilians — anywhere in the world.