NEW YORK -- A British officer was being interviewed during a BBC News broadcast last Tuesday morning about a cease-fire he said had been negotiated by "village elders" in southern Afghanistan with local Taliban forces. Good news that, I thought.
But then the newsman asked: "How do you know the elders are not the Taliban?"
Well, said the soldier, the elders had assured him they were not. Right.
Then there was the op-ed page of The New York Times that same morning. A column by Jeffrey Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, reported that he had been asking officials in Washington to explain the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. None could. The chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's new national security branch told Stein that Iran was a Sunni nation and Hezbollah was a Sunni force.
Oh, my Allah! It was a bad way to start the day. We have no idea what we're doing, I thought. I remembered the first time I was in Vietnam and leaving Tan Son Nhut airport, moving into a sea of Vietnamese on bicycles, thousands of them. They all looked alike to this naive Westerner. I wondered who ever thought we could beat these people, or save them, depending on your viewpoint, when we couldn't even tell them apart.
I also remembered a conversation I had in Pakistan in the 1980s about a young writer who has since become a high government official. I was asking about his education and his political views, rattling on until the man I was questioning, a general in the army, cut me off, saying: "He's a Shia! That's all you need to know."
Left unsaid was that I knew nothing.
Living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan for several months because of my wife's work among refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, I had to make it my business to learn what I could about the many differences among Muslims. More than once I read the Holy Quran, which I interpreted as a rather fiercer version of the Holy Bible. And like the Bible, the Quran's wisdom and guidance is in the eye and faith of the beholder.
I asked everyone I met after that about the differences between Sunni and Shia -- Pakistan is 75 percent Sunni, Iran is 90 percent Shia, Iraq is 60 percent Shia -- often drawing vehement and bigoted answers. The two largest branches of Islam have been engaged in religious civil war for centuries, often supplementing their arguments with clubs and guns.
For whatever it is worth, this was my conclusion:
The great bodies of Islam divided over succession to the Prophet Muhammad after his death in A.D. 632. Further dispute developed after the death of the fourth caliph ("successor"), the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali. The Shia line ended in 873 with the death or disappearance of the Twelfth Imam ("leader"). The "Hidden Imam" became an omnipresent symbol in Shia Muslim, to the point that "We are waiting for you, Twelfth Imam" was a slogan in the Iranian revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
But in Sunni Islam there are no imams or ayatollahs, only local maulanas or mullahs. In that way, Shia Islam, something like Roman Catholicism, is a hierarchical religion, while Sunni Islam has more ambivalent and inconsistent lines of power, something like Protestantism. No Sunni leader can collect the dedicated and believing following of a Shia ayatollah.
One more thing: Sunnis are the majority Islamic branch (more than 80 percent), and Shiites tend to be poorer and see themselves as oppressed by their Sunni brethren.
I have obviously simplified all this enough to outrage any thinking Muslim. Millions of men have been arguing -- and going to war -- over these differences for centuries. I have also ignored the hundreds of sects, from the Ahmadis to Ismailis to Kurdish Sunnis.
But ignorance is the theme of this column and the reason we were doomed to failure in Vietnam, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Going back to the British soldiers celebrating their ceasefire in southern Afghanistan, I assume, or hope, that our valiant allies understand that this is poppy planting season there, and the Taliban does not have the time or manpower to fight when they are preparing to produce next season's opium for its journey to drug addicts in the Europe and the United States.
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