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Thursday, October 30, 2014

What Is The Difference Between Sunni And Shia and Why Is It Important In The Struggle With ISIS?

Links: A. Difference Between Shia and Sunni
           B. Islamic State Version of Hearts and Minds

I have always been a strong advocate of educating soldiers beyond the skills necessary to kill.  I have had the good fortune to meet young men who are new to the service, and many have asked for advice.  I have never been a soldier, at least not in uniform, but I have been in enough zones of conflict in my CIA career, and I have had the distinction to have worked with Navy Seals, Special Forces, Airborne Units, and Humint Collection Teams.  My father was career army; he served in both Korea and Vietnam, earning three Purple Hearts.  My cousin Lonnie is a decorated R.O.T.C. instructor at an inner-city school in Dallas and someone truly worthy of admiration.  I am honored when members of the U.S. military
T. E. Lawrence
ask me for advice.  If you have the opportunity beforehand, learn everything you can about the enemy and the location to which you are being deployed; combat-zones don't normally come with fully stocked libraries.  Events in the last twenty years certainly suggest that the United States will be at war with Islamic Extremism for the indefinite future.  My suggestions are to learn about Islam; read the Quran if possible.  Chances are, sooner or later you will end up in a country full of Muslims.  They will respect you if you show that you have made an attempt to learn about their traditions and religion. Also, learn about your environment.  If I had a dime for every time I have  recommended "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence, I could buy myself a new camel.

For someone wanting to expand their knowledge of Islam without becoming a full-on scholar, let's start with the important stuff: the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  Shia Muslims constitute a majority only in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, with a sizable minority in Lebanon.  The difference between Sunni and Shia arose from the question of who should inherit the mantle of the Prophet following his death in 632.  The group who supported the claim of Abu Bakr, friend of the Prophet and father of the Prophet's wife Aisha, became the Sunni's choice.  The opposition believed the authority of the Prophet should belong to the nearest relation.  They argued that the Prophet had actually anointed Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor.  They became known as the "Shia", a contraction of "shiaat Ali" (the partisans of Ali).  The supporters of Abu Bakr won out, although Ali did rule for a short time as the fourth Caliph, the title given to Muhammed's successors.  The split became more or less permanent in 680, when Ali's son Hussein was killed by the ruling Sunni Caliph's troops in the Battle of Karbala.  From that point on, the Sunni became the more political of the two groups and believe their leader should be elected from those most capable, while the Shia look to their Imams for guidance and believe the Imam is appointed by the Prophet or God Himself.  It is estimated that eighty percent of Muslims are Sunni, and twenty percent are Shia.

Shia Muslims re-enact the Battle of Karbala [AP]
The issue of the inheritance of the Prophet's authority has never really faded away.  The date of the death of Hussein and his infant son at the hands of Sunnis in the Battle of Karbala is observed every year.  Sunnis consider the event to be a very tragic occurrence, while the Shia observe a period of mourning, which includes episodes of self-flagellation by the extremely pious.  It is a remarkable scene to behold.  Over the centuries, Sunni and Shia have fought side-by-side against Christian Crusaders and other enemies of the faith; but in the end, the split always reappears.  In Iraq, the Sunni have traditionally considered the Shia to be ignorant, farmer-types.  Central Iraq is home to Karbala, Hillah and Najaf, three cities considered Holy by the Shia.  During the first Gulf War, the Shia rose up in rebellion against Saddam Hussein.  To this day, U.S. President George Bush is criticized for not coming to the aid of the Shia, who were mercilessly butchered by Saddam (in reality, the Shia expected assistance from the Americans, given the invasion that had just occurred; they didn't consider the possibility that Bush wanted to keep Saddam in place in order to avoid a power vacuum).

The Islamic State of the Levant (ISIS, ISIL, or IS) was originally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda in Iraq.  This group raised havoc with U.S. forces for some time during Operation Enduring Freedom.  Zarqawi operated in mostly Sunni areas of Iraq, taking advantage of sympathy from fellow Sunnis.  In an effort to cause problems between Sunni and Shia and therefore destabilize the situation more, Zarqawi began targeting Shia political rallies.  He would then bomb the funeral ceremonies for the victims. The Sunni community of Iraq turned their back on Zarqawi and aided the U.S. efforts to destroy his organization.  Zarqawi himself was on the receiving end of a five hundred-pound bunker buster bomb, and the remnants of his organization fled to greener pastures in Syria.  Once it became apparent that the U.S. military would be leaving Iraq, they returned, only this time sporting a new name and mission.  The Islamic State of the Levant is dedicated to the creation of a Caliphate: a Sunni-religious State created from pieces of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon (I think; I haven't seen the latest incarnation).  The IS has been in a state of war with Shia Muslims since the days of Zarqawi, which explains why the Shia militias continue to accept hordes of volunteers (so many that the Iraqi Army is having trouble arming them).  I predicted that the IS would make Baghdad an important target because I can imagine how incensed its leadership must be to see a Shia-led government in office.  Also, Iraq is home to so many sensitive religious sites, it's not possible for the IS to focus exclusively on Syria.  One fact is certain: the Shia and the IS despise each other.  The United States and its allies should take full advantage of this reality.

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