If the leaders of the United States don't understand the basic differences between Shiites and Sunnis, then what should one expect from the average American? A column in The New York Times by Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein is causing quite a ruckus on the Web. Stein says he has received more feedback on this piece than any other he has written. It is currently the NYT's most emailed articled. And Stein appeared on CNN Wednesday afternoon to discuss his piece.
To borrow an effective analogy made by Stein on CNN, what would Major League Baseball do if most people did not know the difference between Yankee fans and Red Sox fans? How many of you know which league they are in (National or American)? Do you know which cities they are based in? How's this for a curveball: Which team most recently won the World Series? Which team has won the most World Series?
To most of the people I interact with daily, these are easy questions. But to those who do not follow professional baseball, I would not expect them to know the answers. And that's perfectly fine because this is relatively useless information, at least by national security standards.
One would expect, though, that those in charge of Major League Baseball know the answers. And one would also expect the leaders of the United States and experts in the area of keeping our country safe from Islamic radicals to know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. Sadly, Stein found that key people involved in national security know little about the basic differences:
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.
A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protÃ©gÃ©s in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.
But so far, most American officials I've interviewed don't have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?
Stein goes on to cite the failure of an FBI chief and two members of Congress to know the difference between the two branches of Islam. So what is the media's role in this? They are hardly responsible for educating members of Congress and federal law enforcement officials on the basics of Islam.
But I would be curious to see if any of the major polling agencies are gearing up their call centers to find out how average Americans would answer that question. My guess is that they will fare little better than our nation's leaders. And that is the responsibility of the media.
Are journalists going to go beyond simply repeating the bland differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and doing some showing, not telling, in order to better educate the public? We would all, including members of Congress and FBI agents, be better off for it.