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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