Muslim Religious Differences Too Trivial to Pursue

Jeff Stein, the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, published an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times (available, alas, only to TimesSelect members) giving the results of his recent survey of counterterrorism officials. The survey has just one question: What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?

Stein was dumbfounded to learn that very few of his interviewees, who play important roles in intelligence and law enforcement communities and Congress, had any idea. And, as Stein writes, he wasn’t asking deep, theological questions, “just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?”

For those of you who might—like Trent Lott, who recently wondered, “Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me”—see this as a rarefied inquiry, here’s how Stein explains why it matters:

[T]he nature of the threat from Iran [Shiite], a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda [Sunni]. 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.

Hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites are on center stage in Iraq, and play an important role in Al Qaeda’s motivations. Perhaps if officials knew more about them, better policy would follow?

But one of Stein’s interviewees—the spokesman for the FBI—took the position that understanding the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite was akin to “memoriz[ing] the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be[ing] able to read Urdu [or] playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit.'”

If there’s a game comparison, shouldn’t it at least be Risk?