From my previous post (Here), I got a bunch of questions emailed to me. I’ll do my best to answer some of the more common ones, though I admit that I’m not a Middle East or Islamic expert. My answers comes from research on my own, my own interest in the area and people, my 13 year study of the Arabic language and from Arab and Muslim friends. In my previous post, I tried to stick to facts only, not offering my opinion on things. I’ll try to do the same here, though maybe I’ll throw in some opinion in a future blog entry.
Question: What is the difference between Sunni and Shia?
For the answer to this question, you have to go back to the foundation of Islam. When Mohammed died in 632A.D., he had conquered and converted most of the Arabian peninsula and had established the first Islamic Caliphate (theocratic empire). Upon his death, there arose a bit of a power struggle over who would take control of the empire. One side (those who would become the Sunni sect), wanted Mohammed’s disciples and those close to him to take control. The other side (those who would become the Shia sect) felt only those who in Mohammed’s family had the authority to lead Muslims (In Arabic, it is البيت أهل or ahl al-bayt, literally “The Family House” or “the People of the House”). The root of the split lies in who is considered worthy to lead all Muslims. Essentially, the Sunni’s believe that leaders can be elected, the Shi’ites believe they are appointed by Allah from within the family lineage of Mohammed. There are more difference between the two, but line of succession is the fundamental root of the difference, This of course then leads to differences of whose teachings (hadiths) are considered worthy of inclusion as having come from Allah and must be followed. Which over the past 1400 years has led to some substantial differences in viewpoints.
It’s important to note that while there is a very vocal Shia population, the Shia sect accounts for only about 10-12% of all Muslims. Sunni’s are the overwhelming majority throughout the Middle East, though many leaders have effectively used the split to their advantage in different ways. Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni, often “played up” Iraq’s Sunni minority as being the rightful majority in Iraq, to stir up the Sunni population against the Shia (particularly against Shia dominated Iran).
Question: Which side (Sunni or Shia) are the “violent” group? / So, which side are the terrorists?
Neither and both. There are groups within both sects that are violent and/or terrorist groups and factions within both that are not. It’s like asking whether Republics or Democrats are the extremists…there are certainly extremist elements within the Republican party that have bombed abortion clinics and violent extremists on the Democratic side of things (e.g., extremist environmentalists attacking fishing boats). Like most things, it comes down to individuals.
That being said, most of what we call “terrorist groups” are Sunni, but the breakdown is pretty similar to the ~90% – ~10% split between Sunni and Shia anyway. But to say one side is good, and the other side is bad is a gross generalization.
Does IS stand a real chance of accomplishing it’s goal of a caliphate?
Yes and no. Will they be able to accomplish their goal of taking all Muslim lands and people under their leadership? No. Their stated goal is to conquer all of the Middle East (including a nuclear equipped Israel), all of Arabia, all of North Africa, northwest into Turkey (and they have even claimed as far as Rome), east all the way China (including a Iran and and a nuclear powered Pakistan and India) and then into the Pacific islands of Indonesia and the Philipines. That pretty much can’t happen.
But can they carve out a piece of land that they control indefinitely from Iraq and Syria? Probably. There is very little to stop them actually. The Iraqi government doesn’t have the cohesion to put up a serious fight. The EU doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, and the US is so war weary that putting boots on the ground to fight them doesn’t seem likely. If no one takes the fight seriously to them, when they have shown that they are willing and capable to fight, then they will not go away on their own.
The general consensus is that the Kurdish Peshmerga will probably stop them, with the help of US airstrikes, from taking over the Kurdish lands in northern Iraq, but with the momentum from Iraq, it could lead to a more serious attack on the Syrian government’s power in Damascus. Whether they take Syria or not, they will probably still have a sizable chunk of Iand (they currently hold about roughly 30% of Iraq). They are well funded by looting, but also by oil sales and from wealthy benefactors in other Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, U.A.E). They could easily setup a “safe zone” for training and recruiting. They will get bombed occasionally by Iraqi and US forces, but that happened in Afghanistan when bin Laden was there and they learned to live with it.