Sunnis versus Shi’ites explained … sort of.

By now, you’ve probably hear about some ruckus in Iran. Or maybe Iraq. Yes, that’s it, Iraq. I always get those two confused. And if you think that’s confusing, just wait until I get to today’s topic, the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

You may be asking yourself, ‘Why the hell should I care about Iraq (or possibly Iran) and the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis?’ Fair point. As my son always says, if something doesn’t impact him directly, he doesn’t care about it. I think that pretty well sums up 21st century young people’s thinking.

So, to make this marginally more interesting, I’ll give you two reasons why the battle for Iraq (I think we can settle on Iraq, right?) is of interest to you.

1. Terrorism. Here’s the thing about Middle East-brand sectarian hatred: they’re not content to keep their hatreds in-house.  Africa has all sorts of awful stuff happening (remember those kidnapped school girls that all the celebrities were so angry about for a while? Whatever happened to them, anyway?). But they pretty much keep to themselves, which we appreciate. But the Middle East isn’t content to keep battling it out in their little corner of the world. They want to expand their terrorism, even if we in the west aren’t really interested. And that’s why, when you’re flying from Saskatoon to Edmonton, you have to take off your shoes at the airport. See how it all comes together?

2. Oil. They have oil, and we need oil. But Maurice, I hear you say, we have our own oil right here in Alberta. We don’t need no stinking Middle East oil. True, but then there’s trouble brewin’ in any oil producing Middle East hotspot, the price of gas at the pumps here goes up. There’s no actual connection between our oil and theirs, but it provides the Big Oil monopoly with just enough of an excuse to jack up the price a dime or so. That, of course, and an impending long weekend.

So, there you have it: getting a pat down at the airport and getting screwed at the pumps. Two valid reasons why the feudin’ and a-fussin’ in Iraq matters to you.

So, on to Iran. Things have gotten so hairy over there, that the average Iraqi is pining for the good old days of the enlightened, stable leadership of Saddam Hussein. Yes, it’s that bad.

It seems an upstart terrorist group of radical Sunnis going by the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) came out of nowhere (probably Syria) and launched a very successful attack on a number of Iraqi cities. (Just to confuse matters further, ISIS is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. It appears that ISIS is now the favoured acronym, probably because it sounds just like the spy agency on the hilarious cartoon, Archer. Or, maybe not.) The Iraqi army, expertly trained and financed by the United States army, ran and hid like Frenchmen when ISIS attacked. Now, ISIS has control of a number major Iraqi cities. And, thanks to the fact that they did a little bank robbing while taking over cities, it is rumoured that they have somewhere around $400 million to spend on whatever cool new weapons they can buy. All cash deals, under the table.

ISIS doesn’t want much, only the complete realignment of the map of the Middle East. ISIS wants to create a cross border ‘caliphate’, encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq. If redrawing boundaries sounds just a little arrogant, history provides a classic example of Western arrogance. In 1916, France and Britain decided to redraw the map of the Middle East to suit their needs. A British diplomat literally drew a line down a map of the Middle East, dividing Syria and Iraq. Now, that’s arrogance.

Anyway, back to my starting point, the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis. It seems they’ve been at odds with each other for a little while — 1,382 years to be exact. I wish I could say I’m making this up, but I’m not.

Back in 632, after the Prophet Muhammad (no photo available) died, Muslims disagreed over who should succeed him. One side favoured a family member, Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. The became known as the Shiat Ali, or Shi’ites. (If they had any sense of humour, they would have called themselves Holy Shi’ites!) Another faction favoured leadership by consensus, and they became known as Sunnis (about 90 per cent of the world’s Muslims today are Sunnis). Ali eventually won the debate, but it didn’t go well — he was assassinated in 661, leading to war between the two groups.

Yes, 661. Sunnis and Shi’ites, both groups Muslim, have been at odds since 661. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to reconcile two groups who have been peeved at each other for more than 1,300 years, should it?

As you can see, it’s all very confusing; even Winston Churchill couldn’t remember who was who. All of this would have been so much easier to understand if the two groups just had different names, like Protestants and Roman Catholics did in the bad old days of ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, another example of two groups killing each other in the name of the same god.

Where will it all end, you may ask. It probably won’t. After 13 centuries of grudges and slights and wars and massacres and scores to settle, chances of it ending any time soon seem as unlikely as, well, Shi’ites and Sunnis making nice. Ultimately, I think it will end up costing us another 10 cents at the pumps.

 

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