Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sunni vs. Shia (again)   posted by Razib @ 10/17/2006 06:11:00 PM

By now most of you have read The New York Times piece about the inability of some government officials and representatives to distinguish between Sunni & Shia Muslims. I can't say I'm that surprised. Steve Sailer has been saying for years the phonetic similarity is probably part of the problem. There are two major issues:

1) The substantive theological differences between Sunnis and Shias, and within Sunnis and Shias.

2) The distribution of the two groups.

If you don't know 2, click this map before reading on (this map is a general guidline, there are errors in it which I will point out below).

Who is Shia and who is Sunni isn't as simple as one might think. Consider that the map above labels Oman a Sunni nation, but it isn't, it is an alternative stream of Islam. Why does this matter? Well, if you assume that Oman is Sunni, and Saudi Arabia and Iran are looking to gain influence, one might assume Oman will automatically lean toward Saudi Arabia. The map is also fallacious insofar as Yemen has a significant Shia minority, but, these Shia are very similar to Sunnis in the spectrum of difference (e.g., the distance between Sunni and Ismaili is greater than Sunni between Twelver is greater than between Sunni and Zaydi). John Walker Lindh for example was confused when he went to Yemen and he wanted to go find a mosque to pray in where there were only Sunnis...when in Yemen Sunnis and Shia often pray together. Syria is dominated by a group called Alawites, who are sometimes defined as Shia. In fact, the clerics of the largest branch of Shia, the Twelvers (they dominate Iran, Iran, Lebanon and the Gulf) have recently recognized the Alawites as Twelvers. They aren't, this is a political move to give the Alawites more legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunni majority who they rule (Iran has traditionally allied with Syria in the games of geopolitics). In Turkey there is a related minority, also often defined as Shia, termed the Alevi, who though technically Shia are also rather peculiar in their beliefs. I point out this minutiae because if you are going to get involved in the Byzantine politics of the Middle East, and offer opinions (which seems the main role of the blogosphere right now), you had better have a excellent mastery of the background details. Analysis based on a shaky grasp of the facts is useless (there are obviously differences within Sunni Islam, but not as much in my opinion because "Shia" is often simply a catchall term for various groups which have left the mainstream for various reasons).

Which brings me to a second point:
"It's a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it's the Sunnis who're more radical than the Shia."

This perception that the "Shia" or "Sunni" are more radical is problematic and leads to confused heuristics. I myself as a child had the opinion that the Shia must be more radical, or fundamentalist, because of the nature of Iran. This is not true. In Syria and Turkey the "Shia" are bulwarks of the secular regime (in Turkey though they tend to support the secularist project). In Iraq the Shia have traditionally been part of the religious opposition, but they have also been dominant within the Communist party. In Pakistan the Shia tend to support the more secular party headed (traditionally) by the Bhutto family ( according to Vali Nasr the Bhuttos are a Shia family, while the founder of Pakistan was born into a Shia family). Which group is more theocratic and radical? That depends, a think a real rule of thumb is that the group prone to theocratic tendencies in a given country will be the group in the majority. In Iran Shia are 90% of the population, so they are theocratic. In Syria, Turkey and Pakistan they are a minority, so they tend to support separation of mosque (which will be Sunni dominated) and state. What is contextual is interpreted as intrinsic, but if one knows the distribution of Shia and their role in various nations, and the same with Sunni, one sees that the heuristic that one or the other is more "radical" is very flawed and will result in incorrect predictions.

Of course, this isn't the sort of thing that is interesting to most people. It would obviously be best if government officials who played a role in making decisions where this knowledge would be critical would be aware of the details. But I'm not holding my breath, my own experience on this and other blogs is that when it comes to opinions about Islam and the Middle East research is deemed unnecessary and the empires of opinion conquer all (in fact, I have been told that knowing too much is an impediment to proper understanding, and though I accept this as true in some theoretically rigorous sciences where excessive acceptance of received wisdom blinds one to new findings and insights, foreign policy and such are it seems mostly empirical disciplines where a mass of facts exists without great theoretical scaffolding).