What's the difference between Shia and Sunni?

Several readers have emailed in this NYT story about how many US officials involved in the Iraq operations and the Global War on Terror (or is it Extremism these days?) are unable to answer the question, "what's the difference between Sunni and Shia?"

Well of course it is rather worrying that, at this stage in the game, many people who should don't seem to have even a basic inkling of what the fitna is all about. Even if it's a complicated topic, you would assume they would at least know about where each kind is found, some basic differences in the way they are organized, and a little historic background about early Islam. No one's asking them to memorize the name of the twelve imams.

But it seems to me that concern about what they don't know is rather besides the point compared to the idea that you need to have a lot of competent managers who know these things. The United States and its officials should not be trying to run an empire in the Islamic world, and these officials should not be expected to have intricate knowledge of the natives in the same way that a British colonial officer in India might have in the early 20th century. They should not be putting themselves in that position in the first place.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.