Friday, December 02, 2005

Sunni and Shi'i

You know, all this fuss made in the media about Sunnis and Shia has really been getting to me lately. Iraqis are almost always categorized as one or the other. For example, Fulan al Fulani, the Shi'i politician; Fulan al Fulani, the Sunni cleric.

The same can happen with geographic areas, towns and provinces, e.g. Basra, the largely Shi'i city; Ramadi, the Sunni Arab stronghold; Salah al Din, a province with Sunni majority; Sadr City, the Shi'i district; Amiriya, the largely Sunni district of Baghdad, etc.

The media is so obsessed with these distinctions that I am sure they will soon start to come up with new ideas just to show off they know all about Iraq, like say:

  • "the Iraqi family was at the Fulani restaurant having Kabab for restaurant. Kabab is a largely Shi'i dish."
  • "Kadhim al Sahir, the Sunni singer raised in a Shi'i district of Baghdad, held a concert in Cairo."
  • "Malayeen, the Shi'i belly dancer, opened a dancing school in Beirut."
  • "Sunni peasants have tishreeb with rice in it. Shi'is do not."
  • "Nissan pickup trucks are generally purchased by Sunni Arab farmers. Shi'i farmers prefer Toyota pickups."
  • "Abd al Aziz al Hakim's great grandmother was a Sunni Turkomen from Tuz Khormatu."
  • "Harith al Dhari's cleaning lady is a Shi'i from the Shu'la district of Baghdad. His grandson's best buddy at school is also Shi'i."
  • "At the Jadriya club, a duet composed of a Sunni and a Shi'i sang for a largely elite Sunni audience. The majority of the band members were Shi'i from various Shi'i districts of Baghdad. One of them is a Fayli Kurd from Khanaqin who are also Shi'i. The waiters were mostly Assyrian Orthodox Christians from Batnaya and Ainkawa. However, the club manager is a Shi'i from Hilla. The district of Jadriya itself is a mixed one but leaning towards a Shi'i majority."

So you get the point.

I am not saying that Iraqis never noticed these differences, it's just that recent events have somehow accentuated them. In the past, we just used to joke about the differences. And since most Iraqi families and tribes are mixed, there is no point in creating imaginary differences.

For most of my life, I rarely knew which of my friends was Sunni and which was Shi'i. It might have been easier to notice which was Kurdish or Christian because of language differences. Sometimes, Shi'is from the south, say Basra or Amara, can be recognized from their accent, but then even Sunnis and Christians in Basra share the same accent. Most of the time it's a regional difference rather than a sectarian one.

My mother told me once that she asked her father when she was very young if they were Shi'i or Sunni after she had heard the terms in school. Her father slapped her hard in the face. That was how far Iraqis were willing to go in order to supress their perceived differences.

It's also considered rude to ask if one is Shi'i or Sunni. If you ask, most people would respond saying "I'm Muslim," or "I'm Iraqi." Some nosy people get around it by asking "Where are you from?" If you say "Baghdad," he would ask "Which area of Baghdad?" If your answer is a mixed district, he would squirm and ask "Ok then, from what tribe?" If you reply with a mixed tribe like Jubur, he would really start to get uncomfortable because he can't find out whether you are Sunni or Shi'i and he might start asking from which clan or which family you belong to. Some are really good at finding out though if they try hard and they are obsessed with it.

There were areas however in Iraq which used to be considered purely Sunni or Shi'i. I heard an old relative of mine once saying that he visited a village near Amara and the people there asked him what a Sunni looked like. When he explained to them that Sunnis look just like them or anyone else, their jaws fell to the ground in disbelief and they said "You mean they don't have little tails in their behinds??"

The "tail" story is a known one. People who lived in isolated Shi'i villages would refer to a Sunni as Abu Dhuwail (the one with the tail). Similar beliefs exist in isolated Sunni communities, also in Arab countries with no Shia communities. I was chatting once with a taxi driver in Amman and we discussed politics and other stuff. He then cautiously asked me what I thought about the Shia, and if they are how people describe them. When I told him that he was talking to one, he was really embarrassed. He kept apologizing and saying that he was wrong because he thought Shia were Persians. He seemed to have thought that Shia looked like strange creatures from outer space.

Iraqis now have no problem with their differences. They intermarry all the time and they publicly make jokes about it. Times have changed, there are rarely any pure communities in Iraq now. There are Shia in Mosul and Ramadi, just like there are Sunnis in Najaf and Amara.
It bugs me continously to see bloggers like say Juan Cole to stress those differences so much and to philosophize about them to the extent that he almost writes stuff like the list I mentioned above.

The media also imagines that one's political opinion is decided by what sect he belongs to. If a Shi'i says he is against the constitution or the occupation or the current government, the media and political pundits start scratching their heads trying to figure out what's wrong. The same if a Sunni says he is glad that Saddam is gone and that the country is fine the way it is now. It just doesn't fit in with their ready made equation and it confuses them.

I have been so annoyed with this recently that I made up a list of all my friends from primary school to the present day and wrote down who was Sunni and who was Shi'i. I didn't get anywhere and couldn't prove anything. Here is what the list looked like (names slightly changed for anonymity):

primary school:

  • Ali Ahmed, Shi'i
  • Sinan Mohammed, Sunni
  • Harith Ghassan, Shi'i
  • Rafi Bassam, Christian, Armenian Orthodox

secondary and high school:

  • Dana Nazar, Sunni Kurd
  • Zaid Riyadh, Christian, Assyrian Orthodox
  • Saad Ameer, Christian, Chaldean Catholic
  • Sadiq Abd Allah, Saba'i
  • Ali Mohammed, Shi'i
  • Hayder Radhi, Fayli Kurd, Shi'i
  • Ahmed Raad, Sunni
  • Hani Latif, Sunni
  • Osama Mahdi, Shi'i
  • Ahmed Abd al Zahra, Shi'i
  • Ahmed Sideeq, Sunni
  • Omar Mohammed, Shi'i


  • Saddam Mohammed, Shi'i
  • Meer Jabir, Sunni Kurd
  • Ahmed Ali, Sunni
  • Uday Faruq, Christian, Chaldean Catholic
  • Muhsin Abd Allah, Shi'i
  • Sami Sadiq, Shi'i
  • Zaid Ameer, Shi'i
  • Sarmad Bakr, Shi'i
  • Omar Ali, Sunni



And the point is what? There is none. Iraqis have been living together for centuries and they will not allow some foreigners to come now and start making differences between them or to try and pit brother against brother.

And if someone asks me if I'm Sunni or Shi'i again, I swear I'll choke them to death.


Blogger Newsguy said...

I am just amazed at your command of the English language. I would not expect this from an Iraqi. Your written English is better than many high school students here in the US. And I would guess that there are very few US high school students who can speak your language, unless their parents are from Iraq.

Good post. I learned something about this whole Shi'ite, Sunni thing which according to our media is a really big deal. Maybe they are making much more of it than it really needs to be.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Melantrys said...

So, are you Sunni or Shi'i?

Sorry, but you had that one coming... ;)

7:42 PM  
Blogger Newsguy said...

You didn't read the post, melantrys. He revealed he is Shia.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Melantrys said...

I read the post, that's why I asked the question he doesn't want to hear anymore.
Some might call that sarcasm...

8:59 PM  
Blogger Newsguy said...

Melantrys, good thing he can't reach your neck.

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good post. I've wondered all along if that was all media hype. I guess I know now that it is. The way I've always seen it is you are all from Iraq so you are all Iraqi. Your blog is very intresting so far. Keep it up.

J in SC

1:21 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hello Dayez,

I learned of your blog from Najma, the author of "A Star from Mosul", who dedicated her new post to your blog.

I find this post quite interesting! Here in the U.S., the media always makes a big deal about religious differences among Iraqis. However, I have viewed all media reports concerning Iraq with a bit of skepticism since I started reading Iraqi blogs over a year ago. Your post has me wondering about something. The media always refers to the "Sunni insurgency" in Iraq. From your perspective, is this accurate? The media would have us believe that all Sunnis in Iraq are at least in sympathy with the insurgents. Is this true? After reading your post, I am wondering if such sympathy extends to other religious groups in Iraq. It seems to me that most Iraqis probably want the U.S. out of their country.

4:29 AM  
Blogger aNarki-13 said...

or Si'a.


friends, people, first, it WAS only media hype, but on and on, it's becoming an all too real frigging scary fact that there ARE pinheads out there who kill people just for their religious leanings..

Call it sensitivity, but I hate it when we are labeled.

for anyone who wants to understand the situation here better, think Ireland in the late 80s- early 90's, catholic-protestant clashes, and you'll get an almost full pic of how its running down here.

akh. headache. gotta go.

nice blog, welcome to the blogosphere, mind if i add you to my list?

8:15 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

I really loved reading your post.
Um, I want to translate it into my language and post it in a club I belong to(A small online club, hoping for Iraq peace)...

Anyway, I hope you keep posting!

(i think you'll be getting plenty of comments from now on!)

12:15 PM  
Blogger programmer craig said...

I'm Shi'i, myself. Oh, wait... no I'm not! Nevermind. You're writing good stuff, Dayez... something for everyone to comment on, there.

4:44 AM  
Blogger khalid jarrar said...

the lsit is very funny.
nice post.
although i agree with my sonni friend anariki (haha) when he said that its gettig so real on the ground.
really anariki i dont know, are you sonni or shea?
i tried to ask you all the questions above and i dont remember getting anywhere, have you got any anti sectarian-questions courses?:P maybe i should work on my strategy more hahahaha:P
keep up the good work my friend.
by the way is your name dayez or is it that you are "`6ayij" ? please don't laugh its a legitimate question!


10:26 AM  
Blogger Nadia said...

This sunni shia etc stuff as a problem is a very new thing to me too and it came to Iraq with the U.S entering it. My father is sunni my mother is a Christian. My aunt is sunni married to a shia and my other aunt is married to a kurd I don’t know if he is Christian, sunni or shia who cares, they love each other that's all I need to know.

The only way I could know who was shia, sunni etc in school was during the religious holidays when they could get some time of otherwise it was NEVER something that had anything to do with our daily lifes together in school and free time.

Division is a way to weaken Iraq and that is what the U.S is after.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cole is an expert on religious Shia branches, not of Iraq or Sunnism.

Also , his positions vaccilate over time so he can cover himself. He's a classic professorial opportunist.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please Dayez.
I hope you understand that this is part of US Government control of media and war maneuvering. CIA/NEOCONS/NEGROPONTE are inciting civil strife in Iraq (and elsewhere) with media and death squads. As an experienced US American, I can guarantee that this is their doing. It's historic and obvious. Cole is a scared journalist and will say what is expected of him as a corporate shill. Please be aware of the big picture. Keep speaking from your heart as you have. Thank you!

3:51 PM  
Blogger programmer craig said...

"As an experienced US American"

Oh, come on, anon! What American would call himself a "US American" - kinda redundant, don't you think? :p

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Brigitte said...

I remember reading about Sunnis and Shiites in the US press every time Iraq was mentioned, but the difference was never explained. So if you add a precision without explaining what it means it just makes the reader feel confused, stupid and angry. I know very well personally how angry it made me feel, day after day, reading in the press about Sunnis and Shiites without ever having an explanation. As if everybody knew except me. Now I am wondering if the irritation and vague anger was not the result of a psyop aimed at infuriating the US public against all Iraqis, in order to make the carnage in Iraq more acceptable, so the US people would think "Well, serves'em right all them camel jockeys".

2:30 AM  
Blogger programmer craig said...

brigitte, do you know what the difference is now? I've heard it explained a couple times, but I still feel like I don't know. I'm happy to hear most Iraqis don't think it matters that much... that's a hopeful sign, and it's contrary to what we hear on the news. Sectarian violence tore Lebanon to shreds in the 70s and 80s, and they may not be done with it.

6:15 AM  
Blogger Bruno said...

"It's also considered rude to ask if one is Shi'i or Sunni."

Ha! I asked some Muslims in my country the same thing and they didn't know WTF I was talking about. They said "one is either a Muslim or one isn't".

8:11 AM  
Blogger programmer craig said...

"Ha! I asked some Muslims in my country the same thing and they didn't know WTF I was talking about."

This is just silly, Bruno. If you asked a Christian whether they were Catholic and they told you they didn't know what you were tlking about, wouldn't you say they didn't know much about Christianity?

However, since Moslem means believer, I'd say the rest of that statement is true. It's a boolean. One is a believer or one is not. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, after seeing some of your other posts, that you seem to think the best way to fight misinformation is with more misinformation, bruno, but it's not really productive.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

Division is a way to weaken Iraq and that is what the U.S is after.

That doesn't make any sense. Division would undermine the job of getting the government self-sufficient and the security under control, ending up costing them more money and causing more injuries and deaths. Why would they want that?

They certainly DO want to cause division amongst those fighting them - they want to divide off those who would be willing to end the violence from those who aren't. That's obvious. But the way to do that, it seems, is through ostracising certain segments of the violent opposition, not through religious methods.

Besides, how can the Americans cause divisions between Sunni and Shi'a if the division is totally artificial?

I bet you what happens is most people don't care one bit (like the author of this blog) but there are a few crazies who do and it is they who are causing this division. It's certainly not only a Muslim thing. There are some people who are really divided amongst Christians (e.g. Northern Ireland), Jews (strict orthodox vs. nonobservant - some of the very strict end up becoming terrorists too), etc.

Anyway, I just can't buy that it would be to the coalition's advantage to incite religious divisions. How do you see it helping them?

And yes, your English is excellent and this blog is fascinating. Congratulations!

7:31 AM  
Blogger NYkrinDC said...

Another great Iraqi blog. You are right on Juan Cole and the media, if a bit harsh. The reason they question and attempt to classify people as one or the other is because of the lack of knowledge about the region, not an excuse just a statement of fact. They do the same here in the US, even political parties are guilty, that's why people were so shocked that a large minority of hispanics preferred Bush over Kerry. In the US we classify everything and everyone, it is one of our greatest faults as it divides us, but also one of our greatest strengths as it allows us to recognize the differences between us and to accept and make us more tolerant. That said, I can see how it can wreak havoc in a society not accostumed to see those differences as relevant. Every society has its method for dealing with this issue and the clash can be disconcerting. Thanks for reminding us of that.

7:31 PM  
Blogger programmer craig said...

Somebody with an opposite view of American misconceptions! Amazing how we get to be wrong, no matter what we say :)

I'm not trying to make a case that Iraq's problems are like Lebanon's problems. I just think it's interesting that Iraqis think America exagerates sectarian tensions, and Lebanese think Americans ignore sectarian tensions! Those things can't both be true.

Lebanese Bloggers Forum

Crisis Group interview of Michel Aoun, Beirut, 27 October 2005.

"The Americans don’t understand the complexity of relations between Sunni and Shiites. The Christians are the only ones who can live together with Sunni, Shiite and Druze. There are no mixed villages with Sunnis and Shiites. Only the Christians live with all. Therefore, if you really want a solution for Lebanon, you have to discuss with the Christians to gain the confidence of all parties. That’s the lesson of centuries of experience in Lebanon and Arab history. Sunni and Shiite cannot live together. Christians are needed."

12:52 AM  
Blogger BobW said...

I agree with Nicholas' statement.

But in another way I'm surprised that the MSM or other Anti-US or Anti-War groups haven't claimed that the blogs from within Iraq are not part of the US Military propaganda.

Anyone know of that actually being said/written please reply to my post on my blog.

1:32 AM  
Blogger LeRoy said...

Great posts Dayez. I'm going to add you to my list of regular visits.

Also, I agree with Nicholas, above. It sounds like there's a lot of social pressure not to distinguish between Sunni and Shi'a, and that, for a lot of people, the difference is unimportant, but it obviously is important to a lot of people, or you wouldn't be so tired of people asking you what you were.


3:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for your help. im understanding our media in the u.s a lot better now.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still do not know the exact differences between Sunni and Shi'a. What are their beliefs th at differentiate them

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I wish I could believe you. If that is true, then why all the killings?

Now that Saddam is gone, why not get serious about putting the country back together, sharing the oil profits and starting to live normal, productive and happy lives?

Except for George Bush, I'm sure most Americans would like to leave Iraq as soon as possible, hopefully in one piece.

A wish for peace in the New Year!

3:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read and read but still have only a vauge idea of the difference between shii and sunni muslims. It only makes it frustrating because I don't really give a shit. I'm reading Willian R. Polk's "Understanding Iraq" and he just assumes the reader know this and doesn't feel the need to address the point. I guess like our host here there is more being made of it than is warrented. I get the inference that it has something to do with the calipate being divided when faithfull failed to support Ali. Is it a simple as that. They had a guilt trip and thought they were holier than thou. Typical religious bullshit I guess.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous stephanie said...

I am currently doing a research for college on the cultural distinctions of shi'i muslims in Iraq. I came upon your website and am curious if you can give me any feedback. I would be very appreciative, all I can find articles on is the war.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous zzzzpakistan said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. Exactly what I have been insisting for a year, yet few in Pakistan bought it. I wrote a paper last year, the thesis of which was that contrary to Bush's critics, the US has messed up Iraq not because they underestimated the sectarian split but because they overestimated it, treating the sects as fundamentally different groups until their perception increasingly became reality. It drives me mad when people talk about splitting Iraq into 3 pieces - are they so totally arrogant and naive? That will only worsen the problem, what do you think, Dayez? Thanks for a very articulate and even amusing post :) I hope things are getting better - or is that just the news?

Things are definitely getting worse here in Pakistan. You know - when the shrine in Samarra suffered a bomb, our Shii friends were really upset and I was so embarrassed thinking that a Sunni was doing such a thing. There was a real fear here that the attacks in Iraq would have violent repercussions on the improving sectarian relations in Pakistan. But thank God, that did not happen - and it just goes to show that one should put so much emphasis on Shii-Sunni. After all, as you've mentioned, when culture and language are shared, regional differences often take more importance and I feel that is how it should be.

I would like to send you my finished paper and get your opinion on it. However hard one tries to cultivate empathy, it is ultimately only the Iraqis who understand the true picture as they are experiencing it. Outsiders can only grasp so much. I hope Iraq can get autonomy as soon as possible.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Green Kokichi said...

Well, I wish I could believe you. If that is true, then why all the killings?

Now that Saddam is gone, why not get serious about putting the country back together, sharing the oil profits and starting to live normal, productive and happy lives?

Except for George Bush, I'm sure most Americans would like to leave Iraq as soon as possible, hopefully in one piece.

A wish for peace in the New Year!

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11:48 AM  

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