Shiite? Sunni? Some in US Learn Who's Who.

December 15, 2006

Author: G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

Some in Congress may need a primer on Islamic extremists. Five years after 9/11, three members of the House Intelligence Committee in recent interviews couldn't answer basic questions about who's Sunni and who's Shiite in the Muslim world. But other American institutions are already boning up - especially when they have a stake in doing so. For example:

• Law-enforcement agencies, from the FBI to the New York Police Department are learning Muslim customs in attempts to do their jobs more effectively.

• Major hospitals, including one in Tampa, Fla., are training staff to honor Muslim beliefs about the body.

• Business groups are studying Islamic law in order to raise capital among Muslims, who aren't allowed to charge interest.

In general, Americans don't know much about Muslims, surveys show. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the share of those saying they knew "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam actually grew from 61 percent in 2001 to 66 percent in 2005. In another 2005 Pew finding, 62 percent failed to identify Allah and the Koran as the terms Muslims use for God and sacred scripture.

Certain key sectors of US society also display a dangerous ignorance, Muslim advocates say. Topping the list this month is Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D) of Texas, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. In an interview with Congressional Quarterly last week, he could identify the historic Sunni-Shiite split but didn't know that Al Qaeda is Sunni or that Hizbullah, which fought Israel this summer in Lebanon, is Shiite.