The list of reasons people I know avoid TV news is endless: the compression of complex topics into 15-second video clips; the emphasis on emotion and dramatic narrative over facts and analysis; interviews with "experts" who are, in fact, biased hacks; the yelling; Katie Couric; the never-ending obsession with missing white women and Internet predators; a parade of commercials warning me to seek immediate medical attention in the event my erection lasts more than four hours; Katie Couric again.
I can't do anything about those complaints, but I can help with another complaint I often hear – that TV news programs drop vocabulary words into news programs without explaining what they mean.
I know intelligent people in this country who can't explain the difference between Catholics, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, yet the press constantly uses the words Sunni and Shiite as if they mean something to most of its viewers.
It's not malicious. Katie can't stop and explain the words each time she says them. But it's still off-putting to some.
Helpful fella that I am, here's a short and sassy primer on the religious and ethnic divisions Iraq is struggling with.
The difference we hear about most often is the split between Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arabs and its Shiite Muslim Arabs.
An Arab is simply someone who speaks Arabic. The Arab world extends from North Africa's Atlantic coast to the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Arab and Muslim are not synonyms. There are Arabs of many religions. The majority of Arabs in the United States, for example, are Christians. And the majority of Muslims around the world are not Arabs.
Sunni and Shia are main denominations of Islam. Like Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites (a Shiite is a follower of Shia Islam) share core beliefs and most rules and practices. They believe in the same holy book (the Quran, or Koran if you prefer), the same prophet and founder of Islam (Muhammad), and the vast majority of rules and practices (the praying, the pilgrimages, the aversion to washing down bacon cheeseburgers with an ice-cold Budweiser).
Roughly 90 percent of Muslims are Sunni. The distinction between the two denominations was born out of a dispute shortly after Muhammad's death in 632 over who would lead the followers. Muslims who believed leadership had been passed from Muhammad to his cousin and son-in-law Ali became known as Shiites. The mosque built in the place where Ali died in modern-day Najaf, Iraq, is one of Shia Islam's holiest sites. The shrine in Karbala where Ali's son (Muhammad's grandson) was killed is another.
The political division between the two sects has crippled Iraq. Shiites are the majority. Though the two communities have long intermingled peacefully, Shiites distrust Sunni rule because they've been oppressed for centuries under Sunni rulers. Sunnis distrust Shiite political leaders because they're so closely tied to Iran. Iraqis are Arabs. Iranians are not. Iraqi Sunnis view many Iraqi Shiite politicians as puppets for an Iranian regime that would love to get its hands on Iraq's Shiite holy places.
Al-Qaeda, which is fundamentalist Sunni, has exploited the division between Sunni Arab Iraqis and Shiite Arab Iraqis – murdering Shiites and bombing their holy places to stoke a civil war.
And remember Saddam Hussein's hanging video? His final words were, in Arabic, "Down with traitors, the Americans, the spies and Persians." The reference to Persians (a synonym for Iranians) was his final attempt to tar Iraq's Shiite government, the people tying the rope around his neck, as traitorous Iranian stooges.
Kurds are an ethnolinguistic group in the north of Iraq. There are also Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Kurds are not Arabs. They speak Kurdish. They are, however, Sunni Muslim. They want to turn predominantly Kurdish parts of northern Iraq into a Kurdish state that will eventually encompass the Kurdish parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria. That's why Turkey is currently dropping bombs on Kurdish parts of Iraq. When Saddam Hussein massacred Kurds, it wasn't a religious dispute. He was doing a more brutal job of what Turkey is doing now, trying to smother Kurdish independence in the womb.
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