In Our Time is a BBC Radio 4 program I consider to be a gold mine for knowledge. What could be more exciting than listening to intelligent educated people discuss culture, history, philosophy, religion and science? What's great about it is that all the past episodes are archived conveniently http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/in-our-time/archive/ and can be streamed as needed wherever Internet is available. The amount of preparation that goes into each discussion must be phenomenal considering how smoothly the discussions develop and how thoroughly each question is answered. You can learn so much in 45 minutes about something you didn't know.
The episode that caught my eye recently is the one on Sunni and Shia Islam first aired on June 25, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00l5mhl
Now, I admit to being very ignorant about the relations between differet ethnic groups that populate the Middle East, but my very first exposure to this part of the world was through David Lean's epic film Lawrence of Arabia. I still remember being very impressed by the scene where Lawrence turns back alone into the desert he had just crossed in search of a man who had fallen off his camel. When told by Prince Faisal that this man's destiny is written and his time has come, Lawrence declares that "nothing is written."
After watching this film, I remember daydreaming about going on a Sahara expedition, crossing the desert on camelback, disguised as a boy. I became a fan of Peter O'Toole (whom I saw on stage later in London) and names of cities and people such as Aqaba, Damascus, and Faisal stuck to my mind. From this film, I learned that the desert-dwelling Bedouin who fiercely guard the wells within their territory were the indigenous people who fought alongside the British against the Ottoman Turks during World War I.
Little did I know at the time that Faisal I was a Sunni Muslim and a Hashemite descended from the prophet Muhammad although I realized that he had significant political influence over the Arab tribes inhabiting the Middle East despite the fact that he was ultimately unable to unite them.
Little did I know that Damascus was the capital of Syria or that Faisal I http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faisal_I_of_Iraq became the King of Syria for four months in 1920 and lost out to the French or that he became the King of Iraq one year later with the help of the British. I just knew that he was progressive for his time and a respected authority figure.
Little did I know that the Sunni believe in meritocracy (whereby the leader who is most politically able succeeds to the caliphate) while the Shia believe in succession by blood lineage. If anyone, Faisal I, as a Sunni and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, seems to have been ideally positioned to unite the divided Arab tribes.
On January 4, 1919, Faisal I who had sided with the British during World War I, conditionally accepted the Balfour Declaration, the condition being the fulfillment of British wartime promises. What were these promises and were they kept?
Something must have gone terribly wrong for Israel's borders to be unsecured to this day. In another six years, it will have been 100 years since Faisal's statement: "We Arabs... look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through; we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home... I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of the civilised peoples of the world."
The Shia represent only about 10 to 13 percent of the 2.1 billion Muslims in the world http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_world while Sunni Islam seems to be the main force behind Islamic terrorism. (The Shiite Muslims do not believe in suicide, although some extremists have justified suicide bombing as a form of martyrdom...) The Shia majority countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrainare. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shia_Crescent
I understand that the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq have been fighting over political dominance in post-Saddam Iraq, but who are the extremists responsible for the persecution of Christians in the Middle East? Shiite extremists, Sunni extremists, or both?
There are many unanswered questions. I hope to become more informed on this topic in the near future.
For a start, I found an NPR page from February of 2007
and a New York Times article Clash Over Regional Power Spurs Iraq's Sectarian Rift from December 23, 2011
and an Economist article The Sword and the Word from May of 2012
and an American Conservative article The Looming Sunni-Shia Crisis from November 9, 2012.