What does it mean when someone says they're Shia or Sunni?

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Marco Werman: The Sunni/ Shia divide specifically that gets so exploited and gets so much attention in these times of crisis in Iraq. I spoke with writer Azadeh Moaveni, she is the author of "Lipstick Jihad", some have read that, and she is pretty good at unpacking several centuries of history and I asked her to explain where these terms Sunni and Shia came from first of all. Azadeh Moaveni: They go back to a schism that emerged in the earliest days of Islam in the 7th century and they represent two different factions that had disputing beliefs about who should lead the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Mohammed. So the terms refer to two groups. Suni comes from Ahl-as-Sunnah, people of the tradition, this refers to the group that believe that Mohammad’s descendants, along a particular line, Abu Bakr, a Caliph at the time, should succeed Mohammad. Werman: A Caliph being a ruler or king? Moaveni: A ruler, exactly. The Shia the term comes from a political faction. Ok, so the Shia of Ali, the Party of Ali, but Ali was the son in law of the Prophet and the group that came to be known as the party of Ali believed that his decedents should be leading the Islamic Community. So it emerges from this power struggle. Werman: And the bad blood we are seeing right now between, if we can generalize, between the Sunni and Shia populations in Iraq is that reproduced in other countries around the world? Where you have this divide? Moaveni: Well, there are other countries that encompass both Shia and Sunni Muslims where there is sectarian or this kind of sect based conflict. And there are places where it is not. I mean, in Iraq, before the fall of Saddam Hussein, for example, there is a great deal of intermarriage between Shia and Sunni, places like Bahrain, has a sizable Shia population but before the political conflict there and the opposition to the Bahraini leaders, became cast in sectarian terms there was not a conflict. People were living very peacefully along one another. I think it’s important to bear in mind that these difference are very much in the last fifty years, magnified, instigated, you know they fall into the political context of a lot of the conflicts, in which we are seeing this divide cast. Werman: So if I am walking along the street and I see two Muslims, one was Shia and one was Sunni , say both from Iraq, would I be able to tell the difference? Moaveni: You wouldn’t immediately, no. There are a couple of things. For example, there are countries like Lebanon, where Shia have been historically much poorer, for example. You know they did not receive the kind of resources, the kind of info structure, health care. So in a place like Beruite , you know, at some point, you might be able to say there is a Shia villager. In more cosmopolitan, different context, no, in Iraq, you might not have known at all. You know there are places where it would have come up for example like Shia have a very different attitude towards bioethics. So a Shia couple might go do IVF, and beyond IVF, they might do assisted reproduction, they might have surrogacy these are things in the Shia world are very acceptable . A Sunni couple, you might see them sitting in a café and never know that they are of a different sect. But, privately, in their homes for example, things like that might matter. Werman: So you’ve got these different interpretations of the religion over centuries but you know that’s taken hold and in recent years has been the source of so much violence, it seems in the Mideast. I mean, how do you go from "well we don’t see eye to eye on these particular kind of religious precepts but we’re gonna kill each other."? Moaveni: Well, I think very often it comes down to very ruthless, powerful leaders, autocrats, dictators, who see the potential for stoking this kind difference and use it to their advantage. You know Iraq is a very complex society, for example, there is a tribal overlay over Iraq. But, Saddam Houssain used sect as a way to extend his political party, his ambitions as a Bathist, so very often in these conflicts, it becomes part of a wider political project that makes use of sect or this kind of religious difference to take itself forward. Werman: What happens to Sunnis and Shia when they arrive in the United States for example? Are the terms suddenly less loaded when they arrive here? Moaveni: I think they are far less politicized certainly. There are differences in ritual; you know the Shia are often described as the Catholics of Islam. There’s a lot of attention to martyrdom, and saints or imams, it’s a slightly different religious culture. But, that recedes, I think, in the Diasporas and in places where there is not in the middle of a fraught political conflict. I think intermarriage is quite common I think both would see themselves in the Diasporas as part of the wider Muslim community but vested in the identity of their particular sect. Werman: That was writer Azadeh Moaveni, author of "Lipstick Jihad", breaking down for us where the Sunni Shia split came from and what it all means.