Future Bookshelf: Jeff Stein Puts Americans on the Spot

"The Future Bookshelf" is a weekly feature highlighting upcoming or recently signed books with a Washington connection. Tune in each week for a new installment, author interviews, and deal gossip.

By: Drew Bratcher

Saudi Arabia predominantly Sunni or Shia? What about Iran? Iraq? Al Qaeda? Hezbollah?

If you have a hard time answering those questions, you’re in good company. (Though I took a few classes on Islam and terrorism in college, I had to look them up myself to refresh my memory.) According to Jeff Stein—an editor and investigative reporter for Congressional Quarterly—most of the people in charge of strategy, funding, and executing the war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond don’t know the answers, either.

Last year, Stein began asking those questions of FBI officials, counter-terrorism specialists, and members of Congress. In an October New York Times op-ed column, he reported on his findings. US government officials criticized him for playing “gotcha” or “Islamic Trivial Pursuit.” Some, such as Alabama Representative Terry Everett, were honest about their ignorance. Others, including Willie Hulon, head of the FBI’s national-security branch, guessed incorrectly that Iran was a Sunni country and Hezbollah a Sunni movement.  

Iran is a Shia country. Hezbollah is a Shia movement, whereas Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda, and the majority of the Muslim world are Sunni. Islam split into two sects over disagreements about who should succeed Mohammed in leading the Muslim faith.

These facts are relevant because Baghdad has become the battleground on which these two sects are violently colliding. If, as Stein wrote in the Times, “knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war,” then understanding this religious rift as a root cause of the tumult in Iraq is crucial to the war effort.

The fact that government officials and most of the American public don’t know the basics of the Islamic religion—the primary feature of life and the main identification of the people in most areas of the world where our military is engaged—might explain a great deal about our post-9/11 actions in the Middle East.

Stein—who cowrote scientist Kidhir Hamza’s 2000 memoir, Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq’s Secret Weapon—will report more of his findings and seek to unpack their implications in a book-length expansion of his op-ed entitled Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?, to be published next summer by Hyperion.

If he uses the same reporting and interpretation skills common to his articles, we and the government officials he calls out might finally be able to answer “yes.”  

Some of this week’s other publishing deals:

In his 2006 book, Lone Star, CBS news producer Alan Weisman chronicled newsman Dan Rather’s life and career. This fall, he’ll do the same with Bush political adviser Richard Perle in Richard Perle: The Kingdom, the Power, and the End of Empire in America (Union Square Press).

The battle hasn’t yet begun, but Linda Robinson, senior writer at US News and World Report, has signed with PublicAffairs to publish The Battle for Baghdad in spring 2009. Robinson—author of 2004’s Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces—will have access to General David Petraeus, who recently replaced George Casey as commander of the multinational force in Iraq.

Washington Post writer David Ottaway signed with Walker & Company to write The King’s Messenger, which will examine the changing nature of America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. Ottaway is currently on leave from the Post as a fellow at DC’s Woodrow Wilson Center.