For years now, the news has been chock full of the words Sunni and Shia (or Shiite). What do they mean and why should we care? For Westerners not directly affected by the conflicts in the Middle East, it is easy to just ignore these labels. Or worse, some will say "those Arabs are all the same, as far as I'm concerned." Nothing could be farther than the truth, and for us to make any sense at all of what is going on -- and this conflict is getting closer to home all the time -- it is important to have a basic understanding of the major players. And they're not all Arabs.
Misconception number 1: All Muslims in the Middle East are Arabs.
Yes, the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, and the majority of the peoples of the Middle East are Arabs from one tribe or another. But there are some notable and very important exceptions:
Iran is the ancient Persia (once the most vast empire on the planet), and Persians are NOT Arabs. Nor is their language Arabic. Yes, they use the Arabic alphabet, but their native tongue is Farsi and happens to use Arabic script. Do yourself and your Iranian neighbor or acquaintance a kindness by not, as in NEVER, calling him or her an Arab. They are a very proud people and once a great civilization. Most Iranians are at least nominal Muslims, but there is a very small Jewish minority and even a few Christians, although the state says that only Assyrians and Armenians may be Christian.
The Kurds are not Arabs. The Kurds, who live in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, are widely believed to be descendants of the ancient Medes. (You may remember seeing them mentioned in the Old Testament. Does the "law of the Medes and the Persians" ring a bell?) The Kurds are the largest people group in the world without their own state. (On a side note, Nashville, where I live, is home to the largest Kurdish community in the U.S.) Many Kurds speak Arabic, but their native tongue is, of all things, Kurdish. It also uses the Arabic alphabet, so you'll be forgiven for thinking they were one and the same.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look at the difference between Sunni and Shiite and why it matters. Nothing in the Middle East will make much sense without a basic understanding of this conflict.