Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a growing interest in Islam, not only in the United States but across the globe. One of the more frequently asked questions about Islam is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.
Theologically, these two branches of Islam are virtually the same. Where they differ is on the issue of succession to Prophet Mohammad. While Sunnis believe the Prophet's successor should be chosen by people, Shiites believe in the prophetic appointment of successors.
Within Sunni Islam, there are many different schools of thought, not unlike Christianity's many different denominations.
Of all the schools of Sunni thought, Wahhabism - the state religion of Saudi Arabia - is the most austere and regressive and is the philosophical guide for terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda.
The Wahhabist doctrine emerged about 200 years ago in the Najd province of Arabia, by Mohammad Ibn Abdolwahhab (an unknown and slightly eccentric son of a village judge). It opposes any refinement of Islamic culture, philosophy, theology, and the arts over time.
Wahhabism constructs a pseudo-philosophy that dictates dogmatic, outward acts of worship and rigid intolerance.
The Taliban exemplify the ideal form of Wahhabist government, with Saudi Arabia coming in a close second. This inflexible doctrine is responsible for sowing intolerance, discord, sedition, violence and hatred in the Muslim world and elsewhere.
For example, the Wahhabist Saudi Institute teaches that Shiite Muslims are "Jewish agents" and not real Muslims. This can be seen from a letter circulated in Cairo recently by al-Qaeda and reported by The Associated Press: "The American troops have carried out a massacre to kill Shiites in Karbala, their infidel city, and in Baghdad."
By causing their followers to lose touch with reality through austere, cult-like practices, Wahhabists make it easier for them to participate in atrocities.
The perpetrators of the recent attacks on Shiites in Iraq and Pakistan - not unlike the perpetrators of the Sept.Iraq as proof that the United States is only interested in occupying Muslim lands, people and resources, something the Wahhabists have been preaching for years. Our unprovoked invasion of Iraq - based on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction - gives legitimacy to al-Qaeda's argument in a way that never happened before.
Given the choice, Muslims in Saudi Arabia would reject Wahhabism. But they don't have a choice because of the decades-old pact between the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabists, which allows the royal family to keep its absolute grip on political power and the nation's oil wealth while the Wahhabists hold free reign over social and religious matters, including education.
However, challenging our government's relationship with the Saudi royals could be difficult considering the business ties between President Bush's father, members of his former administration and the Carlyle Group, an investment firm managing millions of dollars from the Saudi royal family.
The tragedy of Sept. 11 alerted the world to the dangers of intolerance and religious bigotry. Both are central to the ideological foundations of Wahhabism, and it must be defeated.
Ibrahim Kazerooni fled Iraq in 1974 after being repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by the Baathist regime. He is now imam of the Islamic Center of Ahl Al-Beit in Denver.