Reporter's Questions About Islam Put Intelligence Chair on the Spot

Pop quiz.

Quick. Without thinking or Googling, who are the senators from Wyoming? The Chinese president? What are the two main sects of Islam? Al Qaeda members follow which sect?

Pretty hard, huh?

A reporter recently directed the questions about Islam to Texas Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes.

Reyes failed, which would perhaps not be a big deal if Reyes were an ordinary congressman.

But he's not.

Come January, Reyes will chair the House Intelligence Committee, which oversees all U.S. intelligence activity, a good portion of which is directed toward the war on terror.

Reyes could not tell Congressional Quarterly's national security editor Jeff Stein whether al Qaeda was made up of Sunnis or Shiites.

From Stein's scathing column on the exchange:

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly -- probably Shiite," he ventured."

-- Congressional Quarterly

Reyes was wrong despite having a 50-50 chance of success.

"Issues like al Qaeda and the Middle East deserve serious discussion and consideration," Reyes said in a statement after the column was posted on CQ's Web site.

"The CQ interview covered a wide range of topics other than the selected points published in the story. As a Member of the Intelligence Committee since before 9/11, I'm acutely aware of al Qaeda's desire to harm Americans. The Intelligence Committee will keep its eye on the ball, and focus on the pressing security and intelligence issues facing us."

For his part, Stein realizes maybe even he could not pass a detailed quiz on Islam.

"I don't pretend to be an expert on this stuff, either," Stein said to ABC. "That's the irony of this thing. But I cover intelligence, so I have to have a functional knowledge of Islam."

Stein said he kept the quiz easy for Reyes. "I didn't even go to the tough questions. Like what is Wahabism?"

Reyes is not the only congressman on the intelligence committee who has trouble with these basic questions about Islam.

Republicans Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., also failed this test, and Stein wrote about them in a previous column.

Stein has made a cottage industry of asking these questions of lawmakers from both parties and FBI counterterrorism officials.

He has received the same blank stares that Jay Leno gets when he stops people on the street and asks them to name the first American president.

That's a comedy show, though. This is Congress.

Stein cedes that not all Congress members have failed the quiz.

"Some of the people I've asked these questions have known them," Stein said. "Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, knew it very well. [Rep.] Jane Harman, too. She kind of rolled her eyes and said, 'Where do you want me to start? Fourteen-hundred years ago there was a split in Islam.' … And I said, 'OK, you know."

It should be noted that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bumped Harman, D-Calif., out of her position as the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee in favor of Reyes.

In case you, like Reyes, were not aware, Shiite and Sunni are the two main branches of Islam.

The differences between these two are at the heart of what people in the news business are calling "sectarian strife" and "civil war" in Iraq.

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