One of the great things about being a corporate press columnist is that you get to peddle received journalistic 'wisdom' without ever having to cite a source - let alone an authoritative one. The Australian's foreign editor, Greg (Jerusalem Prize) Sheridan, is a typical example:
"The Syrian conflict is the local version of the great Sunni-Shia hatred - sometimes war, sometimes smouldering hostility - that is raging across the Arab Middle East. Assad's regime is based on the Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam." (Bloodbath exposes West's power failings, 19/6/13)
This kind of 'analysis', of course, is about as sophisticated an understanding of the struggle in Syria as Tim Minchin's satirical Peace Anthem for Palestine is of the struggle in Palestine:
"We don't eat pigs,/You don't eat pigs,/ It seems it's been that way forever/ So if you don't eat pigs,/ And we don't eat pigs,/ Why not, not eat pigs together."
The received 'wisdom' is that because Asad belongs to the Alawi sect, and the Alawi sect is an "offshoot of Shia Islam," then Alawis have more in common, doctrinally, with Shia Islam than Shia Islam has with Sunni Islam.
Unfortunately for our journalistic hacks, the truth of the matter is that Sunni and Shia Islam have infinitely more in common than Shias have with Alawis.
In fact, although the Shia/Sunni divide can be traced back to differences of opinion over who should succeed the Prophet as leader of the Muslim community, in every other respect they're one and the same religion.
Now at the risk of rubbing it in and getting a little technical, here's how a Sunni-Syrian writer, whose sympathies lie with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, sees the Alawis, or Nusairis (followers of Ibn Nusair) as he prefers to call them:
"The Nusairis are classified in the books of the Sunni and Shi'i heresiographers as an 'extremist' (ghulat) Shi'i sect... The Nusairis have often advanced the claim that they are Imami or Twelver Shi'ah because they accept the same line of succession of twelve Imams as the Imami Shi'ah. But this is virtually the only tenet of belief the Nusairis and Imamis have in common, for they diverge completely over what the Imams taught and the correct interpretation of it. The Nusairis, for example, deified the twelve Imams... As al-'Askari observes, no Imami writer has mentioned Ibn Nusair and his beliefs without repudiating them utterly, and Imamis could not now accept the Nusairis as a legitimate Shi'i sect without completely rewriting the histories and beliefs of both groups. In terms of overall beliefs, however, the Nusairis have much more in common with the Isma'ilis, and they are sometimes regarded as an offshoot of this group." (The Islamic Struggle in Syria, Dr Umar F. Abd-Allah, 1983, pp 44-45)
Abd-Allah goes on to point out that the Nusairis, unlike both Sunnis and Shia, are not even obligated to perform the 5 pillars of Islam (recitation of the creed, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage), and that even the Qur'an is of secondary importance to Nusairi scriptures.
One misrepresentation, of course, enables another:
"So [Assad's Alawi-based regime] is getting support from Shia Iran and the Shia Lebanese militia, Hezbollah." (Bloodbath...)
And we are to understand from this that that's because it's really a Shia regime.
That's why life is such a breeze for the likes of Sheridan. Recycling received 'wisdom' means never having to do your homework. And so, like mushrooms, we're kept in the dark and fed on bullshit.
But that's not to say he doesn't have anything to worry about, of course. There's always that poor little innocent bystander, Israel:
"It would be utterly unforgivable if the West gave anti-aircraft missiles, say, to the Syrian opposition to use against Assad's air force and these were instead used against Israeli passenger jets." (Bloodbath...)
Whatever you do, don't mention Israeli warplanes!