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Answers to your Middle East questions

TODAY takes a look at the region's religions and differences, and replies to viewer e-mails about the topics.
/ Source: TODAY

This week TODAY explores the Middle East, its religions and the issues surrounding the region in the series, “TODAY's 101.” We asked viewers to submit their questions on the topic:

I understand that the Muslims in the Middle East define themselves as Sunni or Shiite, but do the Muslims in other parts of the world, specifically the U.S., also define themselves this way?
Toni, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Yes, according to a recent Newsweek article, like Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shiite Muslims “have lived side by side in the United States for a century now with little or no problems. There are now an estimated 6 million Muslims in America, most of whom are Sunni (Shiites only make up 15 percent of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide).”

Who are the Kurds?
— Nevin, Marengo, Iowa

A largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture, most Kurds live in the generally contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria, a region of southwest Asia generally known as Kurdistan (“Land of the Kurds”). Source:

Are Islamic terrorists, fundamentalists and al-Qaida members predominantly Shiite or Sunni and why? Or is there no difference?— Steve, New York, N.Y.

Al-Qaida is an international alliance of militant Sunni Islamist organizations established by Osama bin Laden. An ally of al-Qaida, the Taliban are a Sunni Islamist movement in Afghanistan, and are accused of harboring bin Laden after the events of 9/11.

Following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, a disagreement arose over between Shiite and Sunni Muslims about who would succeed him as the spiritual and political leader. Out of the dispute two main groups of Muslims emerged: Sunnis and Shiites.

Sunnis are the main branch of Islam worldwide and in the Arab world. Shiites form the overwhelming majority in Iraq and Iran, and are the largest of 18 religious sects in Lebanon and are a slight majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain.

Many Arabs, especially in countries where there is no Shiite presence, view the Shiites — whose traditions and practices include beating chests, slashing foreheads and weeping during religious commemorations like Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar commemorating the 7th century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad — as something alien to their cultures. Source: AP