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Sectarian battle between theSunni Ottoman and Shia Safavidempire at the Battle of Chaldiran , 1514.

This article concentrates on sectarianism as conflict between groups. For sectarianism as a characteristic of sects, see sect.

Sectarianism, according to one definition, is bigotrydiscrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religionclassregional or factions of a political movement.

The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviours labelled as sectarian are extraordinarily varied. Members of a religious or political group may believe that their own salvation, or the success of their particular objectives, requires aggressively seeking converts from other groups; adherents of a given faction may believe that for the achievement of their own political or religious project their internal opponents must be converted or purged.

Sometimes a group that is under economic or political pressure will kill or attack members of another group which it regards as responsible for its own decline. It may also more rigidly define the definition of orthodox belief within its particular group or organization, and expel or excommunicate those who do not support this new found clarified definition of political or religious orthodoxy. In other cases, dissenters from this orthodoxy will secede from the orthodox organisation and proclaim themselves as practitioners of a reformed belief system, or holders of a perceived former orthodoxy. At other times, sectarianism may be the expression of a group’s nationalistic or cultural ambitions, or exploited by demagogues.

The phrase “sectarian conflict” usually refers to violent conflict along religious or political lines such as the conflicts between Nationalists and Unionists inNorthern Ireland (religious and class-divisions may play major roles as well). It may also refer to general philosophical, political disparity between different schools of thought such as that between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Non-sectarians espouse that free association and tolerance of different beliefs are the cornerstone to successful peaceful human interaction. They espouse political and religious pluralism.



Religious sectarianism[edit]

In 1871, New York’s Orange Riots were incited by Irish Protestants. 63 citizens, mostly Irish Catholics, were massacred in the resulting police-action.

Wherever people of different religions live in close proximity to each other, religious sectarianism can often be found in varying forms and degrees. In some areas, religious sectarians (for example Protestant and Catholic Christians) now exist peacefully side-by-side for the most part, although these differences have resulted in violence, death, and outright warfare as recently as the 1990s. Probably the best-known example in recent times were The Troubles.

Catholic-Protestant sectarianism has also been a factor in U.S. presidential campaigns. Prior to John F. Kennedy, only one Catholic had ever been a major party presidential nominee, and he had been solidly defeated largely because of claims based on his Catholicism. JFK chose to tackle the sectarian issue head-on during the West Virginia primary, but that only sufficed to win him barely enough Protestant votes to eventually win the presidency by one of the narrowest margins ever.[1]

Within Islam, there has been conflict at various periods between Sunnis and Shias; Shi’ites consider Sunnis to be damned, due to their refusal to accept the first Caliph as Ali and accept all following descendants of him as infallible and divinely guided. Many Sunni religious leaders, including those inspired by Wahhabism and other ideologies have declared Shias to be heretics and/or apostates.[2]


Painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, an event in the French Wars of Religion

Since the 12th century there has been sectarian conflict of varying intensity in Ireland. This religious sectarianism is connected to a degree withnationalism. This has been particularly intense in Northern Ireland since the early 17th century plantation of Ulster under James I. Sectarian tensions can be found in other regions of the British Isles to this day, including Scotland (with some fans of football clubs such as Celtic and Rangers indulging in sectarian chants) (see: Sectarianism in Glasgow), LiverpoolBirmingham and elsewhere.

Historically, some Catholic countries once persecuted Protestants as heretics. For example, the substantial Protestant population of France (theHuguenots) was expelled from the kingdom in the 1680s following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In Spain, the Inquisition sought to root outcrypto-Jews but also crypto-Muslims (moriscos); elsewhere the Papal Inquisition held similar goals.

In most places where Protestantism is the majority or “official” religion, there have been examples of Catholics being persecuted.[citation needed] In countries where the Reformation was successful, this often lay in the perception that Catholics retained allegiance to a ‘foreign’ power (the Papacy), causing them to be regarded with suspicion. Sometimes this mistrust manifested itself in Catholics being subjected to restrictions and discrimination, which itself led to further conflict. For example, before Catholic Emancipation was introduced with the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, Catholics were forbidden from voting, becoming MP’s or buying land in Ireland.

As of 2010, bigotry and discrimination in employment are usually restricted to a few places where extreme forms of religion are the norm, or in areas with a long history of sectarian violenceand tension, such as Northern Ireland, especially in terms of employment; however, this is dying out in this jurisdiction, due to strictly-enforced legislation. Reverse discrimination now takes place in terms of employment quotas which are now applied.

The sack of Magdeburg by Catholic army in 1631. Of the 30,000 Protestant citizens, only 5,000 survived.

In places where more “moderate” forms of Protestantism (such as Anglicanism/Episcopalianism) prevail, the two traditions do not become polarized against each other, and usually co-exist peacefully. Especially in England, sectarianism is nowadays almost unheard of. However in western Scotland(where Calvinism and Presbyterianism are the norm) sectarian divisions can still sometimes arise between Catholics and Protestants. Indeed, in the early years following the Scottish Reformation there was actually internal sectarian tension between Church of Scotland Presbyterians and ‘High Church‘ Anglicans, whom they regarded as having retained too many attitudes and practices from the pre-Reformation Catholic era. Northern Ireland has introduced a Private Day of Reflection,[3] since 2007, to mark the transition to a post-[sectarian] conflict society, an initiative of the cross-community Healing through Remembering[4] organisation and research project.

The civil wars in the Balkans which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s have been heavily tinged with sectarianism. Croats and Sloveneshave traditionally been Catholic, Serbs and Macedonians Eastern Orthodox, and Bosniaks and most Albanians Muslim. Religious affiliation served as a marker of group identity in this conflict, despite relatively low rates of religious practice and belief among these various groups after decades ofcommunism.


Over 1,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in the sectarian violence in the Central African Republic in 2013–2014.[5] Nearly 1 million people, a quarter of the population, were displaced.[6]


Sectarianism in Australia is a historical legacy from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, between Catholics of mainly Celtic heritage and Protestants of mainly English descent.

Middle East and Asia[edit]

The Al-Askari Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, after the first attack byWahhabi affiliated Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006

Ottoman Empire[edit]

Sultan Selim the Grim, regarding the Shia Qizilbash as heretics, reportedly proclaimed that “the killing of one Shiite had as much otherworldly reward as killing 70 Christians.”[7] In 1511, a pro-Shia revolt known as Şahkulu Rebellion was brutally suppressed by the Ottomans: 40,000 were massacred on the order of the sultan.[8]


Certain elements of the Iraqi insurgency and foreign terrorist organizations who came to Iraq after the fall of Saddam have targeted Shias in sectarian attacks. Following the civil war, the Sunnis have complained of discrimination by Iraq’s Shia majority government, which is bolstered by the fact that Sunni detainees were allegedly discovered to have been tortured in a compound used by government forces on November 15, 2005.[9] This sectarianism has fueled a giant level of emigration and internal displacement.

Some people advocate an independent nation for the Sunnis of Iraq. One possible scenario envisages splitting Iraq into three: Kurdistan in the north, Iraq in the center and Basra in the south. The thinking is that if each community is busy nation-building, they would not be attacking each other as they would be within a single country where the communities may be striving for political dominance at expense of other communities instead of working together. British India split into Hindu-dominant India and Muslim-dominant Pakistan in 1947. After a two-year trial,Malaysia split into Malay-dominant Malaysia and Chinese-dominant Singapore in 1965.


Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo

Sectarianism has been described as a characteristic feature of the Syrian civil war. The sharpest split is between the ruling minority Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, and the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, mostly aligned with the opposition.



Sectarianism in Lebanon has been formalized and legalized within state and non-state institutions and is inscribed in its constitution. The foundations of sectarianism in Lebanon date back to the mid-19th century during Ottoman rule. It was subsequently reinforced with the creation of the Republic of Lebanon in 1920 and its 1926 constitution, and in the National Pact of 1943. In 1990, with the Taif Agreement, the constitution was revised but did not structurally change aspects relating to political sectarianism.[10] The dynamic nature of sectarianism in Lebanon has prompted some historians and authors to refer to it as “the sectarian state par excellence” because it is an amalgam of religious communities and their myriad sub-divisions, with a constitutional and political order to match.[11]

Historical background[edit]

According to various historians, sectarianism in Lebanon is not simply an inherent phenomena between the various religious communities there. Rather, historians have argued that the origins of sectarianism lay at the “intersection of nineteenth-century European colonialism and Ottoman modernization”.[12] The symbiosis of Ottoman modernization (through a variety of reforms) and indigenous traditions and practices became paramount in reshaping the political self-definition of each community along religious lines. The Ottoman reform movement launched in 1839 and the growing European presence in the Middle East subsequently led to the disintegration of the traditional Lebanese social order based on a hierarchy that bridged religious differences. Nineteenth-century Mount Lebanon was host to competing armies and ideologies and for “totally contradictory interpretations of the meaning of reform” (i.e. Ottoman or European).[12] This fluidity over reform created the necessary conditions for sectarianism to rise as a “reflection of fractured identities” pulled between enticements and coercions of Ottoman and European power.[12] As such, the Lebanese encounter with European colonization altered the meaning of religion in the multi-confessional society because it “emphasized sectarian identity as the only viable marker of political reform and the only authentic basis for political claims.”[13] As such, during both Ottoman rule and later during the French Mandate, religious identities were deliberately mobilized for political and social reasons.

The Lebanese political system[edit]

Lebanon gained independence on 22 November 1943. Shortly thereafter, the National Pact was agreed upon and established the political foundations of modern Lebanon and laid the foundations of a sectarian power-sharing system (also known as confessionalism) based on the 1932 census.[14] The 1932 census is the only official census conducted in Lebanon: with a total population of 1,046,164 persons, Maronites made up 33.57%, Sunnis made up 18.57% and Shiites made up 15.92% (with several other denominations making up the remainder). The National Pact served to reinforce the sectarian system that had begun under the French Mandate, by formalizing the confessional distribution of the highest public offices and top administrative ranks according to the proportional distribution of the dominant sects within the population.[15] Because the census showed a slight Christian dominance over Muslims, seats in the Chamber of Deputies (parliament) were distributed by a six-to-five ratio favoring Christians over Muslims. This ratio was to be applied to all highest-level public and administrative offices, such as ministers and directors. Furthermore, it was agreed that the President of the Republic would be a Maronite Christian; the Premier of the Council of Ministers would be a Sunni Muslim; the President of the National Assembly would be a Shiite Muslim; and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament a Greek Orthodox Christian.[14]

The Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990[edit]

Main article: Lebanese Civil War

During the three decades following independence from the French Mandate, “various internal tensions inherent to the Lebanese system and multiple regional developments collectively contributed to the breakdown of governmental authority and the outbreak of civil strife in 1975”.[14] According to Makdisi, sectarianism reached its peak during the civil war that lasted from 1975-1990.[12] The militia politics that gripped Lebanon during the civil war represents another form of popular mobilization along sectarian lines against the elite-dominated Lebanese state.[12]

Christians began setting up armed militias what they “saw as an attempt by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to seize Lebanon – those militias would be united under the Lebanese Forces umbrella in 1976”.[16] Lebanese Sunni groups splintered into armed factions as well, competing against one another and against the Christian militias. The beginning of the Lebanese Civil War dates to 1975, when a Maronite militia opened fire on a bus full of civilians in response to an assassination attempt of a Maronite leader by PLO-affiliated Muslims.[16] On May 31, seven weeks after fighting began between militias, Beirut witnessed its first sectarian massacre in which “unarmed civilians were killed simply on the grounds of their religion.”[17]

Syria entered the conflict in June 1976, in order to avoid a PLO takeover of Lebanon – Syria’s entry into the war resulted in a de facto division of the country into zones controlled by Syria, the PLO, and Maronite miliitas.[16] Shi’a militias were also created, including the formation of Amal in the late 1970s and later when some Amal militants decided to create a more religious Shi’a militia known as Hezbollah (Party of God). See Wikipedia page on Hezbollah.

The Lebanese Civil War became a regional dilemma when Israel invaded in 1982 with two avowed aims: destroy the PLO military infrastructure and secure its northern frontier. In March 1989, Prime Minister (and Acting President) General Michel Aoun launched a “liberation war” against the Syrian army with the backing of the PLO and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. In doing so, General Aoun internationalized the Lebanese crisis by “emphasized the destructive role of the Syrian army in the country”.[16] His decision resulted in multilateral negotiations as well as efforts to strengthen the role of the UN. By 1983, what had begun as an internal war between Lebanese factions had become a regional conflict that drew in Syria, Israel, Iran, Europe and the United States directly – with Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union involved indirectly by providing financial support and weaponry to different militias.[18]

After fifteen years of war, at least 100,000 Lebanese were dead, tens of thousands had emigrated abroad, and an estimated 900,000 civilians were internally displaced.[16]

The Taif Agreement[edit]

Main article: Taif Agreement

After twenty-two days of discussions and negotiations, the surviving members of the 1972 parliament reached an agreement to end the Civil War on October 22, 1989. The Taif Agreement reconfigured the political power-sharing formula that formed that basis of government in Lebanon under the National Pact of 1943.[19] As noted by Eugene Rogan, “the terms of Lebanon’s political re-construction, enshrined in the Taif [Agreement], preserved many of the elements of the confessional system set up in the National Pact but modified the structure to reflect the demographic realities of modern Lebanon.”[20] As such, several key provisions of the National Pact were changed including: it relocated most presidential powers in favor of Parliament and the Council of Ministers and, as such, the Maronite Christian President lost most of his executive powers and only retained symbolic roles; it redistributed important public offices, including those of Parliament, Council of Ministers, general directors, and grade-one posts evenly between Muslims and Christians thereby upsetting the traditional ratio of six to five that favored Christians under the National Pact; it “recognized the chronic instability of confessionalism and called for devising a national strategy for its political demise. It required the formation of a national committee to examine ways to achieve deconfessionalization and the formation of a non-confessional Parliament,” which has not yet been implemented to date [14] and it required the disarmament of all Lebanese militias; however, Hezbollah was allowed to retain its militant wing as a “resistance force” in recognition of its fight against Israel in the South.[14]

Spillover from the Syrian Conflict[edit]

Main article: Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Conflict which began in 2011 when clashes began between the Assad regime and opposition forces has had a profound effect on sectarian dynamics within Lebanon. In November 2013, the United States Institute of Peace published a Peace Brief in which Joseph Bahout assesses how the Syrian crisis has influenced Lebanon’s sectarian and political dynamics. Bahout argues that the Syrian turmoil is intensifying Sunni-Shia tensions on two levels: “symbolic and identity-based on the one hand, and geopolitical or interest based, on the other hand.” Syria’s conflict has profoundly changed mechanisms of inter-sectarian mobilization in Lebanon: interest-based and “political” modes of mobilization are being transformed into identity-based and “religious” modes. Bahout notes that this shift is likely due to how these communities are increasingly perceiving themselves as defending not only their share of resources and power, but also their very survival. As the conflict grows more intense, the more the sectarian competition is internalized and viewed as a zero-sum game. Perceptions of existential threat exist among both the Shiite and Sunni communities throughout Lebanon: the continuation of the Syrian conflict will likely increase these perceptions over time.[10]

There are notable divisions within the Lebanese community along sectarian lines regarding the Syrian Civil War. The Shi’ite militant and political organization Hezbollah and its supporters back the Assad regime, while many of the country’s Sunni communities back the opposition forces. These tensions have played out in clashes between Sunnis and Shi’ites within Lebanon, resulting in clashes and deaths. For instance, clashes in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon left three dead when fighting broke out between Assad supporters and opponents.[21]

The largest concentration of Syrian refugees, close to one million people as of April 2014, can be found in Lebanon and has resulted in a population increase by about a quarter. According to the United Nations, the massive influx of refugees threatens to upset the “already fragile demographic balance between Shi’ites, Sunnis, Druze, and Christians.”[22] The Lebanese government faces major challenges for handling the refugee influx, which has strained public infrastructure as Syrians seek housing, food, and healthcare at a time of economic slowdown in Lebanon.

For background on Syria-Lebanon relations, see Lebanon-Syria relations.


Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim countries the world, has seen serious ShiaSunni sectarian violence. Almost 80 – 90% of Pakistan‘s Muslim population is Sunni, and another 10 – 20% areShia.[23][24] However, this Shia minority forms the second largest Shia population of any country, larger than the Shia majority in Iraq.

In the last two decades, as many as 4,000 people are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan, 300 in 2006.[25] Among the culprits blamed for the killing are Al Qaeda working “with local sectarian groups” to kill what they perceive as Shi’a apostates.[25]

Sri Lanka[edit]

Most Muslims in Sri Lanka are Sunnis. There are a few Shia Muslims too from the relatively small trading community of Bohras. Divisiveness is not a new phenomenon to Beruwala. Sunni Muslims in the Kalutara district are split in two different sub groups. One group, known as the Alaviya sect, historically holds its annual feast at the Ketchimalai mosque located on the palm fringed promontory adjoining the fisheries harbour in Beruwala.

It is a microcosm of the Muslim identity in many ways. The Galle Road that hugs the coast from Colombo veers inland just ahead of the town and forms the divide. On the left of the road lies China Fort, the area where some of the wealthiest among Sri Lankans Muslims live. The palatial houses with all modern conveniences could outdo if not equal those in the Colombo 7 sector. Most of the wealthy Muslims, gem dealers, even have a home in the capital, not to mention property.

Strict Wahabis believe that all those who do not practise their form of religion are heathens and enemies. There are others who say Wahabism’s rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to the Taliban as well as Osama bin Laden. What has caused concern in intelligence and security circles is the manifestation of this new phenomenon in Beruwala. It had earlier seen its emergence in the east.

Political sectarianism[edit]

In the political realm, to describe a group as “sectarian” (or as practicising “sectarianism”), is to accuse them of prioritizing differences and rivalries with politically close groups. An example might be a communist group who are accused of devoting an excessive amount of time and energy to denouncing other communist groups rather than their common foes. However, separatistfundamentalist Protestant political parties have proliferated (and regularly denounce one another[citation needed])in New Zealand, as can be seen from the entries on United Future New Zealand and Future New ZealandLibertarianism is similarly susceptible to fissiparous tendencies of its own. The Boston Tea Party splintered off from the Libertarian Party, due to the former being completely opposed to all government. Also, geo-libertarians are often disliked by other libertarians.

The Monty Python film The Life of Brian has a well-known joke in which various Judean groups, indistinguishable to an outsider, are more concerned with in-fighting than with their nominal aim of opposing Roman rule.

See also[edit]


  1. Jump up^
  2. Jump up^ “Lahore bomb raises sectarian questions”BBC News. January 10, 2008. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
  3. Jump up^ Private Day of Reflection : Ireland
  4. Jump up^ Healing through Remembering : Ireland
  5. Jump up^ Central African Republic: Ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings“. Amnesty International. February 12, 2014.
  6. Jump up^ Eight dead in Central African Republic capital, rebel leaders flee city“. Reuters. January 26, 2014.
  7. Jump up^ Jalāl Āl Aḥmad (1982). Plagued by the West. Translated by Paul Sprachman. Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University. ISBN 978-0-88206-047-7.
  8. Jump up^ H.A.R. Gibb & H. Bowen, “Islamic society and the West”, i/2, Oxford, 1957, p. 189
  9. Jump up^ “Iraqi Sunnis demand abuse inquiry”. BBC News. November 16, 2005. Retrieved 2007-05-12.
  10. Jump up to:a b Bahout, Joseph (18 November 2013). “Sectarianism in Lebanon and Syria: The Dynamics of Mutual Spill-Over”. United States Institute of Peace.
  11. Jump up^ Hirst, David (2011). Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East. Nation Books. p. 2.
  12. Jump up to:a b c d e Makdisi, Ussama (2000). The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. xi.
  13. Jump up^ Makdisi, Ussama (2000). The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 2.
  14. Jump up to:a b c d e Salamey, Imad (2014). The Government and Politics of Lebanon. London: Routledge. p. 57.
  15. Jump up^ Rogan, Eugene (2009). The Arabs: A History. New York: Basic Books. p. 242.
  16. Jump up to:a b c d e “Lebanon: The Persistence of Sectarian Conflict”. Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs: 5. 2013.
  17. Jump up^ Rogan, Eugene (2009). The Arabs: A History. New York: Basic Books. p. 382.
  18. Jump up^ Rogan, Eugene (2009). The Arabs: A History. New York: Basic Books. p. 411.
  19. Jump up^ Saseen, Sandra (1990). The Taif Accord and Lebanon’s Struggle to Regain its Sovereignty. American University International Law Review. p. 67.
  20. Jump up^ Rogan, Eugene (2009). The Arabs: A History. New York: Basic Books. p. 460.
  21. Jump up^ Holmes, Oliver (21 March 2014). “Three dead in north Lebanon in spillover from Syria war”Reuters. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  22. Jump up^ Ryan, Missy (27 March 2014). “Syria refugee crisis poses major threat to Lebanese stability: U.N.”Reuters. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
  23. Jump up^ “Pakistan – International Religious Freedom Report 2008”United States Department of State. Retrieved 2013-04-19.
  24. Jump up^ “Pakistan, Islam in”Oxford Centre for Islamic StudiesOxford University Press. Retrieved 2013-04-19. “Approximately 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim. The majority are Sunnis following theHanafi school of Islamic law. Between 10 and 15 percent are Shiis, mostly Twelvers.
  25. Jump up to:a b “Shiite-Sunni conflict rises in Pakistan,” by David Montero, February 02, 2007

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