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Sectarianism is a political or cultural conflict between two groups often related to the form of government they live under. Prejudice, discrimination, or hatred can arise in these conflicts, depending on the political status quo and if one group holds more power within the government. Often, not all members of these groups are engaged in the conflict. But as tensions rise, political solutions require the participation of more people from either side within the country or polity where the conflict is happening. Common examples of these divisions are denominations of a religion, ethnic identity, class, or region for citizens of a state and factions of a political movement.

While sectarianism is often labelled as 'religious' and/ or 'political', the reality of a sectarian situation is usually much more complex. In its most basic form sectarianism has been defined as, 'the existence, within a locality, of two or more divided and actively competing communal identities, resulting in a strong sense of dualism which unremittingly transcends commonality, and is both culturally and physically manifest.'[1]


The phrase "sectarian conflict" usually refers to violent conflict along religious or political lines such as the conflicts between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern 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.


The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviours labelled as sectarian are extraordinarily varied. Members of a religious, national or political group may believe that their own salvation, or the success of their particular objectives, requires aggressively seeking converts from other groups; likewise, adherents of a given faction may believe that the achievement of their own political or religious goals requires the conversion or purging of dissidents within their own sect.

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 newfound clarified definition of political or religious orthodoxy. In other cases, dissenters from this orthodoxy will secede from the orthodox organization 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.

Political sectarianism[edit]

The Ottoman Tanzimat and European colonialism[edit]

The Ottoman Tanzimat, a period of Ottoman reform (1839–1876), emerged from an effort to resist European intervention by emancipating the non-Muslim subjects of the empire, as European powers had started intervening in the region "on a explicitly sectarian basis".[2] The resulting growth of tensions and the conflicting interpretations of the Ottoman reform led to the 1840s sectarian violence in Mount Lebanon and the massacres of 1860. This resulted in "a system of local administration and politics explicitly defined on a narrow communal basis".[2] Sectarianism arose from the confrontation between European colonialism and the Ottoman Empire and was used to mobilize religious identities for political and social purposes.[3]

In the decades that followed, a colonial strategy and technique to assert control and perpetuate power used by the French during their mandate rule of Lebanon was divide and rule.[4] The establishment of the Ja'fari court in 1926, facilitated by the French as a "quasi-colonial institution",[4] provided Shi'a Muslims with sectarian rights through the institutionalization of Shia Islam, and hence gave rise to political Shi’ism. The "variation in the institutionalization of social welfare across different sectarian communities forged and exacerbated social disparities".[5] Additionally, with the standardization, codification and bureaucratization of Shia Islam, a Shi’i collective identity began to form and the Shi’i community started to "practice" sectarianism.[4] "The French colonial state contributed to rendering the Shi‘i community in Jabal ‘Amil and Beirut more visible, more empowered, but also more sectarian, in ways that it had never quite been before."[4] This fundamental transformation, or process of sectarianization, led by the French created a new political reality that paved the way for the "mobilization" and "radicalization" of the Shi’a community during the Lebanese civil war.[4][6]

Sectarianism in the 21st century[edit]

Sectarian tendencies in politics are visible in countries and cities associated with sectarian violence in the present, and the past.[7] Notable examples where sectarianism affects lives are street-art expression, urban planning, and sports club affiliation.[8]

United Kingdom[edit]

Across the United Kingdom, Scottish and Irish sectarian tendencies are often reflected in team-sports competitions.[9] Affiliations are regarded as a latent representation of sectarianism tendencies. (Since the early 1900s, cricket teams were established via patronage of sectarian affiliated landlords. In response to the Protestant representation of the sport, many Catholic schools founded their own Cricket schools.[10][8]) Modern day examples include tensions in sports such as football have led to the passing of the "Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012", incited by the chanting of Irish Republican Army (IRA) anthems in a match between Caledonian Thistle and Celtic.[11][12] Other general examples include the Gaelic sports in Ireland, established to serve as a counterweight to British traditional sports to preserve an Irish identity.[13]


World leaders have criticised the political ambitions of Iran and have condemned its involvement and support for opposition groups such as Hezbollah.[14] The political authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran has extended into neighboring countries, and has led to an increase of tensions in the region.[15]

An important figure in this process of expansion was the major general of Iran's Quds Force (the foreign arm of the IRGC), Qasem Soleimani.[16] Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq by an American drone in January 2020 leading to an increase of tension between the United States of America and Iran.[17] Soleimani was responsible for strengthening Iran's ties with foreign powers such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria's al-Assad, and Shia militia groups in Iraq.[17] Soleimani was seen as the number-one commander of Iran's foreign troops and played a crucial role in the spread of Iran's ideology in the region. According to President Donald Trump, Soleimani was the world's most wanted terrorist and had to be assassinated in order to bring more peace to the Middle-East region and the rest of the world.[18] Soleimani's death did not ended Iran's political, sectarian and regional ambitions. Iran's use of religion continues to serve as an excuse to spread the regime's political power regionally.[19]


Some scholars differentiate between "sectarianism" and "sectarianization". While the first describes antipathy, prejudice, and discrimination between subdivisions within a group, e.g. based on their religious or ethnic identity, the latter describes how sectarianism is sometimes mobilized by political actors due to ulterior motives.[20][4] The use of the word sectarianism to explain sectarian violence and its upsurge in i.e. the Middle East is insufficient, as it does not take into account complex political realities.[20] In the past and present, religious identities have been politicized and mobilized by state actors inside and outside of the Middle East in pursuit of political gain and power. The term sectarianization conceptualizes this notion.[20] Sectarianization is an active, multi-layered process and a set of practices, not a static condition, that is set in motion and shaped by political actors pursuing political goals.[20][4][21] While religious identity is salient in the Middle East and has contributed to and intensified conflicts across the region, it is the politicization and mobilization of popular sentiments around certain identity markers ("sectarianization") that explains the extent and upsurge of sectarian violence in the Middle East.[20] The Ottoman Tanzimat, European colonialism and authoritarianism are key in the process of sectarianization in the Middle East.[20][4][3][2]

Authoritarian regimes[edit]

In recent years, authoritarian regimes have been particularly prone to sectarianization. This is because their key strategy of survival lies in manipulating sectarian identities to deflect demands for change and justice, and preserve and perpetuate their power.[20] Christian communities, and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, have been socially, economically and politically excluded and harmed primarily by regimes that focus on "securing power and manipulating their base by appeals to Arab nationalism and/or to Islam".[22] An example of this is the Middle Eastern regional response to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Middle Eastern dictatorships backed by the United States, especially Saudi Arabia, feared that the spread of the revolutionary spirit and ideology would affect their power and dominance in the region. Therefore, efforts were made to undermine the Iranian revolution by labeling it as a Shi’a conspiracy to corrupt the Sunni Islamic tradition. This was followed by a rise of anti-Shi’a sentiments across the region and a deterioration of Shi'a-Sunni relations, impelled by funds from the Gulf states.[20] Therefore, the process of sectarianization, the mobilization and politicization of sectarian identities, is a political tool for authoritarian regimes to perpetuate their power and justify violence.[20] Western powers indirectly take part in the process of sectarianization by supporting undemocratic regimes in the Middle East.[21] As Nader Hashemi asserts:

The U.S. invasion of Iraq; the support of various Western governments for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which commits war crime upon war crime in Yemen and disseminates poisonous sectarian propaganda throughout the Sunni world; not to mention longstanding Western support for highly repressive dictators who manipulate sectarian fears and anxieties as a strategy of control and regime survival – the "ancient hatreds" narrative [between Sunnis and Shi’as] washes this all away and lays the blame for the regionʹs problems on supposedly trans-historical religious passions. Itʹs absurd in the extreme and an exercise in bad faith.[21]

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 (Al Smith) 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.[23]

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 or apostates.[24]


Long before the Reformation, dating back to the 12th century, there has been sectarian conflict of varying intensity in Ireland. Historically, some Catholic countries once persecuted Protestants as heretics. For example, the substantial Protestant population of France (the Huguenots) were expelled from the kingdom in the 1680s following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In Spain, the Inquisition sought to root out crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims (moriscos); elsewhere the Papal Inquisition held similar goals.

In some countries where the Reformation was successful, there was persecution of Roman Catholics. This was motivated by the perception that Catholics retained allegiance to a 'foreign' power (the Papacy or the Vatican), 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 Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, Catholics were forbidden from voting, becoming MP's or buying land in Ireland.[citation needed]


Protestant-Catholic sectarianism is prominent in Irish history; during the period of English (and later British) rule, Protestant settlers from Britain were "planted" in Ireland, which along with the Protestant Reformation led to increasing sectarian tensions between Irish Catholics and British Protestants. These tensions eventually boiled over into widespread violence during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The Cromwellian conquest of Ireland eighteen years later saw a series of massacres perpetrated by the Protestant New Model Army against Catholic English royalists and Irish civilians. Sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants continued in the Kingdom of Ireland, with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule leading to more sectarian violence in the island, most infamously the Scullabogue Barn massacre, in which Protestants were burned alive in County Wexford.[25] The harsh British response to the rebellion which included the public executions of dozens of suspected rebels in Dunlavin and Carnew, also inflamed sectarian sentiments.[citation needed]

After the Partition of Ireland in 1922, Northern Ireland witnessed decades of intensified conflict, tension, and sporadic violence between the dominant Protestant majority and the Catholic minority, which in 1969 finally erupted into 25 years of violence known as “The Troubles” between Irish Republicans whose goal is a United Ireland and Ulster loyalists who wish for Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The conflict was primarily fought over the existence of the Northern Irish state rather than religion, though sectarian relations within Northern Ireland fueled the conflict. However, religion is commonly used as a marker to differentiate the two sides of the community. The Catholic minority primarily favour the nationalist, and to some degree, republican, goal of unity with the Republic of Ireland, while the Protestant majority favour Northern Ireland continuing the union with Great Britain.


Before the eruption of violence during The Troubles, sectarian divisions related to the Irish question were already influencing local constituent politics in England. Liverpool is the English constituency most notably associated with sectarian politics.

Halfway through the 19th century, Liverpool faced a wave of mass-immigration from Irish Catholics as a consequence of the Great Famine in Ireland. Most of the Irish-Catholic immigrants were unskilled workers and aligned themselves with the labour party.[26][27] The Labour-Catholic party saw a larger political electorate in the many Liverpool-Irish, and often ran on the slogan of “Home Rule” - the independence of Ireland, to gain the support of Irish voters. During the first half of the 20th century, Liverpool politics were divided not only between Catholics and Protestants, but between two polarized groups consisting of multiple identities: Catholic-Liberal-Labour and Protestant-Conservative-Tory/Orangeists.[28][29]

From early 1900 onwards, the polarized Catholic Labour and Protestant Conservative affiliations gradually broke apart and created the opportunity for mixed alliances. The Irish National party gained its first electoral victory in 1875, and kept growing until the realization of Irish independence in 1921, after which it became less reliant on Labour support. On the Protestant side, Tory opposition in 1902 to vote in line with Protestant proposed bills indicated a split between the working class Protestants and the Tory party, which were regarded as "too distant" from its electorate.[29][30]

After the First and Second World War, religiously mixed battalions provided a counterweight to anti-Roman Catholic and anti-Protestant propaganda from either side.[31] While the IRA-bombing in 1939 somewhat increased violence between the Irish-Catholic associated Labour party and the Conservative Protestants, the German May Blitz destroyed property of more than 40.000 households.[29] Rebuilding Liverpool after the war created a new sense of community across religious lines.[32] Inter-church relations increased as a response as well, as seen through the warming up of relations between Archbishop Worlock and Anglican Bishop David Sheppard after 1976, a symbol of decreasing religious hostility.[33] The increase in education rates and the rise of trade and labour unions shifted religious affiliation to class affiliation further, which allowed Protestant and catholic affiliates under a Labour umbrella in politics. In the 1980s, class division had outgrown religious division, replacing religious sectarianism with class struggle.[29] Growing rates of non-English immigration from other parts of the Commonwealth near the 21st century also provides new political lines of division in identity affiliation.[34]

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

Northern Ireland has introduced a Private Day of Reflection,[35] since 2007, to mark the transition to a post-[sectarian] conflict society, an initiative of the cross-community Healing Through Remembering[36] organization and research project.

The Balkans[edit]

The civil wars in the Balkans which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s have been heavily tinged with sectarianism. Croats and Slovenes have 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 of communism.


Over 1,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in the sectarian violence in the Central African Republic in 2013–2014.[37] Nearly 1 million people, a quarter of the population, were displaced.[38]


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. It has largely disappeared in the 21st century. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, religious tensions were more centered between Muslim immigrants and non-Muslim nationalists, amid the backdrop of the War on Terror.[39][40][41][42][43][citation needed]


Battle of rival ascetics in 1567. Hindu-Muslim conflicts provoked the creation of a military order of Hindu ascetics in India.


For the violent conflict between Buddhist sects in Japan, see Japanese Buddhism.


Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim countries the world, has seen serious Shia-Sunni sectarian violence.[44] Almost 85-90% of Pakistan's Muslim population is Sunni, and another 10-15% are Shia.[45][46] 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.[47] Among the culprits blamed for the killing are Al Qaeda working "with local sectarian groups" to kill what they perceive as Shi'a apostates.[47]

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.

Middle East[edit]

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

Ottoman Empire[edit]

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.[48]



Sectarianism in Iran has existed for centuries, dating back to the Islamic conquer of the country in early Islamic years and continuing throughout Iranian history until the present. During the Safavid Dynasty's reign, sectarianism started to play an important role in shaping the path of the country.[49] During the Safavid rule between 1501 and 1722, Shiism started to evolve and became established as the official state religion, leading to the creation of the first religiously legitimate government since the occultation of the Twelfth imam.[50] This pattern of sectarianism prevailed throughout the Iranian history. The approach that sectarianism has taken after the Iranian 1979 revolution is shifted compared to the earlier periods. Never before the Iranian 1979 revolution did the Shiite leadership gain as much authority.[51] Due to this change, the sectarian timeline in Iran can be divided in pre- and post-Iranian 1979 revolution where the religious leadership changed course.

Pre-1979 Revolution[edit]

Shiism has been an important factor in shaping the politics, culture and religion within Iran, long before the Iranian 1979 revolution.[49] During the Safavid Dynasty Shiism was established as the official ideology.[49] The establishment of Shiism as an official government ideology opened the doors for clergies to benefit from new cultural, political and religious rights which were denied prior to the Safavid ruling.[49] During the Safavid Dynasty Shiism was established as the official ideology.[49] The Safavid rule allowed greater freedom for religious leaders. By establishing Shiism as the state religion, they legitimised the religious authority. After this power establishment, religious leaders started to play a crucial role within the political system but remained socially and economically independent.[52] The monarchial power balance during the Safavid ere changed every few years, resulting in a changing limit of power of the clergies. The tensions concerning power relations of the religious authorities and the ruling power eventually played a pivotal role in the 1906 constitutional revolution which limited the power of the monarch, and increased the power of religious leaders.[53] The 1906 constitutional revolution involved both constitutionalist and anti-constitutionalist clergy leaders. Individuals such as Sayyid Jamal al-Din Va'iz were constitutionalist clergies whereas other clergies such as Mohammed Kazem Yazdi were considered anti-constitutionalist. The establishment of a Shiite government during the Safavid rule resulted in the increase of power within this religious sect. The religious power establishment increased throughout the years and resulted in fundamental changes within the Iranian society in the twentieth century, eventually leading to the establishment of the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

Post-1979 Revolution: Islamic Republic of Iran[edit]

The Iranian 1979 revolution led to the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the establishment of the Islamic Government of Iran. The governing body of Iran displays clear elements of sectarianism which are visible within different layers of its system. The 1979 revolution led to changes in political system, leading to the establishment of a bureaucratic clergy-regime which has created its own interpretation of the Shia sect in Iran.[49] Religious differentiation is often used by authoritarian regimes to express hostility towards other groups such as ethnic minorities and political opponents.[54] Authoritarian regimes can use religion as a weapon to create an "us and them" paradigm. This leads to hostility amongst the involved parties and takes place internally but also externally. A valid example is the suppression of religious minorities like the Sunnis and Baha-ís. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran sectarian discourses arose in the Middle-East as the Iranian religious regime has attempted and in some cases succeeded to spread its religious and political ideas in the region. These sectarian labeled issues are politically charged. The most notable Religious leaders in Iran are named Supreme-leaders. Their role has proved to be pivotal in the evolvement of sectarianism within the country and in the region. The following part discusses Iran's supreme-leadership in further detail.

Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei[edit]

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's first supreme-leader, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the participation of all Iranians in the war. His usage of Shia martyrdom led to the creation of a national consensus.[55] In the early aftermath of the Iranian 1979 revolution, Khomeini started to evolve a sectarian tone in his speeches. His focus on Shiism and Shia Islam grew which was also implemented within the changing policies of the country. In one of his speeches Khomeini quoted: "the Path to Jerusalem passes through Karbala." His phrase lead to many different interpretations, leading to turmoil in the region but also within the country.[56] From a religious historic viewpoint, Karbala and Najaf which are both situated in Iraq, serve as important sites for Shia Muslims around the world. By mentioning these two cities, Khomeini led to the creation of Shia expansionism.[57] Khomeini's war with the Iraqi Bath Regime had many underlying reasons and sectarianism can be considered one of the main reasons. The tensions between Iran and Iraq are of course not only sectarian related, but religion is often a weapon used by the Iranian regime to justify its actions. Khomeini's words also resonated in other Arab countries who had been fighting for Palestinian liberation against Israel. By naming Jerusalem, Khomeini expressed his desire for liberating Palestine from the hands of what he later often has named "the enemy of Islam." Iran has supported rebellious groups throughout the region. Its support for Hamas and Hezbollah has resulted in international condemnation.[58] This desire for Shia expansionism did not disappear after Khomeini's death. It can even be argued that sectarian tone within the Islamic Republic of Iran has grown since then. The Friday prayers held in Tehran by Ali Khamenei can be seen as a proof of growing sectarian tone within the regime. Khamenei's speeches are extremely political and sectarian.[59] He often mentions extreme wishes such as the removal of Israel from the world map and fatwas directed towards those opposing the regime.[60]


Sunni Iraqi insurgency and foreign Sunni terrorist organizations who came to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein have targeted Shia civilians in sectarian attacks. Following the civil war, the Sunnis have complained of discrimination by Iraq's Shia majority governments, which is bolstered by the news that Sunni detainees were allegedly discovered to have been tortured in a compound used by government forces on November 15, 2005.[61] This sectarianism has fueled a giant level of emigration and internal displacement.

The Shia majority oppression by the Sunni minority has a long history in Iraq. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British government placed a Sunni Hashemite monarchy to the Iraqi throne which suppressed various uprisings against its rule by the Christian Assyrians and Shi'ites.


Although sectarianism has been described as one of the characteristic features of the Syrian civil war, the narrative of sectarianism already had its origins in Syria's past.

Ottoman rule[edit]
Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo

The hostilities that took place in 1850 in Aleppo and subsequently in 1860 in Damascus, had many causes and reflected long-standing tensions. However, scholars have claimed that the eruptions of violence can also be partly attributed to the modernizing reforms, the Tanzimat, taking place within the Ottoman Empire, who had been ruling Syria since 1516.[62][63] The Tanzimat reforms attempted to bring about equality between Muslims and non-Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire. These reforms, combined with European interference on behalf of the Ottoman Christians, caused the non-Muslims to gain privileges and influence.[64] In the silk trade business, European powers formed ties with local sects. They usually opted for a sect that adhered to a religion similar to the one in their home countries, thus not Muslims.[65] These developments caused new social classes to emerge, consisting of mainly Christians, Druzes and Jews. These social classes stripped the previously existing Muslim classes of their privileges. The involvement of another foreign power, though this time non-European, also had its influence on communal relations in Syria. Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt ruled Syria between 1831 and 1840. His divide-and-rule strategy contributed to the hostilities between the Druze and Maronite community, by arming the Maronite Christians. However, it is noteworthy to mention that different sects did not fight the others out of religious motives, nor did Ibrahim Pasha aim to disrupt society among communal lines.[66] This can also be illustrated by the unification of Druzes and Maronites in their revolts to oust Ibrahim Pasha in 1840. This goes to show the fluidity of communal alliances and animosities and the different, at times non-religious, reasons that may underline sectarianism.

After Ottoman rule[edit]

Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the French Mandate in Syria, the Syrian territory had already witnessed massacres on the Maronite Christians, other Christians, Alawites, Shias and Ismailiyas, which had resulted in distrustful sentiments between the members of different sects.[67] In an attempt to protect the minority communities against the majority Sunni population, France, with the command of Henri Gouraud, created five states for the following sects: Armenians, Alawites, Druzes, Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims.[68] This focus on minorities was new and part of a divide-and-rule strategy of the French, which enhanced and politicized differences between sects.[63] The restructuring by the French caused the Alawite community to advance itself from their marginalized position. In addition to that, the Alawites were also able to obtain a position of power through granting top level positions to family members of the ruling clan or other tribal allies of the Alawite community.[69]

During the period 1961–1980, Syria was not necessarily exclusively ruled by the Alawite sect, but due to efforts of the Sunni Muslim extremist opponents of the Ba’th regime in Syria, it was perceived as such. The Ba’ath regime was being dominated by the Alawite community, as well as were other institutions of power.[70] As a result of this, the regime was considered to be sectarian, which caused the Alawite community to cluster together, as they feared for their position.[70] This period is actually contradictory as Hafez al-Assad tried to create a Syrian Arab nationalism, but the regime was still regarded as sectarian and sectarian identities were reproduced and politicized.[71]

Sectarian tensions that later gave rise to the Syrian civil war, had already appeared in society due to events preceding 1970. For example, President Hafez al-Assad's involvement in the Lebanese civil war by giving political aid to Maronite Christians in Lebanon. This was viewed by many Sunny Muslims as an act of treason, which made them link al-Assad's actions to his Alawite identity.[72] The Muslim Brothers, a part of the Sunni Muslims, used those tensions towards the Alawites as a tool to boost their political agenda and plans.[72] Several assassinations were carried out by the Muslim Brothers, mostly against Alawites, but also against some Sunni Muslims. The failed assassination attempt on President Hafez al-Assad is arguably the most well-known.[73] Part of the animosity between the Alawites and the Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brothers is due to the secularization of Syria, which the later holds the Alawites in power to be responsible for.

Syrian Civil War[edit]

As of 2015, the majority of the Syrian population consisted of Sunni Muslims, namely two-thirds of the population, which can be found throughout the country. The Alawites are the second largest group, which make up around 10 percent of the population.[74] This makes them a ruling minority. The Alawites were originally settled in the highlands of Northwest Syria, but since the twentieth century have spread to places like Latakia, Homs and Damascus.[75] Other groups that can be found in Syria are Christians, among which the Maronite Christians, Druzes and Twelver Shias. Although sectarian identities played a role in the unfolding of events of the Syrian Civil War, the importance of tribal and kinship relationships should not be underestimated, as they can be used to obtain and maintain power and loyalty.[69]

At the start of the protests against President Basher al-Assad in March 2011, there was no sectarian nature or approach involved. The opposition had national, inclusive goals and spoke in the name of a collective Syria, although the protesters being mainly Sunni Muslims.[76] This changed after the protests and the following civil war began to be portrayed in sectarian terms by the regime, as a result of which people started to mobilize along ethnic lines.[77] However, this does not mean that the conflict is solely or primarily a sectarian conflict, as there were also socio-economic factors at play. These socio-economic factors were mainly the result of Basher al-Assad's mismanaged economic restructuring.[78] The conflict has therefore been described as being semi-sectarian, making sectarianism a factor at play in the civil war, but certainly does not stand alone in causing the war and has varied in importance throughout time and place.[79]

In addition to local forces, the role of external actors in the conflict in general as well as the sectarian aspect of the conflict should not be overlooked. Although foreign regimes were first in support of the Free Syrian Army, they eventually ended up supporting sectarian militias with money and arms. However, it has to be said that their sectarian nature did not only attract these flows of support, but they also adopted a more sectarian and Islamic appearance in order to attract this support.[80]



In Yemen, there have been many clashes between Salafis and Shia Houthis. According to The Washington Post, "In today’s Middle East, activated sectarianism affects the political cost of alliances, making them easier between co-religionists. That helps explain why Sunni-majority states are lining up against Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah over Yemen."[81]

Historically, divisions in Yemen along religious lines (sects) are less intense than those in Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.[82][83][84][85] Most political forces in Yemen are primarily characterized by regional interests and not by religious sectarianism.[82][84] Regional interests are, for example, the north's proximity to the Hejaz, the south's coast along the Indian Ocean trade route, and the southeast's oil and gas fields.[84][86] Yemen's northern population consists for a substantial part of Zaydis, and its southern population predominantly of Shafi’is.[84] Hadhramaut in Yemen's southeast has a distinct Sufi Ba’Alawi profile.[84]

Ottoman era, 1849–1918[edit]

Sectarianism reached the region once known as Arabia Felix with the 1911 Treaty of Daan.[87][88] It divided the Yemen Vilayet into an Ottoman controlled section and an Ottoman-Zaydi controlled section.[87][88] The former dominated by Sunni Islam and the latter by Zaydi-Shia Islam, thus dividing the Yemen Vilayet along Islamic sectarian lines.[87][88] Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din became the ruler of the Zaidi community within this Ottoman entity.[87][89] Before the agreement, inter-communal battles between Shafi’is and Zaydis never occurred in the Yemen Vilayet.[82][88] After the agreement, sectarian strife still did not surface between religious communities.[88] Feuds between Yemenis were nonsectarian in nature, and Zaydis attacked Ottoman officials not because they were Sunnis.[88]

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the divide between Shafi’is and Zaydis changed with the establishment of the Kingdom of Yemen.[87][89] Shafi’i scholars were compelled to accept the supreme authority of Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din, and the army “institutionalized the supremacy of the Zaydi tribesman over the Shafi’is”.[87][89]

Unification period, 1918–1990[edit]

Before the 1990 Yemeni unification, the region had never been united as one country.[82][90] In order to create unity and overcome sectarianism, the myth of Qahtanite was used as a nationalist narrative.[84] Although not all ethnic groups of Yemen fit in this narrative, such as the Al-Akhdam and the Teimanim.[84][91] The latter established a Jewish kingdom in ancient Yemen, the only one ever created outside Palestine.[92] A massacre of Christians, executed by the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas, eventually led to the fall of the Homerite Kingdom.[87][92] In modern times, the establishment of the Jewish state resulted in the 1947 Aden riots, after which most Teimanim left the country during Operation Magic Carpet.[91]

Conflicting geopolitical interests surfaced during the North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970).[90] Wahhabist Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies supported Muhammad al-Badr, the deposed Zaydi imam of the Kingdom of Yemen.[82][90][93] His adversary, Abdullah al-Sallal, received support from Egypt and other Arab republics.[82][90][93] Both international backings were not based on religious sectarian affiliation.[82][90][93][94] In Yemen however, President Abdullah al-Sallal (a Zaydi) sidelined his vice-president Abdurrahman al-Baidani (a Shaffi'i) for not being a member of the Zaydi sect.[87][92] Shaffi'i officials of North Yemen also lobbied for "the establishment of a separate Shaffi'i state in Lower Yemen" in this period.[87]

Contemporary Sunni-Shia rivalry[edit]

According to Lisa Wedeen, the perceived sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shias in the Muslim world is not the same as Yemen's sectarian rivalry between Salafists and Houthis.[93] Not all supporters of Houthi's Ansar Allah movement are Shia, and not all Zaydis are Houthis.[84][95][94] Although most Houthis are followers of Shia's Zaydi branch, most Shias in the world are from the Twelver branch. Yemen is geographically not in proximity of the so-called Shia Crescent. To link Hezbollah and Iran, whose subjects are overwhelmingly Twelver Shias, organically with Houthis is exploited for political purposes.[89][95][94][96][97] Saudi Arabia emphasized an alleged military support of Iran for the Houthis during Operation Scorched Earth.[82][95][98] The slogan of the Houthi movement is 'Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews'. This is a trope of Iran and Hezbollah, so the Houthis seem to have no qualms about a perceived association with them.[84][89][95][98]

Tribes and political movements[edit]

Tribal culture in the southern regions has virtually disappeared through policies of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.[84][99] However, Yemen's northern part is still home to the powerful tribal confederations of Bakil and Hashid.[84] These tribal confederations maintain their own institutions without state interference, such as prisons, courts, and armed forces.[84] Unlike the Bakils, the Hashids adopted Salafist tenets, and during the Sa’dah War (2004-2015) sectarian tensions materialized.[84] Yemen's Salafists attacked the Zaydi Mosque of Razih in Sa’dah and destroyed tombs of Zaydi imams across Yemen.[83][84][93] In turn, Houthis attacked Yemen's main Salafist center of Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi'I during the Siege of Dammaj.[83][84][94] Houthis also attacked the Salafist Bin Salman Mosque and threatened various Teimanim families.[89][98]

Members of Hashid's elite founded the Sunni Islamist party Al-Islah and, as a counterpart, Hizb al-Haqq was founded by Zaydis with the support of Bakil's elite.[84][94][98] Violent non-state actors Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia and Daesh, particularly active in southern cities like Mukalla, fuel sectarian tendencies with their animosity towards Yemen's Isma'ilis, Zaydis, and others.[82][84][100][101][102] An assassination attempt in 1995 on Hosni Mubarak, executed by Yemen's Islamists, damaged the country's international reputation.[89] The war on terror further strengthened Salafist-jihadist groups impact on Yemen's politics.[84][89][93] The 2000 USS Cole bombing resulted in US military operations on Yemen's soil.[84][89] Collateral damage caused by cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and drone attacks, deployed by the United States, compromised Yemen's sovereignty.[84][89][94]

Ali Abdullah Saleh's reign[edit]

Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Zaydi from the Hashid's Sanhan clan and founder of the nationalist party General People's Congress.[84] During his decades long reign as head of state, he used Sa'dah's Salafist's ideological dissemination against Zaydi's Islamic revival advocacy.[93][98] In addition, the Armed Forces of Yemen used Salafists as mercenaries to fight against Houthis.[84] Though, Ali Abdullah Saleh also used Houthis as a political counterweight to Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood.[89][98] Due to the Houthis persistent opposition to the central government, Upper Yemen was economically marginalized by the state.[89][98] This policy of divide and rule executed by Ali Abdullah Saleh worsened Yemen's social cohesion and nourished sectarian persuasions within Yemen's society.[89][93][98]

Following the Arab Spring and the Yemeni Revolution, Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down as president in 2012.[84][103] Subsequently, a complex and violent power struggle broke out between three national alliances: (1) Ali Abdullah Saleh, his political party General People's Congress, and the Houthis; (2) Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, supported by the political party Al-Islah; (3) Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, supported by the Joint Meeting Parties.[94][96][104] According to Ibrahim Fraihat, “Yemen’s conflict has never been about sectarianism, as the Houthis were originally motivated by economic and political grievances. However, in 2014, the regional context substantially changed”.[96] The Houthi takeover in 2014-2015 provoked a Saudi-led intervention, strengthening the sectarian dimension of the conflict.[82][96] Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah heavily criticized the Saudi intervention, bolstering the regional Sunni-Shia geopolitical dynamic behind it.[96]

Saudi Arabia[edit]

Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia is exemplified through the tensions with its Shi’ite population, who constitute up to 15% of the Saudi population.[105] This includes the anti-Shi’ite policies and persecution of the Shi’ites by the Saudi government.[106] According to Human Rights Watch, Shi’ites face marginalisation socially, politically, religiously, legally and economically, whilst facing discrimination in education and in the workplace.[107] This history dates back to 1744, with the establishment of a coalition between the House of Saud and the Wahhabis, who equate Shi’ism with polytheism.[108] Over the course of the twentieth century clashes and tensions unfolded between the Shi’ites and the Saudi regime, including the 1979 Qatif Uprising and the repercussions of the 1987 Makkah Incident.[108][109] Though relations underwent a détente in the 1990s and the early 2000s, tensions rose again after the 2003 US-led election of Iraq (owing to a broader rise of Shi’ism in the region) and peaked during the Arab Spring.[105] Sectarianism in Saudi Arabia has attracted widespread attention by Human Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, especially after the execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016, who was active in the 2011 domestic protests.[110] Despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reforms, Shi’ites continue to face discrimination today.[111][112]



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.[113] 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.[114]

Historical background[edit]

According to various historians, sectarianism in Lebanon is not simply an inherent phenomenon 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".[115] 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).[116] 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.[115] 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."[117] 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.[118] 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.[119] 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.[118] The referencing of Lebanon's census during every election year was supposed to determine the positions allotted to each religious sect, and yet in order to maintain Christian majority power in the country- furthering the support of sectarianism-, this has not been done since 1932.

The Lebanese Civil War, 1975–1990[edit]

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”.[118] According to Makdisi, sectarianism reached its peak during the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.[120] 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.[115]

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”.[121] 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.[121] 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."[122]

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 militias.[121] 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).

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”.[121] 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.[123]

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.[121]

The Taif Agreement[edit]

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.[124] 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."[125] 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[118] 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.[118]

Spillover from the Syrian conflict[edit]

The Syrian conflict which began in 2011 when clashes began between the Assad government 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 and cause terrorism.[113]

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 government, 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.[126]

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.”[127] 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.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]