AskDefine | Define sectarian

Dictionary Definition

sectarian adj
1 of or relating to or characteristic of a sect or sects; "sectarian differences"
2 belonging to or characteristic of a sect; "a sectarian mind"; "the negations of sectarian ideology"- Sidney Hook; "sectarian squabbles in psychology" [ant: nonsectarian] n : a member of a sect; "most sectarians are intolerant of the views of any other sect" [syn: sectary, sectarist]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • italbrac RP /sɛkˈtɛəriən/
  • italbrac US /sɛkˈtɛriən/
  • Rhymes with: -ɛəriən


  1. Of, or relating to a sect.
  2. Dogmatic or partisan.
  3. Parochial or narrow-minded.
  4. Bigoted.

Derived terms


of, or relating to a sect
dogmatic or partisan
parochial or narrow-minded


  1. A member of a sect.
  2. A bigot.

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Sectarianism is bigotry, discrimination, intolerance or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion or the factions of a political movement.
The ideological underpinnings of attitudes and behaviors labeled as sectarian are extraordinarily varied. Members of a religious or political group may feel that their own salvation, or 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 purged. Sometimes a group feeling itself to be under economic or political pressure will attack members of another group thought to be responsible for its own decline. It may also more rigidly define the definition of "orthodox" belief within its particular group or organisation, and expel or excommunicate those who do not agree with this newfound 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 cynically exploited to serve an individual demagogue's ambition.
A sectarian conflict usually refers to violent conflict along religious and political lines such as the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland (although, political beliefs, ethnicity and class-divisions all played major roles as well). It may also refer to general philosophical, political or armed conflict 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

Sectarianism is present in all parts of the world. It dates back to the fifteenth century and is dividing at best. Wherever religious sectarians compete, religious sectarianism is found in varying forms and degrees. In some areas, religious sectarians (for example Protestant and Catholic Christians in the United States) now exist peacefully side-by-side for the most part. In others, some nominal Catholics and Protestants have been in fierce conflict – one recent example of this was in Northern Ireland, although the conflict was condemned by all Catholic and most Protestant leaders. Within Islam, there has been conflict at various periods between Sunnis and Shias; certain Sunni sects inspired by Wahhabism and other ideologies have declared Shias (and sometimes mainstream Sunnis) to be heretics and/or apostates. Contemporary Iraq and Pakistan are two notable contemporary examples.
Since the 17th century, there has been sectarian conflict of varying intensity in Ireland. This religious sectarianism is bound up with nationalism. This has been particularly intense in Northern Ireland since the Irish Free State became independent in 1922. Irish emigration has taken this conflict to other lands, including Scotland (with some fans of football clubs such as Rangers and Celtic indulging in sectarian chants) (see: Sectarianism in Glasgow), Newfoundland, Canada's Maritime provinces, New York State, Ontario, Liverpool, and elsewhere. See also Know-Nothings for anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States.
In Catholic countries, Protestants have historically been persecuted as heretics. For example, the substantial Protestant population of France (the Huguenots) was expelled from the kingdom in the 1680s following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In Spain, the Inquisition sought to root out not only Protestantism but also crypto-Jews and 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. 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 in 1829, Catholics were forbidden from voting, becoming MP's or buying land in Ireland.
Today, bigotry and discrimination in employment are usually relegated a few places where extreme forms of religion are the norm, or in areas with a long history of sectarian violence and tension, such as Northern Ireland (especially in terms of employment, however, this is dying out in this jurisdiction, thanks to strictly-enforced legislation, although it should be noted that reverse discrimination now takes place in terms of employment quotas which are now applied). 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.
The civil wars in the Balkans which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia have been heavily tinged with sectarianism. Croats and Slovenes have traditionally been Catholic, Serbs and Macedonians Eastern Orthodox, and Bosniaks and (for the most part) 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.


Protestant Ascendancy and anti-Irishness as founding cultures of the nascent Australia

During the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Australia was a sectarian society divided between Catholics — predominantly but not exclusively of Irish background — on the one hand and Protestants of British heritage on the other . The British military authorities who founded the penal colony of New South Wales in 1788 brought anti-Catholic, Anglican Ascendancy sectarianism with them: the settlement was perpetually on high alert in case of risings led by exiled Irish political prisoners — there were rebellions in Ireland in 1798 and 1803 and many involved had been transported to Australia — in the context of war with republican France. No Catholic chaplains were permitted in the colony for its first thirty years.

Maltreatment of Irish prisoners

In 1804, Irish prisoners staged a successful but doomed uprising. Traditional Protestant British state-hatred of the "Catholic Irish" coalesced with contemporary fears of a pro-French republican fifth column and the Irish convicts and settlers — most of whom spoke Irish as their community language until the 1850s — represented a separate ethnos to be kept under constant suspicion and both formal and informal surveillance. Ironically, many of the Irish convicts who were republican prisoners after 1798 were, in fact, Protestants. Nonetheless, it is recorded that predominantly Catholic Irish-speaking prisoners were frequently singled out for physical maltreatment by the authorities and sometimes murdered by English convicts for speaking Irish on the basis that it was a conspiratorial tongue.

Loyalism as state culture

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the immediate threat of an Irish convict seizure of the penal colony largely evaporated, though anti-Irish and anti-Catholic suspicions did not, particularly given the massive Irish migration occurring as a consequence of Great Irish Famine between 1845-1849. Irish involvement in the Eureka Stockade in 1854 and the transportation of Fenians (including their subsequent rescue) in the 1860s meant loyalism and Protestant ascendancy (including Orangeism) remained pre-eminent values in the colony in the second half of the nineeteenth century, with most Protestant Australians of English and Scottish background strongly attached to British imperialism as their core identities — at the time, British imperialism, loyalism and notions of innate Protestant and Anglo-Saxon supremacy were mutually reinforcing, though some Catholics in the Australian colonies attained positions of power by adopting vocally loyalist public postures.

Position of Irish Catholics and Anglo-Scottish Protestants

However, because Irish Catholics were a greater proportion of the population in Australia than they had been back home, they enjoyed an ostensibly more level playing field when it came to community relations. This was particularly noticeable in civic society, where the increasingly urban Irish Catholic population played a disproportionate role in the labour movement (including the foundation of the Australian Labor Party) in direct opposition to the disproportionate role in business played by Anglicans and Presbyterians who were typically involved in conservative politics. Sectarian antipathy between the two blocs characterised Australian society and politics in the 1920s and 1930s with Protestants using Freemasonry to express a solidarity based on social and political anti-Catholic attitudes . This developed into a strong and mythic tendency — sustained until the 1950s — for most Catholics to vote Labor (ALP) and for most Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists to vote for their conservative opponents.

Events in Ireland affect Australia

Towards the end of nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, growing unrest in Ireland — for example, the Land War — constantly fed sectarian tensions between Catholics of Irish nationalist background and Protestants of British unionist background. This divide became starkly and bitterly apparent during the First World War: Anglo-Scottish Protestants were reflexively enthusiastic supporters of the war and conscription, in line with the establishment culture of loyalism; conversely, Irish Catholics were reflexively critical of both . When the Australian Government tried to introduce conscription it was defeated — on two occasions by referendum) — leading to a split in the ALP. Prominent Irish Catholic campaigners against the war and conscription such as Archbishop Daniel Mannix were widely denounced in public as traitors by Protestants . The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland heightened the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic atmosphere, even though most prominent Catholics — including Archbishop Mannix — had actually condemned the Rising.

Empire loyalism resurgent

The Irish War of Independence worsened community relations in Australia even further. Anglo-Australian Protestants saw the First World War as a definitive loyalist experience in which Australia had contributed significantly to the honour and prestige of the British Empire and organised loyalist rallies to counter those calling for Irish self-government; with the same reasoning, they considered Irish Australian Catholics with Irish nationalist sympathies to be treacherous— regardless of the fact that large numbers of Irish Australian Catholics had signed up, fought in the Australian contingents of the British Army and been killed in Europe. Anglo-Australian Protestant ex-serviceman formed loyalist paramilitary organisations in preparation for a final confrontation with Irish Australian Catholics in an atmosphere of severe sectarian and ethnic suspicion . After the Anglo-Irish Treaty, partition of Ireland and Irish Civil War, sectarianism became less explicit but did not disappear: Australian conservatives — primarily Protestant — were still strongly loyalist and antipathetic to the existence of the 'disloyal' Irish Free State.

Second World War

Nevertheless, with the entry of Australia into the Second World War there was no repeat of the public anti-Catholic denunciations that had characterised society in 1914, even when in 1941 the British garrison at Singapore fell to the Japanese, leaving Australia largely undefended. Large numbers of Catholics and Protestants alike joined up to fight with Australian formations during the war. Similarly, when Australian troops fought in the Korean War and Viet Nam War, sectarianism did not pit Protestant against Catholic in supporting or opposing either conflict. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and her tour around Australia in 1954 did not attract sectarian comment, either in terms of calls of 'disloyalty' from Anglo-Australian Protestants to Irish Australian Catholics, or in terms of calls of 'fawning' from vice versa. One commentator considers that anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia expired in the 1950s when the predominantly Protestant conservative government of the time agreed to state aid for Catholic schools .

New Australians

Nonetheless, the Australia of the 1950s was still an Australia in which notions of Catholicism and Protestantism, loyalism and disloyalism, were of everyday noteworthiness. Catholics were still associated with Irishness, and Protestants with Britishness, though as Australia developed further away from Britain the division became less bitter. This was enabled in part by the mass migration in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s of large numbers of non-British and non-Irish settlers, primarily from Italy, Greece, Malta, and Eastern Europe. Old enmities simply made less sense in this new cosmopolitan demographic environment.

Cultural shift

What is more, the entry of Britain into the Common Market in 1973 devalued the long-cherished Anglo-Australian Protestant value of loyalism. Around the same time, Republicanism in Australia, largely divested of its historical insinuations, became a real possibility with the election of — and subsequent dismissal of — the Whitlam Labor Government , which dismantled many of the old imperial symbolism that had hitherto characterised Australian public office These reforms were continued during the 1980s and led, ultimately, to the Australia Act of 1986 which removed the power of the British Parliament to legislate for Australia.

Echoes of sectarianism

Thus the old sectarian divide — or, indeed, the British-Irish divide — had largely metamorphosised into a debate around the extent to which Australia, an independent country, should retain symbolic manifestations of its historic links to Britain, though anti-Irish sentiment resurfaced in the 1970s and 1980s. Recognition, however, that sectarianism as an everyday influence was a thing of the past was most clearly seen in the Republic referendum campaign in 1999, where a number of commentators suggested that, broadly speaking, monarchists were more likely to be Protestants of British background and republicans were more likely to be Catholics of Irish background and that the republic debate itself risked resurrecting sectarian enmity between the two groups.

Australia today

In contemporary Australia, sectarianism between Catholic and Protestant is extant but minimal and occasionally raises comment , though the issue intermittently reappears — for example, in discussion of sexual abuse being associated with certain denominations, or when politicians are said to follow their more their faith than the public interest in deciding matters of public policy . Furthermore, public sectarianism in Australia today is more likely to be manifested in terms of a Christian-Muslim divide than a Catholic-Protestant one, and at least one commentator has stated that sectarianism in contemporary Australia is best described in terms of secularists versus religious .

Middle East and Asia


In India, sectarianism is known as communalism, which refers particularly to conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities. It can also refer to Hindu/Sikh conflict and Hindu/Christian conflicts. While communalism usually implies economic communalism, in this sense it refers to the sectarians' "community." Violence in Sri Lanka between the Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslim communities often has heavy sectarian overtones.


In Pakistan, there has been a brutal history of sectarian violence and unrest since the 1970s. In the early years, the Sunni focus was Ahmadis. Today, though, the main violence exists between Sunnis and Shias; this conflict playing a major role in the development of the country's 60-year history.Under the rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, sectarianism in Pakistan, especially in Karachi, came to an explosive point. This sparked a whole new era of sectarian violence whose legacy came to a near end when a Sunni suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in 2003 took place. Many have attributed this to Zia's practice of Wahhabism, which gained notoriety in mainstream Sunni after the destruction of the Shia holy shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq, in 1800. The plan for Islamization of Pakistan led to further violence between the two main sects.
In the early part of the new millennium, the names of Shia doctors and lawyers were listed on anonymously paid-for newspaper ads; these were, in fact, assassination hit lists - those listed were systematically assassinated by extremist Salafist and Deobandi groups as part of an effort to ethnically cleanse the nation of its Shia notables. More recently, Sectarianism in Pakistan has been institutionalised to the extent that it has become a complex part of Pakistani society in which the dividing lines are blurred. Although sectarianism in the Pakistani context often refers to the conflict between the majority Sunni and minority Shia traditions, this definition is misleading. These two groups are not homogenous, having their own subsects, local variants and different schools of thought.


Iraq's Shia population was persecuted during the presidency of Saddam Hussein, and certain elements of the Iraqi insurgency have made a point of targeting Shias in sectarian attacks. In turn, the Sunnis have complained of discrimination and human rights abuses 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. This sectarianism has fueled a giant level of emigration and internal displacement.
Some people advocate an independent nation for the Shias of Iraq. The idea that Iraq could be split into 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 was split into Hindu-dominant India and Muslim-dominant Pakistan. After a two year trial, Malaysia was split into Malay-dominant Malaysia and Chinese-dominant Singapore.


seealso Lebanese civil war
Sectarianism in Lebanon was caused because of the political sharing of power. The 1943 National Pact gave the Maronite Christians, the then majority, more power than the other groups. Although the Taif agreement ended the civil war, power is still divided along sects.

Sectarianism within Judaism

Sectarianism also exists between Orthodox and Reform Jews, with orthodox Jews often characterizing reform Jews as being non-religious, disobeying the Torah, rarely attending shul and adopting semi-Christian styles of worship. Reform Jews, on the other hand, often view the orthodox as being intolerant of them and of other religions, placing legalistic rules such as the observance of the Sabbath above ethical obligations, being cult-like and hostile to change.

Political sectarianism

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. However, separatist fundamentalist Protestant political parties have proliferated, and regularly denounce one another, in New Zealand, as can be seen from the entries on United Future New Zealand and Future New Zealand. Libertarianism seems to be similarly susceptible to fissiparous tendencies of its own.
Another great example is the stalinist denouncing of Trotskyist movements, and libertarian socialists.
The Monty Python film The Life of Brian has a well-known joke in which various Judean groups, who to an outsider are indistinguishable, are more concerned with in-fighting than with their nominal aim of opposing Roman rule. This is taken to be a parody of modern political groups.


sectarian in Modern Greek (1453-): Σεκταρισμός
sectarian in French: Sectarisme
sectarian in Armenian: Աղանդավորություն
sectarian in Portuguese: Sectarismo

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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