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What can we learn from the history of sectarian strife?

By Michael Kugelman
October  1 2012




A deeply divided nation, not yet 70 years old, is convulsed by religious violence. In one major city, members of a persecuted minority request that their children be permitted to read their Holy Book in school. Militant members of the religious majority are enraged. Their ensuing fulminations whip up hysteria, spawning riots and mob violence. The minority’s worship centers and homes are torched, and when the smoke has cleared, 20 people are dead.

This is not a depiction of present-day Quetta, Karachi, or Lahore. It is a portrait of Philadelphia in 1844, and evokes the antagonism then prevailing between America’s Protestants and Catholics.

In the aftermath of violent protests in Pakistan staged in reaction to an anti-Islam video, and in light of the seemingly weekly — if not daily — sectarian attacks that ravage Pakistan, there is a tendency (especially here in Washington) to assume that religion and violence go hand-in-hand in Pakistan, and on a level seen in few other countries (that most Pakistanis chose to register their disgust toward the film in purely peaceful ways has gone unacknowledged around these parts, and in most major media).

There is certainly truth in the assumption that Pakistan is awash in sectarian bloodshed. I would argue that along with the country’s human development challenges — water and energy shortages, public health crises, educational dysfunction — religious violence poses the country’s greatest long-term threat.

Yet it’s also important to step back and consider some historical context.

Back in the 1830s and 1840s, according to religious freedom scholar Albert J. Menendez, religious hostility in the United States “threatened to tear the country apart.” In an eye-opening article written about 15 years ago for an obscure publication named Freedom Writer, Menendez described how “religious agitators” convinced “large numbers” of American Protestants that Catholics were out to “enslave” non-Catholics. Nuns and priests were demonised, students were beaten, churches were dynamited, and crosses were stolen. Flouting the laws of religious freedom enshrined in the US Constitution, American legal authorities offered little support; state legislatures even introduced bills that banned convents.

This dreadful state of affairs lasted into the 1870s. Menendez chronicles how Protestant riots in New York City on a single day in 1871 led to 62 deaths—most of them Irish Catholic immigrants. The media, the courts, and law enforcement expressed little sympathy toward the victims. Instead, they blamed Catholics for “opposing law and order and Bible-oriented education.” Harper’s Weekly, a leading journal, denounced Catholics as the “bitterest enemies” of “good order and progress.”

The United States experienced different manifestations of religious persecution well into the next century — from anti-Mormon campaigns to anti-Semitism, and spearheaded by a new generation of villains ranging from deranged preachers to the Ku Klux Klan. Today, America — excluding periodic incidents such as the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this year — is generally a paragon of religious freedom and tolerance. But it certainly wasn’t always that way.

Some may argue that Pakistan’s sectarian strife should be understood as the growing pains of a young country, and that with time, the bloodshed will abate. After all, such has been America’s trajectory.

Alas, that’s the wrong argument to make. I enjoy pointing out the similarities between the two nations, but in this case it’s hard to make comparisons. In the United States, the legal system contains copious legal protections for minorities, a clear separation between religion and state has long been in place, and powerful militant religious movements (much less those with possible ties to the government) are nonexistent.  None of this applies in Pakistan—which suggests that religious violence won’t be going away anytime soon.

Here’s the correct argument to make when confronted by the legacy of religious violence in America: History shows that no one country has a monopoly on sectarian conflict. Yes, its sharpest and most tragic manifestations today may be in the Middle East and South Asia—but this is far from the full story.

If we take off our reductivist blinders and acknowledge this fact, it is easier to get a more nuanced — and hence more accurate — picture. We will recognise that the filmmaker(s) in America who produced the anti-Islam screed represent the present-day incarnation of those who orchestrated campaigns of hate against Catholicism in the 19th century, and Judaism in the 20th century.

Henry Ford, the American automobile titan (and a notorious religious bigot) famously said that “history is bunk.” However, for anyone wishing to develop a fair and complete understanding of the nature and extent of sectarianism, history is anything but bunk.  Rather, it is sadly instructive. The philosopher Voltaire once opined that history is “nothing but a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.” Sadly, this tableau is voluminous in scale, and global in scope—as grimly illustrated by the world’s history of sectarian strife.


The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

picture: Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

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