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Sectarianism can broadly be defined as divisions within a group, such as different denominations within a religion, based on perceived differences. It does not necessarily result in conflict, but historically, sectarian divisions along religious and political lines have contributed to conflict.

Sectarian religious conflict has contributed to some of the most intractable, bitter and painful episodes of aggression and persecution throughout history. For instance, conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants has existed for centuries, bound closely with nationalist identities, playing out globally in North American cities, as well as the streets of Belfast and Glasgow. Another faultline where sectarian conflict has contribute to wider conflicts has been within Islam. Certain Sunni sects inspired by extreme Wahhabism and other ideologies have declared Shi’as (and sometimes mainstream Sunnis) to be heretics and/or apostates.

Longstanding and emerging divisions within groups, particularly within religions, could become an axis across which violence and conflict are articulated. Divisions within confessional groups could have destabilising effects within a region and around the world. Recent examples of this are Lebanon (where both sectarian and inter-confessional conflict co-exist) and Pakistan.

Sectarian conflicts are complicated and cannot be separated from geographical, cultural, political and economic contexts. For instance, sectarian divisions could influence, or be influenced by, how people experience and react to global economic competition and domestic economic frustrations (for example, high unemployment among Saudi and Iranian graduates). Economic frustrations could deepen and exacerbate sectarian divisions, influencing the outbreak of violence and conflict. These factors lead us towards the possible “wildcard” of a major eruption of sectarian conflict in highly sensitive regions of the world such as Iraq, Pakistan or Northern Ireland,...
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