Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

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


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

He can be reached at or on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (10) Closed

Sultan Ahmed (@CI_Ahmed)
Sep 27, 2012 01:08pm
America has experienced different manifestations of religious persecution in the past but now it's a paragon of religious freedom and tolerance.I'd like to know the possible factors that lead to modern day tolerant and free America.
Raw is War
Sep 27, 2012 08:58pm
good article!!
Sep 27, 2012 04:45pm
sectarianism devides a society and thereafter a nation, pakistan should take a lesson from partition of India and Pakistan.
Mohammad Ali Khan
Sep 27, 2012 02:45pm
The world wide reform took a major step back with the promotion of Zionism.When we read the praise of great scholars e.g. Mahatma Gandhi,Gibbons,Bernard Shaw and many more, about the Prophet Mohammad and Islam, we wonder how the opinion has changed so much over a Century. The fanaticism in the Muslim world is a reaction to the fanaticism in Zionism.If only the world will learn, and resolve the Palestinian issue in a just way, and bring sanity in the political landscape.
Sep 27, 2012 04:04pm
Nicely written article. I would like to point out one thing though, for a society to emerge from the gallows of zealotry of any kind, it is utmost important to recognize, acknowledge and at least try to correct the wrong. Unfortunately muslims have failed to do so, in the worst of forms. The dark aspects of "Muslim" history is labeled as Islamic history and the thugs and dictators are protrayed as good-doers. Unless we identify these misgivings of history and rewrite them in their true spirit, muslims will continue to kill one another.
Sep 27, 2012 01:38pm
You forgot one thing young man.America has managed to solve it's problems regarding racism but your country still abounds in it after 65 years.How many more years will you need to see that people of all creeds and religion deserve a place on earth to live in peace.Including your country.
stop bias
Sep 28, 2012 02:15pm
it was 100 years after the declaration of independence was signed, that all MEN finally got the right to vote. Women had to wait several decades more
Sep 28, 2012 03:20pm
The lesson is wherever there is too much religion there is sectarianism and sectarian warfare -- hence the antidote, secularism.
Sep 28, 2012 01:28pm
author is right... just wait another 130 years... how long is that.... everything happening in pakistan is just an copy of what happened 130 years ago in America.. so west and other people should not talk negative as they moved on from there... give pakistan another 130 years... thats all i can see author trying to suggest.....
Sep 29, 2012 03:22am
The title of the blog does not go hand in hand with the matter inside. History is there to learn from. The author seems to be justifying sectarian intolerance in Pakistan with what happened in America over a hundred years ago.