Religious Prejudice

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Religious Prejudice

One night in June 1942, fourteen-year-old Samuel Goetz (1928–) watched in disbelief as his parents were taken forcefully from their home at gunpoint by men, German special agents, he had never seen. The Goetz family members were Jews living in Tarnow, Poland. For the previous few months, Sam and his friends watched as the life they had always known changed dramatically. As Jewish children, they no longer could attend school. Parks, movie theaters, skating rinks, and entire parts of their town were closed to Jews. Sam would never see his parents again. He too was soon taken from Tarnow and ended up in a concentration camp, Ebensee, in the Austrian Alps. Goetz survived and later moved to the United States where he earned a doctorate in optometry and became outspoken on the fate millions of European Jews faced during that earlier time.

By the year 2005, a Shiíte Muslim family from Tarmiya, Iraq, had not left their home for a month. They could no longer go to market or take their children to the medical clinic. Tarmiya, a city north of Baghdad, is a predominantly Sunni Muslim town. Shiíte and Sunni are two opposing branches of the religion known as Islam. The followers of Islam are called Muslims. The Tarmiya family felt unsafe just opening their front door or standing in their yard. Sunnis had recently lobbed mortar shells at neighbors' houses where two of the family's Shiíte religious leaders lived. Graffiti-covered rock walls, telling all Shiítes to get out of Tarmiya.

Both the Shiíte Muslim family from Iraq and the Goetzes from Poland were victims of religious prejudice. Prejudice is a negative attitude, emotion, or behavior towards individuals based on a prejudgment about those individuals without having any prior knowledge or experience. Religious prejudice means negative attitudes or behavior between people of different religious groups because of their differing religious beliefs.

Different religions have different beliefs, practices, and leadership structure. In many regions of the world, religion is the defining characteristic of a people. People tend to elevate their religion as the one and only true belief system or faith. This absolute conviction of superiority over all other religions can be dangerous. When for whatever reason a people of one religion become adversaries with people of a different belief system, prejudice and discrimination (treating some differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) always occur. Opponents are usually labeled as heathens or infidels, both meaning "unbelievers." Severe conflict resulting in violence can occur. World history is full of holy wars that were fought in the name of one's religion and God, all of which resulted in horrific death and destruction.

During the twentieth century, just as in every century of human history, religious prejudice, discrimination, and conflict were prevalent (widespread). Religious prejudice has led to discrimination, including oppression of religious practices, refusal to hire persons of the opposing religious beliefs, limiting educational opportunities of children, and banning social interaction between various religions. At its worst, religious prejudice has led to armed conflicts resulting in destruction of homes, religious sites, even entire villages, and the death of millions of people. Some long-standing conflicts explained in this chapter are: Islam's Sunni Muslims versus Shiíte Muslims; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs of India; and Buddhist Tibetan suppression within the People's Republic of China.


Policy unfavorable to the Jewish people; hatred and discrimination against Jews.
fundamentalist movement:
A movement stressing strict adherence to a basic set of religious beliefs and seeking to replace a secular government with a sectarian one.
secular government:
A government run by political leaders rather than by leaders of a certain religion.
sectarian government:
A government run by religious leaders of one particular religion.

The most merciless loss of life to religious prejudice in the twentieth century occurred in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Six million European Jews were murdered by Germany's Nazi army simply because they were Jews. Hatred of Jews is called anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism involves not only religious prejudice but also racial prejudice as well.

Another form of religious prejudice resulting in conflict is religious fundamentalist movements (movements that stress strict adherence to a basic set of religious beliefs). The goal of fundamentalist movements is to replace governments run by politicians with ones led by religious leaders governed under religious law. The foremost example of such a movement in the second half of the twentieth century progressing into the twenty-first century is Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalists opposed the presence of influences from any other religion within their own societies, which has led to justifying terrorist attacks against Western societies.

Major World Religions

With more than two billion adherents, Christianity is the world's largest religion. The two major branches of Christianity are Catholicism and Protestantism. Believers within the Christian religion are called Christians.

The second largest religion, with more than one billion adherents, is Islam, followers of the Prophet Muhammad who lived in present-day Saudi Arabia in the seventh century. Those faithful to the Islamic religion are called Muslims. Both Christians and Muslims believe in one Supreme Being, God or Allah.

The third and fourth largest religions both originated in India. Hinduism claims more than eight hundred million adherents; Buddhism, more than 350 million devotees. Sikhism, another religion originating in India, was founded as an alternative to Hinduism and Buddhism. Sikhism has approximately 21 million followers. Many gods are worshipped in the Indian religions.

Judaism is the religion of Jewish people. Worldwide, the Jewish population is about fifteen million. There are a number of movements within Judaism, such as Reform, which is progressive and eliminates some ancient traditions, and Orthodox, which retains ancient practices. A considerable number of Jews are secular (not involved in the formal practice of Judaism) but nevertheless maintain their identity as Jews. Like Christians and Muslims, Jews are monotheistic, believing in only one God.

Although religious prejudice often begins conflicts, such conflicts frequently involve other issues such as economic strife and political unrest. A prime example is the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Long under political rule by Protestants, Catholics rebelled against what they considered not only political but economic discrimination as well, as Protestants also had cornered the better job opportunities. A bloody campaign lasted from 1964 through the mid-1990s aimed at driving the Protestants out of Northern Ireland. Thousands were left dead until a truce finally resulted.

Iraq-Sunni versus Shiítes

The second largest and fastest-growing religion of the world is Islam. Islam means recognition of and total submission to the one and only God known as Allah. A follower of the Islam religion is called a Muslim. Muslims believe the angel Gabriel related the words of the Qurán, Islam's sacred book, to Prophet Muhammad (570–632), who lived in present-day Saudi Arabia. All Muslims consider the Qurán the one true account of God's words to man. They believe the Qurán is the communication that reveals God's will for man and provides a prescription for the way to live one's life.

Muhammad, the messenger of God's words, is thought to have lived a perfect, sinless life in accordance with God's will. Stories of Muhammad's life and his sayings are collected in a multi-volume set of books known as the Sunna, which means "way of the prophet." Each account in the Sunna is called a hadith, or tradition. The Sunna helps Muslims better understand how they are to live out God's will.

Although Islam originated in the Middle East, by the twenty-first century it had spread to many parts of the world and had roughly 1.3 billion followers. Large concentrations of Muslims live not only in the Middle East but in Northern Africa and Central and Southern Asia, especially Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India. There are two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shía, the latter whose followers are called Shiítes. Worldwide the overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni, between 85 to 90 percent. However, in the Middle East countries of Iraq and Iran, Shiítes are in the majority. In Iraq, where 97 percent of the people are Muslim, between 60 to 65 percent of Muslims are Shiítes and 32 to 37 percent Sunni. In Iran, where 98 percent of the people are Muslim, 89 percent belong to the Shiíte sect and 9 percent are Sunni. Shiá Islam has been the official religion of Iran since the sixteenth century.

The Sunnis and Shiítes originally split over who should rightfully succeed (take the position of) Muhammad upon this death in 632 ce. Sunni followed Abu Bakr (c. 573–634), Muhammad's closest companion. Others believed Muhammad had chosen his son-in-law Ali to succeed him. Ali's followers became the Party of Ali, or in the Arabic language, Shiát Ali. Shiá Muslims or Shiítes derived their name from Shiát Ali. Further, the Shiítes reject the hadiths found in the Sunna. They claim the Sunni hadiths are biased against and discredit Shiá Islam.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Iraq was ruled by Sunni politicians who kept the Iraqi population under tight control with their military-based security forces. Sunni Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) took over leadership in 1979. Hussein took a leading role in the overthrow of Shiíte leaders by the Baath political party in 1968. For his efforts he was appointed vice president of Iraq until 1979, when he became president following the resignation of the existing president. He brutally discriminated against the majority Shiítes, most of who lived in central and southeastern Iraq. Hussein's Sunni security forces murdered tens of thousands of Shiítes. Hussein gave favors to Sunni, making many of them wealthy landholders of the lush farming areas near Baghdad. Sunni lived predominantly in and around Baghdad. Some Shiítes came north to work on the land but lived in poverty and constant fear of Hussein's security forces.

When the United States forces invaded Iraq in spring 2003 and drove Hussein from power, religious hatred between Shiítes and Sunni resurfaced after being suppressed under Hussein's rule. After decades of oppression, Shiítes began to assert themselves. By late 2005, two and a half years into the invasion, deep divides that had long split Iraq society were violently bursting into full view. Shiítes in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods and Sunni in predominantly Shiíte towns and neighborhoods lived with constant threats. Everyday life in Iraq became Shiíte against Sunni. Despite the urging of restraint by some Shiíte and Sunni leaders, Sunni Arabs were striking viciously against Shiíte neighbors. In revenge, Shiíte death squads were openly hunting down Sunni. Shiíte-dominated government was making constant arrests in Sunni neighborhoods.

Expressions of prejudice were found scribbled on walls and in leaflets spread about towns. By late 2005, it was apparent to local officials, nongovernmental organizations, and military officials that Baghdad and approximately twenty towns around Baghdad were segregating into Sunni-only and Shiíte-only enclaves. Those Shiítes who lived in predominantly Sunni towns such as Samarra, Tarmiya, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib were packing and moving into Shiíte neighborhoods in Baghdad and to Shiíte towns south of Baghdad. Similarly, Sunni living in predominantly Shiíte towns south of Baghdad were moving to towns to the north and to Sunni areas in Baghdad. Once relocated, families were more at ease but bitterness and hatred between Sunni and Shiíte was deeply rooted. Many Iraqi leaders feared once U.S. occupation forces left, the country would erupt in civil war; however, religious strife was approaching civil war even with U.S. forces still occupying Iraq in late 2006.

Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India

India, located in Southwest Asia, is made up of a highly diverse population with practicing members of most of the world's largest religions. Of India's approximately one billion people in 2005, about 80 percent practice Hinduism. Hinduism is the world's third largest religion with over 800 million adherents. Hinduism began in India approximately 2,500 bce. Hinduism grew from a collection of practices and traditions that vary from village to village and region to region. Unlike Islam, which recognizes only one God, Hinduism has a number of deities (gods) who may be local deities of a particular community or even personal deities of individuals. They may be images of just about any aspect of life, but all are representative of a high god that is contained in everything worldly. Most Hindus believe in reincarnation, the concept that one's soul lives many lifetimes in order to grow and evolve. Actions of the former life determine what type of new life the soul will choose.

Approximately 13 percent of India's population is Muslim. Islam came to India around the thirteenth century from Central Asia. Some Indians converted from Hinduism to Islam but most remained Hindu. Sikhs make up 1.9 percent of India's population and number approximately 21 million. Most Sikhs live in Punjab, located in northwest India. Guru Nanak (1469–1539), born in Punjab to Hindu parents, established Sikhism as an alternative to Hinduism and Islam when he became displeased with both. Nanak was considered missing and dead; however, he soon reappeared preaching a new faith based on a single god. His following steadily grew.

Britain took control of India in 1858 and held it as a colony until 1947. By the start of the twentieth century all Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, had become disillusioned with British rule. They believed British policies impeded their civil rights. For example, the British denied Indians trial by jury.

Adding to the tumultuous atmosphere, the majority Hindus and minority Muslims held prejudicial views of each other and clashed constantly. Muslims formed the Muslim League in 1906 to develop better job and educational opportunities for Muslims within India. Muslims feared the predominantly Hindu Indian National Congress, which had been established in 1885 to seek independence for India from British colonial rule. They believed as the Congress grew more powerful Muslims would be discriminated against in politics, employment, and education.

When India began talks with the British government for independence from Britain in 1946, approximately 200 million Muslims, the largest minority in India, lived in the country's northwestern regions. Violent riots broke out as Muslims demanded their own nation. Britain agreed that the only solution was to divide India into two countries, India and Pakistan. India would be predominantly Hindu; Pakistan was established as an Islamic nation. In August 1947, Hindus and Pakistanis gained their independence. Muslims moved from India to Pakistan. Likewise, Hindus and Sikhs migrated out of Pakistan into India. An estimated ten million people moved from one country to the other. Nevertheless, many Muslims because of family ties and businesses continued to live in northern India.

Although Muslims account for only 13 percent of the Indian population in the twenty-first century, in numbers they are over 100 million strong. In everyday life, Muslims and Hindus interact daily, but each harbors prejudicial attitudes toward the other. Since the 1980s, these views of one another escalated in India into riots, destruction of religious sites, and murders. In 2002 over 1,500 Muslims were reportedly killed in riots in Gujarat, a state of India.

Although the Indian government had always been secular (led by politicians, not religious leaders), a Hindu fundamentalist (or, as called in India, a Hindu nationalist) movement developed. The political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), pursued Hindu nationalism. It continued pursuing a goal into the twenty-first century to replace the secular Indian government with a Hindu government, but seeing little success in achieving that goal.

Prejudice and fear resulted in riots and the destruction of the Babri mosque (house of worship) in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu militants in 1992. Hindus claimed the mosque was built on the site of the birthplace of Hindu god Rama. That same year, youthful Hindu activists caused major damage to Muslim businesses and residences located in the city of Bombay. The Hindu nationalism movement lost momentum in the early twenty-first century as the Indian government actively sought to find solutions to control the religious-based violence.


The British partition in 1947 did not include Kashmir, an area of 85,806 square miles located between India and Pakistan. Local princes ruled Kashmir. Islamic Pakistan attempted to claim Kashmir, which had a predominantly (approximately 77 percent) Muslim population and invaded the area in 1947. The Kashmir leader, called a maharaja, happened to be Hindu and tried to align with India for protection from Pakistan. After two bloody years of fighting between India and Pakistan for control of Kashmir, the United Nations succeeded in a ceasefire and established a boundary dividing Kashmir. The northwestern third of Kashmir was placed under Pakistani oversight. The remainder of Kashmir was under Indian control.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Pakistan and India continued to struggle over Kashmir. Three wars (1948, 1965, and 1971) and countless incidents claimed thousands of lives on both sides.

Muslim Kashmiris continued to attempt to separate Kashmir from India. Some wanted an independent nation, others desired to unite with Muslim Pakistan. By the late 1980s, Islamic insurgents in Pakistan lent significant support to the efforts of Kashmir Muslims to separate from India. Pakistan continued to claim that all of Kashmir should be part of Pakistan. Muslims accused the Hindus of torture, murder, and destruction of Muslim property, including mosques. In 2004, India and Pakistan began a tenuous ceasefire though political disputes on the boundary persisted. Bus service across the border was reestablished in 2005 reconnecting families and others living on the two sides. In 2006, the Indian-controlled Kashmir is called Jammu and Kashmir; the Pakistan-controlled area is called Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas.


Religious prejudice was also apparent in the Indian state of Punjab. Sikhs make up about 60 percent of Punjab's population. Sikh leaders stressed the uniqueness of their people recognized by their religious practices, beliefs, and characteristic dress. Sikhs long held concerns about Hindu discrimination in employment and Hindu repression of Sikh religious traditions. Many Sikhs hoped to establish an independent nation, called Khalistan, to be free of Hindu discrimination and repression. Violence erupted in the early 1980s when militant Sikhs carried out terrorist acts, killing several Indian leaders. As a result, the Indian army moved into Punjab in mid-1984 and occupied the Golden Temple, the Sikh religious center. On October 31, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), daughter of famous peace activist Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

Between 1984 and 1987, violence in Punjab orchestrated by Sikh separatists (those desiring to separate from India) led to thousands of deaths; the majority of victims were innocent Sikh civilians. In 1987, the Indian government established military rule (all civil laws are suspended and the military directs everyday life) to stop the violence. Sikhs claimed extensive human rights violations, such as harassment and rape of women, torture and murder of Sikhs, and imprisonment of Sikhs without cause. Although the Indian government publicly denied such claims, officials continued to resist investigations by human rights groups.

Tibetans within the Peoples Republic of China

Tibet, a vast mountainous region covering 470,600 square miles, lies in southwestern China. Its average elevation is 16,000 feet, and the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest (29,028 feet), is located on its southern border with Nepal. In addition to Nepal, Tibet is bordered on the south by India and Bhutan. The Tibetan population numbers between four and five million, with approximately half living in Tibet and the other half in neighboring Chinese provinces. About one hundred thousand live in India as well as a few thousand in Nepal and Bhutan. Although China has claimed control over Tibet for more than a thousand years, historians recognize China's sovereignty (a nation free to make its own political decisions) only since the early 1700s.

Tibetans are devoutly religious. During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, Tibet was a dominant power in central Asia. During this time, Buddhism became the religion of Tibetans. Buddhism, with over 350 million adherents, was the world's fourth largest religion at the start of the twenty-first century. It was founded by Siddhartha Guatama (563–483 bce). Siddhartha is known by the name Buddha, which means "enlightened one." Buddhism teaches that everything is constantly subject to change and suffering. The only way to escape suffering is to stop craving material things of the world and live a virtuous life defined by such principles as doing no harm to living things; never stealing, lying, bragging, using drugs or alcohol; and by husbands and wives remaining faithful to one another.

Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of Buddhism known as Lamaism. Its leading sect is called Yellow Hat and is led by the Dalai Lama. At first the Dalai Lama was the spiritual leader of just part of Tibet. However, in 1642 the Dalai Lama became recognized as the spiritual leader of all of Tibet following victory by Mongol invaders who were devoted to the Dalai Lama. Tibetans believe that when the Dalai Lama dies, his spirit enters the body of a baby boy who becomes the new Dalai Lama. The fourteenth Dalai Lama was installed in 1940 at the age of seven. Such a young Dalai Lama led people through personal advisors.

Although Tibet had been part of China since the 1700s, during the first half of the twentieth century China's weak central government was in a constant state of upheaval following a revolution that toppled the longstanding dynasty (ruling power passed through families for generations) form of governments with powerful emperors and began slowly establishing a more modern democratic (leaders selected by the people) form of government. Tibet was left alone to rule itself. In 1949, the Communists took control of China and in 1950 the Chinese People's Liberation Army pushed into Tibet, overpowering Tibetan resistance. Tibetans were forced to sign the 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet that recognized Tibet as a part of China. Supposedly under the terms of the agreement the Dalai Lama's government would continue to administer under a regional self-governing arrangement called autonomous rule. However, the Chinese Communist central government soon tightened control of Tibet. China's government discriminated against Tibetans by pushing them out of their jobs and replacing them with Chinese workers. China's government declared China as officially atheist (worshipping no god or gods). Religion was forbidden. By prohibiting religious worship, control of the region would be easier.

Tibetan uprisings (a revolt) protesting Chinese control and discrimination began in the mid-1950s, ultimately leading to the loss of Tibet's capital city of Lhasa in 1959. The Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetans fled to India where they continued to live in exile in the early twenty-first century.

In 1966, Mao Zedong (1893–1976), chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, began the Chinese Cultural Revolution with the intention to make all people within China's borders adhere to the Communists' strict central control. At the time, upwards of 20 percent of all Tibetan males were Buddhist monks even though the Chinese communists did not allow religious practices. The Revolution aimed to destroy once and for all old traditions and ways of thinking including religious traditions. Considerable oppression resulted through the following decades.

Between 1966 and 1979, the Chinese systematically destroyed Tibetan monasteries, places of Buddhist worship and teaching. By 1980, only a handful of approximately four thousand remained. The Chinese suppressed all other aspects of Tibetan culture.

Chairman Mao died in 1976 and the new Communist chairman Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) loosened somewhat the harsh control over Tibet. In 1979, he allowed a tour of Tibet by an official delegation of Tibetans living outside of China. The government was shocked at the outpouring of tens of thousands of Chinese Tibetans asking of the Dalai Lama's well-being, a clear indication that Tibetan Buddhism had secretly endured. From his exile in India, the Dalai Lama continued to push for autonomous control of Tibet throughout the 1980s, although he compromised his stance by saying Tibet could remain a part of China.

Within Tibet, the Tibetan people—including Buddhist monks—protested against continuing Chinese discrimination and control. The Chinese government declared martial law (military control) in 1989 to quell the protests even though they were peaceful, as the Dalai Lama had instructed. When martial law was lifted a year later, thousands more Tibetan refugees made their way to India and Nepal. The Dalai Lama received an international peace award, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, for his opposition to violence in his quest for Tibetan self-rule.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the Dalai Lama continued his call for Tibetan self-governance and religious freedom.But the Chinese government held firm in its refusal, insisting all regional provinces including Tibet must adhere to central Chinese authority. Display of the Dalai Lama's photographs continued to be forbidden.

Information available over the Internet became an example of Tibetan Buddhist oppression in 2006. The U.S.-owned Internet search engine (a website that facilitates Internet searches for other websites that address particular topics) Google began operating in China, but only information on Web sites acceptable to the Chinese government were allowed to be included. In the United States, typing "Dalai Lama" into Google reveals biographical sites. The same search in China reveals only Chinese Web sites critical of the Dalai Lama.


Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jewish people for the sole reason that they are Jews. The Jewish religion is called Judaism. Those who harbor anti-Semitic hatred use it to justify discrimination against and persecution of Jews. Although the actual term did not come into use until the late nineteenth century, the concept of anti-Semitism is rooted in religious differences with Christianity. Christians hold Jews responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, whom they view as the son of God. Anti-Semitic persecution of Jews takes the form of economic, educational, social, and political discrimination.

Throughout much of history, European Jews have experienced economic discrimination: being barred from certain well-paying professions, being more heavily taxed than non-Jews, being turned down for employment merely for being Jewish. Jewish stores were frequently the targets of vandalism and graffiti. Educational institutions often limited Jewish enrollment or outright prohibited Jewish attendance. Socially, Jews were not welcomed in non-Jewish social activities. As early as the Middle Ages and as late as the 1930s and 1940s in Nazi Germany, which was controlled by the highly prejudiced Nazi Party, Jews were sometimes required to wear certain types of clothing, such as hats and coats, or markers on clothing, such as yellow star patches, to identify them as Jews. Politically, for two thousand years Jews have been made the scapegoats for ills in a society. Scapegoating is blaming others for one's own problems even though the others have no responsibility for the situation. Political leaders have used Jews as scapegoats, blaming them for economic or social troubles of their country.

In the 1870s and 1880s, a new form of anti-Semitism developed in Europe, a sort of racial anti-Semitism. Jews were viewed as a people sharing genetic links that kept them always of the Jewish race, even if they did not follow the Jewish faith, and always outsiders. The thinking became widespread among Europe's leaders that Jews could never fit into or assimilate into the nations where they lived such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and France. As a result, many Jewish families began migrating to the United States where they eventually built safe lives. Also late in the nineteenth century, many Jews actively supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea where they had resided in biblical times. The movement to relocate Jews to Palestine is known as Zionism. The first group of Jews migrated to Palestine in 1882.

Anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the program carried out by Nazi Germany during the late 1930s and World War II (1939–45) with the goal of eradicating Jews from the world. Jews were blamed for Germany's defeat in World War I and were considered genetically unfit in Germany's goal to establish a pure German race. The Holocaust led to the murder of six million European Jews in addition to another five million people with various backgrounds—Gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics, Slavs, and any other peoples considered enemies. Largely because of this genocide (deliberate killing to eliminate an entire group of people), Jewish people were allowed by the international community of nations acting through the United Nations to declare an independent nation in the Palestine region in 1948. The new nation was called Israel. Israel is located along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea on a small strip of land about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland. Israel was to be a secure homeland for Jewish people. However, Palestinian Arabs had lived in Palestine since the seventh century and they were resistant to moving. Palestinian Arabs follow the Islamic religion.

As the Jewish people moved into Israel, Palestinian Arabs were forced off their land. The Palestinian Arabs claimed the land was their rightful homeland. The struggle for the land through the last half of the twentieth century and start of the twenty-first century was violent and cost thousands of lives. Both people believed they were entitled to the same land to the exclusion of the other. Expressions of prejudice often lead to horrific acts of violence against each other.

The Palestinian Arab-Israeli struggle escalated into a battle between all countries where Islam is the predominant religion and Israel. Commonly known as the Arab-Israeli conflict, in the early 2000s the difficulties threatened the entire Middle East and greatly contributed to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism

A particular form of religious prejudice is known as fundamentalism. Fundamentalist movements aim to replace secular governments with those led by religious leaders and governed by religious law. While the Hindu nationalistic movement in India during the 1980s and 1990s is an example of a religious fundamentalist movement, the major example at the beginning of the twenty-first century was the Islamic fundamentalism movement. Attention of the world was dramatically focused on the movement after September 11, 2001, when extremist Islamic fundamentalists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City. Two fully fueled jetliners crashed into the Twin Towers, causing each tower to collapse, killing thousands of people. Also that day, planes crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia and into a field in Pennsylvania, killing hundreds. The Islamic fundamentalists were under the direction of Osama bin Laden (1957–) of Saudi Arabia, who was guiding global terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.

The goal of the Islamic fundamentalist movement is to replace secular governments with Islamic-led governments that strictly uphold Islamic principles and laws based on Islamic law known as Sharia. The Islamic governments would institute fundamental Islamic values for the entire population to live by. Islamic fundamentalist groups range from the most extreme—who insist that God commands Muslims to immediately replace secular governments with Islamic government using any violence necessary—to those who work within countries to provide medical, educational, and social welfare services to all the needy.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism occurred in the mid-twentieth century. A large number of Middle Eastern and North African countries gained independence from European colonial rule shortly after World War II in the mid- and late 1940s. The majority religion of these countries was Islam. The people's high expectations for improved political and economic systems frequently disintegrated with corruption, high unemployment, and the number of poor overwhelming social service structures. Further, efforts to westernize—imitate cultures of Western Europe and the United States—tore at Islamic family and religious values, such as wearing traditional Islamic dress, attending mosque, and not drinking alcohol. Western cultures encompass all of the world's religions, but the predominant religion is Christianity. Christians are followers of Jesus Christ (0–22 ce). Christianity is a religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. It includes Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Muslims increasingly blamed westernization and any leader in their country who supported it as the source of the decline in importance of Islamic values. Major international events that spurred Muslims to return to Islamic fundamentalism were Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem that contained the Old City that is sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews after the 1967 Six Day War, the 1980s Soviet war against Afghanistan, 1990s United Nations' trade sanction against Iraq that resulted in food shortages and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. Within Iraq, the U.S. invasion was portrayed as a Christian invasion of an Islamic nation, Christianity versus Islam.

Islamic fundamentalists discriminate against persons adhering to any religion other than Islam, particularly Jews and Christians who are considered intruders into Muslim territory. The creation of Israel and later wars with the United States and Israel represented stark examples of intrusion to Muslims in the region. While the epicenter of Islamic fundamentalism is found in the Middle Eastern countries, Muslim fundamentalists also live in the Asian countries of Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, three nations had Islamic sectarian (run by religious leaders) governments: Iran, Pakistan, and the Sudan in Africa. Iran changed from a secular government to an Islamic government in 1979 with the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980). Pahlavi had come to power in 1941 and been a close ally (supporter) of the United States and Western Europe. The Iranian Islamic fundamentalist movement was led by Muslim cleric (religious leader) Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989), who strictly ruled Iran until his death. In the early 2000s, Iran remained an Islamic state where the government was intolerant of followers of other faiths, such as Christians, Jews, and Baha'is. Baha'is make up Iran's largest religious minority. They are forbidden to practice their faith and are discriminated against in all aspects of life.

Catholics versus the Protestants in Ireland

In 1534, King Henry VIII (1491–1547) of England broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church, whose seat of power was in Rome, Italy. He established a new church, the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. This revolt against Catholicism resulted in the birth of Protestantism. The Church of England was a Protestant church. Protestantism differed from Catholicism in important ways. Protestants believed: that anyone could read and interpret the Bible, not just priests; that God more freely forgives individuals of their sins than Catholics believed; and churches are governed by people of the church rather than an elaborate system of priests with the ultimate authority being the pope.

Ireland, an island west of England, had been under English control since the twelfth century. Although the Irish people were Catholic, King Henry tried to force Protestantism in Ireland. Irish Catholic rebellion against Protestantism began a struggle that continued to the end of the twentieth century.

During the seventeenth century, English Protestants began to colonize or settle in northeastern Ireland, particularly in the historic area known as Ulster. Through bloody military conflicts Protestants drove the Catholics from their farmland by 1650, forcing them to work the land for English landlords, who took all profits. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Irish Catholics' resistance to Protestant England grew. Catholics, in continuous rebellion, struggled for independence from England. The minority Protestants living in Northern Ireland feared Catholic domination over them and continued to support English rule. In 1949, the Republic of Ireland declared its independence from England, but six northeastern counties collectively called Northern Ireland remained under English control, separate from the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, Protestants were the majority population and Catholics the minority. This separation of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland did not suppress the struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Catholic Republic of Ireland supported efforts to unite Northern Ireland with the Republic.

Within Northern Ireland, Protestants feared and distrusted the Catholics, who likewise feared and distrusted the Protestants. The resulting prejudice against one another led to segregation in all areas of society through time. No longer was Catholic versus Protestant a strictly religious conflict, but one that included economic, educational, and social discrimination. Catholic and Protestant children attended different schools; neighborhoods were strictly Catholic or Protestant; churches arranged social activities; and even senior citizen homes were separate. Favored by the English government over the Catholics, Protestants soon became wealthy land and business owners while discrimination against Catholics held them in low-paying jobs such as laborers. Catholics had no power against the government that was dominated by wealthy Protestants.

Violence erupted in the 1960s as Catholics rebelled against Protestant oppression. From 1964 through the mid-1990s, a bloody campaign to drive the Protestants out of Northern Ireland left thousands dead. Catholic militant groups Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) carried out terrorist activities such as bombing police stations, army bases, buses, and hotels. Sinn Fein was a political party organized in 1905 dedicated to securing Irish independence. The oldest political organization in Ireland, its roots can be traced to the Catholic underground movement of the United Irishmen in 1791.The IRA was a militant group formed in 1919 to fight for Irish independence. England sent troops to halt the violence but had little success. The violence in Northern Ireland finally ended with the Good Friday Agreement, reached in April 1998. The Agreement provided for political power to be shared between Protestants and Northern Ireland's Catholic population. Although prejudicial feelings lingered, at the beginning of the twenty-first century Northern Ireland remained free of violent clashes.

Conflicts continue

In the early twenty-first century, the only resolution among the religious conflicts discussed in this chapter was the Catholics versus Protestants in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, long-standing prejudices sometimes stay quiet for decades, only to reemerge much later.

The Dalai Lama's quest for an end to suppression of Buddhist Tibetans continued. Kashmir remained a disputed territory with India and Pakistan was still laying claim to it. The world waited to see if Sunni-Shiíte discrimination and violence would lead Iraq to a civil war. Islamic fundamentalism continued to reject the values of the western, predominantly Christian nations. The Arab-Israeli conflict perpetuated extreme Islamic anti-Semitism into the twenty-first century. Anti-Semitism had also reappeared in Eastern European nations such as Poland and Hungary as political leaders again used Jews as scapegoats for their country's ills.

For More Information


Gerner, Deborah J. One Land, Two Peoples: The Conflict over Palestine. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Partridge, Christopher, ed. New Religions: A Guide, New Religious Movements, Sects and Alternative Spiritualities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Perlmutter, Philip. Divided We Fall: A History of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Prejudice in America. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1992.

Rudolph, Joseph R., ed. Encyclopedia of Modern Ethnic Conflicts. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Williams, Robin M., Jr. The War Within: Peoples and States in Conflict. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.


Di Giovanni, Janine. "Reaching For Power." National Geographic, June 2004, pp. 2-35.

Tavernise, Sabrina. "Sectarian Hatred Pulls Apart Iraq's Mixed Towns." New York Times, November 20, 2005.


"Islam: Empire of Faith." Public Broadcasting System. (accessed on November 21, 2006).

The 1939 Club. (accessed on November 21, 2006).

"World Factbook." Central Intelligence Agency. (accessed on November 21, 2006).

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Religious Prejudice

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