‘Civil’ versus ‘sectarian’ conflicts

How to pick the most accurate war word

Iraq is now faced with an escalation of “sectarian violence,” and Syria is still ensnared in its “civil war.” Those words are tossed off a lot, as if they were almost synonyms, but there are differences, some subtle and some not.

In 2006, in answer to a question from a reader as localized violence in Iraq was on the rise, a foreign editor at The New York Times gave a good explanation of the difference:

Sectarian violence is conflict between and among groups with a specific ethnicity or religion. The conflict may have numerous causes, but the result is violence based on ethnic/religious differences.

Civil war is characterized by sectarian violence but is more systematic, less sporadic. In other words, civil war is an ongoing, widespread, often organized and rather relentless sectarian conflict. (Emphasis added.)

Americans call their 19th century internal conflict the Civil War, but religious or ethnic differences were not at the heart of that fight. More broadly, “civil” warfare implies that a government is on one side of the conflict and that most of the participants on all sides are citizens or residents of the area.

In the 1990s, for example, the conflict in Rwanda was usually called a “civil war” because the target was the government, even though the underlying cause was longstanding animosity between the Hutu and Tutsi groups of Rwandans. It was sometimes called “ethnic” warfare rather than “sectarian,” even though there were as few genetic differences between them as there were religious ones.

In Syria, the war has its roots in calls for a more democratic government in the middle of the Arab Spring, though it has become more “sectarian” as various groups representing “sects” of Islam have joined in. In fact, one characterization of “sectarian” violence is when people cross political boundaries to join members of their own “sects” in battle.

But this is a language column, so let’s discuss the words themselves, not the conflicts.

“Sect” simply means a party or faction, a group with a set of common principles of beliefs. Usually, a “sect” is a subset of a group that shares most principles: Knitters who use only wool, for example, could be considered a “sect” of knitters, while those who use acrylic could be another “sect.”

“Sects” are usually associated with religion, but the word is relatively neutral, unlike “cult,” which carries the connotation of blindly following a leader that outsiders may view as sinister.

“Civil,” of course, has many meanings. It derives from words for conduct among people that was based neither on criminal nor religious standards. The first use of the word as an adjective, in the late 14th century, relates to war, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of warfare, conflict, etc.: occurring within a society or community; taking place between inhabitants of the same country or state, or between the populace and the ruling power; of or relating to such conflict.”

Only a few years later, the OED says, “civil” was used to mean “Of, relating to, or designating a community, state, or body politic as a whole.” It was another half a century before “civil” was used to mean “polite,” or exhibiting socially acceptable behavior.

In so many ways, or course, no war is “civil,” regardless of its underlying cause. But be aware that one person’s “civil war” may be another’s “sectarian warfare,” and vice versa.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.