The crime of apartheid is defined as "an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime". Religion is not a racial group, as most religions allow people of any racial origin to convert, by following a pre-determined process. So, at first glance, discrimination based on religion should not be defined as apartheid.

On the other hand, most religions are inherited. For people born to a different religion, converting might be very difficult socially and culturally.

QUESTION: if a country gives preferential treatment to a single religion, but allows people of any race to convert to that religion and win the same preferntial treatment as people born to that religion, would it be considered apartheid?

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    @whoisit: ICJ or UN definition apparently.
    – C.F.G
    Jan 10 at 14:55
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    Why tag only Israel and Palestine? The Islamic Republic of Iran seems like the best example for this question. Israeli-Muslim citizens have equal rights, Iranian-Jewish citizens don't.
    – Jacob3
    Jan 10 at 19:00
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    @Jacob3 Can you provide a citation that Iran has been accused of "crime of apartheid" due to religious reason? If so you can add the Iran tag too to the question.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 10 at 19:48
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    @sfxedit, Accusations are made when the defendent is denying them. The Russian Tzar was never accused for "Dictatorship", and the "Islamic Republic" cannot be accused for granting Islam a special status over all other religions - they pride themselves with it.
    – Jacob3
    Jan 10 at 20:31
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    Will vote to reopen if needed. "Apartheid" is fairly frequently used in a political context - and not always appropriately either - so trying to define what it describes surely is on topic for this site. Jan 10 at 20:32

7 Answers 7


Apartheid has a rather specific meaning, based on practices used in South Africa. The situation that you describe constitutes discrimination, but applying term Apartheid, depends on how exactly these people are discriminated - e.g., South Africa was divided into several states (bantustans), so that the black population legally had less rights - just because they were foreigners in white SA.

E.g., Jews had been historically discriminated for their religion by Christians and Muslims alike, but applying term Apartheid to all European and Muslim states up to the moment they choose to separate the state and the religion would be misusing the term.

Note that in XIX-th century most European states separated the Church and the State, granting Jews and other religions equal rights. Properly, this is when the anti-semitism was born, as a form of racial hatred - the previous discrimination would be more correctly referred to as anti-Judaism. Nazis famously treated Jews as an ethnic/racial rather than a religious category, and the same can be said about the discrimination of Jews in the USSR (on the other hand, Russian empire based it discrimination on religion to the very end - see Pale of settlement).

Muslim states historically treated Jews and other religions as inferior, but protected groups. This vision is arguably present in milder versions of modern Islamism, like Hamas 2017 charter.

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    +1 For what it's worth, in concerns sometimes raised about the treatment of Christians in some Muslim countries - Pakistan's death penalty re. blasphemy for example - "apartheid" is never used. Modi's India gets frequent criticism for how Muslims are treated, Apartheid does not get mentioned. There is a clue in the word itself, in enforced separation. Jim Crow laws in the US South would be a match. The world already has a rich vocabulary to denote religious persecutions while apartheid only became an issue more recently, once legally-enabled racism became a moral no-no. Jan 10 at 18:49
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    Note also that in the Dutch/Afrikaans language, "apartheid" means "separation". It technically refers to segregation, which inherently implies some form of discrimination between the separate groups, but not all discrimination is a form of segregation. I do agree with this answer that Apartheid (with a capital A) specifically refers to the South African historical events (in the same sense that "holocaust" is general and "the Holocaust" refers to a specific event)
    – Flater
    Jan 10 at 22:13
  • @Flater it's one of those words which are used in avery specific sense, despite their rather general original semantic meaning- like jihad, antisemitism, national-socialism, perestroika, etc. I agree that using capital A makes sense. Jan 11 at 6:05
  • @RogerV. Just to extend, it's not only related to historical or political events. The Sun, the Moon, ... are all capitalized because we've started using the general name for one very specific instance.
    – Flater
    Jan 11 at 6:17

From Wikipedia it does not look like apartheid as it was seen in South Africa cared a lot about the religion. It was much more about the racial discrimination, and the major laws it was based on were all about the races.

However separation of people according to their religion, whether pursuant to official laws or pursuant to social expectations, is sometimes called a "religious apartheid" by advocacy groups. Communities in northern Ireland for example, are often housed based on religion that has been described as "self-imposed apartheid".

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    People are certainly free to describe things as "self-imposed apartheid" but that is pretty much an oxymoron compared to its origins in South Africa. Good answer though. Jan 10 at 20:36

I'll throw my hat into the ring and try to put in words what made Apartheid special. Spoilers: I think religion could be used, rather than ethnicity. Another spoiler: I am sitting out, entirely, the Israeli aspect.

Apartheid is, first and foremost, about legalism, and official policy. The government of South Africa had an articulated, formal, policy. Backed by specific laws, codifying racial (because that was the metric rather than religion) "differences".

The governments of the US Southern states, under what's widely known as the Jim Crow laws also ran the same schemes. There, as well, they adopted a formal legal doctrine, with "separate but equal", and were ready to defend it in court. Which they did for a long while, arguing the primacy of state laws. Read up on the intricacies of bathrooms and commerce vs federal prerogatives. They had miscegenation laws, forbidding marriage on racial basis.

Both states had elaborate rules about where people of which races could be. That is also part of its root etymology, keeping apart.

As a teen, I remember reading, in a French paper, a journalist citing a really disturbing incident that had supposedly happened in South Africa.

A young, white, man had supposedly killed a black man for no reason on a bus, just to do it, unprovoked. In court, the judge berated him, gave him a fairly lenient sentence and expressed his regrets that, given the perpetrator and the victim's respective races, he was not allowed, by law, to give him a harsher one.

The key here is that the system is formal, organized, hyper-legalistic when it comes to racial (but it could be religious) criteria.

The characteristic of Apartheid is not some of out of control, unpoliced persecution. It is not the authorities looking the other way. It is not ethnic cleansing either. Those are a dime a dozen throughout the world. It is a formal legal framework recognizing the citizenship, and residency, of both groups, but permanently downgrading the rights of the victimized group, by law. Within a system that takes pride in doing things by the book. In both cases, these were societies that were generally speaking not facing any undue security threats at the time and no attempt was made to use national security as a justification. *.

Nothing in my description is very race-bound. If you replaced all the formal racial criteria with formal religious ones in the law books, the outcome would be essentially the same.

Like Fascism, we ended up essentially taking a name a singular political system gave itself, and brought the word into wider use to describe similar or related political phenomena. Which means that definitions are pretty malleable, and to some extent, a matter of opinion, to exclude or include what constitutes apartheid. Or fascism.

* Locking up many ethnic Chinese during the Malaysian Emergency wasn't a shining beacon of human rights, no, but it wouldn't be considered Apartheid either as they were operating under emergency powers and there was a strong ethnic component to that rebellion.

For all the nastiness of the US and Canada's race-based internment of Japanese-descent citizens during WW2, it was also impermanent, and made under martial law rather than civil law.

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    Indeed. The Chinese policies on Uyghur muslims too can be considered an apartheid-like system as it deliberately differentiates between them and other Chinese citizens in their region, and violates their human rights (well, what little Chinese already have) if they don't conform to the policies specifically made for them. In almost every sphere, Uyghurs are second-class citizens with limited prospects and unable to take part in the modernization and development of Xinjiang.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 12 at 4:21

The question uses the passive "considered" which begs the question considered by whom?

Most legal scholars do not consider religious discrimination apartheid because they favor "strict construction" of law. This principle is spelled out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which adjuciates cases about the apartheid crime in article 22, Nullum crimen sine lege:

The definition of a crime shall be strictly construed and shall not be extended by analogy. In case of ambiguity, the definition shall be interpreted in favour of the person being investigated, prosecuted or convicted.

If the law says "you can't eat apples or pears" you don't have to ask about oranges because eating oranges is legal. If the law said "you can't eat apples, pears, or any similar fruit" then you could get in trouble for eating oranges depending on how similar the legal system thinks oranges are to apples and pears. This principle is violated only rarely; if an old law says that "a man must not" it generally forbids any person.

Carola Lingaas touches upon this subject in The Crime against Humanity of Apartheid in a Post-Apartheid World. She writes that:

The crime of apartheid is defined as an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups. The construction of a ‘racial group’ is fundamental to the concept of apartheid. If the prosecutor cannot prove the existence of a racial group, the crime of apartheid becomes untenable.

She further investigates two credible claims of modern apartheid; in North Korea and in the occupied Palestinian territories. She writes that the North Korean songbun system cannot possibly be apartheid because it doesn't operate along racial lines. However, the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians living under occupation could constitute apartheid, but, according to her, it hinges on "whether or not the Palestinians and the Israeli are considered two distinct racial groups."

It is of course tricky to define what a "race" or "racial group" is, but, clearly, race is a different concept from religion. So from a legal perspective religious discrimination probably isn't apartheid.


Is systematic discrimination based on religion considered apartheid?

Yes, it can be a crime of apartheid.

QUESTION: if a country gives preferential treatment to a single religion, but allows people of any race to convert to that religion and win the same preferntial treatment as people born to that religion, would it be considered apartheid?

Yes, it can be a crime of apartheid.

A country that acknowledges giving preferential treatment to its citizens of a particular religion is accepting that they deliberately discriminate against their citizens based on religion. Religious discrimination is a human rights violation.

How a country practices this religious discrimination against some group (citizens or non-citizens), through state policies and action, determines if they are committing the crime of apartheid. (It is totally irrelevant here if the "discrimination" stops when someone converts, because creating inhumane conditions to force someone to convert to another religion is also a human rights violation.)

According to the Human Rights Watch group:

The crime of apartheid under the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute consists of three primary elements:

  1. an intent to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another;
  2. systematic oppression by one racial group over another; and
  3. one or more inhumane acts, as defined, carried out on a widespread or systematic basis pursuant to those policies.

Amnesty International provides a helpful graphic to understand this:

Amnesty International pictorial on the crime of apartheid

A country defending itself against an allegation of the crime of apartheid can argue, technically, that the term "racial group" only means "racial discrimination".

But any expert on International Humanitarian Law would immediately be dismissive of that narrow definition because the crime of apartheid is composed not just of the discrimination but also the specific sets of state policies and actions contributing to the discrimination cumulating in human rights violation. The fact that the country is being dismissive of the allegation on a technicality ("we are not discriminating by race, but by religion") doesn't hide the fact that it has laws and government policies that encourage and support blatant human right violation through such acts of discrimination.

Let me highlight this with real life examples - Colonial South Africa was accused of the crime of apartheid based on racial discrimination, and Israel and Myanmar have been accused of the crime of apartheid based on religious discrimination. Despite the difference in the type of discrimination they practice(d), the apartheid system designed by the the dominant groups in all three countries, to suppress and discriminate against the other group, have a lot of similarities:

Acts of Oppression South Africa Israel Myanmar
1. Use of military power for domination Yes Yes Yes
2. State policies for domination Yes Yes Yes
3. Segregation or confinement Yes Yes Yes
4. Deportation or forcible transfer Yes Yes Yes
5. Deprivation of fundamental rights Yes Yes Yes
6. Different discriminatory laws Yes Yes Yes
7. Dispossession of property by force Yes Yes Yes

.. and so on (this is by no means a comprehensive list).

Thus, you can deduce for yourself with just common sense, why an intention of discrimination along with systemic policies and acts of oppression and persecution, can indeed fall under the crime of apartheid, as per international humanitarian laws on crimes against humanity.


  1. B’Tselem: This is Apartheid

  2. A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution

  3. Crime of Apartheid: The Government of Israel’s System of Oppression Against Palestinians.

  4. Myanmar: Mass Detention of Rohingya in Squalid Camps

  5. “Caged without a roof”: Apartheid in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica "It is conduct imposing and maintaining a regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another within a country. It’s a system that’s upheld by legislative and administrative measures, policies and practices all designed to isolate a racial group – in this case the Rohingya – to deny their human rights and to stop them from participating in the political, social and economic life of a country. In practice, acts of open violence such as rape, torture and unlawful killings have also been used as tools of oppression and domination." Ref. 5
    – sfxedit
    Jan 12 at 2:42
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    BTselem, which I rather admire, has a large vested interest in how it defines Apartheid, seeing as it wants to label Israel as such. So that's definitely something that one should take into account when looking at definitions. Likewise, other Israeli groups, who want to dispute that designation, will use radically different definitions, won't they? Jan 12 at 3:33
  • You know what? I'll delete my bits. I ended up writing an answer that more or less makes the same case. I'll level my remark about BTselem because I don't see them as very neutral in this case, even if they are good guys. Jan 12 at 4:03
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Cool, I've reciprocated. As for BTselem - Well,either you believe they are credible or you don't - AI and HRW are also "agents of the west" for some :). White settlers, Jewish settlers or Myanmarese Buddhists groups can ofcourse try to justify their stance with many excuses. But it can't hide the fact that they practice identity politics of hate, have made it into a state policy to discriminate and dehumanize the "other" and use state power to enforce it regardless of whether even basic human rights of the "others" is violated.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 12 at 4:11
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    If the world had more BTselem, less Bibi and considerably less Hamas, it would be a much better place. Peace ;-) Jan 12 at 4:14

No, no purely religious discriminations is not Apartheid.

To be Apartheid there has to be an ethnic component. Opressors having a superiority complex not based on having found the real god, but on having the right ancestral roots.

So if people can't "turn off" the discrimination by declaring they now believe in the other god(s), you probably do have Apartheid - if the level of the discrimination otherwise is comparable to the historical South African version.


Similar to "genocide" accusations, this is another example of Israel's critics misusing a term that has a completely different meaning. Merriam Webster defines "apartheid" as:

a former policy of segregation and political, social, and economic discrimination against the non-white majority in the Republic of South Africa

So by definition, any discrimination happening outside of the former Republic of South Africa cannot be considered "apartheid". People can of course debate the degree of discrimination happening and I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but this specific word is definitely not appropriate.

I would also point out that whatever discrimination exists is not linked to religion or race:

  • Palestinians and (most) Israelis belong to the same ethnicity. It's often hard to tell from a photo whether a given person is Israeli or Palestinian.
  • While Israel tracks which citizens are "Arab", it doesn't directly track religion and one's official status doesn't change with conversion to Islam.
  • Many Israeli immigrants are atheist or Christian in practice, especially those from the former Soviet Union.

So whatever discrimination occurs is primarily based off one's family history and present-day nationality. Again, I don't want to argue about the extent of said discrimination but even if you argue it's extreme, I don't think religion is the primary differentiator.

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    According to international law professor John Dugard that is not the case: "It may be concluded that the Apartheid Convention is dead as far as the original cause for its creation – apartheid in South Africa – is concerned, but that it lives on as a species of the crime against humanity, under both customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court." Jan 12 at 3:05
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    @StandwithGaza seems silly to not just come up with a new word. Jan 12 at 3:14
  • Apartheid is a specific crime under international law with a specific definition. Citing Merriam Webster is thus inappropriate. Several human rights organizations have assessed that Israel is an apartheid state by assessing its conduct with respect to the legal definition of the Crime of Apartheid. Jan 17 at 3:54
  • @MathematicsStudent1122 they might be guilty or a crime sure but it’s the wrong name to use Jan 17 at 4:19

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