Theses Doctoral

Elite Persuasion and Religious Extremism: A Study Among Sunni and Shia Muslims in Northern India

Sharma, Kunaal

In my dissertation, I explore four inter-related research areas that advance the study of elite influence, identity, and conflict. How does religion interact with changing political conditions over time to affect contemporary patterns of extremism? To what extent do extremist attitudes explain variation in extremist behavior? What does the relationship between these two variables, and the similarities and differences in their correlates, imply for theories of extremism and ethnic conflict more generally? The next two themes focus on the way in which anti-violence appeals by elites shape extremism among followers. How does anti-violence religious---as opposed to economic--persuasion by an elite affect extremism, and can it overcome a counterargument to the peace message by a peer? Finally, what explains variation in the effectiveness of clerical persuasion on extremist behaviors across religious groups?
In the opening chapter, I ask how changing political conditions shape the capacity of religious elites to mobilize extremism. In what ways might changing conditions lead to differential effects within religious groups? I study these questions based on primary field research in Lucknow and analysis of secondary historical sources. I demonstrate how the rise and fall state-sponsored religion, government regulation of religious rituals, and heightened foreign sectarian conflict structured efforts by religious elites to change norms in ways that increasingly permitted violence. For the Shia, such changing political conditions interacted with elements of their constitutive political myth in ways that strengthened perceptions of victimization. The ensuing difference in perceived group status has placed unique constraints on the persuasiveness of present-day Shia clerics who propagate pro-peace norms to their followers. Taken together, the study offers important lessons for the relationship between political conditions and the transmission of religious ideas, the durability of identities, and the effectiveness of elite persuasion in conflict settings.
Chapter 3 focuses on the relationship between extremist attitudes and behavior. Research on the factors associated with religious extremism have focused on either extremist attitudes or behavior. Yet to date, there is little empirical evidence on the relationship between extremist attitudes and behavior, including on whether they are associated with the same factors. To help inform research gaps, this study leverages a face-to-face survey of 480 Sunni and Shia Muslim youth in Lucknow's Old City that employed attitudinal and behavioral measures of extremism. The results offer some of the first evidence that extremist attitudes are significant predictors of extremist behaviors, but that the strength of the relationship is not as strongly as commonly expected. Second, the study argues that economic grievances are stronger predictors of extremist attitudes than of behavior, and thus challenges theoretical expectations from the conflict literature. Third, the study points to a model of extremism in which religious and psychological factors, rather than grievance or social network explanations, drive both extremist attitudes and behaviors.
The fourth chapter turns attention to the causal effect of elite persuasion and bottom-up countermessaging on religious extremism. Can pro-peace persuasion by religious or economic elites reduce religious extremism? Will such effects survive counterarguments? This study uses an audio recording experiment to examine these questions in the context of religious extremism in northern India. Sunni and Shia young adult men were randomly assigned to listen to an audio message recorded by a real in-group cleric emphasizing norms discouraging violence or a real in-group shopkeeper emphasizing material considerations discouraging violence. Another treatment---listening to a counterargument to the peace message by an in-group member---tests counter-messaging. Results indicate a surprising pattern: religious persuasion increases extremism the Shia sample and reduces extremism for the Sunni sample. Although these effects do not reach statistical significance within each sample, the difference between sects of the marginal effects of religious persuasion and the counterargument message are significant. The results support a novel logic involving group victimization consistent with experimental results and qualitative evidence.
The final chapter of the dissertation examines clerical persuasion and its impact on religious extremism. How does an anti-violence religious message by a cleric affect extremism? Do such appeals work differently across groups? I argue that exposure to such an appeal from an in-group cleric reduces extremism for members of a non-victimized group but not for members of a victimized group. The latter retain extremism to guard against anticipated threats. I present evidence from an audio recording experiment among 2,100 Sunni and Shia young adult men in Lucknow, the Indian city where sectarian violence is highest and the Shia perceive themselves as victimized. I randomly assigned subjects to listen to an anti-violence religious argument from either an in-group cleric; out-group cleric; both; or none. Results show that the in-group message significantly reduces extremist behaviors up to 8 hours later for Sunni but not Shia subjects. Additional analyses and qualitative research emphasize the plausibility of the victimization logic. Furthermore, the out-group message and the interaction do not significantly change behavior for either group. I argue that intergroup inequalities matter for understanding the effectiveness of elite persuasion and discuss policy implications.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Humphreys, Macartan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 12, 2017