The Asafi Mosque, Old City, Lucknow

The Asafi Mosque, Old City, Lucknow

My dissertation and book project explores how religious appeals by elites shape extremism among followers. I analyze a series of related questions on this topic through the case of extremism among Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lucknow, which has the highest Sunni-Shia violence of any Indian city. 

My job market paper tests the claim in the ethnic conflict literature that elite appeals motivate extremism. I study the process in reverse: how do religious appeals to non-violence by a cleric affect extremist behaviors? My main argument is that an anti-violence religious appeal by an in-group cleric will be effective among members of a non-victimized group but not the victimized group, who retain extremism to guard against anticipated threats. I first developed this logic in a separate experimental study in my dissertation. In my job market paper, I report the results of a follow-up experiment with 2,100 Sunni and Shia subjects in Lucknow’s most violent-district. The results support the expectation: exposure to an anti-violence appeal by an in-group cleric reduces extremist behaviors for the Sunni sample but not the Shia sample. I show the plausibility of the victimization logic relative to other explanations through additional analyses and qualitative evidence. My study argues that intergroup inequalities matter for understanding elite persuasion. It also expands our understanding of the political role of religious leaders by showing a counterintuitive finding: even highly religious publics do not necessarily follow their leader.

I contextualize these findings through two other chapters.

  • In "How Political Conditions and Religious Doctrine Shape Extremism in Northern India," I qualitatively study how changing political conditions determined the extent to which elites effectively persuaded followers to engage in extremist behaviors. My analysis combines insights from 70 semi-structured interviews and secondary sources covering the last three centuries.  I argue that the contemporary Shia perception of victimization is due to a 'reversal of fortune' in political conditions since the mid-nineteenth century that increased the salience of martyrdom themes in Shia theology. In doing so, I show how political conditions interact with religious doctrine to lead to assymetric effects on extremism within groups. Furthermore, the chapter argues for a conceptualization of religious identity qualifies constructivist approaches. Despite modernization and social change, I show that a common core of doctrinal disputes has characterized Sunni-Shia relations in Lucknow since the eighteenth century.
  • In "Understanding the Relationship Between Extremist Attitudes and Behaviors: Evidence from Northern India," I use survey evidence to show some of the first evidence that extremist attitudes significantly predict extremist behaviors, but that the strength of the relationship is not as strong 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.