Sectarianism and Social Conformity: Evidence from Egypt

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(4) 848 –860
© 2017 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912917717641
Citizens often conceal a wide array of discriminatory atti-
tudes toward ethnic, religious, and gender-based out-
groups beneath a mask of public tolerance. But does the
reverse also hold? In situations where prevailing norms
incentivize discrimination and demonization against
some “other,” do citizens accommodate these social pres-
sures by inflating their public expressions of antipathy? If
so, how large is the difference between the bigotry they
wear on their sleeves and the tolerance they hold in their
hearts (Corstange 2013)?
To study this question, I examine a specific and puz-
zling subset of sectarianism in the Muslim world—the
existence of anti-Shi’a attitudes in countries with mar-
ginal Shi’a populations.1 For example, Sunni mobs in
Indonesia have targeted that country’s tiny Shi’a minority
(approximately 1% of the population), leading Amnesty
International to call on the government to protect these
citizens (Sabtu 2002). Following police raids against the
small Shi’a population in Malaysia, one Sunni religious
scholar claimed that they were “a threat to Muslim unity
in Malaysia” (Ng 2011). And less than 1 percent of
Jordanians are Shi’a, yet this has not stopped conserva-
tive Sunni religious figures from launching vicious
rhetorical attacks on the community, a development that
scholar of Islam Joas Wagemakers (2016) calls “Anti-
Shi’ism without the Shi’a.”
Post-Mubarak Egypt is perhaps the strangest case of
this phenomenon. The swift growth of anti-Shi’a sectari-
anism in a country where less than 1 percent of the popu-
lation is Shi’a was, according to one analyst, “astonishing”
(Brunner 2014, 223). Commenting on the near hysteria of
the sectarian rhetoric, another longtime observer of the
region quipped that reading the Egyptian press during
this time, “you would think Iran’s troops were massed on
the border” (Byman 2014, 81).
The rhetoric crescendoed into violence in June of 2013,
when a Sunni mob descended on a gathering of Egyptian
Shi’a in Abu Musallem, a village on the outskirts of the
Cairo-Giza metropolis. For three hours, the crowd rained
stones and Molotov cocktails onto a home where the con-
gregants were celebrating a religious holiday. When some
717641PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917717641Political Research QuarterlyBrooke
1University of Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Steven Brooke, Department of Political Science, University of
Louisville, Ford Hall Rm. 205, Louisville, KY 40292, USA.
Sectarianism and Social Conformity:
Evidence from Egypt
Steven Brooke1
Why might citizens adopt exaggerated public antagonism toward outgroups? When this is so, how much do public and
private attitudes diverge? I argue that expanding exclusionary rhetoric against outgroups can create social pressures
that incentivize ordinary citizens to adopt bigoted attitudes to avoid ostracism from their own majority community.
Based on an investigation of Egypt during the Arab Spring, I identify the emergence and diffusion of a norm of
discrimination against the country’s tiny Shi’a population. Under these conditions, a substantial portion of Sunni
citizens adopted and countenanced anti-Shi’a bigotry not because they truly believed it, but rather because they feared
the consequences of expressing public support for coexistence. A variety of qualitative evidence traces the growth
of anti-Shi’a sentiment during this period, while original survey data show that over 80 percent of Sunni respondents
openly expressed anti-Shi’a attitudes. Yet when asked about their attitudes via an item count technique, a method that
grants a reprieve from social pressures, the percentage of respondents expressing discriminatory views toward the
Shi’a dropped to just over 40 percent. One implication is that sectarian attitudes in the region are as much the product
of malleable social and political pressures as deeply rooted preferences.
sectarianism, Egypt, survey experiment

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