Religion, Sectarianism, and Democracy: Theory and Evidence from Lebanon

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Mohammed al-Amin Mosque, downtown Beirut

Michael Hoffman, Ph.D.

Does religious practice promote or dampen support for democracy? Critics of religion point to cases like Iran, where religious forces actively suppress pro-democracy movements, while supporters of religion cite examples such as Poland, where religious leaders and institutions helped undermine an authoritarian regime and pave the way for democracy. At the individual level, this issue is equally unsettled: does religion make citizens more or less supportive of democracy?

In a piece published recently in Political Behavior, I argue that religious attendance (or communal religious practice) can have both pro- and anti-democratic effects. I use the case of Lebanon, where religious-sectarian concerns strongly influence attitudes towards democracy, to illustrate how even within the same country, religious practice can have divergent effects on regime preferences. For Sunni Muslims, religious attendance has a robust negative effect on support for democracy. For Shi`a, however, exactly the opposite effect is present: those who regularly engage in communal prayer are considerably more supportive of democracy than those who rarely or never do so.

What explains these seemingly contradictory patterns? I argue that the missing link in this setting is sectarian interests. For Sunnis, who have benefited from the current political arrangement relative to Shi`a, the possibility of greater democracy is a threatening one: as a smaller and relatively more privileged group, they have a lot to lose from democratization. The larger Shi`a population, who have also historically tended to be neglected by the state, face precisely the opposite incentives. For them, democracy would mean greater representation, wider influence, and likely more access to state economic resources. Thus, the prospect of democracy looks very different to these groups, even within the same country.

Using original survey data from 2013-2014, I show that these relationships operate through a channel of group solidarity. The more individuals participate in communal prayer, the more they care about the interests of their group. For Sunnis, this translates into lower support for democracy, while it has the opposite effect among Shi`a. Respondents who frequently attend religious services—whether Sunni or Shi`a—consistently feel closer to members of their sect and see their political interests as tied to the interests of the group at large. In this sense, they view regime politics through a largely sectarian lens. Rather than focusing solely on private, individual concerns, they consider the implications that the prospect of democracy has for their group, and in doing so, adjust their regime preferences accordingly.

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I use a variety of methods to test these claims, including experimental primes. When respondents were exposed to primes that activated “communal religious” concepts, they were more likely to report feeling a sense of sectarian solidarity. Likewise, they were more likely to report attitudes towards democracy consistent with the interests of their sect. Taken together, these findings suggest that communal prayer heightens the salience of religious group identity, and can noticeably affect attitudes towards key political issues in sectarian contexts.

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