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Examining the marginalization of Muslims in India

King Center Graduate Student Research Funding recipient Feyaad Allie’s work uses both qualitative and quantitative data.

When Feyaad Allie traveled to India in the summer to explore research possibilities after his second year at Stanford, he had a general interest in studying the role of Islam in the country.

But his trip coincided with protests over two new laws passed under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government that discriminate against Muslims.

feyaad allie
Feyaad Allie

Unrest in response to the laws—the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)—underscored everything Allie experienced in India while he was there. 

“There was an existential understanding among Muslims that their political and socio-economic condition was poor and precarious in the country,” explains Allie, a King Center on Global Development Graduate Student Research Funding recipient. “That’s been the case for a while, but things have deteriorated under the Hindu majoritarian government.” Allie’s trip was also supported by a Graduate Student Summer Research Grant from the Center for South Asia at Stanford and a Research and Travel Grant from the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.

Feyadd Allie speaking with a politician and taking notes
Allie interviewing a young, first time Muslim politician in Dhampur, Uttar Pradesh, India | Credit: Feyaad Allie

Other scholars have explored Hindu-Muslim relations in general and Hindu-Muslim riots in particular, but Allie felt there was more to be said about the political power—or lack thereof—of India’s Muslims, who make up about 15 percent of the country’s population compared to Hindus, who comprise 79 percent. Since 2019, he has conducted approximately 150 qualitative interviews with political elites and Indian voters; run a survey of nearly 5,000 people (evenly divided among Muslims and Hindus) about their voting patterns; and designed vignette experiments that ask participants to share their thoughts on hypothetical Muslim and other candidates.

“I’m a strong believer in taking multiple approaches to a question,” Allie says. “We shouldn’t be limited in our understanding of groups based on data that’s accessible.”

Allie’s work is incredibly timely. Under Modi, discrimination against Muslims has increased. In addition to the CAA and NRC laws, the government has banned hijabs in schools and many Muslim homes and businesses have been destroyed. This year is also the 75th anniversary of India’s Partition, when the British government split India into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan.

a mosque at in Dehli, India
The Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, India | Credit: Feyaad Allie

“There’s a lot going on within the Muslim community,” Allie says. “I felt this was something we needed to understand more.”

Allie’s own ancestors left India before Partition; they moved to Guyana as indentured servants, and Allie was born in that South American country before moving to New York and later Florida with his parents. Allie says he first became aware of the role of religion and politics after 9/11 (he was an elementary school student in Brooklyn at the time).

“That was the first time [religion] became salient in my everyday life,” he says.

Later, Allie attended Dartmouth College where he studied government and Arabic. During a study abroad experience at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he wrote a paper about counter-radicalization efforts in the United Kingdom, including the Prevent program, which was launched in 2003 and requires certain people to report to the police individuals who might be drawn into extremism. Allie later wrote his senior thesis on Prevent.

“I was passionate about that project,” he says. “I liked the idea of field research.”

After serving as a fellow in Kenya with the U.S. government’s Young African Leaders Initiative for a few months, he worked at Deloitte briefly while he waited for word about his graduate school applications. Stanford was at the top of his list.

Jeremy Weinstein
Jeremy Weinstein

“It was and is and will continue to be the place to study identity and ethnicity,” he says, pointing to the work of scholars such Jeremy Weinstein, a Stanford political science professor and King Center faculty affiliate who is now Allie’s dissertation committee chair.

Weinstein says Allie’s work “demonstrates the value of a multi-method approach” and “tackles what may be one of the most important and understudied issues in South Asian politics.”

“In a country that has made remarkable progress improving the representation of women, scheduled tribes, and scheduled castes, Muslims remain on the fringe,” Weinstein says. “Understanding the sources of political inequality in the world’s largest democracy is critical to the broader study of democratic institutions.”

Allie’s dissertation, titled “Power, Exclusion, and Identity: The Politics of Muslim Marginalization in India,” is broken into several chapters. One of his findings is that when Indian Muslims do secure seats in government, they are actually less likely to win reelection. Allie theorizes that Muslims in India experience a “representation trap” in which the dominant group works to consolidate its power and the marginalized group splits into factions. In the case of Indian Muslims, Allie’s research suggests the Muslim community splits along caste lines when there are multiple Muslim candidates, reducing their power as a political bloc.

a government press conference in a crowded room
A party event on the condition of Muslims in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India | Credit: Feyaad Allie

“I think the main takeaway from the project is that the dynamics of representation are a lot more complex than we may think,” Allie says. “Representation does not always produce positive future outcomes. Sometimes it can actually upend progress that’s been made.”

Ultimately, Allie’s findings could be useful for policymakers and community groups who seek to improve the inclusion of marginalized groups by, for example, investing in initiatives to reduce discrimination against minority politicians.

Allie adds that he could not have completed his work without support from the King Center.

“The King Center’s support was critical to my dissertation project,” he says. “It transformed the scope of the project and helped me be able to take a credible quantitative approach to answering these questions.”

Allie also says he has benefitted from the King Center’s academic community, including an event during the pandemic in which King Center scholars offered tips for how to restart fieldwork in a safe way once countries were open to researchers.

Allie’s research reveals the ways Muslims have responded to their marginalization, including through engaging in political protests like the ones he saw in 2019.

In addition to his dissertation, which he hopes to turn into a book, Allie has also studied how the use of facial recognition technology in polling places in India affects voter turnout (his small-scale pilot study suggests the technology has a negative impact on turnout perhaps because of apprehension about government surveillance within marginalized communities).

“I’m interested in majority-minority relations and causes of tension,” says Allie, who will be graduating in spring 2023. “I’m just really passionate about understanding how marginalized groups engage in politics and I’m excited to contribute to this growing area of study.”