A Pyramid of Hate Perspective on Religious Bias, Discrimination and Violence

Jawad Syed and Faiza Ali


This study provides a ‘pyramid of hate’ perspective on issues and challenges facing minority religious communities in social and political climates that bestow permission to hate. Previous research shows that adverse social stereotypes and biases, together with non-inclusive policies and practices at the level of the state, create an enabling environment that signals the legitimacy of public hostility towards a minority community. This paper argues that such climates of hate within and outside the workplace may be better understood by paying attention to the multiple levels of hate, i.e., biased attitudes, biased actions, discrimination and violence. In its extreme form, such climate may lead to indiscriminate massacres and genocide. This contextual study draws on interviews with 76 Shia Muslim professionals and employees in Pakistan to provide a ‘pyramid of hate’ perspective on issues of bias, discrimination and violence facing them. The study unveils a range of experiences, from subtle bias and stereotyping to blatant harassment, discrimination and hostilities facing Shia professionals and employees in Pakistan. The study is unique as it integrates the notion of pyramid of hate into management and organization studies and advances this theory by examining issues of sect-based bias, discrimination and violence within one religion.


Previous research suggests that adverse social stereotypes and biases, together with non-inclusive policies and practices at the level of the state, create an enabling environment for public hostility towards a minority community (Poynting and Perry 2007; Perry and Scrivens 2018). Jenness and Grattet (2001) argue that hate crimes cannot be fully comprehended without understanding the larger processes that identified, defined and ultimately generated the problem. They further argue that the appropriate target analysis of a social problem is much wider than the horrifying incidents that reach the public consciousness; rather, it is the social processes that generated and sustained the problem as a framework for understanding such incidents. Individuals who have been unjustly harmed or damaged by forces beyond their control are described as victims and hence deserving of support and protection (Holstein and Miller 1990; Schweppe et al. 2016). In the case of hate crimes, we can point to minorities who are victimized by violence motivated by differences of religion, ethnicity or race. In each case, individuals suffer from psychological and physical harm born of exogenous conditions. However, implications of these harms and the overall climate of hate have not been sufficiently investigated in the literature on management and organization, a gap which the present study seeks to address.

Van Fleet and Van Fleet (2006) note that hate-based violence and terrorism are rapidly becoming a domestic problem for a potentially large number of organizations. This situation and the fact that the external climate and dysfunctional leaders can foster intolerance within organizations make it imperative that managers everywhere develop their knowledge of hate and terrorism. This paper addresses this topic by focusing on issues and challenges facing the professionals and employees of a minority Muslim sect (Shia) in a Muslim majority country (Pakistan).

It may be noted that the violence and hostility that Shia Muslims in Pakistan experience at the hands of TakfiriFootnote1 (or Khawarij) Islamist extremists is also experienced by the Muslim majority community (Sunni Muslims) as well as by non-Muslim minorities. Hence, the study does not represent a tit-for-tat violence or hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslim (Abbas 2010). This point is important to note as the both sects, Sunnis and Shias, are suffering at the hands of Takfiri extremists (Syed 2016; Syed et al. 2016).

Internal heterogeneity of Islam is largely ignored and under-explored in the mainstream media and academic literature. This is problematic because Takfiri Islamist militancy and extremism are not only hurting non-Muslim communities but have also caused much damage to the majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (Rajan 2015; Syed and Pio 2018; Syed et al. 2016). Mir and Naquvi (2016) point towards the increasing sectarian tensions within Muslims to the fore, particularly in the shape of Takfiri puritanism within certain sections of Muslim communities which manifests itself as an intolerance both of intra-Islamic heterogeneity and of non-Muslim faiths. This heterogeneity is particularly conspicuous and important in contexts where there is a sizable Muslim minority community facing ‘othering’, discrimination and violence at the hands of a Muslim majority community, e.g., stereotypes and discrimination facing Sunni Sufis and Shias in Saudi Arabia, Sunni Baloch tribes in Iran, Alevis in Turkey and Shias in Pakistan.

This paper offers a ‘pyramid of hate’ perspective to explore issues of bias and discrimination facing Shia Muslim professionals and employees in Pakistan. The Pyramid of Hate (ADL 2018) is a theoretical and visual image of how the seeds of hate, once planted, can quickly grow from biased ideas to harmful behaviors and violence. The pyramid comprises several interconnected levels and there is a tendency of hate to escalate when unchecked. Although the behaviors at each level adversely affect individuals and groups, as one moves up the pyramid, these become more extreme and violent.

Drawing on interviews with 76 Pakistani Shia Muslim professionals and employees, all of whom were either working or had worked in Pakistan, the study demonstrates how societal biases and stereotypes infiltrate into organizational level interactions resulting in harassment and discrimination.

The study is important due to a number of reasons. First, it challenges the common misperception that Muslims, including Muslim employees, constitute one homogenous community. By focusing on a minority Muslim sect representing 10–15% of the world Muslim population (1.6 billion) and 10–15% of Muslim population of Pakistan, it highlights the internal heterogeneity of Muslims which remains ignored in mainstream commentaries and literature on Islam (Turner 2002). Second, the study highlights an urgent human rights issue facing not only Pakistani state and society but also the international community at large, i.e., the anti-Shia violence, in which Shia professionals and employees, along with other Shias, face bias, hate speech, discrimination and violence. While the perpetrators of violence are usually located outside the workplace, both workplace discrimination and external violence are driven by prejudice against, hatred or fear of Shia Muslims which we describe as Shiaphobia. Given the enormous scale of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan, as noted by international human rights groups (such as Amnesty International 20022011; HRW 2014; UN News 2015), it is important to assess its implications for Shia employees and wider community. Theoretically, the study is important as it integrates the pyramid of hate perspective into management and organization studies and advances this theory by pointing towards issues of hatred within one religion and examining these issues in the context of work and employment.

The paper is structured as follows. First, it explains the interconnected notions of the pyramid of hate and Shiaphobia. It then offers a brief historical overview of Shia Sunni differences and the genesis of Shia persecution. Then the study’s context is offered including Shia demographics and issues in Pakistan. Finally, through empirical findings, the paper provides a pyramid of hate analysis of issues and challenges facing Shia professionals and employees.

Citation: Syed, J., & Ali, F. (2020) A Pyramid of Hate Perspective on Religious Bias, Discrimination and Violence. Journal of Business Ethics, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-020-04505-5