What do we really know about the provision of social services by Islamist movements? It’s hard to find a popular article about groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah that doesn’t reference their ability to win popular support by providing social services through their extensive network of charities, clinics and community centers. Most observers have long believed that these charitable activities played a key role in Islamist outreach and organization, built their reputations for honesty and efficacy, conferred a significant political advantage, and helped to promote the Islamization of society.

A recent wave of scholarship has challenged many of the prevailing assumptions about the nature and significance of these social services, however. Evidence for the scope, superiority or political utility of these charitable activities has proved elusive. Volunteers in the Islamic charitable sector profess a far wider set of motivations for their participation than just political rewards. The rise of non-governmental charities – and not only Islamic ones – seems to be driven at least in part by neoliberal reforms and the broader structural changes in the region’s political economy. What’s more, whatever explained the patterns and effects of social service provision in the past may no longer apply. Major changes on the ground such as the crushing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the dramatic move into service provision by jihadist groups raise serious questions about how these dynamics might play out in the future.

Last month, therefore, a workshop by the Project on Middle East Political Science brought together a small group of scholars who have been doing innovative research on the Islamic social services sector. Their memos, along with several other recent Monkey Cage essays, have now been released as a free PDF download in the POMEPS Studies series. Those papers, and the discussions in the workshop, offer a rich window into the changing nature of Islamic social services and their relationship with political movements and parties.

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The specific mechanisms by which social service provision translates into votes or public support are not obvious. It is not as straightforward as just buying votes – especially as other political forces, especially local notables who are not unfamiliar with patronage, can easily do the same. As Tarek Masoud argues, “Inasmuch as social-service provision is something that any party could decide to do, why is it that only (or mainly) Islamists do it? Is there anything to prevent nonreligious parties from distributing the bottles of oil and bags of sugar that many of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s detractors credit with that movement’s rise to power in 2011?”

Some efforts, such as food and medical caravans sent to swing districts, do seem blatantly electoral. But, as Melani Cammett and Steven Brooke argue, the long-term provision of social services from bricks-and-mortar agencies is very different from the cash payments or one-shot food distribution efforts that predominate at election time. Those long-term investments in communities are often thought to contribute to spreading Islamist identities and values. This has been difficult to document empirically, however. A decade ago, Janine Clark demonstrated that Islamic charities catered more to the middle class than to the truly poor, and were having such effects. Brooke’s forthcoming study of the geographical distribution of Islamist clinics, like a recent study by Mona Atia of George Washington University about Egyptian Islamic charities, should offer fascinating perspective.

The dramatic turn of the Egyptian public against the Muslim Brotherhood last year suggests that this long-term cultivation of Islamist identity had not become as deeply rooted as expected. Masoud inclines toward Cammett and Pauline Jones Luong’s argument that Islamists translated social services into political advantage by building a reputation for good governance and “for being uniquely competent, trustworthy and pure” in relationship to their principal rivals. This may offer an answer to the puzzle of the Brotherhood’s rapid reversal. A reputation for good governance, as opposed to an alignment with common identity or values, could prove especially vulnerable to political failure, particularly in the context of the bare-knuckled existential battles in transitional countries such as Egypt. Mohamed Morsi’s poor performance as president would then outweigh the provision of social services because of the reputational costs cutting to the heart of the original appeal.

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I can’t do justice to the breadth and depth of the discussion in these papers. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few points that piqued my interest:

1. There’s a lot that we just don’t know. Steven Brooke, a graduate student at the University of Texas who has spent years studying Islamic clinics in Cairo, warns of systematic gaps in our knowledge. As Cammett and Luong pointed out in an influential survey article this year, “little if any research examines systematically the extent and quality of Islamist welfare programs and activities in the Muslim world. Most claims about Islamists’ social welfare initiatives are based on minimal, if any, hard data.” That came through powerfully in the workshop’s discussions. The literature on Islamist social services has been heavily weighted toward Egypt, and specifically the greater Cairo area. A lot more attention gets paid to the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities than to what George Washington University’s Atia describes as a “plethora of organizations providing social services in the name of Islam; there are numerous social service providers not affiliated with political parties.” Even Egyptian Salafi Islamist charities are neglected, Moustafa Khalil notes. Those profound empirical gaps in our knowledge are beginning to be filled, and used to examine the specific mechanisms by which Islamist movements translated – or failed to translate – their social services into political support. But there’s a long, long way to go.

2. Charities have had good reason to keep it that way. The authoritarian context in the region has driven many of these charities to hide their affiliations out of fear of state repression. The Islamic social sector came under understandably tight scrutiny from security services intent on monitoring and suppressing Islamist political activity. In several cases, such as Jordan in the mid-2000s and Egypt today, governments seized control of Islamic services. This makes them very different from, say, the social services provided by Hezbollah and other political movements in Lebanon, where competing political movements proudly claimed such activities. The ambiguity, if not outright secrecy, has obvious implications for researchers who may struggle to correctly code the identity and affiliations of these organizations. It also raises questions about their political utility: If a clinic actively conceals its relationship with Islamist movements or parties, and refrains from proselytizing, then what lessons could its patients be drawing from their efforts? Survey work by Masoud suggests that few Egyptians were even aware of having taken advantage of Islamic clinics.

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3. Neoliberalism may matter more than political strategy. The focus on how social services strengthen movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood may be distracting attention from much deeper changes in regional political economy. Neoliberal economic reforms, argues Gizem Zencirci, have driven a rise in private social charities and a rethinking of their meaning for Islamic identity. As the state retreats, by this argument, the private sector – Islamist or otherwise – must step forward to fill the spaces vacated by the state. In this regard, Atia points out that “Islamic associations have a great deal in common with secular development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Christian faith-based ones alike.” To the extent that they buffer the state from the dislocations that might otherwise have followed from their cuts in benefits and services, such social services, Islamist or otherwise, help rather than undermine the regimes carrying out the reforms. As Kevan Harris puts it, states didn’t need to crush these parallel sectors, then – they ate them. And, as Tom Pepinsky demonstrates, in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia where the economic conditions don’t create a demand for such a sector, Islamist social services are far less politically effective.

4. It’s not just political. Researchers tend to be primarily interested in the political motivations for charitable work, but that doesn’t mean that politics are actually motivating the social service providers. Abdullah Al-Arian warns that the obsession with vote buying “limits our understanding of these institutions solely to their relevance in the political sphere, rather than the broader social function that they provide.” For some, charity is an Islamic virtue in its own right, a means of self-actualization or a way to display piety and faith. Atia’s concept of “pious neoliberalism” suggests that charitable giving offers a vehicle for a pious emerging middle class to reconcile their faith with their newfound wealth and opportunity. In a recent American Ethnologist article, Amira Mittermaier describes the concerns of the volunteers in Egyptian Islamic clinics as “living piously” and doing something to manifest their convictions. As Cammett puts it, “A variety of non-political motivations coexist with more overtly political goals in shaping Islamist welfare activities.”

5. Would closing down these social services destroy the Muslim Brotherhood? Egypt’s military coup in July 2013 included a large-scale crackdown on the parallel Islamic sector. Jordan has been pressuring the Brotherhood’s charities for years. Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood and are working to curtail its funding and ideological appeal. If charitable work was really central to the Brotherhood’s appeal, will this crackdown fatally undermine its political prospects? Maybe not. The electoral success of Tunisia’s Ennahda despite the absence of the enormous social service sector administered by electorally successful Islamists in Egypt, Jordan or Palestine suggests that such a parallel sector is not necessary for Islamist political success.

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6. What will jihadists get out of it? Over the past several years, jihadist movements that long shunned social service provision have adopted it in a big way. It isn’t only the Islamic State. As Aaron Zelin has pointed out, jihadist groups in North Africa and Yemen also have taken up the types of social welfare activities that had in the past been dominated by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates or nonpolitical Salafis. There’s nothing new about insurgencies offering such services, as Megan Stewart demonstrates, but jihadist groups may face distinctive challenges to effective governance based on their ideology. Will such efforts founder in the face of ideological constraints and international hostility or build up popular legitimacy for jihadist governance?

These are only a few of the issues raised by the memos collected in POMEPS Studies #9 Islamist Social Services. Download it and read it today.

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