By Kevan Harris, Princeton University

 * This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Social Services” workshop, September 23, 2014. 

There is a disconnect between popular accounts of Islamist social service organizations and the broader scholarship on welfare politics. A few city-states notwithstanding, state welfare systems are rarely designed from scratch. They are often built on top of pre-existing social structures with internal flows of reciprocal aid or tributary assistance. States can plug into, tame, and incorporate these networks, a far less costly option than replacing them de novo. States do not wipe out service-providing political machines or religious organizations. States eat them.

This process commonly leads to indigestion. Local actors often resist being trumped by a supra-political entity. In many European countries, Christian Democratic parties were largely the “unintended offspring” of Protestant and Catholic Church attempts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to ward off Liberal parties’ usurpation of social policy and education away from religious hands.[1] The Democratic Party in the United States depended on urban patronage machines well into the 1930s, yet the decline of “bossism” occurred more as a result of implementing a federal social security program than any direct assaults against city machines.[2] Distributional coalitions of aid, health care, education, and pensions thus tend to form, expand, or rearrange during bursts of state building.

Local actors and their social service networks do not necessarily disappear alongside state building. They often maneuver in areas where direct state intervention into households and communities is reckoned as impractical or costly by political elites. In this sense, Islamist social service institutions are analogous to mafias, urban machines, warlords, or other reappearing “traditional” political communities.[3] All are service-providing institutions that sometimes compete with the state and sometimes cooperate with it. Sometimes the state swallows them, and sometimes they burst out in a mess as in the movie Alien.

From this lens, Islamist welfare politics do not solely occur in the shadow of a retreating state. The prevalent emphasis on Islamist welfare organizations as handmaidens of neoliberalism is partly due to the fact that there are plenty of areas in the Middle East where states are retreating, if not shattering altogether. Nevertheless, the full house of Islamist welfare organizations contains more diversity. Below I discuss three cases to highlight this variation while also giving attention to the distinctiveness, if any, of the religious character of these organizations.

Egypt: As the government of Hosni Mubarak oversaw the rollback of state welfare policy during the past two decades, religious charity organizations multiplied throughout Egypt. Many were independent from the Muslim Brotherhood, but the growth of a discourse of pious giving among middle class urbanites lent legitimacy to the Brotherhood’s activities. Private religious organizations framed their aid work in numerous ways, from simply good deeds to a precursor for development. As their activities expanded, Islamist charities broke out of mosques and headed into shopping malls. In doing so, aid organizations actively sought to take over social networks which had atrophied during the state’s haphazard liberalization attempts.[4]

The distinct advantage of the religious aid sector in Egypt seemed to be its compatibility with both state authoritarianism and a middle class habitus. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in creating a counter-elite and thousands of loyal cadres also relied on fostering diverse networks of solidarity within social service activities. As with Turkey, welfare organizations that claimed to be apolitical or post-ideological could turn into vehicles of political mobilization against the government.[5] When states outsource welfare to Islamist service organizations, they are producing political machines of a sort. But unlike a public welfare system where distribution rules are transparent and routinized, political machines usually have to spend energy and resources on cultivating and maintaining middle level brokers to find clients or beneficiaries. This is costly: Any political machine’s social network is inherently self-limiting.[6] On the whole, Islamist social service providers are not excluded from this organizational dynamic. Political machines are not “mini-states,” and neither are Islamist service providers.

Indonesia: Under the Suharto dictatorship, Islamist welfare organizations in Indonesia were tightly controlled. The state collected religious taxes from Muslims who worked in the public sector. These were voluntary but encouraged, and Suharto claimed himself as the largest donor. As an export and commodity boom in the 1990s raised incomes, middle class communities established religious welfare funds, which were tolerated by the confident Suharto regime as preferable to allowing Islamist political parties into the New Order. Many of the individuals who participated in the Islamist turn had risen within the state bureaucracies.

After the East Asian financial crisis and fall of Suharto, the new democratic government under president B.J. Habibie promised to devolve central state authority to the country’s many provinces. In this framework, middle class Muslims started a wide variety of religious welfare NGOs. In doing so they distinguished themselves from mosque-based welfare activities that the older ulama had largely monopolized. The government welcomed this brand of “civil Islam” partly because state leaders feared a comeback by the military. The resulting social compact formed a check against Suharto’s revanchist supporters.[7] The distinctive advantage here seemed to be the manner in which the flexibility of religious charity became a mechanism for building a new social coalition to support state elites in a precarious position. Unabsorbed by the state, Islamist social welfare organizations provided a form of glue that held together the democratic transition.

Iran: Islamist welfare in Iran is a definitional tautology. What else would it be in an Islamic Republic? But therein lies the politics if one scratches the surface. Muslim Brotherhood-styled welfare organizations existed in pre-revolutionary Iran. Bazaar merchants collected donations to support underground Islamist movements. In 1979, a few months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, these networks were corralled into a self-proclaimed revolutionary welfare organization, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC). It quickly spread throughout Iran, played a major auxiliary role in the 1980s war with Iraq, and continues to enjoy organizational autonomy today. Yet the IKRC is fully governmental, an example of state incorporation and expansion of a pre-existing aid network.

Who are the beneficiaries of this organization? There is no official poverty line in Iran under which individuals receive transfers. Instead, aid is given based on a multitude of status categories: rural elderly, mother-headed household, disability, housing conditions, etc. With piously flexible targeting, the organization is surprisingly effective in counter-cyclical poverty reduction. When incomes go down, enrollments go up.[8] At times, the IKRC secures support for state policies, but there is no formal internal mechanism for buying votes. Rather than the poor becoming dependent on the IKRC, a more accurate picture is that the government became dependent on it. Since the 1980s, technocrats and populists alike have relied on the organization’s capacity to reach hard-to-target households for implementation of new social policies.[9] Though this process, the status categories for beneficiaries stretched outwards. What was originally a clientelist organization became pushed and pulled into a bureaucratic pillar of Iran’s social welfare system. The Islamist orientation of the IKRC went through a similar transformation as the earlier two cases, exhibiting a shift towards a middle class disposition at ease with development speak and technocratic jargon. Yet as a state-incorporated service network, this process eventually broadened the social welfare compact.

In sum, the politics of Islamist welfare organizations are tethered to the state-society context in which they operate: presence or absence of elite conflict, developmental priorities of the government, and the relevance or irrelevance of particular social coalitions. They are distinctive because of their functional mutability, but there is a broad similarity in how their organizational identities link up with the making and unmaking of social classes. If current challenges to state capacity and political order in the Middle East continue, we can expect an influx of new competitors. Many of these will contain Islamist welfare networks with distinctive claims for legitimacy. But we can also recognize it another way: The coming rise of the machines.

Kevan Harris is the associate director of the Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies and a research fellow in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.


[1] Kees van Kersbergen and Philip Manow, eds., Religion, Class Coalitions, and Welfare States (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Observed firsthand by Robert Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1949), 247–48.

[3] Georgi Derluguian and Timothy Earle, “Strong Chieftaincies Out of Weak States, or Elemental Power Unbound.” Comparative Social Research, no. 27 (2010): 51–76.

[4] Mona Atia, Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[5] Carrie Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); for Turkey, see Joshua Hendrick, Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World (New York: NYU Press, 2013).

[6] Susan Stokes et al., Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[7] Robert Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Siti Kusujiarti, “Pluralistic and Informal Welfare Regime: The Roles of Islamic Institutions in the Indonesian Welfare Regime,” in The Sociology of Islam: Secularism, Economy and Politics, ed. Tugrul Keskin (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2011), 419–52.

[8] Hadi Salehi Esfahani and Seyed Mohammad Karimi. “The Distributional Consequences of Economic Growth and Public Spending Programs in Iran.” Working Paper, October, 2013.

[9] Kevan Harris, “The Politics of Welfare After Revolution and War: The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in The Cup, The Gun and The Crescent: Social Welfare and Civil Unrest in Muslim Societies, ed. Sara Crabtree et al. (London: Whiting & Birch, 2012), 134–50.

The Rise of the Machines

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