Old questions and new methods in the study of Islamism

By Steven Brooke,  Middle East Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

Just as they have been for Middle Eastern peoples and governments, so have the last few years been tumultuous for our academic understandings of the region. Islamist groups have been at the center of many of these changes: lodging quiet successes in Morocco, adapting to the democratic give-and-take in Tunisia, falling victim to their own successes in Egypt, consolidating their hold on power in Turkey, and taking up arms in the region’s devastating civil wars. Not only have these developments spurred us to revisit our longstanding assumptions and conclusions in the study of Islamism, they are also re-shaping the very methodologies, concepts, and tools that we have used to arrive at them.

In this workshop paper I want to advocate integrating into the study of Islamism spatial, quantitative, and user-generated/social media data. Two interrelated concerns – one proactive and one reactive – motivate this emphasis. First, the rapid proliferation of publicly available data offers new opportunities to test and consolidate our existing understanding of Islamist politics. It can also help us expand to domains that had previously been inaccessible for researchers. Second, and more practically, in some places the political and security climate has become hostile to the type of qualitative and ethnographic work that has long formed the backbone of Islamist studies. In these conditions studying Islamism – of the Muslim Brotherhood variety or otherwise – has become increasingly difficult, if not outright dangerous.

Qualitative researchers – often blending intensive fieldwork, interviewing, and primary and secondary-source analysis – have generated nearly all of our most consequent academic investigations into Islamism. These methods have informed signal works on Islamists’ historical development, mobilization, processes of ideological and generational change, internal debates, democracy and political competition, and the relationship between Islamist groups and the state. Beyond each author’s individual preferences, abjuring alternative approaches to the study of Islamism made practical sense. Despite operating in authoritarian political systems, Islamists were readily available for researchers: we could ask them questions, read their books, and generally spend time understanding their daily life. At the same time, the types of data that were more amenable to different analysis, such as election results, were of questionable provenance and dubious quality.

Recent events in the region, from uprisings, electoral competition and governance, civil war, and/or renewed repression, have each generated a considerable amount of new data. Used creatively, this material can help us revisit a number of assumptions and allow us to test longstanding theories in the academic study of Islamism. I want to highlight recent and in-progress works – both my own and that of others – that use these materials to address key arguments embedded in the literature on Islamism: the purpose and effect of Islamists’ social services, the pathways of ideological change, and the social bases of Islamist activism.

In a recent review article, Melani Cammett and Pauline Jones Luong noted that even the most basic aspects of Islamist social service provision remain “presumed rather than demonstrated.” I take up their challenge by using spatial methods to understand the connection between Islamists’ social service provision and their electoral successes in Egypt. For one project, I use Arabic-language social media to code the spatial distribution of nearly 500 of the Muslim Brotherhood’s medical caravans that were mobilized in anticipation of parliamentary elections in early 2013 (those elections never happened, due to the coup). Matching this activity to results of the 2011 to 2012 parliamentary elections showed that the caravans were clustered in districts where Brotherhood candidates had faced their toughest challenges in earlier parliamentary elections. This user-generated data can help us understand how and why Islamists use social services, a topic that has historically proven difficult to study.

The experience of Islamists in the various legislatures and presidential palaces furnishes additional material that allows us to revisit predictions of how Islamists would behave in government. In a working paper, Sharan Grewal coupled biographical details of 87 Ennahda deputies with their voting records in Tunisia’s new parliament to quantitatively test theories of moderation. He finds that deputies who spent time in the West were more likely to vote liberally on issues of religion and state, those who had been more active in student unions and syndicates were more likely to take liberal positions on women, and deputies who had been to prison were more likely to object to banning members of the former regime from political life – although the length of time one had spent in prison was positively correlated with support for the ban. Beyond the specific conclusions, Grewal’s research suggests the potential of more deeply analyzing the edicts, laws, and pronouncements that Islamists produced during their time governing.

Much of our information about the social base of Islamists comes from case studies and observation. Yet the large-scale Islamist mobilization following the July 3, 2013 military coup provides important new quantitative data to understand the social context of Islamism. Neil Ketchley and Michael Biggs used an open-source listing of those killed during the Egyptian government’s attack on pro-Morsi protesters in Rabaa ‘Adwiyya square to make inferences about who these protestors were and where they came from. Matching the victims’ biographies with census data, they conclude, “pro-Morsi protesters killed at Rabaa came from districts with low rates of illiteracy, in other words the most prosperous and urbanized parts of the country.”

The above projects all focus on political Islamists and, as such, are largely concerned with issues of electoral mobilization and governance. At the other end of the spectrum, the prominence of salafi-jihadist groups in many of the region’s conflicts provides opportunities for innovative new analyses of these actors. Particularly notable is the centrality of user-generated social media. As Marc Lynch and his coauthors note, the Syrian civil war “has been perhaps the most socially-mediated civil war in history, with little direct journalistic access to the battlefield and an extraordinary amount of user-generated content shared across social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.” When big data like this is used thoughtfully it can generate interesting answers for questions about rebel governance, recruitment, internecine conflict, and theological debates. One avenue of analysis for future scholars might be to emulate Richard Nielsen’s automated textual analysis of fatwas, books, and other materials to understand why some religious figures turn to jihadism.

Leveraging rapidly proliferating and publicly available data in order to complement and deepen our existing understanding of Islamist politics is a worthwhile endeavor purely on the academic merits. Viewed in light of the regional context, and in particular the increasing difficulties of researching the very sectors of politics and society in which we are interested, the case becomes even stronger.

In the best of conditions, the types of research that have fueled academic study of Islamism were difficult. But even in Mubarak’s Egypt, for instance, it was relatively easy to speak with Islamists, spend time with them, and generally attempt to understand how they conceptualize their role in society (and, in turn, how society relates to Islamist activism). Now, as the military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sissi continues to expand its control over multiple facets of Egyptian life, it has become basically impossible for us, as scholars, to carry out the fieldwork that we have long been accustomed to. As Nathan Brown puts it, when discussing Egypt, “I don’t think anybody [today] is trying to do a research project that went through official channels that has the words ‘military’ or ‘security’ or ‘Muslim Brotherhood’…” The recent murder of Italian Ph.D. student Giulio Regeni highlights the dangers confronting scholars who work in these contexts.

Of course, its not just foreign academics that are struggling to navigate these currents: Egypt’s government is making a concerted effort to bring the country’s restive universities to heel, and also targeting dissident academics and researchers. Not only does this cause immediate research difficulties, it also inhibits vitally important interaction with local researchers and academics by opening them to spurious charges of “collaboration with foreign entities.” One option is to simply switch to countries where fieldwork-based research on Islamists remains possible (indeed, a silver lining is the way that these developments force us to diversify an Egypt-centric research agenda). Another is to delve into the historical record, noting parallels with the current period of repression and how Islamists coped.

I hope this essay is not read as another salvo in the increasingly tired debates between the qualitative and quantitative research traditions. Indeed, the types of material that technological advances and liberalizations (and de-liberalizations) have generated are just as promising for qualitative and interpretivist investigators. We can gain as much from an in-depth investigation of a single document as we can from a meta-analysis of that entire scholar’s web-scraped corpus. Rather, I want to emphasize that qualitative studies have contributed enormously to our understanding of Islamists and Islamism, and in so doing they have given us a tremendous array of assumptions and conclusions that the upheavals and technological advances of the last few years have given us the opportunity to revisit.

Finally, I would also note that the aforementioned studies are each grounded in broader research frameworks that take existing qualitative research seriously, often integrating it as a vital component of their work. They clearly motivate their questions by referring to existing theoretical claims and empirical irregularities, and they turn to new data or methods to gain traction over these puzzles. Indeed, this willingness to blend methods and data sources and to anchor both in local contexts, is key to successfully developing new research questions. Keeping in mind prior contributions is important, even as we look to rethink and improve our existing understandings of these actors.


Steven Brooke is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Middle East Initiative of the Harvard Kennedy School and an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisville.


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