Assumptions and Agendas in the Study of Islamic Social Service Provision

By Steven Brooke, University of Texas at Austin

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

Most studies of Islamist groups written over the past three decades contain some version of the sentence: “Islamists’ network of hospitals, schools, day cares, soup kitchens, and other social services help the group (choose one of the following): win elections, Islamize the population, recruit and retain members, delegitimize the state, or demonstrate their commitment to Islam.” Yet rare was the study that provided enough empirical evidence to evaluate these causal claims. This is beginning to change, however, as a number of theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich studies have begun to evaluate these arguments across a number of geographic contexts.

Against this backdrop I want to draw from my own research on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts at social service provision to make some observations and gentle recommendations to think about as we move forward. First, we rely on a series of assumptions in our work, but we should be wary of neglecting critical reassessments of these assumptions as our research agendas expand. That said, I think that there are a number of interesting new directions for research on Islamist social service provision that are worth highlighting.

In terms of our assumptions, Melani Cammett and Pauline Jones Luong note that we often take for granted that Islamists’ social services are better than the services their competitors offer. In light of the anecdotal evidence this seems a reasonable assumption to make, but without more systematic data we should proceed with caution. Given how much theoretical weight this assumption supports, the relative absence of empirical information about Islamist social services (in both absolute and relative terms) should move much higher on the research agenda.

We should also consider what we mean by “better.” One answer might be that Islamists’ facilities are better equipped or their staff more highly trained. If so, the strategy might be to assess the objective quality of services Islamists offer: the provisioning of Islamist schools, the education of Islamist doctors, and the efficacy of Islamist vocational training. But “better” may also mean that people simply enjoy the experience at Islamists’ facilities more (or dread it less) than a trip to their competitors. Thus we should focus on exploring recipients’ subjective views of Islamists’ social service efforts: Are citizens happy with the healthcare they received or satisfied with their child’s educational progress?

It may well be the case that the gap in technical capacity between Islamist and non-Islamist facilities is negligible, yet a yawning gulf appears in how people perceive the respective experiences (my own research suggests this is the case). Put differently, the Islamists’ advantage may lie more in the relational experience between doctor and patient than the doctor’s training or the sophistication of the equipment. Not only will this justify our assumptions, it can also help specify our theoretical mechanisms and where to look for causal effects.

There also lurks a second assumption in our arguments that Islamist medical, educational, vocational, material, and charitable efforts are essentially interchangeable in the larger basket of social service provision. For theory building this is defensible, but we should stop to consider how this leaves potentially important empirical variation unexamined. Do internal organizational fissures, membership characteristics, or resource constraints shape an Islamist group’s decision to open a school versus a medical clinic? Among the population, does a trip to an Islamist hospital produce different effects than enrolling at an Islamist school?

One example from my own research highlights how the method of social service delivery can vary while the type of provision remains constant. In January 2013 the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) inaugurated a massive campaign of social service provision in anticipation of upcoming parliamentary elections (the elections were still in preparation at the time of the July 3 military coup). The mobile “medical caravans” were intensely politicized. Personnel were clad in FJP shirts, hats, and vests, operating under banners trumpeting the FJP and Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the efforts. Dispatches from the caravans plastered party websites and social media.

The Brotherhood’s brick-and-mortar medical facilities, in contrast, were much less overtly politicized. For instance, during the 2012 presidential campaign between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq the Islamic Medical Association’s head admonished one of his subordinates in a Delta governorate for politicizing their medical provision in a letter. “We do not provide any support to any party or trend or person, and we deal respectfully with all of them,” it reads. “Please fully comply with everything we have mentioned.”

As the study of Islamist social service provision expands upstream into party strategies and downstream into population effects these assumptions can be tested and revised. At the same time, there are a number of exciting new angles of Islamist social service provision to explore. In the following section, I want to point out a few particularly promising patches of untilled soil.

To this point, the study of Islamist social service provision efforts has been almost totally confined to the political (rather narrowly defined). Ultimately, we’ve been preoccupied with how this provision affects Islamists’ fortunes as political actors: how it helps them gain legitimacy, win adherents, mobilize for elections, or buffer themselves against crackdowns. We want to know about effects on the population, but only to the extent that service provision influences their behavior and then reverberates in terms of the aforementioned political or electoral outcomes.

Despite the considerable breadth of these research agendas, we should also not lose sight of the immediate effects of these efforts inside their communities. For instance, it would be worthwhile to know if these facilities actually produce measurable effects on population health and well-being. Does establishing a school increase levels of educational achievement? Does a hospital reduce instances of treatable illnesses? Does a soup kitchen alleviate hunger and malnutrition? Does a vocational training program cause unemployment to drop? Especially when speaking of an Islamist “advantage” (especially vis-à-vis other providers) outcomes are an important piece of the puzzle.

In addition to being worthy subjects of study in and of themselves, connecting Islamist social service provision to measurable outcomes on the population helps connect study of Islamist social service provision to questions familiar to a broad range of political scientists. For example, we have puzzled over how regimes have been able to pursue often-dramatic policies of economic adjustment without provoking the ire of an increasingly hard-up citizenry. At the same time, we tend to conceptualize Islamist social service provision in antagonistic terms vis-à-vis the state. But amidst a fraying public sector, Islamist social service provision may actually serve to reduce those grievances that have historically spurred anti-regime mobilization.

A second potential research agenda should be to examine when, and if, variation in the type of Islamic organization “matters.” For instance, most of the scholarly and media attention in Egypt has examined political Islam, and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. But other Islamic organizations’ social service networks dwarf the Brotherhood’s efforts. The vaguely Salafist Gamiyya Shariyya is, according to Sarah Ben Nefissa, “the most important Islamic charity organization in terms of social and political power, and in geographic spread. It has come to win the largest ‘market share’ of Islamic social services in Egypt.” Yet the Brotherhood’s network of social service provision looks positively overexposed compared to the much lower profile Gamiyya Shariyya.

Stretching the question further leads to the emerging phenomenon of violent Islamic groups providing social services. As Thomas Hegghammer points out, for much of al Qaeda’s history the group abjured service provision and confined itself to violent activism. This has recently started to change. Among a trove of documents recovered in 2012 from an al Qaeda safehouse in Mali was a letter in which Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), counseled his counterpart in Mali on how to secure popular support:

Try to win them [the population] over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water. Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours. This is what weʼve observed during our short experience [in Yemen].

The ongoing conflict in Syria has supercharged these developments, as the Islamic State has gobbled up more and more territory and begun to institute structures of local and regional governance. A similar dynamic seems to be unfolding in Libya as well. A number of analysts have followed and written on these developments, including Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Amichai Magen, Zachariah Mampilly, and Aaron Zelin, but the potential for tying these developments to larger social science literatures on state building, insurgent social service provision, and patterns of violence and stability is only just beginning to be tapped. Especially given the dramatic proliferation of high-quality open source information on these particular groups’ efforts at service provision these cases hold particular value for researchers.

Some of these proposals may seem to be at cross-purposes, for instance the need to more fully consider prior assumptions while also pushing forward new projects. I don’t believe that this is so – the need to more fully consider and verify prior assumptions can lead to new research agendas. This is especially true for Islamist social service provision, which has relatively recently started to emerge from a haze of rumor and speculation and take shape as a subject of careful, empirically grounded study.

Steven Brooke is a doctoral candidate at the University Texas at Austin, where he is writing his dissertation on Islamic medical provision. In the 2012 to 2013 academic year he was a Jennings-Randolph Dissertation Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.


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