Islamic-Based Civil Society Organizations Between Myth and Reality

By Moustafa Khalil, University of Manchester
*This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Social Services” workshop, September, 23, 2014.

I spent the past six years of my life studying poverty reduction activities of Islamic-Based Civil Society Organizations (IBCSOs) in Egypt for my doctoral thesis. The findings of my thesis are too long to pack in the limited space allowed by this memo. However, I will use this opportunity to highlight an area of my findings where I believe that the current literature on IBCSOs can be seriously challenged. In this memo, I shall reveal three of the most common misperceptions on IBCSOs in the literature. Firstly, there is the single categorization of IBCSOs. Secondly, there is the overplaying of the role of their poverty reduction activities in political mobilization. And finally, there is the underestimation of the significance of these organizations’ exclusive dependence on local financing, as opposed to foreign aid or government financing. The following lines explore each of these three misperceptions in turn.

First and foremost is the trap that has caught many of those who have examined the work of Islamic-based CSOs and almost caught me in the early stages of my work. This is the assumption that IBCSOs could be viably researched as a single category which falls under the greater umbrella of a single Islamic civil society or the umbrella of faith-based organizations. During the process of planning my thesis, I decided to select case study organizations based on their geographic locations in urban and rural Lower Egypt and rural Upper Egypt in order to account for their socio-economic diversity. However, soon after my work commenced in the field, I discovered that while socio-economic variations between IBCSOs in different geographic areas of Egypt might be important, the more significant variations between them would arise from their nature as either community-based organizations or from their affiliation with larger religious groups or political movements such as the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood. Case study organizations from these categories are varied in many aspects including goals, type of assistance they provide, and the role played in political mobilization. There is variation even within these categories. For instance, the Salafi movement is divided into numerous subgroups that that have different, and sometimes contradicting, views on the methods and approaches that are used to achieve Salafi religious, social, and political agendas – even when these agendas and the values that dictate them are almost identical across the Salafi spectrum.

The failure to identify the above divisions in research on IBCSOs has left wide areas of their work undiscovered, or at best under-researched. The most vital of these areas is the social work conducted by Salafi organizations in Egypt, which has received minor attention in favor of the work affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Most probably, this has been driven by the political significance of the Muslim Brotherhood. While this conclusion might still require further quantitative evidence to safely generalize it over Egypt as a whole, my research found that the size and depth of poverty reduction activities conducted by my Salafi case study organization was significantly more advanced and organized than the other organizations I covered. In addition to their advancement on the operational level compared to other IBCSOs, the Salafis showed a distinctive understanding of poverty and poverty reduction that reflects a deeper theoretical framework than what is found at IBCSOs elsewhere. The organization’s leaders offered a clear discourse on the purpose of their work and the philosophy that stands behind it, and they were able to relate it to wider social and economic contexts, and to see how it can fit into teachings of their religious doctrine. This was not the case at other IBCSOs, nor was it the case at the secular organization that I studied for comparison.

The second misperception revealed by my thesis results from the over promotion of Islamic-based CSOs’ poverty reduction activities’ role in political mobilization for the Islamic movement in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s position as the most prominent opposition group in Egypt during the era of Hosni Mubarak was often mentioned in the literature immediately followed by a reference to mosque-based charity and community service work allegedly used to buy loyalty of the poor masses that were felt abandoned by the incapable government. However, my case study organization, which was the biggest Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated mosque in a district that was won by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011 general elections, has left many doubts over such claims in the literature. The single case study is not enough to generalize the findings, but it is enough to raise questions over what was previously thought of IBCSOs’ role in the Brotherhood’s political success. The Muslim Brotherhood may have indeed been the biggest and most active political group during the run-up to the 2011 revolution that put an end to Mubarak’s rule. This was (at least as far as the district I studied was concerned) the result of having a wide membership base as well as the ability to use mosques and other community organizations and institutions as bases for advocacy and political campaigning. It was not the result of buying loyalties through the use of poverty reduction and other social service activities. To be more specific, my research discovered that:

(1) Except for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization, case study IBCSOs and other Islamic-based organizations encountered in their communities have been politically passive, particularly before the revolution. The tight surveillance by State Security Investigations (SSI) that IBCSOs (as part of civil society at large) had been operating under before the revolution left no room for any functional form of political mobilization to take place within these organizations. Case study CSOs were left to conduct charitable top-down approach activities. However, any attempt to link these activities to efforts that aim at creating a politically active grassroots movement for example was never tolerated.

(2) The level of political participation of the recipients at case study organizations had been nonexistent, or at most very limited, before the revolution. Recipients who received help from case study IBCSOs did not vote, express political elegances, or even express their interest in the political process before the revolution. Although recipient interviews were qualitative, they still covered a significant percentage of recipients in the three IBCSO case studies. Of all recipients interviewed before the revolution, only three recipients out of a total of 61 interviewed across all case study IBCSOs mentioned they had ever voted before the revolution. Moreover, many of them were not even sure if the CSO they received help from was actually affiliated with the Brotherhood. Those who knew that seemed to have known it from rumors circulating within the community and not as a result of a clear politically motivated message delivered to them by the CSO. The claim therefore that Islamists politically depended on votes of the poor in the past requires serious reconsideration.[1]

Finally, the third uncovered misperception about Islamic-based CSOs in the literature is the underestimation of the importance of their dependence on local financing. It has been often assumed that Islamic-based CSOs in Egypt receive generous funding from the more conservative oil-rich Arab Gulf countries. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have been accused of receiving millions of dollars from the Gulf, especially in the 1990s. Again, my qualitative case study research is not extensive enough to completely dismiss such allegations, but case study IBCSOs have shown a remarkable ability to generate regular and sustainable funding for their poverty reduction activities depending entirely on local donations. These organizations did not show the symptoms of the financial shortages suffered by Egyptian civil society at large. Most interviewed donors said they would happily donate to non-religious organizations and that their main motivation to donate to their picked CSOs was not their religious affiliation but rather the level of trust acquired by the individuals who run these organizations. However, almost all such donors said they only donated to religious organizations, which shows that these organizations are more capable than others in gaining donors’ trust, and therefore funds.

On the other hand, the regular donation fundraising technique (e.g., orphan sponsorship or subscription fee) used by case study IBCSOs has enabled them to expand by forming huge databases of regular members who make small monthly donations. This has provided these organizations with the benefit of having a regular and steady flow of locally raised funds, which is a crucial factor in studying IBCSOs from a civil society perspective. Unlike non-religious organizations, IBCSOs have the luxury of acting freely from one of the major sources of pressure that applies to civil society across developing countries worldwide: the chronic dependence on foreign funding. If this finding can be generalized by quantitative evidence, it will open the door for considering the potential of IBCSOs as home grown CSOs capable of securing self-funding and therefore enabled to determine their own strategies and lines of activity. It could perhaps even go as far as shaping their own indigenous model of development, which could challenge the universal models enforced by major international donors.

In conclusion, there remains a need to study IBCSOs as actors for development and providers of social safety nets rather than just considering them as a tool in the hands of the Islamic movement used to push forward political or religious agendas. My research has shown that there is still a lot that we need to know about IBCSOs that can be revealed if the debate surrounding them is depoliticized. Of course achieving this while the consequences of the Arab Spring remain an unfolding story is difficult, but I can at least claim that I have tried.

Moustafa Khalil received his doctorate from the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. His thesis was “The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Poverty Reduction in Egypt.”



[1] It is important to underline that what I am dismissing here is the claim that poverty assistance was used by political Islamists (in particular the Muslim Brotherhood) to buy the political loyalty of the poor masses. I am challenging the claim that poor recipient of social assistance make the backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood’s support. However, my work did not cover the role of other forms of social service provision such as education or health care in reflecting a positive image of the Muslim Brotherhood amongst voters (especially those from the middle class). I am also not dismissing that the brotherhood’s success in infiltrating mosques and CSOs operating in the poverty reduction field may have been used for political mobilization in other ways such as the utilization of these mosques’ religious activities (collective prayers and religious lessons etc.) for political campaigning purposes.

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