Pious Neoliberalism  

By Mona Atia, George Washington University

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

The Islamist political parties that rose to power in the region—Turkey’s AKP, Tunisia’s Ennahda, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Egypt’s short lived Justice and Development Party, to name a few, were well known for providing social services to their constituency. Many scholars have argued that the provision of social services was key to their success and the majority of populations, whether they saw it in a positive or negative light, routinely assumed that Islamist parties were the main providers of aid in the country. However, my research indicates that we must pay attention to the plethora of organizations providing social services in the name of Islam; there are numerous social service providers not affiliated with political parties.[1] In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood was perceived as the main provider of social services, or put differently, the Muslim Brotherhood benefited from the work of numerous independent charities with which they had no affiliation. I would like to underscore therefore, the importance of differentiating different actors who are engaged in Islamic social service provision. In Egypt, several key issues or traits constituted major differences between Islamic associations. Some of the most important variables I identified were: the relationship of the association to the state, their resource levels, their interpretation of Islam, the history of the association and its ideological underpinnings, the organization structures, the locations they worked in, whether they identified primarily as a charity or a development association, and finally whether volunteers were driven more by a desire to please God or a desire for measurable impacts on the ground. Greater clarity about precisely what organizations one is studying will provide a much more nuanced understanding of the field. In addition, while understanding the political dimension of charity is important, it is equally important to understand how charity has worked as an act of governance. Charity is a powerful mechanism used to manage populations and organize the social order. Since Islamic charities frequently tie aid to religious lessons, personal conduct is also linked to the regulation of political or civic conduct. It is important therefore to understand Islamic charity from a governmentality perspective.[2]

Secondly, scholars and practitioners frequently consider Islamic associations as alternatives to a Western aid-dominated development project. However, I found that many Islamic associations have a great deal in common with secular development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Christian faith-based ones alike.[3] I highlight the ways that Islamic associations have engaged in practices that were once solely associated with western development paradigms. Many Islamic social service providers have shifted the provision of social services in response to broader political and economic changes in the region. Their success is contingent upon the merging of capitalist and religious sensibilities that I call “pious neoliberalism.”

Pious neoliberalism connotes a transformation in both religious practice and modalities of capitalism. It represents compatibility between business and piety that has produced different kinds of institutions, systems of knowledge production and subjectivities. As such, charitable acts are as much economic interventions as they are political ones, and there are multiple and sometimes contradictory aspects of the fusion of Islamism and neoliberalism. Here neoliberalism connotes both the economic policies instituted by states – deregulation, privatization, marketization, economic growth without regard for social equity, and declining state-sponsored social services (to name a few) as well as a form of governmentality that encourages calculability and self-regulation.[4] For example, Islamic charities have instituted extensive policies that monitor recipients and place conditions on their provisions. Pious neoliberalism then, is about the reconfiguration of religious practices in line with principles of economic rationality, productivity, and privatization. These traits are presented by preachers and association leaders as part of what it means to be religious and are applied to religious practices. Islamic practices are simultaneously neoliberalized, as characteristics of faith see as incompatible with neoliberalism (like social equity) are diluted, while new religious practices are formed. Pious neoliberalism therefore represents the merging of a market-orientation with faith; it is a productive merger that has produced new institutional forms, like private mosques, private foundations, and an Islamic lifestyle market. Pious neoliberalism is marked by self-regulation and entrepreneurialism, as subjects engage in a moral economy that is inextricably linked with the market, self-government, and faith.

Islamic associations’ participation in the project of development required a complex negotiation of their perspectives on poverty, development, and faith. Many associations began complementing cash transfers, in-kind goods and social services with the promotion of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency through development projects. More and more givers felt the role of associations was to help people help themselves out of poverty, and this translated into integrating the poor into the global circuits of finance capital. Income-generating projects like entrepreneurship, microfinance and skill upgrading could create entrepreneurs out of the poor. Islamic development projects inculcated neoliberal values as Islamic values, transforming both in subtle ways.

To be clear, not all Islamic social service provision has transformed, in fact most charities in Egypt continue to give direct aid to the eight categories of zakat recipients outlined in the Quran. What has changed is the precise meaning of these categories and the accounting systems used to select, monitor and evaluate recipients. Numerous Islamic charity administrators I interviewed saw the poor as seekers of infinite aid and thus developed extensive social research systems that required recipients to quantifying and verifying their neediness. Relying on both self-help and disciplinary techniques, Islamic charities circumscribed aid along conditions of verifiability and productivity. Other scholars of Islamic charity in both Lebanon and Turkey have witnessed a similar introduction of business practices into charitable work.[5] Some refer to the intersection of market forces and religion as an “Islamic neoliberal” ethic or assemblage.[6] In the Turkish case, pious neoliberalism also produced an “entrepreneurial Islam”[7] as a response to Kemalist imposed secularism coupled with rapid neoliberalization of the Turkish economy.[8] In Indonesia, Islamic associations democratized the state as “civil Islam” while state-owned companies turned to spirituality and management practices, or “market Islam” to increase the productivity and competitiveness of Indonesian steel.[9] The merging of Islamic and neoliberal practices has impacted various sectors.

Finally, in addition to understanding the political and economic dimensions of charity, attention should be given to the geography of Islamic charity – the sites, neighborhoods, spatial dimensions, administration of, sources of funding for, and broad social networks associated with them. For example, paying attention to the spatiality of Islamic charity, I found that Islamic associations also spread piety throughout Cairo by coupling dawa (the call or invitation to Islam, preaching) with charitable giving. Islamic charities moved religion outside the space of the mosque and into unexpected, everyday spaces like shopping malls, sporting clubs and street corners. Paying attention to the spatiality of Islamic charity can help underscore other social/cultural impacts of Islamic social service provision beyond the political and economic realm.

Mona Atia is an assistant professor of geography and international affairs at the George Washington University. She is the author of Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt (Minnesota Press, 2013).


[1] Many of the arguments made in this paper come out of Mona Atia Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

[2] On governmentality see Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne and Nikolas S. Rose, Foucault and Political Reason : Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism and Rationalities of Government, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] See Omri Elisha, “Moral Ambitions of Grace: The Paradox of Compassion and Accountability in Evangelical Faith-Based Activism,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (02, 2008): 154-189.; Nadia A. Mian, “‘Prophets-for-Profits’: Redevelopment and the Altering Urban Religious Landscape,” Urban Studies, 45, no. 10 (09, 2008): 2143-2161; Hackworth, Jason R. Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

[4]While the term neoliberalism is contested, mainly because of it has been used widely and imprecisely, geographers have offered some precise definitions of neoliberalism, see for example Wendy Larner, “Neo-Liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality,” Studies in Political Economy 63 (Autumn, 2000): 5-25. Neoliberalism is neither “monolithic in form, nor universal in effect” Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell, “Neoliberalizing Space,” Antipode 34, no. 3 (Jun2002, 2002): 380.

[5] Nada Momtaz, Modernizing Charity, Remaking Islamic Law. City University of New York dissertation, 2012; Ozan Karaman, Urban Neoliberalism with Islamic Characteristics, Urban Studies, 2013; Cihan Tuğal, “Contesting Benevolence: Market Orientations among Muslim Aid Providers in Egypt” Qualitative sociology, 2013.

[6] Banu Gökarıksel and Anna Secor, “New Transnational Geographies of Islam, Capitalism, and Subjectivity: The Veiling-Fashion Industry in Turkey,” Area 411 (2009): 6-12.; Y. Atasoy, Islam’s Marriage with Neoliberalism: State Transformation in Turkey (Basingstoke England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 288.

[7] footnote text

E. B. Adas, “The Making of Entrepreneurial Islam and the Islamic Spirit of Capitalism,” Journal for Cultural Research 10, no. 2 (2006): 113-24.

[8] Tuğal, Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, 306.; Berna Turam, Between Islam and the State : The Politics of Engagement (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 223.

[9] Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 286.; Daromir Rudnyckyj, “Market Islam in Indonesia,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (05/02, 2009): S183-S201.

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