Why Do Islamists Provide Social Services?

By Steven Brooke, University of Texas at Austin

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January 24, 2014.

Most scholars have theorized that Islamist social service provision generates a substantial ideological change, in effect an Islamization, among those who benefit from it. This provision thus acclimates recipients to Islamists’ non-institutional activism in the civic and social realms. But the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s dramatic reversal of fortune following a decidedly conventional stint in power frustrates important portions of this argument. These events indicate the conformism of the Islamist political project, one dedicated not to bypassing or degrading state institutions, but to succeeding within and controlling them. This, in turn, suggests reorienting the study of Islamist service provision away from extra-institutional theories of civil society and social movements and toward more routine theories of political mobilization. 

Despite differences in other important aspects of their approaches, multiple authors have found that Islamists’ service provision changes the ideology of populations served. Two clusters of studies are worth highlighting. In the first, authors rely on the civil society literature to suggest that Islamists’ social service provision diffuses an Islamist ideology across the population. Authors in the second cluster use the social movement literature to argue that this service provision serves to prime potential recruits to the Islamist movement. In a June 2003 essay Sheri Berman argues that Islamist social service was at the core of a civil society project to spread Islamist values, contributing to state de-legitimization under Anwar Sadat and Honsi Mubarak. Quintan Wicktorowicz and Suha Taji Farouki’s Gramscian analysis suggests that this provision changes a population’s “cultural discourse and values.” More recently, Nancy Davis and Robert Robinson’s Claiming Society for God (2012) finds that the Brotherhood’s charitable provision animates an alternative, parallel form of community permeated with their ideological vision.

Decreasing in scope from entire populations to specific subsections, Carrie Wickham’s Mobilizing Islam (2002) asks how Egypt’s Islamic movement gained supporters despite the risks this activism entailed, including harassment, imprisonment, and even death. Starting from the social movement theory literature, she argues that Islamic social institutions spread an activist reading of Islam that “changed the preferences of educated youth,” making them more likely to participate in this high-risk mobilization.[1] In Islam, Charity, and Activism (2004) Janine Clark suggests that Islamic clinics serve to embed middle class individuals in Islamic networks, strengthening and spreading an Islamic social movement by drawing in new adherents and, over time, acclimatizing them to the Islamic message.

In addition to similar assumptions of the effects of these services, these authors also share a deeper heuristic about what Islamists want and how they seek to bring it about. The Brotherhood, they propose, is fundamentally antagonistic to existing institutions of government and politics. Most of these scholars agree that the Brotherhood has embraced nonviolent means (though Berman’s invocation of the Nazis, alongside the Chinese and Russian Communists muddies the water) and that traditional styles of politics are something with which Islamists engage peripherally or as an afterthought, if at all. Logically, then, it makes little sense to analyze them with theories of “ordinary” politics based on of parties, campaigns, voting, and legislatures. Instead, scholars shunted their study of Islamist social service provision through institutional politics’ theoretical antipodes, namely civil society and social movements. Davis and Robinson dub the Islamists’ strategy “bypassing the state.”[2] Berman says “Blocked from full political participation and allowed much greater freedom in civil society, the Islamist movement set about Islamizing Egypt from below”.[3] Wickham describes Islamic activism as “new forms of civic engagement detached from — and opposed to — formal political institutions and elites.”[4] Denis Joseph Sullivan and Sana Abed-Kotob subtitled their volume on Islam in contemporary Egypt, “Civil Society vs. the State” (1999).

Importantly, it is not my intention to conflate either these two clusters of literature or the authors’ specific theories — indeed, there are deep and significant differences between them — just to suggest that all share the two above-mentioned characteristics. To restate the first, Islamists are revolutionary actors, in the sense that they pursue significant, systematic change through non-institutional (but non-violent) means. Second, Islamists’ service provision serves this end by generating a deep-seated, non-trivial change in its recipients’ ideological orientation, either alienating those populations from conventional politics or spurring them to press their claims outside of it.

Both these assumptions should be re-examined in light of post-February 11, 2011 events in Egypt. These events, especially the distinctly statist tenure of the Brotherhood and the rapid anti-Brotherhood shift in Egyptians’ attitudes, propose ways to rethink not only the Islamization thesis, but also the assumptions about Islamist’ motivations and behaviors upon which it is based. Simultaneously, the Brotherhood’s recent behavior supports alternative conceptualizations of Islamism that, in turn, should prompt new theories to explain and predict Islamist social service provision.

Given a general absence of elected Islamist governments, for years it was one’s theoretical and ideological priorities that formed the basis for models of Islamist behavior. But Egypt’s brief interlude between military regimes has provided a glimpse — albeit a fleeting and partial one — at the Islamist governing project. And for an organization supposedly striving to remake Egypt’s political regime, the Brotherhood displayed a curious fealty to the status quo. Domestically, the Brotherhood behaved as classic “soft liners,” spurning revolutionaries’ calls to overhaul the security services and other important sectors of the former regime. Instead, the Brotherhood struck an essentially non-interference pact with those they thought were more compliant members of the security apparatus. Their legislative accomplishments contained little that could be described as religious or revolutionary. The constitution was a mediocre rewrite of the 1971 text and surprising not for its religiosity, but for the lack thereof, especially given the composition of the assembly. Economically, the group quickly adopted the same neoliberal development and investment policies and pursued similar deals with international financial institutions and donors that their predecessors sought — in the process providing a tortured justification for accepting an “un-Islamic” interest rate. In foreign affairs they quickly accommodated the U.S.-led regional order. Most prominently, they toed the line on the Israel-Palestine conflict, brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in late 2012 and keeping up the blockade on Gaza by pumping raw sewage into the smuggling tunnels that linked it to the Sinai. Although this sample is truncated and potentially distorted, it does not support the assumptions that Islamists’ governing vision was dramatically different from their predecessors.

The speed and malice with which Egyptians have turned on the Brotherhood, especially following July 3, 2013 also poses problems for the Islamization thesis’s conclusions. Specifically, things like religious belief, culture, and ethnicity are generally “sticky,” meaning that they don’t tend to shift overnight, and when they shift they only do so incrementally. And indeed, the authors above show how these services spent four decades sprawling across Egypt, sinking deep roots into local communities by meeting critical needs. But in roughly one year Egyptians went from propelling the Brotherhood into power to informing on and attacking them in the streets. While elites stoking smoldering ethnic and religious hatreds for political gain is certainly not new, the Egyptian case stands out for its success both in generating a new cleavage and so quickly mobilizing people around it. For theories that find a massive project of ideological outreach and acclimatization behind Islamist service provision, the Brotherhood’s current turn as Egyptian politics’ bête noir is an unexpected outcome — worldviews should not be so malleable and support not so volatile.

Revisiting theories of Islamist behavior in light of these events suggests analyzing the Brotherhood with the same tools traditionally used with other opposition parties. As Joshua Stacher neatly put it, “The Brotherhood is a political organization first and foremost and an Islamist one only secondly.” Thus, the group’s goals were not to drive people from existing institutions but to advance within them, either through direct participation (voting and electoral mobilization), or by pressuring decision makers from the outside. Instead of seeking out ways to degrade existing institutions, the Brotherhood had become vitally invested in them.

Starting from this new assumption, we might recalibrate the discussion of Islamist social service provision away from ideological, transformative arguments to more mundane theories of political mobilization. For instance, Tarek Masoud (forthcoming) provides survey evidence that Islamist social service delivery efforts are important because they allow Islamists to communicate their policy preferences — especially economic ones — to voters. Ideological change is not in the cards. As Masoud puts it, “Mosques, charities, and religious associations may create Islamist voters, but they do not create Islamists.” Masoud’s study makes an important contribution by moving the study of Islamist social service provision into the realm of “ordinary politics,” particularly by suggesting that Islamists attract supporters programmatically. In other words, people choose to support Islamists at the ballot box because the Islamists best reflect the population’s political preferences. Further research might interrogate this mechanism more fully, questioning whether the relationship is truly programmatic or simply based on a contingent exchange of goods/services for electoral support, one that requires no fidelity between a party’s program and a voter’s preferences. This type of clientelism is a time-honored feature and scourge of Egyptian (and most other countries’) politics, and the Wafd, Dustor, or even the National Democratic Party, deftly leverage social service provision to mobilize local voters. There does not seem to be a justifiable reason to expect that, when it comes to the Brotherhood, something completely novel is afoot. Counterfactually, an assertion that the Wafd party was using its clinics in a sweeping plan of societal transformation does not seem defensible. The Wafd does not provide clinics to transform Egyptians into hardcore Wafdists, they provide the services so that come election time the residents vote for Wafd candidates.

Of course, this is not so much “new thinking” as it is simply re-examining phenomena with existing tools, but it does offer some advantages. For instance, the contingent and episodic nature of clientelist support helps to disaggregate and clarify who votes for the Brotherhood and why. Instead of a mass of undifferentiated Brotherhood “supporters,” consider the traditional distinction between core, swing, and opposed voters in the clientelism literature. Thus, a relatively stable core of Brotherhood voters are ideological supporters — mainly, but not limited to members — and will support the group regardless. The swing voters, on the other hand, could be induced to support the group in exchange for services, so long as their ideological opposition to the group remains below some threshold. The threshold, importantly, can and does shift. This, in turn, helps explain the swings in levels of support for the group and that the “coalition” can fairly quickly collapse precisely because a significant portion of it is contingent.

Further inquiry requires more data and, ideally, comparative perspectives, be they either cross and/or subnational. It would also respect the localized and targeted nature of this dynamic — both because of resource limitations and the need to maintain some type of monitoring regimen. Finally, more formal theories of politics would also be useful to conceptualize and specify the general logic at work. Regardless of the new theories of Islamist social service provision these events will generate, the experience and behavior of Islamists in the Arab Spring should also highlight the shortcomings of and areas for improvement in certain core assumptions on which the study of Islamism is based.

Steven Brooke is a doctoral candidate at the University Texas at Austin, where he is writing his dissertation on Islamic medical provision.


[1] Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. 2002. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press. 148.

[2] Davis, Nancy J. and Robert V. Robinson. 2012. Claiming Society for God: Religious Movements and Social Welfare. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1.

[3] Berman, Sheri. 2003. “Islamism, Revolution, and Civil Society.” Perspectives On Politics 1, no. 2: 263.

[4] Wickham. Mobilizing Islam. 148.


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