Paper - Project on Middle East Political Science

Why Do Islamists Provide Services, and What Do Those Services Do?

| Oct. 09, 2014

The scholarly literature has long argued that one of the reasons that parties like the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are able to earn the loyalties of voters is through their provision of health, welfare, and educational services that the cash-strapped states of the Arab world are increasingly unable (or unwilling) to provide. However, in recent years, the provision of social services by Islamist parties has gone from being an explanation of Islamist success to something to be explained in itself. After all, clientelistic service provision has long been recognized to be an effective – even basic – electoral strategy. An account that locates Islamist success in such a strategy would have to also explain why competitors to Islamists do not also pursue the same means of winning votes. In other words, inasmuch as social-service provision is something that any party could decide to do, why is it that only (or mainly) Islamists do it? Is there anything to prevent nonreligious parties from distributing the bottles of oil and bags of sugar that many of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s detractors credit with that movement’s rise to power in 2011?

There are three potential answers to this question, all of which focus on the characteristics of Islamist organizations versus those of their rivals. The first holds that Islamists possess an organizational model – built on highly selective recruitment methods, the relentless inculcation of norms of loyalty to fellow members and obedience to superiors, and a regimented system of promotion – that makes that group more capable of concerted action than those who lack such a model.[1] In this telling, Islamists are better able to provide services because their internal organizational structure makes them better at doing everything. However, there are several reasons to doubt this account. First, Egyptian Communist organizations also did similar things, thoroughly vetting initiates and employing systems of clandestine cells and emphasizing loyalty among their members, and yet were unable to become anything more than fringe groups in Egyptian political life.[2] Second, the Salafi party, Hizb al-Nur – the second-most popular party in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections – does not apply the Brotherhood’s organizational model and is still electorally successful and appears to have engaged in service provision.

The second argument holds that Islamists are better able to provide services because of their religious nature. On the one hand, their religious focus is supposed to make them more concerned with service provision than their rivals. This may be the case, and I have not collected data on the question. Given the supposed electoral return to service provision, however, it seems remarkable that non-religious rivals would not get in on the act, if only out of self-interest. Moreover, the ideologies that animate some Islamist rivals, particularly on the left, are more than sufficiently concerned with the uplift of the poor to motivate collective action in this arena. One need only look at the clientelistic operations of leftist parties in Latin America to put to rest this idea that a concern for the poor is a special characteristic of religious groups.[3] An alternative rendering of the argument that religion makes Islamists more likely to provide services (and to do it well) lies in the role faith plays in making organizations disciplined and cohesive. There are lots of testimonies to the fact that religion is a powerful resource within groups, and that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are more capable of concerted action (such as providing charity) because the religious authority with which their leaders are imbued, and the religious mission of their organization, inspires greater commitment and follow-through. This sounds plausible on its face, but again, the experience of Leftist parties around the world belies the notion that Islamist organizations have a monopoly on “religion.”

Read the complete memo, prepared for the September 2014 “Islamist Social Services” workshop, here.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Middle East Initiative
For Academic Citation: Masoud, Tarek.. “Why Do Islamists Provide Services, and What Do Those Services Do?.” Paper, October 9, 2014.

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