While much has been made in the West of the ascendance of political Islam in the MENA region, there has been far too little analysis of why and how political Islam and groups like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have such widespread support. This is perhaps because the easy answer is that Muslims have native antipathy to anything Western and are inherently violent and conservative. The real reason is far more banal—since the oil market went bust in the late seventies and early eighties, and many financially distressed states in MENA turned to the IMF and the World Bank’s liberalization programs in exchange for funds, the welfare state in MENA, broadly speaking, has been on the decline. Whereas in previous times massive rents from oil could buoy most of the population in terms of healthcare, education, and jobs, now a large segment of the population—in particular the rural poor—is left out.
So, Islamic societies and other NGOs have stepped in to provide what citizens had previously regarded as the responsibility of the state, as meticulously researched by Jane Harrigan and Hamed El-Said in their book Economic Liberalisation, Social Capital and Islamic Welfare Provision. Islamic social groups are not only regarded as adequate providers of welfare and social stability in absence of the state, but by labeling themselves as loyal adherents to the nation and Islam in direct opposition to the Western-supported or Western influenced state apparatus, they have created an extremely potent “cultural mobilizer for contesting neoliberal globalization” which in the view of many has materially and psychologically worsened their lives. It is this dialectic of globalization with the globalizers—Western powers and their wealthy elite allies in other countries—versus the “moralizers”—here, Islamic groups—which provokes most of the enmity mistakenly viewed as a “clash of civilizations.”
Under Western Eyes
Islamic societies do not merely have support because they offer people benefits; because of historical and contemporary clashes with the West in the Middle East and North African region, traditional, nativist religious groups are immediately viewed in a more positive light than liberal cosmopolitan ones—those who seem too close with the West should not be trusted. This is an understandable position to have, given the well-documented U.S. interventions in the area that have more often than not had negative consequences for Arabs. Not only is it an understandable position, but given the U.S. support for iron-fisted, stabilizing right-wing dictators over nationalist trailblazers—such as with Iran and Shah Mohammed Reza in the 1950s or Iraq and young Saddam Hussein in the 1960s—it is an almost inevitable one since those on the left, underneath those regimes, have found themselves summarily silenced, killed, or imprisoned over the years.
The successful non-governmental organizations in MENA are ones not considered threats to the established order, because they regurgitate the same kinds of discrimination and politics that the state sanctions. This means successful groups in the largely authoritarian Middle East and North Africa are rather unlikely to be democratic socialist, atheist, liberal, or non-Muslim—this would be dangerous for the state and the powers that be. The reasoning goes, conservative groups tend to be beneficial for the status quo. While this is generally true, they can also just as easily become challengers to power themselves due to providing what the state will not or cannot provide—namely, welfare and a proud national identity.
Paradoxically, the success of anti-West, anti-state Islamists is due to the West and the State. The Islamic Center Charity Society founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan received its support from the Western-backed Hashemite Monarchy because it was an ally against communism and traditionally supportive of the King; similarly, in Iran, American-favored Shah Mohammed Reza viciously persecuted leftists and democratic activists, but left the organization of the clergy, including Ayatollah Khomeini, untouched for more or less the same reasons. Irony of ironies, to protect liberal power and ideals with strikingly illiberal forces. It is difficult to believe Islamic charity societies would include generous provisions for “unchaste” women and their children, non-Muslims, liberals, leftists, atheists, LGBTQ individuals, or, in sum, the full complement of society. Indeed, in Turkey, the Islamic Refah Partisi or Welfare Party and Algeria’s Front Islamique du Salut or Islamic Salvation Front “adopted exclusivist and divisive measures. The RP dominated municipalities practiced nepotism and patronage, laid of secular employees in favor of religious ones, favored contractors who donated money to the party” and harassed area Christians in the name of “cultural purification.” In Egypt, the Gama’a al Islamiyya or the Islamic Society in Imbaba “forced women to veil themselves, burned video shops and hairdressing salons, and beat men who drank alcohol.”
The Left in the Middle East and North Africa has been gutted and then placed in in a legal straightjacket—when bright leaders of a new political consciousness such as Bassem Yousef emerge, their days are surely numbered. They don’t even need to kill them—just sue them for more money than they could ever possibly pay under a ridiculous charge that will pass corrupted courts. Or make them pass an ideology test before they can access university education and therefore a higher standard of living, such as in Iran with the Baha’i and other minority groups. Of course, these tactics, to those that are in power, have simply been enacted to maintain their power—I have my doubts as to the personal dedication of the ruling class to Islamic welfare and national-socialist ideals, given, for example, Egypt’s unemployment rate and Iran’s relatively high wealth inequality—but these policies survive and thrive because there are a lot of people who still take them at face value.
While the “moralizers” might not have as much of a plan—economically or socially—as the globalizers, they have a story; one that is relatively simple, and feeds into a sense of pride, righteousness, and justice, and ultimately, therefore, quite powerful. They see someone like Bassem as a threat, since he is pointing out the flaws and hypocrisies in their regimes, and so they claim he is a puppet of the West, and people readily believe them. He is friends with Jewish liberal and makes fun of Arab-Muslim governments, therefore he very well could be a C.I.A plant! It is laughable and frustrating but also quite sad—have we, as Americans, managed to neuter democracy in the Middle East through our efforts to protect our own? So that any vaguely Western notion, idea, or joke is conspiracy? Any criticism of an Arab government is yet another U.S. coup in the making and an invitation for Western oppression? Perhaps.
Authoritarianism: A Feature, Not a Bug
There is also the distinct problem of a lack of civil society presence in MENA which only indirectly has to do with West—following independence from colonial powers post World War II, many states in the Middle East and North Africa followed a path of “Arab Socialism,” whereby authoritarian populist regimes would heavily subsidize food, education, healthcare, jobs, and utilities to gain loyalty but also as means of revitalizing their economically backwards societies. Though this system was generous, it was based not a conception of basic human rights, dignity, and democracy, but on the concept of patronage or charity, where the state was the benevolent benefactor, and the citizens grateful, voiceless recipients. This “paternalistic approach to social development…is partially responsible for the unsystematic and exclusionary nature of welfare provision” both by the state and by non-governmental organizations. The legacy of authoritarian populism has led to a lack of social activism in MENA and extremely weak “civic or non-kinship cooperation at the community level [which] reinforces traditional hierarchal and paternalistic relations.”
Due to the legacy of state welfare as state charity, with little to no democratic input, state bureaucracies and clientelism have shut out segments of the population without connections, and gender and religious discrimination are a matter of course in conservative societies that hold pious Muslims and patriarchal families as the ideal. Various attempts have been made to improve the system, but they have rather ineffectual largely because rulers in MENA tend to back-track certain on cuts or changes to welfare at any hint of unrest, and have also used the reforms as an opportunity to further entrench interests of an élite rather than serve those of the general public. In this context, it is not surprising charities, especially Islamic ones, have had such resounding success—the population of MENA is used to having their needs met through religious-authoritarian patronage, not civic engagement and democratic demands. This phenomena also largely explains the popularity of military-backed strongman Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi in Egypt; he is a dekar, man’s man, and he’ll take care of things.
The Urban-Rural Split: A Dictator’s Gamble?
The MENA region as a whole struggles with an acute rural-urban poverty divide. In Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen, the rate of rural poverty is nearly double that of urban poverty, at approximately 10% and 20%, 15% and 30%, just under 20% and just under 40%, and 20% and 40%, respectively. This is not surprising for several factors. The first, of course, would be the discrimination, disorganization and bureaucratic inefficiency of ad-hoc social safety net programs, a second would be a lack of funding and infrastructure to reach rural communities, due both to over-reliance on inconsistently-paid NGOs and low-generosity of non-subsidy programs, a third would be lower education levels and awareness of social services among the rural population, and finally, the fourth would be that autocratic regimes, quite cynically, focused their attention on urban populations at the expense of rural ones, as the urban middle classes and intelligentsia are more likely to foment unrest and political opposition to state policies. Morocco certainly focused their attention on cities in their social programs, as they were established centers of turbulence, while the rural areas were known for being “passive and conservative.” As Social Policy in the Middle East puts it, poorly educated, “illiterate people are generally more cooperative and docile than educated people and accept difficult working conditions”—likely a combination of both unawareness of injustice and the inability to articulate it.
Richard Javad Heydarian notes in his article on the “Economics of the Arab Spring” that Arab autocrats used the liberalization programs not to improve the general welfare, but by “establish[ing] new systems of patronage by favoring selected clients during the bidding process and privatization schemes.” This is perfectly in line with the recommendations of The Dictator’s Handbook, which posits survivalist policies and maintaining the ruling coalition as paramount—not bettering the majority of the population, but bribing a minority needed to sustain power. Rules number four and five are, respectively, “pay your supporters just enough to keep them loyal” and “don’t take money out of your supporters pockets to make peoples’ lives better.” What’s good for the autocratic goose isn’t necessarily good for the democratic gander; or, “effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials.” The educated urban professionals are the essentials in MENA, and arguably, the world over. As a prime example, the 1979 Iranian revolution was propelled largely by a disaffected middle class; the poor segments of the population were only mobilized after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, when the new government specifically reached out to rural areas.
For several decades, the MENA region has struggled to maintain macroeconomic stability and adequate support mechanisms “to mitigate risk of vulnerable groups falling deeper into poverty, and improving the economic status of the disadvantaged over time.” This has been due to an overreliance on rents and the legacy of paternalistic, autocratic populism which inhibited the development of civic society and regarded welfare as charity to be doled out to the deserving, not a system of societal upkeep. Tangentially related is the disposition of leaders in MENA to use social welfare and social safety nets regressively instead of progressively; benefitting the more well-off male, urban classes who would keep them in power, and ignoring those who can do little for them politically, such as the rural poor, women, and immigrants.
This is underscored by the pervasive conservative social norms in MENA which regard women as extensions of male kin and not autonomous citizens, and the often corrupt privatization which led to a decline in public services, and better private services only available to the wealthy. In this gap, Islamic societies have emerged as leaders and benefactors of the downtrodden and those ignored by the Western-influenced state. Thus, the state having turned its back on the mass of its citizens and left them in the hands of fate and NGOs, has actively enabled the rise of political Islam and a competent challenger to the secular state model. From Hezbollah’s de-facto state in southern Lebanon to the ICC’s massive social welfare provision in Jordan and Mohammed Morsi’s democratic victory in Egypt in 2012, it is clear citizens will support those who support them, despite the risks associated with theocratic governance. While religiously-oriented political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood need not necessarily be party to terrorism, they do provide a useful conduit through which more extremist strains can easily pass.
The IMF and World Bank loan conditions have all but shredded the prior social contract citizens had with authoritarian benefactors, and because of the fact that these neoliberal organizations largely reflect “westernized global capital” it is not surprising Islamic societies are increasingly looked to as an alternative. Nonetheless, as previously mentioned, the Islamic societies, while beneficial, are not a cure-all, as they, just like autocratic states, are not subject to democratic oversight and therefore can and do discriminate. It is also worth noting charities, however efficient, still cannot match the large-scale distribution capabilities of a modern state, and it is a mistake for the MENA region to rely on them for a majority of their social services for reasons of inefficiency and, obviously, threats to political power and stability—if the state cannot provide proper welfare, citizens might well decide they do not need or want the state.
 Massoud Karshenas and Valentine M. Moghadem, eds. Social Policy in the Middle East: Economic, Political, and Gender Dynamics (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006): 150.
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One response to “Western Neoliberal Hegemony and the Rise of Political Islam”
i thoroughly enjoyed this article. Just moved to Egypt a couple of months ago and would like to follow up on some of the sources the author used. Would I be able to get a list of the bibliography including titles of books/articles?
All the best from Cairo,