Islamic charity and market orientations: uneven neoliberalization among charity providers in Egypt

By Cihan Z. Tugal
Submitted to Session P2525 (Islamist Political Parties and Movements, 2010 Annual Meeting
Egypt; Turkey;
Comparative; Islamic Studies; Political Economy;
The paper discusses the varieties of Islamic economic practice in the Middle East by discussing Egypt at length and secondarily comparing it to Turkey. It focuses on a specific topic (contrasting conceptions and practices of charity), but situates this within a broader comparison of multiple Islamic understandings of the economy. Islamic activists in Egypt and Turkey have different ways of thinking about poverty and organizing activities to deal with it. In Turkey, mainline Islamic charity aims to create entrepreneurs out of poor people; in Egypt it wants to maintain a just balance between well-to-do and poor people. These aims, in turn, depend on contrasting understandings of religious responsibility. In the Turkish case, religious responsibility is on the shoulders of all sectors, and responsibility is first and foremost defined with respect to productivity in the market. In Egypt, by contrast, activists of the leading Islamist organization (the Ikhwaan) emphasize the responsibility of the educated elite to create a socioeconomically balanced and ritual-focused society.

These arguments are based on interviews with providers and recipients of charity in Egypt (as well as their political networks) and Islamist publications in Egypt (mainly Liwa al-Islam). I will secondarily bring in materials from my previous research projects in Turkey (based on participant observation, interviews, and archival research on Islamic activism).

My interviews in Egypt suggest that there is a contrast between charity associations that emphasize ritual and politics and those that seek to instill a work ethic among the recipients. The former are in the majority and are connected to the most organized Islamist organization in Egypt (the Ikhwaan). The latter, though influential and internationally well-connected, are in the minority and are politically unaffiliated, in contrast to Turkey where work ethic-focused associations are more politicized and are in the majority. In both Egypt and Turkey, revolutionary understandings of Islamic economy and charity are not nonexistent, but are in the minority.

These findings are significant for scholarly debates beyond Islamic activism and the Middle East, as they demonstrate that moral economies come in all shapes and vary significantly within countries and movements. They suggest that we need to think beyond a simple dichotomy between "the" moral economy and "the" market economy.