Media Briefings

EXPLAINING THE ISLAMIC REVIVAL IN THE ARAB WORLD: Evidence from Egypt

  • Published Date: December 2017

By raising people’s aspirations and then failing to deliver, economic development can make a society more prone to religious revivals. That is the conclusion of research by Professors Christine Binzel and Jean-Paul Carvalho, published in the December 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Focusing on Egypt, the epicentre of the Arab world’s various Islamic movements, the new study sheds light on the economic factors behind the Islamic revival, notably the unexpected decline in social mobility among educated young people from lower socio-economic strata. The authors explain how religious participation may help to cope with unfulfilled aspirations, which emerge when realised consumption falls below expected consumption, as happened in Egypt in the 1980s.

In the last few decades, Muslim societies have undergone a cultural transformation marked by a rise in religious participation and identification, a movement led by the educated middle class. This Islamic revival reversed previous trends towards secularisation in these societies.

One prominent example is Egypt, which is now one of the most religious nations in the world. According to the 2009 World Values Survey, 98.4% of Egyptians surveyed in 2000 describe themselves as a religious person and 99.7% report drawing comfort and strength from religion. Around 80% of women in Cairo wear some form of head covering; yet in the 1960s, few women on Cairo’s street would veil.

This changed some time during the mid- to late 1980s, when there was a widely perceived increase in religious observance, including mosque attendance, prayer and fasting. Islamic greetings and expressions (such as Inshallah – ‘whatever God wills’) were more frequently used. Islamic books and journals became increasingly popular; and there was evidence of an increase in Islamic dress and the practice of veiling.

Around the same time, during the mid- to late 1980s, important labour market changes took place, reducing the share of jobs available in the formal (by then largely public) sector.

A common narrative has been that this decline in employment opportunities particularly affected educated young people from the lower socio-economic strata who lacked the right skills or personal connections, leading to a decline in social mobility among the educated.

What’s more, there were many of these young people: following education and labour market policies in the 1950s and 1960s, many poor families invested in the education of their children in the expectation of benefiting from the expansion of public sector employment.

Drawing on nationally representative household survey data, the researchers document both the rise in upward educational mobility across cohorts and the decline in social mobility (occupational mobility) among educated young people during the mid- to late 1980s.

In particular, the results indicate that for university graduates, the likelihood of obtaining a professional occupation by the age of 28 declined significantly – by 18 percentage points across cohorts (down from 80%, hence corresponding to a decline of 22.5%). There was no such decline, however, for graduates whose fathers had a professional occupation.

A similar pattern arises when examining changes in university graduates’ likelihood of obtaining a job in the formal sector (among those working for a wage). Thus, the strong decline in job opportunities in the mid- to late 1980s was disproportionally experienced by those coming from the lower socio-economic strata.

The results further suggest that it is the allocation of jobs in the formal private sector that is responsible for the decline in social mobility. Examining job search methods of university graduates reveals that 41% of those working in the private sector obtained their current job with the help of family or friends, compared with only 13% of those working in the public sector.

Given the shift in employment from the public sector to the private sector, social networks seem to have gained in importance in determining labour market outcomes of the educated. Consequently, if personal or social connections are based on kinship ties, these figures suggest that the decline in social mobility across educated cohorts may be related, at least in part, to the increased importance of personal connections in obtaining professional positions.

How such a decline in social mobility and rise in unfulfilled aspirations lead to a religious revival has not to date been explained. The authors develop a game-theoretic analytical model in which religion plays both a social and psychological role.

In particular, religious participation may help to cope with unfulfilled aspirations, which occur when realised consumption falls below expected consumption, as occurred in Egypt in the 1980s.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, even when religion is a coping mechanism, a rise in unfulfilled aspirations does not necessarily produce a rise in religious participation. Instead, individuals could work harder to meet their expectations, spending less time on religious activity.

Yet under certain conditions, namely when expectations of social mobility and income inequality are high, the coping effect of religion will dominate: the educated will cope with economic loss through religious participation in order to adjust their reference point or shift attention to other (non-material) dimensions of comparison.

Indeed, the Islamic movement seems to have been attractive for educated young people, especially those from lower socio-economic strata, due to the importance placed on de-emphasising materialistic values.

The theoretical model further shows that even a small and temporary shock to social mobility can produce large, long lasting and widespread rises in religiosity. At the time of the shock, the rise in religious participation is driven mainly by educated and talented individuals coping with unfulfilled aspirations.

Their contributions build organisational capacity, making religious participation more attractive to others. This produces a broad-based religious revival even as expectations adjust and the psychological role of religion declines.

The new analysis has implications beyond the Egyptian case, suggesting that by raising aspirations, economic development can make societies more prone to religious revivals.

ENDS


Notes for editors: ‘Education, Social Mobility and Religious Movements: The Islamic Revival in Egypt’ by Christine Binzel and Jean-Paul Carvalho is published in the December 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Christine Binzel is at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU). Jean-Paul Carvalho is at the University of California, Irvine.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh); Christine Binzel via email: christine.binzel@fau.de; or Jean-Paul Carvalho via email: jpcarv@uci.edu