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Social and Institutional Origins of Political Islam


Under what conditions did the first Islamist movements organize? Which social and institutional contexts facilitated such mobilization? A sizable literature points to social and demographic changes, Western encroachment into Muslim societies, and the availability of state and economic infrastructure. To test these hypotheses, we match a listing of Muslim Brotherhood branches founded in interwar Egypt with contemporaneous census data on over 4,000 subdistricts. A multilevel analysis shows that Muslim Brotherhood branches were more likely in subdistricts connected to the railway and where literacy was higher. Branches were less likely in districts with large European populations, and where state administration was more extensive. Qualitative evidence also points to the railway as key to the movement’s propagation. These findings challenge the orthodoxy that contact between Muslims and the West spurred the growth of organized political Islam, and instead highlight the critical role of economic and state infrastructure in patterning the early contexts of Islamist activism.

Corresponding author
Steven Brooke is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Louisville (
Neil Ketchley is a lecturer in Middle East politics, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London and a Visiting Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (
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The authors are listed in alphabetical order; each contributed equally. This research was supported by the Project on Middle East Political Science. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2016 annual conference of the American Political Science Association, as well as at seminars and workshops at Harvard University, King’s College London, the London School of Economics, and the University of Oxford. We thank Tarek Masoud for sharing data as well as constructive criticism, and Selma Hegab, Sarah ElMasry, Khaldoun alMousily, and Scott Walker for excellent research assistance. Christopher Barrie, Michael Biggs, Jason Brownlee, Ferdinand Eibl, Michael Farquhar, Ali Kadivar, Charles Kurzman, Dan McCormack, Quinn Mecham, Patrick Präg, Lamiaa Shehata, John Sidel, Sidney Tarrow, Felix Tropf, and three anonymous reviewers provided invaluable feedback and comments.

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