The Social Contexts of Islamist Activism: Elite Students and Religious Education in Egypt
Published: Aug 2015

A large body of scholarship asserts that students of engineering and medicine are over-represented in Islamist movements. It also claims that political Islam emerges from secular rather than religious education. This paper uses unique data on 1,379 Islamist students arrested after President Muhammad Mursi was overthrown in 2013. Matching these activists to the population of undergraduate students, we analyze how the arrest rate varied across 378 university faculties. We find that Islamists came disproportionately from al-Azhar University, which provides a religiously inflected education in diverse subjects. Thus the literature's emphasis on secular education does not hold for contemporary Egypt. Most importantly, we find that Islamists tended to come from university faculties admitting students with higher grades, and from faculties that recruited from students taking science rather than literature in secondary school. Controlling for grades, engineering and medicine were not especially prominent. These findings suggest that Islamist movements conform to a more general pattern: political activism attracts elite students.

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