This chapter investigates a long-standing puzzle in the economic history of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: why do MENA’s native non-Muslim minorities have better socioeconomic (SES) outcomes than the Muslim majority, both historically and today? Focusing on the case of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the largest non-Muslim minority in absolute number in the region, and employing a wide range of novel archival data sources, the chapter argues that Copts’ superior SES can be explained neither by Islam’s negative impact on Muslims’ SES (where Islam is defined as a set of beliefs or institutions) nor by colonization’s preferential treatment of Copts. Instead, the chapter traces the phenomenon to self-selection on SES during Egypt’s historical conversion from Coptic Christianity to Islam in the aftermath of the Arab Conquest of the then-Coptic Egypt in 641 CE. The argument is that the regressivity-in-income of the poll tax on non-Muslims (initially all Egyptians) that was imposed continuously from 641 to 1856 led to the shrinkage of (non-convert) Copts into a better-off minority. The Coptic-Muslim SES gap then persisted due to group restrictions on access to white-collar and artisanal skills. The chapter opens new areas of research on non-Muslim minorities in the MENA region and beyond.
Mohamed Saleh, “Islam and Economic Development: The Case of Non-Muslim Minorities in the Middle East and North Africa”, in The Oxford Handbook of Politics in Muslim Societies, Melani Cammett, and Pauline Jones (eds.), 2021.
The Oxford Handbook of Politics in Muslim Societies, Melani Cammett, and Pauline Jones (eds.), 2021