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Opalesque Islamic Finance Intelligence

Editor’s Note: Islam Suss by Bernardo Vizcaino, CAIA

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Six Words You Can Say on Television

Islamophobia and for that matter xenophobia is nothing new in our society and it should not come as a surprise when someone suggests that "Muslims killed us on nine eleven".  However, when these six words are uttered on an internationally-broadcast network by an established television personality (Fox News' Bill O'Reilly) then we as a society must recognize that a moral threshold has been crossed.  It is even more stunning when such an utterance is received with widespread ambivalence.  Even more alarming is that whatever criticism that arose was cleverly deflected by the pundits at Fox News, focusing instead on debating the dismissal by NPR of political analyst Juan Williams (who shared his concern for individuals in "Muslim garb").  The damage has been done, although this is all but forgotten after the noise of US mid-term elections.

Interestingly, Williams defended his comments as an expression of an "irrational fear" of his.  He is not alone, I have irrational fears myself.  Why have a Muslim community centre near ground zero?  Three blocks seems to be too near, so how about six blocks away, five kilometres away, outside of New York state, or why not gather all Muslims together in a nouveau-ghetto since they don't belong anyway?  This slippery slope is part of my very own irrational fear.

Chaplin's Time Traveller

A few days ago a film by Charles Chaplin surfaced online, where a pedestrian is seen talking on what appears to be a mobile phone.  Interestingly this might not be a lonely time traveller since we as a society seem to have been transported to the 1920's as well.  It is during the early part of the twentieth century that ideas of nationalism combined dangerously with the concepts of a heartland, racial purity, and the desire to revert to olden values and a traditional way of life.  The present version is, in the words of another Fox News presenter, the search "to restore our trust, truth and treasure".

Even more blatant is the embellishment of such ideas with copious references to the constitution, core/traditional values and a large dosage of flags and banners.  Through such association they aim to gradually provide an academic substantiation for their ideas.  Take for instance Glenn Beck's show and his copious use of blackboards, chalk, library paraphernalia and rather thick glasses.  While many find them comical, it is the sanitization of their radical views that should be of great concern and this is no laughing matter.  We might not need to be worried about these individuals either, but about those who will come along later and refer to their ideas for inspiration and justification.  It was during the time of Chaplin that Karl Haushofer developed the concepts of geopolitik (a consolidation and codification of older ideas, given a scientific gloss) and in particular lebensraum (the strategic need for a spacious and rather pure nation).  These would be borrowed by one of his students (a certain Rudolph Hess) who would take them from theory into practice.  Today the ideological steamroller is being fuelled by a multiplicity of experts, authors, and carefully-branded think tanks such as the Center for Security Policy amongst others.

The Ultimate Political MacGuffin

Islam has become one of the favourite punching bags of right wing ideology, whether this is in the US, France, the Netherlands, or other places.  In fact they will often resort to less familiar terms to mistify and scare their audience.  It is not Islamic finance, it is Shariah financing.  It is not zakat as charity, it is zakat a source of terrorist funding.  It is not Islamic jurisprudence, it is Shareeah law.   This does not just concern Muslims and believe it or not this is not about Islam.  In fact we are witnessing one of the greatest political MacGuffins in history (this being a literary device that holds a story together, used extensively by Alfred Hitchcock in his movies).  Indeed Islam is the binding theme in this horror film of right wing propaganda, a convenient scapegoat to drive forward their agendas relating to national security, economic woes, limiting civil liberties, etc.  These are some of the objectives of their agenda, Islam is just a way to get there.

It was the 1940 film Jews Süss (filmed by Veit Harlan) that artistically depicted Jewish people as the pickpockets, bandits, thiefs and bribers of German society, the ultimate anti-semitic film.  We now have a remake in 2010 called Islam Süss, as Muslims are being portrayed as the culprits of every possible malaise.  Curiously the right wing rhetoric will focus on Muslim extremists, certainly not Religious extremists, and most definitely not Ideological extremists.  It all fits nicely in their fine-tuned choreography.

Corporate Citizenry

The impact of such propaganda is not just felt with regards to where Muslims can build a Mosque or what clothes they can wear or what mode of transportation they can choose.  It also impacts other aspects of their faith such as pursuing Islamic banking alternatives.  In that sense we have to recognize that there is a negative impact on the acceptance and understanding of Islamic finance in the western world.  Curiously, most of the anti-Muslim rhetoric seldom touches on Islamic finance, and when it does it chooses fringe elements, they have never tackled it head on.

What is the role of Islamic banks in this regard and their overall role as corporate citizens?  Should they confront these accusations head on?  We have witnessed multiple efforts by several institutions and individuals that have worked hard to educate the mass market about Islamic finance, and this must be applauded.  Others might argue this is not their priority and will rank it low in their list of priorities, while for others it might be the case that it places an uncomfortable spotlight on their business ventures.  We should not be surprised.

Something that can be very helpful for Islamic finance (and Islam) is a combined industry effort to showcase its value proposition.  For an industry that is savvy with complex structures, loaded with industry bodies and littered with self-defined industry pioneers, it is high time that it develops a global industry association.  There are prudential, regulatory, financing, contractual and liquidity bodies in Islamic finance together with a galore of industry certifications, publications, awards and events. However there is currently no entity that takes an objective and neutral approach to promote Islamic finance at the global level.

We can lose our sleep over the negative views of some, but we can wake up tomorrow morning and concentrate on disseminating the positive views of many.  By going beyond competitor rivalries and commercial priorities, there is an opportunity to present Islamic finance to the world as one of the most visible and dynamic examples of modern Islam.  That is the best possible response.

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