‘make money not jihad’: Islamist aggression and Islamic finance

In view of the numerous brutal murders perpetrated by Islamists in Paris on 13-14 November a familiar set of words and ideas has begun to circulate.[1] The purpose of this entry it not to formulate opinions or prescriptions on the domestic or foreign policy of France, the UK, Belgium, the US or any other country. Rather the aim is to consider what if any bearing Islamist violence past or present has on how we should assess or treat Islamic banking and finance.

I hesitated when considering commenting on this occasion. And as is apparent I did delay. The risk I feared I would take by intervening at this time is that I might, by commenting, help forge a perceived link between Islamic commercial law (and its modern manifestations in banking and finance claiming consistency with it) and criminal activity. However I eventually came to accept albeit reluctantly that it is quite possible in the minds of some readers or consumers of media and journalistic accounts these days that such a perception may already be there. Or at least that the danger that such a link has already been forged is greater than the danger that I might create it by commenting.

There is an understandable and a very human impulse to lump together into one a complex variety of phenomena. Particularly when those phenomena are poorly understood or where there is little information, or information of uneven or unequal quality possessed about them. This cognitive effect is amplified by pain, loss, fear and other similar strongly felt emotions.[2] By operation of this psychological proclivity then it is quite possible that anything with the qualifier ‘Islamic’ might become associated in a person’s mind with anything else that shares that same qualifier ‘Islamic.’ As a result of present circumstance and this cognitive operation ‘Islamic terrorism’ could be seen as related to ‘Islamic law’ or for that matter with ‘Islamic finance.’ The result (whether conscious or unconscious) would be that Islamic finance would go from a positive or a neutral evaluation to a negative one, not because Islamic finance had actually changed but only because perceptions about Islam and things Islamic had changed. Should this connection take shape in a person’s mind or even in the minds of many it would not be an original linkage of ideas. Nor would it be happening for the first time.

Before turning to Islamic finance, there is a preliminary matter to dispose of. That is the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism.’ The phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ has been used by respectable (in fact, state) British radio to describe the 13-14 November attacks. This turn of phrase is an excellent and timely example of the cognitive tendency to lump things together when they share a linguistic — but no necessary substantive — similarity to one other. I do not fault anyone as it is genuinely difficult to be precise and consistent in the use of language even in times of equanimity. In an expression of allegiance to precision and accuracy however the full implications of the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ should at least be recognised if not actively considered and appreciated. The phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ effectively ratifies the claims made by the perpetrators of the 13-14 November Paris attacks to acting in the name of Islam. In other words it ratifies the claim that savagery and murder are underwritten or otherwise approved by Islam. It ratifies the claim that these murders and this quantum of illegality and violence were condoned by and authentic representations of Islam. This is almost certainly precisely the view of self-styled jihadists round the world. However it is most definitely not the view that observers opposed to this violently criminal element should take.

[As is too obvious to bear re-stating which is why I am enclosing these words in square brackets: the vast majority of Muslim people globally have little truck with such aggression or with the means deployed in Paris, or with the ends which those tactics are supposed to serve, whether in Paris or in Syria, Iraq, or in Mali. Aside from the ethical, moral, religious or humanitarian objections Muslims have, such attacks are squarely against the self-interest and welfare of virtually all of the world’s roughly 1.6 billion Muslims themselves. It is a certainty that such attacks only make life harder for this considerable swath (over one-fifth) of humanity; too often as a result of misguided and over-hasty reactions by fellow citizens and compatriots (who may not be Muslim) or by the governments of the countries in which Muslims are citizens or residents.]

We can define terrorism as efforts to intimidate, harm or kill civilians in pursuit of a political or religious cause.[3] Let’s take this definition without subjecting it to any critical analysis and take terrorism as unfortunately a given. Now, if an adjective other than ‘international’ or ‘domestic’ is necessary for this noun ‘terrorism’ (as determined by the nationality of the perpetrators and the location of the attack) what I shall attempt to argue is that the adjectival construction ‘Islamist’ would be far superior to ‘Islamic’. Why? The distinction between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist ‘ seems minor, trifling even. However in fact it is a crucial distinction. Only the latter word accurately references the modern political ideology that is the actual organisational and ideational origin of the Paris killings and for similar events that have taken place on a sporadic basis in a wide array of locales over recent decades.

The argument then is that ‘Islamist’ is an essential component in an accurate causal account of events, and that it is a more precise and therefore a preferable term.  By contrast ‘Islamic terrorism’ is the opposite. It is inaccurate and imprecise. It could be added that it also has the undesirable consequence of confusing something which should not actually be confusing at all. (It can be concisely summed up as follows: all Islamists are Muslim, but not all Muslims are Islamists.) Also in terms of practical consequences the formulation ‘Islamic terrorism’ leads to an unwarranted heightening of the conceptual and emotional stakes. In summary it is submitted that it would be an improvement if journalists and everyone else would refrain from saying ‘Islamic terrorism’ and would instead remember to say ‘an Islamist attack‘, ‘Islamist violence,’ ‘Islamist aggression’, ‘Islamist terrorism’ and so forth. This suggestion is not at all controversial as these, the preferred phrases, are indeed often used by the media, and rightly so — as a useful shorthand to a constellation of beliefs, acts and actors that share a family resemblance with respect both to tactics and to claims to an authority based in Islam.

The fact that the proponents of Islamist ideology including the Paris murderers (and the members of the organisation in whose name and with whose support they acted) seek to claim legitimacy based on Islam is not in dispute. The issue is how others should respond to that claim. There is only one correct response. The correct response is to deny the claim and to use best endeavours to refute it. Opponents of Islamism and Islamist terrorism fail to respond correctly when they accidentally or simply thoughtlessly utter the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’. In fact just the opposite happens with this linguistic infelicity– opponents of Islamist terrorism thereby ratify the claim of the terrorists themselves. This is a contradictory assertion and a mistake. It can be easily avoided with the exercise of some care when speaking or writing.

It is now necessary for the sake of consistency within this blog entry and logically to examine the application of the same reasoning to the phrase ‘Islamic finance’. I have argued it is a mistake to say ‘Islamic terrorism’. Am I not then contradicting myself when I use (and indeed incorporate into the title of this webpage) the phrase ‘Islamic finance’? The answer is, no. Using this phrase does and is intended to ratify the claims made by Muslims and by other participants in this novel financial services industry as precisely that, Islamic.

  • There is a lively debate about whether Islamic finance is actually Islamic, that is whether or not it is true to Islamic law, or true to its letter and not its spirit (or even to its spirit but not to its letter!) and these are interesting, important debates.
  • In the same vein there are lively debates about Islamic law and what that law is, says, requires, prohibits or permits.
  • The fact ‘Islamic finance’ is the term adopted in this blog/webpage denotes the position of its author both reporting the views of those Muslims who consider Islamic finance to be (as the name suggests) Islamic; and the adoption of these views after a sustained study both of Islamic law and of the modern industry of Islamic banking and finance.[4]
  • However, the author and many of the participants in these debates would be competing with one another in the race to say that Islamic finance and its consistency with Islamic commercial law is decidedly imperfect or to put the same thought more positively, Islamic finance is a work in progress. Islamic banking and finance can and must be made truer to the ideals held out by Islam — with Islam being understood both as a legal system and as a set of religious and/or moral beliefs.

To sum up, the basic conceptual point is that Islamic finance is rightly associated with Islamic law and in the opinion of this author with Islam, hence the title of this webpage and blog. So the author does deliberately and after reflection take the step of associating Islamic finance with Islam. However the author refuses to take the step of associating unlawful and criminal activity including murder with Islam. Indeed it is a step which the author also suggests others should refuse to take.

Why?

1) It is a category mistake to equate Islamism and Islam. Equating a contemporary political ideology that has been around for a few decades (and much less in the case of any particular group) with a world religion that has existed for nearly one a half millennium cannot be right. It is obvious that Islam and Islamism are vastly different in scope, value and significance.

2) It would be very strange indeed to prefer the views of a vengeful and brutal minority of Muslims over the consensus opinion of the vast majority of Muslims (in Europe and elsewhere) who eschew terrorism. It is much more likely that the majority of Muslims are understanding the demands of their faith correctly than that a minority (however intense that minority might be in political scientific terms), does.

3) It would be an injustice both to Islam and to Muslim people globally to accept the association (proposed by murderers) of support for terrorist tactics on the one hand and Islam on the other.

4) Accepting the association as mentioned at (3) would be tantamount to ascribing responsibility for the actions of a few to the many, in this case the many who were not only not involved but actively excoriated the actions of the few. Blaming or ascribing causal or moral responsibility to a group for the actions of one or more implicated individuals flies in the face of the fundamental axiom (upon which all law worthy of the name is based) of individual responsibility. It is also known as ascribing ‘guilt by association.’ Ascribing guilt to one person for the actions of another violates the most basic premise of any law-ordered state or society. Incidentally it also flagrantly violates the philosophical premise of free will and its corollary, individual accountability: individuals must be held accountable for their actions, and they must not be held accountable for the actions (or for the inaction) of others.

5) Aside from matters of justice or the rule of law or the philosophical basis of moral responsibility there is a very real danger that indulging in guilt by association and conflating Islam and unjustified killing will polarise societies (including France and Britain) creating the conditions for (if not the actual realisation of) more aggression and the needless and eminently avoidable loss of life that polarisation entails. This could happen in any number of ways. Most prominent among them in an indicative list are: a) attacks by Islamists on others (both Muslim and non-Muslim); b) violence by the state on innocent Muslims, or on innocent non-Muslims, who happen to be nearby; c) violence by individual (non-Muslim) members of societies at large on individual Muslims or others who happen to be standing nearby, and so forth. These expressions of violence in turn rather predictably heighten the appeal of Islamism (or broaden the number of people to whom that appeal becomes irresistible) which in turn leads to more mayhem. It is in other words a cycle. It is like a centrifuge that is gradually accelerating; it gains momentum and becomes increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to stop.

6) In a phenomenon causally related to (5) there is also the very real danger that linking Islam and criminality (up to and including murders of the kind seen in Paris) could become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy in this sense refers to a species of claims that: i) come to be believed to be true merely by re-statement and repetition, and ii) upon becoming believed to be true actually begin to be true — because people act as if they are true (since they — falsely — believe that they are). The mechanism powering self-fulfilling prophecies is that (in another foible of the human mind) people begin to believe things that they hear provided that they hear them often enough. It would be amusing if it were not tragic. The effect is enhanced to the degree that the person or body making the statement is perceived as authoritative, for example if an expert or a government makes it. The effect is still further enhanced as people tend to say what they believe, and when they do so more people will hear it, and they will hear it more often, and hence come to believe it.[7] It is another cycle. The basic fact remains that repeating a lie a thousand times does not make it any more true than it was when it was said the first time.

Having, it is hoped, cleared away some conceptual tangles in the previous paragraphs, we now return to the title of this entry “‘make money not jihad’: Islamist aggression and Islamic finance.” The subtitle has been explained. It should now be clear why there is the asymmetry between ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamic.’ What about the title: ‘make money, not jihad’? This is a semi-serious point although one expressed in a whimsical manner. It is not a point that shall be fully elaborated here but I wanted to write it down now in case I forget it later.

Philosophy, politics and religion are all fascinating subjects and represent at times the best and worst of human intellectual achievements. However I submit that each one of these or all three of them combined is ultimately in a very real sense outweighed by economics. Yes, the dismal science. Or rather the actual empirical economy rather than the detached study of it. That is, prosperity and wealth (or even the mere hope of acquiring it) predictably dominate if not trump other considerations in the human mind, or at least that mind as it evidences itself in the historical epoch some term ‘modernity’. You can call that tendency greed and avarice if you like. And if you do you may agree that this predictable tendency for money to dominate all else is a cause for sorrow, disappointment, disillusionment and worse.

It is hastily acknowledged that the felt importance of economics and money is not always and everywhere dominant and the predicted trajectory from the intellectual and the spiritual to the financial is not observable always and everywhere. It is not a law of physics. It is not (even) a rigorously demonstrated hypothesis in the social sciences. As we know Christianity among other religions has not died out for example in the US despite the level of economic development, nor has Islam become of neutral importance in some Middle Eastern states possessing a wealth of natural resources. However the relative importance of economics and the profit motive over other human concerns and motivations has some credibility and it is not that difficult to find evidence of it if you know where to look for it. (Everywhere). Still without restating some of Adam Smith’s more memorable metaphors, it appears that the primacy of the profit motive (one might even call it a reflex as it is unconscious and unthinking, but consistent even inescapable — try how we might — as reflexes are) and the acquisitiveness of humanity at large might have at least one salubrious consequence that this blog should consider.

The question was posed above and answered: what is the appropriate response to Islamism? The answer given was refusal and refutation. However in pragmatic but also truthful terms  a response that is purely negative is less likely to be effective than if it were paired with a positive and affirmative answer that is also and at the same time a brighter alternative to the way things actually are at the moment.

At last, the suggestion here is that: yes, Islamic banking and finance can represent one alternative (or a part of that) positive alternative, together with the rule of law, justice, peace, democracy and all else that humanity has thus far managed to accomplish at some times and in some places. Islamic finance: a) can be a form of self-help and solidarity among Muslim peoples — for example when it channels assets and resources from the wealthiest to the poorest in this group; b) can be a form of social inclusion in countries like Britain where Muslims are quite a small minority; c) can evidence and defiantly demonstrate the refusal of a government or a society to lump together unlike phenomena that possess (confusingly?) similar names; d) can assert that the problem is criminality and Islamism, not capitalism and Islam; e) can comprise one element in the increase of prosperity which is necessary for the emergence of non-despotic and even representative and accountable governance;[5] f) can direct human energies and impulses away from destructive and towards economically productive (and humanly beneficial) uses of human initiative and ingenuity.[6]

This is not the place for an analysis of jihad but since I have used the word there is also a semi-serious point to be made with regard to the Arabic etymology of that word and regarding its appearance in Muslim writings on the matter. Jihad (and the permutations based on its root form j-h-d) denotes human effort. It represents exertion and struggle — against adversity whether that adversity be internally or externally generated.  Of course it must be remembered that there is nothing inherently good about human effort or about making an effort. That much I think is especially obvious at this time. To illustrate the point a little further: efforts to develop more efficient methods of killing children are not good, but efforts to cure cancer are. So too the efforts that may be made and indeed are made in the name of Islam and in the name of more fully reaping the benefits of what Islam can offer — both to Muslims and to humanity as a whole. These efforts or these instances of jihad may be better or they may be worse. Capitalism, trade, the production of goods and services, the increase of wealth — all of these are entirely in keeping with the faith of Islam (tempered by charitable obligations and the value of social welfare).

Concluding: Islamic banking and finance and the effort to use it for economic exchange and development as well as for prosperity and the individual accumulation of material wealth require effort and this is an effort that has been made, that is being made and that should continue to be made. Deceptively provocative maybe: ‘make money not jihad’.

 

[1] as it has also in the aftermath of similar attacks in various locations around the world since the 1950s — or even earlier if bombs and killings in service of colonial resistance are considered. Although similar attacks to that occurring in Paris have been executed long before 11 September 2001 in New York City, this is the date upon which such attacks began to be accorded the attention and seriousness that they now receive in the societies of Europe and the Americas. As the media have noted in France itself the most recent Paris attacks were the third such attack within a twelve month period.

[2] Even in less dramatic circumstances often times simplification and reduction is valuable — even necessary. It has even possessed advantages historically for the human species, which is why according to evolutionary biologists and cognitive scientists we have the tendency and why it persists. Cp the best selling book by Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow; the phenomenon noted here is decidedly on the fast side of mental operations.

[3] Never mind the niceties about state or non-state terror, civilians vs non-combatants etc.

[4] The reason why the phrase ‘shari‘a compliant’ is not adopted has to do with the definition of ‘shari’a.’ Shari’a does not exhaust Islamic law. It is a subset of it. It is also the basis (you could even say Grundnorm) for the rest of what comprises Islamic law. The Arabic word ‘shari‘a’ refers to those propositions and statements that are of divine origin, that is, those propositions and statements that are directly attributable to God. A complex and modern phenomenon such as Islamic banking and finance does seek authority from shari‘a but its content and prescriptions rely heavily on the centuries of Islamic law that seeks to elaborate upon those revealed sources (shari’a). This accumulation of tradition is called ‘fiqh’ in Arabic; fiqh is usually but imperfectly translated as Islamic jurisprudence. Be that as it may ‘compliant with Islamic law’ is a more accurate formulation than ‘shari’a compliant’ although the latter has become dominant in contemporary discussions of the matter both in and outside of the industry.

[5] cf Barrington Moore on the development of the middle class in France, England and the US (in Part I of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy). The author recognised that Moore’s legacy is not unquestioned in political science and that there are debates to be had about the relationship of GDP and democracy (giving due regard to outliers in extremis: India as poor but democratic, the Gulf states as rich and autocratic).

[6] Without wanting to raise the spectre of ill-conceived comparisons between Islam and Protestantism or Martin Luther and latter day Muslim Luthers, the prototypical Protestant ethic as formulated by Max Weber is relevant here.

[7] Just to top it off once people come to believe something even if it is false they then without realising it systematically ignore evidence to the contrary and seek out evidence for what they believe. I know I do this routinely.

 

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