After returning from the Harvard Islamic Finance Forum a couple of weeks ago, a friend from Canada called to tell me that his friend (a Canadian Muslim lawyer) hated my presentation on mutuality in financial intermediation: "El-Gamal's Marxist view of Islamic finance", he called it.
I was reminded today of Marx's [in]famous statement that religion is the opium of the people
as I sat through a khutba (Friday sermon), wherein the khateeb prescribed spending more time at the mosque (praying dawn and evening prayers there in congregation) as the cure to all the ills of Muslim societies. "Opium of the people", I thought to myself. Of course: no one can argue against spending more time in the mosque. I dared once to argue with a fellow parishioner after my khutba that if one spends so much time in the mosque (early mornings and evenings), then one will have no time for one's family, especially children who would wake up to find one in the mosque and go to bed while one is in the mosque. Needless to say, that fellow parishioner was outraged: "they let just about anyone get on the pulpit and give a sermon", he complained, "What kind of a Muslim would argue for not spending more time in the mosque?"
But that is another story: let's get back to Islamic finance. At Harvard, jurists, bankers, and economists were all in agreement: "you cannot expect Islamic finance to solve all the economic problems of Muslims, we are merely trying to help Muslim businessmen live according to the percepts of their religion." I had my own outburst as a response: "if the customer wants the smoke and mirrors circus show, fine, give them the circus show, but for Heaven's sake, try to provide some value in the process". "It is my hope to drive [the current breed of Islamic finance practitioners] out of business, if I can."
The form-above-substance approach is nothing but opium, very expensive opium. The poor still have no access to credit in the Islamic countries, but now the multi-millionaires and billionaires can get their murabahas
as multinational banks and law firms make their millions, and the jurists-for-hire make their hundreds of thousands. I was attacked by one of those jurists in Kuala Lumpur (when I was still being invited to Islamic finance conferences): "he writes that we have sold our souls to the devil", he complained; "but the lawyers who structure the deals make a lot more money", he said. "Yes, indeed, they are
the devil", I replied jokingly from the audience (to nervous laughter from the young Malaysian students sitting around me).
Opium abounds in the Islamic world:
- You can keep increasing the gap between rich and poor, but the rich can now do their financing "Islamically"
- We can separate men and women, cover the women head to toe, and ignore rampant homosexuality and adultery
- We can monopolize resources, deprive the poor from their financial rights through various zakah-shelters (homes are exempt, and I have 2 in Monaco, 2 in the Bahamas, etc.), but claim to be abiding by the Shari`a
- We can leave our children confused about religion, in a culture that encourages critical thinking, and spend more time with other escapees at the mosque
We can do all that and more, and claim to practice Islam.
Opium of the people, indeed!