Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tragedy and protection for fallible humans

In the Islamic tradition, it is said that العصمة لا تكون إلا لنبي (infallibility is restricted to prophets).

As I reflect on what happened to Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, not to mention their father, I have already written that I don't think I would have withstood the temptations of corruption, and I would have rationalized them (as a colleague of mine who went through an AA program always says: you can go a day without food, but you can't go a day without rationalization).

I also reflect on people whom I considered friends when I first began observing Islamic finance, and then who became increasingly more antagonistic toward my criticism that they feared would threaten their very lucrative industry. They rationalized their behavior as useful to all those Muslims who otherwise would not have access to financial services and products, or who would have been engaged in even more forbidden financial activities than what they synthesize for them -- comparing their services to lawyers and consultants. One of them, who was academic at the time, told me that we can only fix the system from inside, but when he went inside, he quit his academic post - which gave him independence and objectivity - and became a full time consultant, eventually making arguments that I know he must know are patently false and possibly fraudulent, but then would avert my gaze and not engage me in discussion any more.

Fallible we are. Very fallible. So, for all of us who have failed in life, we must thank God as often as we can for protecting us through this failure. How tragic is the temptation of "success."

صدق ربنا تعالى: ولقد همت به و هم بها لولا أن رأى برهان ربه

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That's a "Scholar"

Many have written about the phenomenon of paid "Shari`ah Scholars" who are really consultants (most with degrees in fields other than Islamic Law) hired by banks and secular lawyers to arbitrage medieval jurisprudence for profit. In a nice gesture today, Shaykh-ul-Azhar Dr. Ahmad El-Tayeb has donated all the salaries that he had collected back to the Egyptian Treasury. This news item also states that he had never accepted any additional remuneration, and that "Sharia Scholar" advisors retained by Al-Azhar for various legal purposes do not receive remuneration for these services.

What Egyptian expats can do: First and foremost, stay expats

I have not counted the number of invitations to join groups of Egyptian expats who want to hold conferences, committees, rallies, etc. to help our native homeland, but I am confident that it is in the dozens. This is an expected sign of the euphoria and premature optimism (I think most people who say that they are optimistic are confusing feelings of hopefulness and optimism; the latter requiring evidence to suggest sufficiently high probability of good outcomes).

The most stinging comment that I have seen came from ex-colleagues at Caltech, and pertained to Nobel Laureate Chemist Ahmed Zewail: "I guess when you think about it the next logical step up from Nobel Laureate is Pharaoh :)".

I will return to the prodigal son syndrome, which is the main point of this posting, but first I feel compelled to say something: Now that former President Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal (disclaimer: we went to St. George and AUC at the same time, but I was not part of their circles), as well as many prominent former cabinet members, have been incarcerated pending further investigation, I have to say the unpopular thing -- they are as much victims of the system as villains.

I have to be honest with myself: if I were in Alaa or Gamal's position, would I have really been able to resist the temptations of corruption? I would have observed the ruling elites in all countries getting rich in similar ways. I would have been convinced that I am so brilliant that people are really paying hundreds of thousands to get my business advice and partner with me for my intelligence. How can I believe otherwise, when I know that there are so many smarter Egyptians (not to mention Gazans or any other group with limited opportunities) who are much smarter than me but never had the opportunities that I have.

Which brings me to Egyptian expats who feel that "this is their time to go back and help rebuild." Please do not take me wrong, even 16 years ago, when I was still "Egyptian" in the formal sense of holding no other citizenship, I even wrote delusional poems about the successful return of the prodigal son such as 1 and 2. But that is all these were:
(poets lead people astray; do you see not that they wander into every valley, and that they say what they do not do?).

So, let's think of the categories of expats who may return, and why they should stay expats:

1. The thing we want to avoid the most, of course, is a Hamid Karzai type. No need to focus on these people for long, because they would never be allowed by the army.

2. At the other extreme, we want to avoid the wide-eyed Utopian optimist type, who thinks that Egypt will be like Sweden within a generation. The reality is that Egypt a very poor country with extremely high levels of illiteracy. Even if you have "free" elections, votes will be bought by plutocrats and solicited by demagogues (as they are in every country, only in different forms and to different extents). Unless you're highly skilled in playing this game, it's futile -- and my apologies to advocates for Prof. Zewail or Dr. El-Baradei, but academic and UN politics are played with very different people and in very different ways; the best you can hope for them is to be frontmen for some skilled politicians, but then they will be angered by their means and goals and end up leaving voluntarily or by force.

3. In between, you get most of us: Middle-class Egyptians who had enough of an opportunity to be able to get an education and to leave for a more comfortable life elsewhere. I am not talking about those who got their degrees and spent a couple of years in practical training, but those who had actually established a career and family life elsewhere and legitimately adopted another country as their own. The guilt, as I also wrote once, is understandable, and delusions are also understandable, but look at those before us who fit that mold, went back with some wealth and expertise (at investment banks, universities, etc.): they were by and large the enablers and partners of the corruption against which the revolution rose. They thought that they were helping the country (by bringing state of the art investment banking, etc.), but of course we know what they have really accomplished.

It is best for that last category of people to keep their distance and stay expats. We have made other countries our homelands and absorbed (and occasionally contributed to) the cultures in which we live. As the Egyptian proverb goes: صاحب بالين كذاب (can't translate that, but roughly: "someone with two intentions is a liar"). If we are thinking of returning to have a greater impact, we are deluding ourselves. If we are thinking of returning to capitalize on the skills and contacts that we have accumulated, then we are just the next wave of those who led the country down its path for the last 30 years. If we are thinking of returning to retire, reminisce and get buried near our parents, that is something else altogether. If we are thinking of giving advice, then we better know what we're talking about, unlike most international "experts" on economic and social development, who never fail to drive developing countries with their eyes on the rear-view mirror (i.e. trying to imitate successful experiences of other countries that are not appropriate, causing one crisis after another). Most importantly, and interestingly, it is precisely because we are expats who have no ambitions in our native countries, but who care about these countries and their peoples, that we can have credibility -- provided that our promise not to return except to visit and possibly to retire and/or be buried is itself credible. So, let's work on this credibility.

Of course, there will be rare exceptions, and many people will think of themselves as these rare exceptions (like Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average). The best cure is to remind oneself: There is nothing exceptional about me. There is nothing exceptional about me...