Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Islamists with little faith

I will not go as far as Hassan El-Banna did when he called those within the group he had founded who planned assassinations "neither brethren nor Muslims." However, I have to admit that the cynicism of the Egyptian Islamists' deal with the military, beautifully and accurately depicted in today's New York Times, suggests that they have very little faith in their Egyptian brethren. As one youth activist said on television yesterday, it is as if they had forgotten the consequences of the bad deal they had made with the free officers in 1952-54, which resulted in 60 years of repression. So, they have conspired with the political and military elites to create an electoral system that they believe favors them and push for elections before alternative and legitimate political clusters have a chance to emerge.

Their main agenda seems to be simply "to apply the Shari`a" and assert the Islamicity of the country, but what exactly does that mean in terms of concrete legal and policy implications? No one knows! The reality is that to find what Islam means in the modern age, we need to take a leap of faith, learning from the best experiences of others, and learning from mistakes as we move forward. Slogans and dogma are not only counterproductive, but also inherently un-Islamic, if you consider how Islam evolved in its early centuries.

This "political Islam" is exactly like "Islamic finance," which is formulaic Islamization of the finance that bankers, Islamists, and incoherently pietist Muslims want to pursue, even though it makes everyone worse off than they would have under conventional finance, holding their substantive financial strategies constant. It appears that Islamist political powers, likewise, just want power. They are a perfect example of Nietsche's will to power in fake "Islamic" garb, just like Islamic finance is a manifestation of the greed and myopia of contemporary finance in fake "Islamic" garb.

The essence of religion is honor, morality, and the willingness to sacrifice for those. I see none of this in today's Islamists, political or financial. Shame on them!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Islam as the Solution in the Age of Islamism II.75: Moderation

In today's New York Times, Marwan Muasher, a very prominent Jordanian politician and political analyst of the Arab world, has reiterated a point that he and others have made in the past: that it is better to involve Islamists in politics than not to. The argument is that once they are tried with the fire of having to govern, and have to compete against other groups, they will have to moderate their views and policies (he cites examples from Jordan, where Islamists have been given more political room to maneuver in parliament for a number of years).

I do not deny this point at all. The problem, of course, is that assuming a one-dimensional spacial model with liberalism to the left (of course, not Economic left, just a graphical representation) and Islamism to the right, we expect those who win elections among the Islamists to be those who are naturally closer or who choose to move closer to the center. The counterpoint, of course, is that if we do not assume polarization, which would be a bad outcome, and Dr. Muasher is arguing that it will not materialize, then the liberals who will get elected are also those naturally near the center or moving closer by design.

Therefore, in an increasingly Islamist society, with voters moving to the right, therefore moving the center to the right, and even under the most optimistic scenario of centrist policies as Islamists become more moderate, it is still true that centrist policies will have to appeal to the increasingly Islamist population. Of course, I haven't yet outlined what Islamist economic policies (centrist ones, that have a chance of success) would look like, but I thought that I should mention that under the good scenario, even as Islamists moderate, the center is still going to be more centrist than it was, say, in the 1940s, before the party system was banned in Egypt after the 1952 coup/revolution.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Islam as the Solution in the Age of Islamism II.5: Failure of the "Islamization" Project (contd.)

This is a continuation of the posting from yesterday on failure of the "Islamization of knowledge" project, whether or not participants in that project used this particular phrase. To recap, I am classifying all efforts under this category that treat modern socioeconomic, political and legal developments neutrally, in analogy to treatments of physical sciences and engineering developments, which are neither necessarily Islamic nor non-Islamic, and the demarcation for "Islamic" solutions becomes whether or not a particular practice or institution can be "Islamized."

This would include, say, "Islamic Republics" like Iran, where many of the European parliamentary and presidential machinations were borrowed, but an additional "Supreme Leader" cleric was put in place to ensure the "Islamicity" of the Republic, based on Khomeini's revival of the relatively obscure Shi`i concept of Leadership of the Cleric (vilayat-e Faqih). It also includes "Islamic Finance," of course, which started with Sami Homoud's "Adaptation of Banking Practice to Conform with Islamic Law," which title suggests more than simple "Islamization," but the practice resulting from which, about which I have written extensively, evolved into pure "Islamization," thus producing "Islamic" mortgages, bonds, etc.

I mentioned the Iranian experience because of the explicit religious guardianship, which goes much further than the explicit Islamicity say of Pakistan, that is not materially different from Egypt which likewise stipulates in its constitution materially that all laws must be in conformity with Islamic law (although the language is a bit different). Egypt and Pakistan never officially considered themselves not to be "Islamic" for there to be an issue of "Islamization." The first problem with "Islamization," whether in the Islamic Republic of Iran or Islamic banking and finance, is that you need a certification of Islamicity, provided by the clerics in Iran and "Shari`a supervisory boards" for Islamic financial institutions. Thus, in my native Egypt, the Supreme Court (المحكمة الدستورية العليا) can strike down a law as unconstitutional if it is determined to be contrary to Islamic law, but the issue is thus determined by judges who were thoroughly trained in secular as well as Islamic law and legal theory. (Pakistan is a bit different with the Shari`a Appellate Court, so it may be seen as a hybrid between Egypt and Iran).

Many Islamists see social order as non-Islamic (at the extreme as apostate, in the case of takfiris, but there is a continuum). In this regard, Tunisia is an interesting case (echoed in Libya) where polygamy has been illegal. The vast majority of Islamic scholars agree that polygamy is allowed (and I do not say all, because a tiny minority find the conditions of perfect equality between wives impossible to satisfy, and therefore conclude that polygamy is not allowed except in cases of extreme personal necessity -- such as disease -- or social necessity -- say grossly more women than men in society). Many of them, however, would say that it is possible for a secular power to restrict this permissibility as a form of regulation (تقييد المباح). Al-Qaradawi used this argument to state that if one lives in a country where the laws of the land do not permit polygamy, then because one is required to uphold these laws, and because polygamy is allowed but not mandated, it becomes un-Islamic to marry more than one in that country. Whether or not he feels the same way about an "Islamic" country banning polygamy, say for social reasons of skewed distribution with too many males. There is no doubt left that even "moderate" Islamists feel that the legal frameworks in Tunisia and Libya should permit polygamy. That would be an "Islamization" of the existing state, and this will likely extend to other areas, such as finance, etc., where official binding decisions on Islamicity would have to be issued. The office of Mufti rarely plays that role, because fatwa by definition is not binding, so one should think of the office of Grand Mufti and Supreme Court Justice all rolled into one, which was to some extent the case with Pakistan's Shari`a Appellate Court, although the latter was to some extent subsidiary to the Supreme Court.

I am probably already significantly out of my depth on law, and it is a bit of a digression, but not much. The main point that I am trying to make is that although advocates of "Islamization" may view that default as neutral and check whether something can be "Islamized" to sell to clerics and more conservative Islamists, the latter interpret the situation differently: They practically consider everything by default un-Islamic unless proven otherwise. Thus, they want an "Islamic dress code" (زي إسلامي), even as they repeat general rules of modesty, and they want "Islamic finance," even as they repeat general rules about the default in financial transactions is permissibility, etc. Suspicion that something is not Islamic is easy to raise, and these conservatives (who are increasingly the proverbial "moderates") therefore want to seek fatwa on just about everything, and want to avoid gelatin, onion soup (it might have wine), and even beer-batter (where no liquid is left!), etc. They all seek out "scholars" that suit their degree of conservatism, who become the arbiters of what is "Islamic," and that begins to apply to every aspect of individual and social behavior.

Thus, the "Islamization" program has (perhaps inadvertently) enabled a worldview that is quite different from its proponents and empowered clerics with large following who can certify something as "Islamic." (For example, one is surprised by the number of highly educated Pakistanis who care only what "Justice Taqi" Usmani's opinion was on a particular financial product or institution; an authority that is apparently bequeathed not only to his son but also to other relatives, regardless of the details of the transaction and how convincing the evidence is or isn't). The result is in essence a variation on the Iranian vilayat-e faqih, except that there is no official clergy and procedures to determine competence of the fuqaha (this something that not only I, but many others have lamented about "Islamic finance," even if such a thing were needed).
The incentive structure of fuqaha who have actual or potential followings is another problem that I and others have discussed in the past, and it complicates the problem further.

If you start from the Abduh view that I think was optimal (at least a century ago, and of course it needs some updating based on social and legal advances that have been made in the past century), and I haven't yet argued why it is optimal, you can see why "Islamization" would therefore be a bad path to take. It emboldens the clerics that you seek to appease and makes people who would otherwise think that progress is in general Islamic (as opposed to neutral or un-Islamic until proven otherwise) would slowly start to migrate in the wrong direction. Instead of "Islamization" bringing the ultra-conservative into the mainstream and convincing them that modernity is at least neutral, it has pulled more liberal conservatives in the opposite direction. In the field of Islamic finance, this is manifest in Malaysia's early "Islamization" campaign, which helped bring many ethnic Malay out of poverty and into the middle class, including financial professionals, only later to reverse course and begin to adopt more conservative and less efficient models of "Islamization" that appeal to the cash-rich GCC conservative Islamists.

The problem, I think, is that "Islamization" is operating in an environment where what is "Islam" is not a fixed target. So, as you continue to "Islamize," always staying at least one step/lag behind the frontiers of progress, new elements naturally look un-Islamic, because they coexist with what has been Islamized but were not simultaneously Islamized. So, the natural tendency is to think that things that have not already been given the label "Islamic" must be problematic for Islamization, and therefore move either from a default rule of Islamic to neutral or from a default rule of neutral to un-Islamic. Even if you speed up the pace of "Islamization" in this environment, people will therefore become skeptical much more readily, and may eventually demand "Islamization" of what you had already claimed to have been Islamized: witness the repeated "Islamizations" of the Pakistani banking system since the days of Zia ul-Haq. The incentives of clerics, who benefit from having a following, is initially to become more lenient to allow "Islamization" to take place, but then to reverse course and denounce what they had permitted: witness justice Taqi Usmani's delegitimization of 85% of sukuk, when he was widely viewed as the main legitimizer of Islamic securitization. Therefore, temporary migration of some puritans toward the mainstream financial sector maybe more than offset with eventual migration of people who used to be in the mainstream to less efficient sub economies, and it is not clear that there is much value added substantively in the entire process, because the industry is based on form-above-substance (justice Usmani was fond of giving a bait-and-switch analogy to halal meat vs regular meat, to justify the exclusive focus on procedures and indirectly justify collecting a fee for certification).

The failure of "Islamization," therefore, was built into its very raison d'être. If there was a need to "Islamize" some advances, then other advances became more suspect and more in need of "Islamization," and even things that had already been Islamized now needed more or renewed Islamization. This infinite regress favored the separatist ultraconservative elements in Islamism, and helped to shift other flavors of Islamism closer to it, achieving the exact opposite of the goal of early advocates of "Islamization." The failure of the "Islamization" program is that it pandered to more conservative elements and ended up losing its way, incoherently producing social orders that neither fit modernity nor conservatism. At one extreme, highly suspect financial practices have been "Islamized," much as one may see a girl with a headscarf but very tight jeans, the former ostensibly "Islamic finance" and the latter ostensibly "Hijab." At the other extreme, people start to denounce the use of any modern finance, Islamized or otherwise, including fiat money, and demand using gold, and conservatively-dressed women start wearing formulaic "hijabs" while those who wore it start wearing the "niqab" (veil covering the face), variations of which were abandoned in the early twentieth century, in part due to the thought of Muhammad Abduh and his follower Qasim Amin.

The net results is that over my own lifetime, which is getting eerily closer to half a century each day, I have observed this undeniable migration toward more conservative and assertive forms of Islamism. Its constant conjunction with attempts at "Islamization" struck me at first as efforts to moderate people's views, especially in social and legal areas. Now I see it as a sad reflection of George Bernard Shaw's infamous "marriage is the only solution to all the problems that it creates." I have said with amusement that Islamic finance is a case of supply creating its own demand, and that was the mark of a great entrepreneur, but that I had a visceral dislike for it when what was marketed was essentially religion. Now, I can see the bigger problem more clearly: the supply of "Islamization" kept creating its own demand in an infinite positive-feedback-loop that is clearly unsustainable.

This is still relatively the easy part, because it would be difficult enough to argue the counterfactual over the course of the past century -- had the "Islamization" efforts been replaced with education and clear thinking instead, taking the view that by default all progress is Islamic, allowing clerics to reflect back on progress after they had observed it instead of participating in this "Islamization" game of certification. It is much more difficult to argue that starting where we are now, this alternative would work and be an improvement over the status quo and the likely path forward under the status quo paradigm....

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Islam as the solution in the Age of Islamism II: Failure of the "Islamization" Project

Anticipating many of the issues that I have outlined, and aiming to harmonize modernity with traditional Islamic scholarship, in the hope of reconciling it thus with Islamism, the project for "Islamization of knowledge" was commonly attached to the late Ismail Al-Faruqi, but characteristic of a much larger intellectual movement in the latter part of the twentieth century. I want fundamentally not to confuse this program of "Islamization of knowledge," i.e. taking advances -- mainly in the humanities and social sciences -- and see how to reframe them in Islamic garb starting from Islamic scripture and classical scholarship, with the Abdul-Razzaq Al-Sanhuri program, which aimed to openly import western advances while applying a filter to adjust for Islamic sensibilities and injunctions (e.g. he imported the French civil code for Egypt with some minor modifications). I believe that the latter is not only more practicable, but also more defensible on Islamic grounds, although of course Islamists who adhere to a different standard of what is "Islamic" would disagree, but we can argue on common ground.

To make the distinction between the two approaches concrete, let's consider something that I have studied somewhat extensively: financial transactions, markets, and institutions. The Sanhuri program (stemming from the authentic tradition of Muhammad Abduh) would not start from the standpoint that Western banking and finance are intrinsically un-Islamic. Of course, this is shared by the "Islamization of knowledge" approach, for after all Islamic banking and finance, which "Islamize" almost every financial product and institution, albeit often incoherently and inefficiently, would not be possible if the objectives and basic methods of Western finance were deemed un-Islamic. The "Islamization of finance" industry has the explicit objective not of reaching any moral, social, or even material "Islamic" objectives, but merely to allow "pious Muslims" (I've called this "incoherent pietism") to partake in the usual Western financial practices but in an "Islamic" way.

So, both the Sanhuri and the "Islamization" approaches agree that just because something is Western does not mean that it is not Islamic or at least Islamic after small effort (i.e. Islamizable at low or moderate cost). On the other hand, the "Islamization" approach has surprising appeal with significant segments of Islamists who do consider Western finance, and even Economics as a discipline, to be "imbued with the ethos of capitalism," which they considered contrary to Islam in spirit not just in form. There has been convergence in views about Islamic finance in recent years between the majority of "Islamic Economists" who came from the traditions of Mawdudi, Baqir Al-Sadr, Khomeini, and other Islamist leaders of the mid-20th-century on the one hand, and people like myself, who came to the issue from the Sanhuri angle: We all recognize that the industry is merely an inefficient replication of what is already there, hence replicating all the disadvantages of conventional finance and adding inefficiency costs and dead weight losses (and as the medieval jurists Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Qayim pointed out, it is less harmful to have simple relatively efficient riba than complex inefficient replications thereof: Shari`a, in their view, could not forbid something and then permit something more harmful). However, those who came from the "Islamic Economics" tradition continue to view the failings of Islamic finance as temporary, and to take pride in its growth, even as they agree with criticisms of its modes and effects. "You shouldn't throw away the baby with the bathwater," one of the most prominent Islamic Economists once told me, as part of his advice to temper my criticism of the legal-arbitrage industry.

It would therefore seem that this brand of Islamism (Islamic Economics, Islamic Banking, etc.) has a better chance in winning over the more extreme forms of Islamism and shepherding Muslim societies closer to some form of harmonious modernity. I disagree, and this is the main point of the next posting. This main point of the current posting is that the "Islamization" program has failed. However, before I get to this point, I should first point out the main difference between the two main approaches: Although both approaches accept the world and its advances the way that they are, the Sanhuri approach is predicated on the view that "Western" advances (especially in law and society) are very much in harmony with "Islamic" principles (the famous Abduh saying was that he found Islam without Muslims in Paris and Muslims without Islam in Cairo), that the legal objectives of Shari`a are not materially different from the objectives of other Western legal systems. In contrast, the "Islamization" approach Western legal and social advances in a neutral or agnostic way, essentially reducing the issue to whether or not the particular institution is "Islamizable" (and as I have argued, in the field of finance, of course, everything is Islamizable if we take a contract-based approach to jurisprudence: it's a theorem).

At the other extreme, of course, there are the most difficult Islamists, who believe that the very spirit of Western socioeconomic and legal advances is fundamentally incompatible with "Islam" as they view it. It is not surprising, therefore, that the "Islamization" paradigm resonated more with this group than the Abduh/Sanhuri approach: Whatever is "Islamized" can be repackaged with or without reference to the original Western version. Al-Faruqi and others in the Islamization school were openly stating that their objective is to get the `ulama (traditional scholars) on board with modernization by rederiving modern advances -- to the extent possible -- from Islamic principles. The `ulama eventually accepted the telegraph, radio, the automobile, etc., without need for "Islamization," although there is a famous (and perhaps apocryphal story about the introduction of the telephone): The story states that some Saudi `ulama refused to introduce the telephone to the Kingdom because they feared that only demons can carry sound at such speeds, but eventually relented when Shaykh-ul-Azhar had a Sheikh recite Qur'an at one end and the Saudi `ulama heard it on the other end and accepted the argument that "demons cannot carry the Qur'an." The story is likely to be apocryphal but to display an Azhari bias against Saudi clerics as less enlightened. Even in this story, though, the phone is not "Islamized." It is a physical technology that was quickly accepted, whereas many socioeconomic and legal advances are still resisted strongly or rejected to this day, unless they are Islamized ("Islamic finance," mortgages as "rahn," some elections as a form of "shura," etc.).

It will be difficult for me to argue that the Abduh/Sanhuri program, which is very much Islamist according to my definition, can be revived and made to succeed based on its track record in dealing with Islamists at the other end of the spectrum. After all, Sanhuri was attacked viciously by rising Islamists in the mid-20th century, and his relative practical success in terms of the current legal system in Egypt still reflecting his version is strongly tempered by the continued calls from Islamists, both of the MB and Salafist types, to apply Shari`a, and the fact that the social contract that allowed this legal framework to survive was an authoritarian bargain where society at large acquiesced to political suppression of Islamists, even as the latter continued to gain social ground. It is not clear at all, therefore, that the Sanhuri paradigm, which assumes that Western (or Eastern, or any human) advances are intrinsically in harmony with Islam unless proven otherwise, can survive in an open marketplace for ideas where Islamists at the other end of the spectrum are gaining political and social ground. So, my self-imposed task in the next posting will be quite difficult.

Might one not argue, then, that perhaps the apparent middle ground, represented by the "Islamization" school, may be the better way to proceed? Advocates of "Islamic finance," for example, would argue that the industry has helped to bring many puritanical Muslims into the mainstream financial system by offering them "Islamized" products. Inefficient as the latter may be, they would argue, there are still efficiency (financial, economic, social, and security) gains by bringing these customers into the formal financial sector. Moreover, some may argue, the resulting engagement with modern society might help to modernize these Islamists who would have otherwise lived in a sub-economy (Timur Kuran's term), with social, legal, and political mindsets that continue to diverge from the evolving standards of modernity. The "Islamization" school would not be a favorite either for the Sanhuri Islamists or for the Mawdudi Islamists, but it would be somewhat acceptable to both, and therefore can get the conversation within the house of Islam going so that an "Islamic" solution to the problem of modernity may be found, along the lines that the late Al-Faruqi and current intellectual and practitioners of "Islamization" -- some of whom today come from the Sanhuri camp and some from the Mawdudi camp, as I have suggested above, showing that the "Islamization" approach has already provided a common ground for the conversation of "Islam as the solution" to continue.

As I write these sentences, I can see the argument as quite compelling, and yet if it were compelling, I would have continued to attend "Islamic finance" conferences and to write extensively on this field, which I haven't for a number of years. At an intuitive (and, dare I say, moral) level, I simply felt that this is definitely not the solution, and continued to criticize with a tone that offended participants in the industry and resulted in disinvitations from conferences, especially as some bankers and many on the "Shari`a board" circuit threatened that they would not go to conferences if I were there. Toward the end, I recall trying to be more diplomatic, but it is very clear that the substance of my criticism was the problem, as even my students were attacked by the same practitioners and Shari`a advisors at later conferences.

My deepest wound is that my late father asked my eldest brother why I was a failure, whereas he and our middle brother have been successful. My brother's answer was that I spent a number of years becoming an expert in a field and then felt morally compelled not to benefit from that expertise (and that includes not only "Islamic finance," but also finance and financial economics more generally). My father told me all of this with anger in his voice, naming in particular Sheikh Muhammad Khater, a former Grand Mufti of Egypt, who agreed to head the Faisal Bank of Egypt early version of a Shari`a board, earning millions as a result. My late father's accusation was that I was being "holier than the Pope," and not only failing to achieve success for myself and my family, but also failing to provide value to society based on the education and expertise that I had acquired. It hurt so much, and still does, because he was right, of course. I've let many people down, myself included. But here I am now trying to express in logical manner why I think that the entire "Islamization" program is not only doomed to failure in forging "an Islamic solution in the age of Islamism," but that it is contributing to the problem...

I need a break, and perhaps take time to think honestly if I do have a coherent argument to make, so the conclusion of this posting (the failure of "Islamization) should be posting II.5...