FaithWorld

France courts Islamic finance, as long as it’s not too obvious

eiffel-towerIn researching an article on what lay behind government plans to develop France as a European hub for Islamic finance, I was struck by the uneasy atmosphere surrounding the subject. On the one hand, the government sees it as a way to attract Middle Eastern money and wants to push the idea. But on the other, there is a clear sense of apprehension over how Islamic finance would fit into French society, where the policy of laïcité – the strict separation of church and state — tries to keep anything religious out of the public sphere as much as possible. (Photo: Eiffel Tower in Paris, 20 Nov 2007/Mal Langsdon)

The bankers, lawyers, government officials and Islamic finance specialists trying to get Islamic finance off the ground in France speak publicly about the bright prospects they see for the market. France has the biggest Muslim population in Europe at over five million. The government is pushing the idea hard. There is a huge need for financing of future projects.

But privately, many admit that French companies and banks may hesitate to do anything that uses the label Islamic as this could highlight sensitivities over social and cultural divides. Ever since the French Revolution, France has upheld the idea that its people are all individual and equal citizens and not members of regional, ethnic or religious minorities. Stressing membership in a sub-group is considered divisive. The French frequently point to the multicultural approach taken in Britain and the United States as the source of political and social problems — such as ethnic or religious “ghettoisation” and “identity politics” — that they want to avoid.

BANKISLAM/ACQUISITIONGiven this outlook, some French fear the Muslim community here is seeking to nurture its own identity in a way that sets them apart from ordinary French citizens and undermines the unity of the nation. The way in which Muslims openly speak about religion, rather than keeping their faith to themselves, looks to these French as a challenge to the principle of laïcité. (Photo: Employee at an Islamic bank in Malaysia, 13 Jan 2009/Bazuki Muhammad)

Not every charge of laïcité violation is necessarily valid. As one analyst put it: “You can see in so many papers that Islamic finance is a threat to laïcité , which is a complete nonsense. It proves that the people who write about this know nothing about Islamic finance. It has nothing to do with religion. It is making financial transactions according to a set of rules … these rules are ethical because they are Islamic.”

GUESTVIEW: Young British Muslims are speaking, but who’s listening?

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Sughra Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Policy Research Centre, which is based at the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire and specialises in research, policy advice and training on issues related to British Muslims.

By Sughra Ahmed

hijab-flagIt may seem well and good to think children should be seen and not heard – there’s nothing wrong with a touch of Victorian, especially true during a good movie! But what if the censored are not young children at all? What if they are flashpoints in our conversations on not so trivial subjects, you know, things like national security, integration and democracy. And what if, instead of listening, we systematically speak on their behalf, saying what they are thinking and how they fit into the whole social and political spectrum. (Photo: Woman at “Muslims Against Terrorism” rally in London, 11 Sept 2007/Toby Melville)

Enter young British Muslims, but please sit down over there in one group, and mind you don’t speak – we have interpreters for that: a choice of representative institutions, community spokespersons, experts on what young people think, and media sound bytes. Yes, much is said and written about young Muslims, not only in black ink but leapfrogging from blog to blog and showing no signs of tiring. Rarely though, is it the young voices themselves. Commentators of many persuasions seem keen to tell us how and what a silent majority from British Muslims think. If it’s not the majority then certainly a large proportion .

Jordan amasses evidence for claiming Jesus baptism site

bethany-pool-2 (Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)

In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.

bethany-flagFor about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river’s east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John’s Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area’s use as a pilgrimage site. (Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)

Pope John Paul’s visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to have the same concern — he’s coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.

What was real reason for banning Tariq Ramadan from U.S.?

ramadan-vatican1A group of academic and civil rights organisations has written to the Obama administration asking it to end U.S. visa refusals to foreign scholars apparently because of their political leanings. Probably the best known of these cases is that of Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Islamic scholar who was just about to take up a chair at the University of Notre Dame in 2004 when a visa already issued to him was suddenly revoked. Ramadan is a leading Muslim intellectual in Europe with a strong following among young Muslims who like his message that they can be good European and good Muslims at the same time. (Photo: Ramadan at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome during a Muslim-Catholic Forum, 6 Nov 2008/Alessandro Bianchi)

Currently teaching Islamic theology at Oxford University, he is viewed with deep suspicion in France but well received in Britain (see, for example, the cover of Prospect magazine pictured below). Pope Benedict received him at the Vatican last November as part of a delegation of Muslim scholars to a Muslim-Catholic dialogue. No matter what one thinks of his views, he is an active figure in the debate about Islam and the West and deserves to be heard in serious discussions on the topic.

The American Civil Liberties Union will plead his case for lifting the ban before the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York on March 24. Given the way President Barack Obama has rolled back several policies of the preceding Bush administration, there could now be a chance that Washington will simply lift the ban and let Ramadan take up the many invitations to speak that he would probably get from U.S. universities and think tanks. That would be a victory for academic freedom, but it still leaves one question unanswered.

from UK News:

Geert Wilders – martyr for free speech or public safety threat?

Right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who is being prosecuted at home for anti-Islam remarks, has been barred from entering Britain.

He had been invited to show the House of Lords his film "Fitna," which argues that the Koran incites violence, but was told his opinions could "threaten community harmony and therefore public safety" and sent back home again when he arrived at Heathrow.

Defending the decision to bar him, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "A hate-filled film designed to stir up religious and racial hatred in this country is contrary to our laws."

Rabbi wants to bring U.S. Muslim-Jewish teamwork to Europe

Rabbi Marc Schneier, a New York Jewish leader who has helped to build bridges with American Muslims, is planning to bring his campaign to Europe to help ease the anger fed by bloodshed in Gaza. “In the light of the recent conflict in Gaza, Jewish-Muslim tensions have been exacerbated,” Schneier, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, told Reuters during a recent visit to London. “We have seen a rise, I would say an exponential growth in anti-Semitic attacks, rhetoric coming from the Muslim world. We cannot allow for Islamic fundamentalism to grow.” (Photo: Rabbi Marc Schneier/FFEU)

Schneier helped to bring together thousands of Jews and Muslims across America last November in an initiative in which 50 mosques were twinned with 50 synagogues over a weekend. Jews and Muslims worked together in community projects, formed study groups and got a better understanding of each other’s faith. They publicised this in the short video below and a full-page ad in the New York Times available here in PDF.

An eloquent and persuasive speaker, Schneier has advocated closer links between Jewish and Afro-American communities through the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, where he has worked with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away.

Italy’s atheists to launch their own “no God” bus ads

The members of Italy’s atheist association probably would not fill one of the side chapels of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But that’s not stopping the group from launching an unprecedented ad campaign on buses in Italian cities, much like the one recently started in Britain. (Photo: Planned Italian bus ads/UAAR)

The Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR) will run the ads on four buses in the northern city of Genoa next month. The ads, which will cover the entire bus painted a soothing sky blue, read: “The bad news is that God doesn’t exist. The good news is that you don’t need him.”

The Padua-based group is launching the campaign in Genoa because advertising is much more expensive in other large cities such as Milan and Rome. But Genoa is also home to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the president of  the Italian Bishops Conference. According to some Italian reports, one of the buses will pass near his residence.

Islamic finance sector needs more sharia scholars

Articles about Islamic finance are usually long on finance and short on Islam. Knowing that the various schools of Islam can interpret and apply sharia in different ways, I recently wondered how this looked in the financial sector, especially since Islamic banking has spread in recent years and non-Muslim institutions and investors were getting into the business. A conference on Islamic banking in France brought several sharia scholars to Paris, so I took the opportunity to interview them for the news story posted here.

While the financial side wants as much standardisation as possible, the scholars insist it would be un-Islamic to impose rules that apply fully around the world. So rulings from the sharia boards of financial institutions can differ, although the existence of voluntary standards — such as those worked out by the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) in Bahrain — has helped to harmonise them. Also, the fact that individual scholars sit on several sharia boards at the same time brings a certain conformity.

But, as Mufti Barkatulla told me, there are not enough young scholars entering the field. A sharia board needs a minimum of three members and can have up to 10, depending on its workload, he said. The problem is that acquiring the needed knowledge can take years. Barkatulla himself was a sharia judge at London’s Central Mosque for 30 years, mostly ruling on family issues such as divorce, before getting involved in Islamic finance five years ago. Like him, Sheikh Nizam Yaquby of Bahrain, another scholar at the Paris conference, continues to decide such family cases in addition to his work in the world of finance.

Novel about Mohammad’s wife published — what comes next?

Cover of The Jewel of MedinaThe Jewel of Medina, a novel about the Prophet Mohammad’s child bride Aisha already linked to an arson attack in London, was rushed into U.S. bookstores on Monday in a bid to head off any other violence. Author Sherry Jones says it’s a respectful account of Aisha’s life but Random House baulked at publishing it after being warned it could offend Muslims and provoke violence from a “small, radical segment”.

Publisher Eric Kampmann, president of the Beaufort Books company whose London office was firebombed, told Reuters that the surprise measure would help change the discussion about the book. “We felt that, given what was happening, it was better for everybody… to let the conversation switch from a conversation about terrorists and fearful publishers to a conversation about the merits of the book itself,” he said.

Comments from Muslims in Britain about The Jewel of Medina have been mixed, with some approving a vigorous protest and others saying their views have evolved since the Rushdie affair. Comments on blogs since the novel went out to U.S. bookshops range from those criticising it as a “flawed jewel”, those (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali) cheering the publisher for not caving in and those urging Muslims not to be provoked even by this “distorted picture of Aisha”. Some, citing a review saying it’s just a “second-rate bodice ripper-style romance”, wonder what the fuss is all about.