Eager to attract Middle East investment but uneasy about linking faith and finance, the French parliament has opted for some legislative sleight-of-hand to pass a law allowing the issuance of interest-free Islamic “sukuk” bonds. The move is part of France’s two-year drive to create a new European hub for Islamic finance, whose value globally is estimated at $1 trillion. But instead of introducing a separate bill, which would attract attention to it, the governing UMP party tucked the proposed change of French trust law into a larger bill on financing reform for small and medium-sized companies. And it chose to do this by introducing it as an amendment in the second reading of the bill — the one that usually gets fewer headlines.
In 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.
It’s Ramadan and on a bustling shopping street on the fringes of northern Paris, the holy month is in full swing. Bearded men in long robes collect alms, women in headscarves sell sweet pastries. But the period of fasting and charitable acts has little impact on the work of activist Christine Jamaa, whose office is in a secret location not far from the busy street market.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared last month that the burqa was not welcome in France, he unleashed a global debate on Islam and veils that drew in everyone from bloggers and full-time pundits to Al Qaeda’s North African wing. FaithWorld has dealt with it when Sarkozy spoke, in the aftermath of that speech, with a view from Afghanistan and a televised debate with a National Assembly deputy backing the ban.
It started with “assalaamu alaykum” and ended with “may God’s peace be upon you.” Inbetween, President Barack Obama dotted his speech to the Muslim world with Islamic terms and references meant to resonate with his audience. The real substance in the speech were his policy statements and his call for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslims, as outlined in our trunk news story. But the new tone was also important and it struck a chord with many Muslims who heard the speech, as our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon found. Not all, of course — you can find positive and negative reactions here.
When President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it’s being called a speech “to the Muslim world” or “to the world’s 1.x billion Muslims” (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he’s chosen — Cairo — and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East.
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace (New York) and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.
Wednesday was Palestinian day in Pope Benedict’s schedule. He spent the whole day in Bethlehem and met Catholics, refugees and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke out clearly in favour of a Palestinian homeland, deplored the Israeli wall that snakes around the town and spoke with sympathy of the difficulties the Palestinians face. Taken together, they were a strong expression of Vatican support for the Palestinians.
Four speeches today to four quite different audiences. Pope Benedict first addressed Muslim religious leaders (see our separate blog on that) and then Israel’s two grand rabbis. Both were about interfaith dialogue, but he was encouraging the Muslims to pursue it while he reassured the Jews the Catholic Church remained committed to it. He then addressed the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land and a Mass in the Valley of Josephat, just east of Jerusalem’s old city. At that Mass, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, delivered an interesting address comparing the Palestinians and Israelis to Jesus in his agony in the nearby Garden of Gethsemane and the international community to the three Apostles who slept during that crucial period in Christ’s passion (see our separate blog on that).