FaithWorld

Islamic finance in Gulf needs regulation boost

karachi marketFrom Australia to South Africa, governments are scrambling to change the law to accommodate the $1 trillion Islamic finance industry, whose avoidance of toxic debt has looked increasingly attractive since the global crisis. But in the Gulf Arab region, birthplace of Islam and cradle of Islamic finance, governments have taken a more passive approach, which experts say is slowing the industry’s growth. (Photo: A broker at the Karachi Stock Exchange July 5, 2010/Athar Hussain)

“Aside from Malaysia, Sudan and Iran, no government has really owned the Islamic finance project,” Humayon Dar, chief executive of London-based sharia advisory and structuring firm BMB Islamic, said.

In Malaysia, there is a national sharia council that sets rules for Islamic financial institutions. Rules are standardised under the central bank, which has made an active push towards supporting Islamic finance. In the first three quarters of 2010, the Malaysian government accounted for 62.5 percent of all Islamic bonds, or sukuk, issuances globally, valued at $18.4 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data. By comparison, not one sovereign sukuk came out of the Gulf Arab region during the same period.

Saudi Arabia’s laws, by definition, require organisations to adhere to sharia, a set of Islamic legal principles that include a ban on interest. Its central bank does not even differentiate between conventional and Islamic banking. Yet the growth of Islamic banking in the kingdom, the Gulf Arab region’s biggest market, is hindered by the lack of clear laws, a 2009 report by Blominvest Bank, the investment banking arm of Lebanon’s Blom Bank Group, said.

Many Islamic lenders, for instance, are wary of providing mortgages given the lack of clarity in Saudi Arabia over their ability to foreclose on properties in default. Lawyers and bankers say these concerns are putting pressure on Saudi housing demand and prices. A Saudi mortgage law has been in the works for over a decade but it’s still unclear when it will come to pass.

Egypt’s new religious fervour breeds ghetto mentality

egypt koranA wave of religious fervour and a backlash by secular liberals has left some ordinary Egyptians feeling like strangers in their own country, and civil rights activists warn of a dangerous drift into sectarianism.

Banker Hussein Khalil says organising something as simple as an evening out with friends has turned into a headache. (Photo: Koran held up at protest rally, September 5, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

“These days in Egypt, either you go out with people who are very strict and agree not to go anywhere that serves alcohol, or you go out with others who just want to get drunk,” said the 27-year-old. “Moderates are unable to enjoy their lives… We’re under pressure to join one of the two extremes.”

Christians in Arab Gulf face hurdles to worship

doha church (Photo: Worshippers pack the first Mass at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Doha, March 15, 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

Every Friday in the Muslim Gulf Arab state of Kuwait, 2,000 worshippers cram into a 600-seat church or listen outside to the mass relayed on loudspeakers, prompting their Roman Catholic bishop to worry about a stampede. “If a panic happens, it will be a catastrophe … it is a miracle that nothing has happened,” said Bishop Camillo Ballin.

These churchgoers represent only the tip of the iceberg. Ballin reckons his flock in Kuwait numbers around 350,000 out of a total of half a million Christians in the country.

At least 3.5 million Christians of all denominations live in the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and home to some of the most conservative Arab Muslim societies in the world. The freedom to practice Christianity — or any religion other than Islam — is not always a given in the Gulf and varies from country to country. Saudi Arabia, which applies an austere form of Sunni Islam, has by far the tightest restrictions.

Tajik leader wants children brought home from Muslim religious schools abroad

madrasaThe president of mostly Muslim Tajikistan has urged parents to withdraw their children from religious schools abroad, an appeal reflecting fears of radical Islam gaining ground in the Central Asian nation. President Imomali Rakhmon, in televised remarks to textile factory workers in a town near the border with Afghanistan, said he was concerned Tajik children attending such schools could return home as “terrorists”. (Photo: Koran students in Pakistani madrasa in Peshawar, September 11, 2006/Ali Imam)

“All parents who have sent their children to be educated at religious schools abroad — I would like to ask and urge you to bring them back to their homeland, because most of these schools are not religious,” Rakhmon said on Tuesday.  “Your children will become extremists, terrorists, and will turn into enemies and traitors of the Tajik nation.”

Most Tajiks cannot afford it, but sending a child to study in a nation such as Saudi Arabia is a source of prestige, and returning students are often granted a great deal of respect. Analysts say deepening economic hardship and social problems are pushing Tajiks toward radical Islam, threatening stability in the otherwise secular nation of seven million.

Christian-themed TV shows spark complaints in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon

saudi tv 1Television shows with Christian themes have sparked complaints in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon in recent days, but from different groups and for different reasons.

In Saudi Arabia, a popular sitcom has drawn the ire of conservative clerics over an episode portraying Arab Christians in a positive light after the kingdom sought to sell itself as a leader of dialogue between faiths. (Photo: Saudis watch a religious programme during Ramadan, 15 Sept 2008/Fahad Shadeed)

A two-part episode of the sitcom “Tash Ma Tash,” which has aired during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan for 17 years, showed the two main Saudi characters, both Muslims, being advised by their dying father to visit the brother of their deceased Lebanese mother.

Saudi royal order says only appointed clerics can issue public fatwas

saudi fatwasSaudi King Abdullah has ordered that public religious edicts, or public fatwas, be issued only by clerics he appoints, in the boldest measure the ageing monarch has taken to organise the religious field.

Timid efforts by the absolute monarchy to modernise the deeply conservative country have led to a profusion in fatwas from scholars and mosque imams in the country, who use the Internet to publicise them as they fight what they perceive as the westernisation of the country. (Photo: Saudi King Abdullah, 30 July 2010/Ali Jarekji)

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah gestures during his meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah at the Royal Palace in Amman July 30, 2010.

Mecca Mean Time? World’s biggest clock ticks in Islam’s holiest city

clock saudi 1

A giant clock on a skyscraper in Islam’s holiest city Mecca began ticking on Wednesday at the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, amid hopes by Saudi Arabia that it will become the Muslim world’s official timekeeper.

The Mecca Clock, which Riyadh says is the world’s largest, has four faces each bearing a large inscription of the name “Allah.” It sits 400 metres up what will be the world’s second-tallest skyscraper and largest hotel, overlooking the city’s Holy Grand Mosque, which Muslims around the world turn to five times a day for prayer.

clock saudi 2

The clock tower is the landmark feature of the seven-tower King Abdulaziz Endowment hotel complex, being built by the private Saudi Binladen Group. “Because it based in front of the holy mosque the whole Islamic world will refer to Mecca time instead of Greenwich. The Mecca clock will become a symbol to all Muslims,” said Hashim Adnan, a resident of nearby Jeddah who frequently visits Mecca.

The perils of eating fire in Saudi Arabia when religious police disapprove

fire eaterSaudi artist Maher al-Luqman is always nervous when he goes on stage to eat glass and fire or to walk on nails, for fear the country’s religious police will disrupt his show. (Photo: A fire eater at work, December 8, 2007/Yiorgos Karahalis)

The leader of a troupe of 12 strongmen, Luqman struggles for acceptance in a country whose austere version of Sunni Islam means that many forms of entertainment and unusual feats of strength are sometimes seen as sorcery.

“They have stopped us for two years, branding us as sorcerers, and calling for people to fight us and report us,” Luqman, 35, told Reuters.

French foreign minister gets ready for criticism over planned burqa ban


(French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Europe 1 radio, 2 May 2010/Dailymotion)

France hasn’t even presented its draft bill to outlaw Muslim face veils yet — in contrast to Belgium, which has started voting on its ban — but Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is already preparing for the wave of criticism from abroad it will provoke. He told Europe 1 radio on Sunday that he’d already warned the government at a cabinet meeting about what to expect.

“The United States are very attached to religious liberty and there will be lots of NGOs and American foundations that will want to point out our mistake,” he said (in the video above in French). “I think they’ll also be convinced that we are for religious liberty but there is no religious recommendation to veil one’s face.

Al-Azhar leader Sheikh Tantawi dies in Saudi Arabia

tantawi

Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi in Cairo September 16, 2006/Nasser Nuri

Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who as the head of Egypt’s most prestigious seat of Islamic learning al-Azhar was Sunni Islam’s top authority, died of a heart attack on Wednesday on a visit to Saudi Arabia, religious officials at al-Azhar said. He was 81.

Mohamed Wasel, Tantawi’s deputy, will temporarily take charge of the Sunni Muslim institution until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appoints a new head. Wasel has been heading al-Azhar’s committee for inter-faith dialogue.

Al-Azhar, which runs schools, universities and other educational institutions across Egypt and sends scholars to teach in countries across the Muslim world, receives most of its funding from the state.