FaithWorld

Tunisia revolt makes Islamist threat ring hollow

rcd (Photo: Tunisian protester with political demands on a banner that reads

“No to a government born of corruption” “Ben Ali is in Saudi Arabia and the government is the same (hasn’t changed)” in Arabic and “RCD, clear out!” in French. The RCD is the party of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.  In Tunis January 18, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

The absence of Islamist slogans from Tunisia’s pro-democracy revolt punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power.

Ousted strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali spent much of his 23-year rule crushing Islamist opposition groups who opposed his government’s brand of strict secularism: after Sept. 11 2001, he was an enthusiastic backer of Washington’s “war on terror”.

But the evidence of the past week is that the protest slogans that rang out before his fall demanded not an imposition of Islamic sharia law but fair elections and free speech.

“The lesson from what’s happening in Tunisia is that (Arab leaders) won’t be able to hide any more behind the Islamist threat argument,” said Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa specialist at social sciences school EHESS in Paris.

It remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s enfeebled Islamists will be able to win significant support in the event that they are unbanned and allowed to contest planned free elections. But so far most complaints levelled at a new interim government set up after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia have focused not on a lack of Islamists but on too many faces from the old regime.

U.S. legal win could help Islamic finance counter sharia concerns

bankislamA U.S. court decision to dismiss a case alleging that AIG’s (AIG.N) sharia-compliant businesses promoted religious doctrine looks likely to boost confidence in the industry and lift sales of Islamic products in the longer term.

A Michigan district court rejected on Friday a claim filed by U.S. Marine veteran Kevin Murray in 2009 that the U.S. government violated the constitution by allowing funds from insurer American International Group’s $40 billion bailout to be used to fund its Islamic insurance businesses. (Photo: A logo of Malaysia’s Bank Islam in Putrajaya September 3, 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

Lawyers say the case is significant for the industry in the United States, which has struggled with a backlash against Islam, and is looking for support from the courts and government to promote Islamic finance as a legitimate business.

Is free Iraq becoming a more Islamic state?

baghdad shi'iteA group of men recently ordered Siham al-Zubaidi to close down her Baghdad hair salon for two months for Shi’ite religious festivities. She had no idea who they were but complied because she feared for her life.

“Can you just tell me who will pay the rent of my shop for these two months? What shall I do to support my family? What is the relation between hair dressing and religious events?” Zubaidi, 40, asked furiously. “This is a new dictatorship. They want Iraq to be an Islamic state. But this is not right. Iraq includes a variety of religious factions … These are alien ideas, not Iraqi.” (Photo: Shi’ites attend Friday prayers in Baghdad’s Sadr City, northeastern Baghdad on March 5, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)

Recent efforts by authorities, clergy and unknown bands of neighbourhood enforcers to police morals by shutting nightclubs, bars and other establishments has heightened concerns among academics and intellectuals that Iraq, now emerging from war, is displaying the tendencies of a hard-line Islamic state.

Bashir plans Islamic law if Sudan splits, defends flogging woman

sudan (Photo: Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses a rally in Gedaref, December 19, 2010/stringer)

Sudan will adopt an Islamic constitution if the south splits away in a referendum next month, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Sunday. The vote on independence for south Sudan is scheduled to start in three weeks and was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the south, where most follow traditional beliefs and Christianity.

“If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity,” the president told supporters at a rally in the eastern city of Gedaref. “Sharia (Islamic law) and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language,” he said.

An official from south Sudan’s main party criticised Bashir’s stance, saying it would encourage discrimination against minorities in the north and deepen the country’s international isolation.

Guestview: The infliction of the blasphemy law in Pakistan

asia bibi 1 (Photo: Protesters demand release of Asia Bibi, in Lahore November 21, 2010/Mohsin Raza)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone.  Naeem Shakir is a Lahore-based human rights activist and advocate of the Pakistan Supreme Court.

By Naeem Shakir

The religious minorities in Pakistan are once again awe-struck over the death sentence passed against a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, for committing blasphemy. The fear and scare such tragic events create and spread amongst the minorities goes down their spine and dampens their spirits as citizens of Pakistan. They wonder for how long they would be persecuted for having a faith different from the Muslim majority. Each time it has been found that the blasphemy law was used either for religious persecution or for settling personal scores or grabbing land.

In Asia Bibi’s case, the complainant was a local clergyman Qari Mohammad Salam. He was neither present at the place of occurrence nor personally heard the blasphemous words allegedly uttered by Asia Bibi. Muslim women who worked with Asia Bibi in the falsa fruit fields of a local landlord informed him on June 19, 2009 that on June 14, Asia uttered blasphemous remarks about the Prophet (PBUH) and the Quran. The two sisters admitted in evidence that a quarrel took place regarding drinking water that Asia brought, which was declared as ‘unclean’ and they refused to drink it. The complainant stated that she confessed her guilt before a religiously charged mob.

Top Islamic finance scholars oppose bid to improve corporate governance

islamic bankTwo of the Gulf’s top Islamic finance scholars spoke out against efforts to reduce the number of boards they and their peers are allowed to sit on, challenging industry attempts to improve corporate governance. Bankers in the emerging $1 trillion Islamic finance industry say the concentration of hundreds of board positions in the hands of a few sharia scholars leads to conflicts of interest and hampers appropriate supervision. (Photo: Islamic bank ATM machines in Dubai, January 28, 2008/Jumana El Heloueh)

Bahrain-based industry body AAOIFI is drafting rules to regulate scholars’ shareholdings and the number of sharia supervisory boards a single scholar can sit on. “There is no need to limit the number of boards,” Sheikh Nizam Yaquby, one of the most revered Islamic finance scholars in the Gulf Arab region, told a conference in Manama. He sits on several dozen sharia supervisory boards.

He said there was no similar criticism of other groups such as lawyers or accounting firms working for several banks: “Why should (sharia scholars) not be treated like other professionals in the field?”

Saudi Arabia less rigid with Muslims during haj

haj (Photo: Haj pilgrims arrive to cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan in Mena, November 16, 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Saudi Arabia’s religious police keep such a low profile during the haj, it’s hard to imagine that you are in Islam’s holiest city.

The kingdom, where Islam first emerged around 1,400 years ago, applies a strict form of Sunni Islamic sharia law that imposes gender segregation, forces shops to close during prayer times and prohibits women from driving.

But in Mecca, the enforcement of many of these rules is relaxed during the haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim. And with the government investing billion of dollars in recent years to make pilgrimage safer and more comfortable, many pilgrims end up going home as goodwill ambassadors for the country.

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.

Islamic finance outsources scholars’ supervision to grow

finance ammanBankers in Islamic finance are increasingly outsourcing sharia supervision due to a lack of scholars in the industry, but critics say this is making the sector even less transparent and slowing its development.

The $1 trillion industry rode a five-year oil boom until the 2008 property crash in the Gulf Arab region raised complaints that many of its investment instruments can be seen as mere copy-cats of conventional banking products, threatening the sector’s future growth. (Photo: Dealers at the Amman Stock Exchange on October 11, 2010/Ali Jarekji)

Critics say growth and product innovation is being further stifled by the limited number of top scholars available to join the sharia boards of Islamic banks, some sitting on up to 80 boards.

Short of talent, Islamic finance taps women scholars

malaysia islamic finance (Photo: Islamic Financial Centre booth at Malaysia’s Central Bank – High Level Conference 2009 in Kuala Lumpur February 10, 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

When Malaysian Aida Othman signed up for the new law programme at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, she did not expect to become one the few women with their hands on the levers of the world’s $1 trillion Islamic finance sector.

Rising global demand for scholars who can advise firms on compliance with Islamic legal principles called sharia is behind the quiet and almost accidental way in which women are growing into a small but powerful force in a male-dominated business.

“There are not many women involved my job,” Aida, who manages the sharia advisory practice at Malaysia’s biggest law firm, told Reuters. “I’m glad to be able to show to young graduates and young scholars in my field if you’re interested enough there is a way into sharia advisory,” the 41-year-old, who went on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, said.