Piety for profit

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Pervez Hoodb­hoy

THE other day I some­how wan­dered into an Islamabad store which spe­cialises in Is­lamic honey. I was cu­ri­ous: how might it be dif­fer­ent from, say, Aus­tralian honey? Would honey with a re­li­gious flavour earn me spir­i­tual points as well? Al­though the store­keep­ers handed me a glossy 20-page brochure in Urdu, which I read later, I found their an­swers quite un­sat­is­fac­tory. Still, the range of their hon­eys did seem rather ap­petis­ing.

I was about to open my wal­let to buy some va­ri­eties when an­other prod­uct caught my eye: ' Is­lamic Nuts'. On the shelves were cans of var­i­ous sizes, in­scribed with Qu­ranic verses. The listed con­tents in­cluded pe­cans and fil­berts. But hang on! How could pe­cans and fil­berts ever have grown in desert climes? No one in this large store knew ei­ther their Urdu or Ara­bic equiv­a­lents. Be­sides, I was aware that fil­berts are named af­ter St Philbert, a French saint. It seemed so fishy that I left the store with­out buy­ing any­thing.

But sup­pose I had in­deed de­cided to buy honey and nuts. My choices for pay­ment would have been two-fold. Apart from plain cash, I could have used my or­di­nary credit card. Else, my newer Sharia-com­pli­ant credit card. (To be hon­est, I re­ally don't know why I have two. How­ever, I do re­call that the Sharia card sales­per­son vis­ited me in my of­fice two to three years ago. She was so per­sua­sive and per­sis­tent that I sur­ren­dered to a sec­ond one from her bank.)

Today I use both pieces of plas­tic, some­times ran­domly. What's the dif­fer­ence? With ei­ther I can pur­chase the same things or use an ATM. Plus, the Sharia-com­pli­ant one charges as much as the or­di­nary one. Most im­por­tantly, al­though the Sharia card re­fuses to call it in­ter­est, the an­nual rates charged by both banks are sim­i­lar. Af­ter all, a bank is a bank. And banks ex­ist to make profit, not dis­pense phi­lan­thropy.

The wil­ful use of Is­lam to sell prod­ucts con­tin­ues to reach as­ton­ish­ing new heights ev­ery year. When I heard of an ablu­tion bot­tle that lets you 'Istinja like a Ninja', I first thought some­one was pulling my leg. How ut­terly gross! But then it turned out that you can buy it from sim­ply­is­lam.com in three col­ors - red, or­ange, and pur­ple.

Busi­ness and com­merce now freely use Is­lam as a brand name, a sit- ua­tion that gets worse with the year. There are now Is­lamic po­tato chips, Is­lamic soaps, lux­ury prayer mats, and de­signer abayas with Swarovski crystals. Re­li­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties are clev­erly ex­ploited - such as when a Geo TV an­chor handed out aban­doned ba­bies to child­less cou­ples dur­ing Ra­mazan. The goal was clearly to in­crease view­er­ship, ie feed crass com­mer­cial­ism and com­pul­sive con­sumerism. Profit trumps de­cency and mo­ral­ity.

How have var­i­ous re­li­gions judged com­mer­cial­ism and con­sumerism from an­cient times to the present? In The Sin of Greed, the­olo­gian Sheila Harty makes an in­ter­est­ing com­par­a­tive sur­vey. She says that when re­li­gions de­fine sin, they be­gin with of­fences against the sa­cred - idol­a­try or blas­phemy. Next, they fo­cus on of­fences against the com­mon­weal - mur­der, adul­tery, theft, usury.

Harty notes that usury is the only busi­ness prac­tice con­demned by all re­li­gions, in­clud­ing Is­lam. The rea­son was a deeply moral one. Usury - charg­ing in­ter­est on a loan - was once a killer. Lenders with plenty could eas­ily ex­tend loans to bor­row­ers, usu­ally those short of cash, un­til the next har­vest. No loan meant that you might starve. There­fore the rich could thor- oughly ex­ploit the poor.

But the 21st cen­tury is very dif­fer­ent from the world of long ago. Sur­vival is an is­sue today only for the very poor. On the other hand, the mid­dle and up­per classes live in a throw­away cul­ture as­so­ci­ated with greed, wastage and friv­o­lous de­sires. Com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, with ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing as its hand­maid­ens, cre­ates ar­ti­fi­cial wants. In this situation does usury still de­serve to be called the great­est of sins? Or has it been over­taken by other sins so great that they now threaten life on this planet?

My friend John Avery, a pro­fes­sor of chem­istry in Den­mark, has a re­cent book on the new sins. He ex­plic­itly spells out how un­bri­dled con­sump­tion im­per­ils hu­man civil­i­sa­tion and the world's en­vi­ron­ment - per­haps ir­re­versibly. Economies are ob­sessed with achiev­ing a "never-end­ing ex­po­nen­tial growth on a fi­nite planet", a re­sult of Amer­i­can-style cap­i­tal­ism hav­ing in­vented a cul­ture of de­sire that con­fuses the good life with goods. Goods re­quire use of pol­lut­ing re­sources such as fos­sil fu­els and min­er­als. But, from a broader world per­spec­tive, this is un­sus­tain­able.

The rush to con­sume fu­els the mod­ern bank­ing sys­tem. Ev­ery bank wants peo­ple to own more cars and more ma­te­rial goods. Its ac­tiv­i­ties are shrouded in the tech­ni­cal lan­guage of finance - de­riv­a­tive prod­ucts, eq­uity swaps, ad­justable mort­gages, etc. No one, in­clud­ing top fi­nan­cial ex­perts, can fig­ure out how much usury oc­curs in such a com­plex sys­tem where ev­ery­thing is in­ter­con­nected. Sharia-com­pli­ant bank­ing has added to the con­fu­sion with its par­tic­u­lar ter­mi­nolo­gies. But profit is the real god.

In­equal­ity is built into the guts of this sys­tem; the ve­neer of mo­ral­ity is pa­per thin. If the own­ers and man­agers of the Is­lamic banks were gen­uinely moral peo­ple and con­cerned about sin, wouldn't they pay them­selves less? The lowest paid bank em­ployee in a Pak­istani bank - whether a Shari­a­com­pli­ant one or oth­er­wise - makes be­tween 100-1,000 times less than his CEO, for whom a seven-digit monthly salary is per­fectly nor­mal.

To con­clude: com­mer­cialised piety now rakes in prof­its, re­duc­ing re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity to busi­ness. It's time to get pri­or­i­ties right.

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