December 30, 2009
December 19, 2009
On Thursday, Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries celebrated the first Lebanese woman to open a bank account for her minor children. The Women’s Union of the Progressive Socialist Party (i.e. Walid Junblat’s party), in coordination with the Central Bank and the Association of Banks in Lebanon, was instrumental in bringing about this accomplishment. Initiated locally, the project was funded by USAID and based on a legal study by the young lawyer Paul Morcos of Justicia.
PSP’s Women’s Union marketed the project primarily using the language of rights. But the problematic and the way Morcos proceeds to deal with it is a bit more complicated. The full study can be found here, but the main obstacle, according to the banks, was that in Lebanon the father is the compulsory legal guardian (وليّ جبري) for minor children. This is according to “secular” and religious law, both Christian and Muslim. This is a long story, but “secular” in this particular case relates to an article from Majallat al-Ahkam al-Shar`iyya, or Mecelle in Turkish — this being the Ottoman civil code of 1877 which was an attempt to codify the principles of the religious (Hanafi) court. Byzantine indeed!
The issue, hence, risked stepping on spiritual toes and questioning the patriarchal and sectarian foundations of Lebanon (God forbid). Morcos circumvented the problem by shifting the focus from the Gordian knot of guardianship and highlighting instead how allowing a woman to open such accounts not only does not threaten this existing structure, but also contradicts rights accorded to women and enshrined in Lebanese law. A very intelligent solution given the imperfect circumstances. The recommendations in Morcos’s study deal with the woman not from the point of view of her rights as a mother, but as a “stipulator/assignor in trust” in a commercial contract. Her son or daughter is “the beneficiary” and the bank “the assignor.” The achievement, nevertheless, is not to be underestimated. More so because it had to do with asserting rights already accorded to women by law and of which she has been stripped through cultural/economic practices. To meet this recommendation halfway, the banks need to engineer account types to allow it to progress legally.
Which brings me to another aspect of this accomplishment. The other study that fed into the project was led by economist Kamal Hamdan and dealt with a completely different aspect of the issue at stake: economic benefits. The study demonstrates that this bank “service” would lead to an additional 100,000 bank accounts over the next ten years with a cumulative value of $400 thousand. I think this too is key to understanding how concrete results were achieved in less than a year. The project has all the right ingredients, indicating broad political support: a civil society actor linked to a sectarian party, private banks interested in expanding their economic possibilities, public institutions interested in empowering private interests, and outside funding interested in shaping the world in its own image. Far from ideal, but it seems to get things done.
December 3, 2009
The vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has elicited negative reactions from many non-Muslim quarters. The European press, religious leaders, as well as some politicians have spoken out against it. But it has also given an unexpected boost to the far right in Europe. In Norway, we woke up Monday to a far right politician pondering a ban on the burqa and on the call to prayer (the latter is allowed as long as it is under 64dB). But the scene is gloomy because this goes beyond individual politicians or parties. The Swiss vote has left many wondering whether similar referenda in other European countries would yield similar results.
What is happening in many countries of Europe today when it comes to Islam is a curious and complex phenomenon and relegating it to bigotry does not explain anything. Tariq Ramadan has written one of the most reasonable articles I have come across that tries to make some sense of it. He is right to point out that the minaret is a symbol. The Union Démocratique du Centre, who proposed the ban in Switzerland, first considered targeting halal slaughter of animals but did not want to offend Swiss Jews. Minarets, I might add, work better here precisely because they are visible symbols. But symbols of what? This is the crux of Ramadan’s argument:
[…] while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary. At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.
The part of his article that calls for more Muslim participation as a solution is open to debate (wouldn’t more visibility cause more fear?), but still, he brings attention back to the main issue: this is about Europe as much as it is about Islam in Europe. But Ramadan’s article raises more questions than it answers. Identity crisis, fine. But why Muslims? (This issue predates 9/11, so the answer is not “terrorism”) Why not racism, which offers more visible scapegoats?
In addition, Ramadan points a finger at the “flame-fanning” populists, but what about the liberal politicians? What about, for example, the headscarf debate in France and Jack Straw’s comments on the burqa? Don’t they lend more legitimacy to anti-Islam sentiments than raving right-wingers? And how does this relate to Europe’s current wars in majority Muslim countries? And why should Islam in Europe be perceived as an extension of an external, homogeneous Islam rather than as a European phenomenon? Why is it that in Norway, for example, where things are relatively great, it is perfectly normal to find every once in a while reminders in the main stream press that Muslims are Norwegians too — and one need only make such reminders about Muslims and Jews these days? And as far as identity is concerned, why does Europe have to end where Islam begins? Why is it that despite (because of?) a suppressed shared history, Europe and Islam are assumed by many to be inherently incompatible?
These questions are not exhaustive, some are probably irrelevant, and those that are relevant do not have easy answers. But this debate is at its infancy and if Islam in Europe is to have a normal future, one should at least start by asking the correct questions and reframing the debate on premises not dictated by the right. Premises that bring economy, politics, and history — even anti-Semitic history — back into the picture. It is easy to forget that we are talking about a Muslim minority that in most European countries does not pass the 6% mark. A minority that often finds itself, for internal and external reasons, in a weaker socioeconomic position than average. Yet, precisely because the premises of the debate are being set by the far right, a growing number of citizens choose to succumb to public passions that have little to do with facts.