One thing we are supposed to welcome in modern Britain is “diversity”. The theory is that the mixture of races, cultures and religions which we have more and more become is a source of strength and should therefore be nurtured and celebrated. Although there is a great debate about how strong the overarching idea of Britishness needs to be for the diversity to work, there is clearly much to be said for the theory.
The authorities therefore set to work to accommodate, within reason, the special requests of the minorities – the observant Jew who wants to leave work on Friday in time for the beginning of the Sabbath, the Hindu who cannot eat beef, the Muslim traffic warden who does not want to wear a cap badge which includes the sign of the Cross.
Some of these questions can create real difficulty – should the Cross, woven into so many national symbols, such as the flag, which mean a great deal to us, really be sacrificed to some people’s feelings? But if the wish to be distinctive is genuinely mixed with the desire to participate, then a way can usually be found.
So you might think it is good news that “Islamic banking” is now taking hold. This month saw the launch of Britain’s first fully regulated and approved Sharia-compliant bank, the Islamic Bank of Britain. And the big banks have also developed Islamic banking arms. The need for these is said to arise because the Koran forbids “riba”, which is interest, or usury.
Yet Muslims need money and banks need to make a living. Systems are devised to get round the ban. For example, instead of a Muslim holding a mortgage for a house, the bank can own the house and make arrangements for the Muslim gradually to buy it off the bank over a period of years. HSBC now boasts of “Our Sharia Board” stuffed with learned sheikhs and Justices from Arabia and Pakistan. Isn’t all this an encouraging example of how the resourcefulness of modern free societies can achieve tolerance and market efficiency?
But when you look a little further into the question of Islamic banking, you find that it is not, in fact, required by Islam. Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, the main and ancient home of Sunni religious learning, teaches that “riba” means extortionate interest, not any interest at all, and that moderate interest should be permitted. Most Egyptian banks charge and pay interest. Even Muslims who reject this interpretation say that the doctrine of “extreme necessity” permits Muslims in non-Muslim countries to pay interest.
So what is being proposed with Islamic banking is actually a hardening of the religion, not an accommodation of its existing custom. It is rather as if Catholics, arriving in large numbers in a Muslim country, insisted that they must eat fish rather than meat on a Friday, a rule which has been dropped by the Church in modern times. And when you look at HSBC’s Sharia Board you find that a couple of its members have links with the Deoband, the long-standing ultra-conservative group whose schools in Pakistan educated many of the Taliban.
Two others are Wahhabis, trained by the intolerant and puritanical school of thought that dominates the religious life of Saudi Arabia. If HSBC had a Christian Banking Board would they staff it with disciples of the Rev Ian Paisley, the Rev Jerry Falwell and the followers of the late Archbishop Lefebvre, rather than nice Dr Rowan Williams or Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor?
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