Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

March 14, 2016

New Shariah-Compliant Airlines Should Watch for Competition on Horizon

By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

14 March 2016

As tourism agencies and hotels in holiday destination cities scramble to capture the burgeoning Muslim travel market with specialized services, some startup air carriers have joined the fray with what they describe as Shariah-compliant air travel.

Malaysia’s Rayani Air and UK-based Firnas Airways are advertising their airlines as Shariah-compliant. It’s a niche service offered in an effort to capture a portion of the highly competitive $145 billion Muslim travel market in which many airlines already offer halal food on flights. Much of that travel is to Singapore, Thailand and the UK, the top three non-Islamic destinations for Muslim travelers, according to halal travel consultants CrescentRating.

Shariah-compliant airlines offer benefits to Muslim travelers several steps beyond typical halal services, which are usually limited to serving halal food.

Rayani and Firnas announce prayer calls, recite supplications before takeoff and require Muslim female flight attendants to wear the hijab. National air carries in conservative Muslim countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Brunei already provide such benefits.

COMPETITION

But airlines considering Shariah-compliant travel have an uphill battle to maintain a sustainable business model. The majority of tourists tend to look for the lowest airfares balanced with a level of service that satisfy their needs, according to travel industry insiders.

Airlines touting Shariah service as their primary attraction face competition that more or less is already sensitive to passengers’ religious needs.

“I can’t see much in Shariah compliance,” said John Goodman, president of Ogilvy Noor, an Islamic branding consulting agency that advises companies on how to reach Muslim consumers. “Most airlines offer halal food and cater to a Muslim trade, and it’s very difficult to go beyond that without alienating non-Muslims.”

Goodman said most international airlines address Muslim passengers’ needs. “Western companies do it well,” he said.

INCLUSIVITY

Li Guen Phua, the marketing communications lead at SimpliFlying, a Singapore-based aviation consulting agency, said Shariah-compliant services are just another way for airlines to target a specific group of travelers. But she also cautioned against alienating non-Muslim consumers.

“It is upon the airlines to clarify their position and keep seeking understanding from non-Muslim passengers,” said Li. “It is recommended that airlines like Rayani and Firnas anticipate the types of inconveniences that will arise for non-Muslim passengers and prepare alternatives.”

Jaafar Zamhari, managing director of Rayani, emphasized in December in his announcement of the founding of the airline that routes would not be limited to Islamic destinations and Rayani is “open to all races and religions.”

STANDARDS OF SERVICE, CONVENIENCE

Fazal Bahardeen, CEO of CrescentRating and HalalTrip.com, says international airlines based in Muslim countries meet passengers’ expectations.

“For me, it’s the standard of service,” Bahardeen said. “I prefer to fly Qatar [Airways] because I don’t have to make a request for a special [halal] meal. If I am flying somewhere, I prefer to transfer in Doha because everything in the airport is halal and I can do my prayers. It’s convenient.”

For many Muslim passengers, that standard means no alcohol on flights or even having to sit next to a passenger drinking alcohol. Bahardeen says there may be a day when airlines may provide alcohol-free flights much like when they banned onboard smoking in the late 1980s.

Specialized services can become more complicated on larger airlines, especially when underlined by religious considerations, according to Li. She noted that alternatives could include offering religiously sensitive courtesies to a section of the cabin instead of the entire aircraft.

“Ultimately, a business is run based on the bottom line,” she said. “If an airline discovers a niche that it can serve profitably and is aligned to its branding, there is no reason to not offer specialized services.”

© SalaamGateway.com 2016

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October 18, 2015

The Haj: A unique experience for Muslims

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 05:25
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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 September 2015

Jeddah – Kharizada Kasrat Rai, his body thin and his skin darkened by the sun, per­formed in 2013 what so many men and women endured before him over the centu­ries: He walked from his homeland through dangerous territory to per­form the haj in Mecca.

Rai, at 37, walked 6,387 km from Karachi through Pakistan, Iran and Jordan to reach Saudi Arabia. In Jor­dan he took the old western route, a path worn deep from the foot­steps of millions of the faithful be­fore him, south to Tabuk. He then moved on to Medina and Mecca.

“My determination to reach Mecca and witness the marvels of Medina only added to my resilience to complete my journey,” Rai said.

Probably few pilgrims are pre­pared for the hardships of such a journey. In previous centuries, it took a lifetime of saving and some­times a year to make the trek. Pil­grims performing haj numbered in the thousands.

Cheap air travel and tour compa­nies now have enabled just about any Muslim to perform the most important religious duty of his life. An estimated 2.5 million worship­pers are expected to perform the rites in 2015.

The fifth pillar of Islam, haj is a ritual Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. To per­form the rite one must be a Muslim and an adult with a sound mind and possess the physical ability to perform the rituals. The worship­per must also have the financial re­sources to make the pilgrimage and still provide for one’s dependents at home. Successfully completing haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Is­lamic calendar, gives the worship­per a place in paradise.

Given that haj is performed in Mecca, where the weather can be inhospitable and the terrain rocky and unforgiving, the ritual can be difficult for the elderly.

Men must wear the Ihram, a plain white garment that eliminates the appearance of wealth and status and allows all worshippers, now standing in purity, to appear as equals before Allah.

The haj ritual dates to about 2000BC when Allah commanded the Prophet Abraham to leave his wife, Hajar, and son, Ishmael, in the Mecca desert. Hajar ran be­tween the hills searching for water for her son but found none. Just when she had given up hope, Ish­mael scratched the ground with his leg and a spring erupted under his foot. Afterwards Allah commanded Abraham to build the Kaaba to in­vite people to perform pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage consists of Tawaf by circumambulating the Kaaba and walking between the Safa and Marwah hills to re-enact Hajar’s search for water. The ritual is fol­lowed by standing on Mount Arafat, the most important act of haj, from morning to sunset to pray for Allah’s forgiveness. Pilgrims also climb the Mount of Mercy for prayers.

The last significant act requires pilgrims to stop at Muzdalifah to collect seven small stones to carry to Mina. Once they arrive, and over three days, they move along a wide pedestrian walkway to cast the stones at three stone pillars, which represent Satan. Here, the worship­pers praise Allah while rejecting Satan.

At the end of haj the faithful cir­cle the Kaaba seven times in fare­well and have their hair shaved to signify the end of the rituals.

Jeddah resident Irfan Moham­med, who performed his pilgrim­age in 1997 and had an opportunity to be in Mecca on business during the haj in 2014, said the Ministry of Haj has made tremendous improve­ments in increasing the comfort to worshipers.

“There are a lot less illegal pil­grims in Mecca in recent years,” Mohammed said. It makes for a more comfortable haj because there is more space and better lodging. Sanitation has improved. Eighteen years ago it was very ugly but the hygienic conditions have improved.”

He noted that safety has been the government’s top priority. Be­tween 1990 and 2006 nearly 2,500 pilgrims died in stampedes, due mostly to crowding, particularly at the stone pillars representing Satan and Jamaraat Bridge. The bridge and pillars were demolished and replaced by a multi-level bridge and large columns.

Just before the 2015 haj, on Sep­tember 11th, a crane accident re­sulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

“It was very hectic before,” Mo­hammed said. “Now the entrance points are better organised and the crowd movement is orderly.”

The holy days of the Eid al-Ad­ha follow haj and begin with the slaughter of a goat or a sheep to honour Allah. The slaughter stems from Allah’s test of Abraham to slaughter his son, Ismael, as a ges­ture of submission. God intervened in the sacrifice.

The meat from the animal is supposed to be divided into three parts: one-third for charity, a third for extended relatives, friends and neighbours and one-third for the family. It’s a period when families may fast or increase their worship­ping.

Technology has dramatically changed how pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform haj. Better or­ganisational methods have made it possible to safely accommodate millions but the rituals remain identical to the time of Abraham. On rare occasions pilgrims, such as Rai, continue to emulate Mus­lim ancestors by making the diffi­cult journey on foot as an expres­sion of honouring those who have achieved paradise.

October 15, 2012

OP-ED: Hijacking the ‘True Face’ of Islam

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

15 October 2012

“It’s a clear command of Shariah that any female that by any means plays (a) role in war against mujahideen (holy warriors) should be killed. Malala Yousufzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions of Murtad (apostate) army and government of Pakistan, and was inviting Muslims to hate mujahideen.” — Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan

Excuse me, but how does anyone justify killing a 14-year-old girl?
Malala Yousufzai, the young Pakistani middle-school girl shot in the head last week by a TTP gunman because she wanted an education, probably didn’t think of herself as a courageous activist. The world cast her in that role and it almost killed her. Now she lies in a Pakistan hospital clinging to life.
She brought attention to Taliban military operations that left hundreds of girls’ schools in charred ruins and the terror campaigns to keep girls from getting an education.
After the shooting, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf described Malala as “true face of Pakistan.”
But what is the true face of Islam? Will Muslims allow the TTP to interpret Islam in their twisted way and present it as its “true face?”
In its statement, the TTP said, “If anyone argues about her young age, then the story of Hazrat Khidr in the Qu’ran (states that) while traveling with Prophet Musa (he) killed a child. Arguing about the reason of his killing, he said that the parents of this child were pious and in the future he (the child) would cause a bad name for them.”
The TTP rationalized Malala’s attempted assassination by offering the Sunnah about Hazrat Khidr, who in Islamic history is considered a righteous servant of God possessing immense wisdom and mystical powers.
It’s an affront to Muslims for self-appointed guardians of Islam to suggest that they possess the same wisdom and righteousness as Khidr. It’s also an insult to imply that they see the future and have direct communication with God.
Muslim organizations worldwide are seeking anti-blasphemy legislation in the West to protect all religions. Yet the TTP, Al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists are immune to the consequences of blasphemous behavior even as they employ pretzel logic to justify murder.
By generalizing and taking out of context verses from the Qur’an, extremists are no better than non-Muslims committing blasphemy. I, like most Muslims, bristle at the suggestion that I must defend Islam to non-Muslims because of the acts of individuals who apparently cannot read, write, nor have the wherewithal to find a reputable sheikh who can teach them the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Yet I am left with the nagging doubt that my refusal to stand up to gangsters has put people like Malala in danger. It stands to reason that if one is insulted over denigrating depictions of Islam by non-Muslims, one should be equally offended by the distortions of the Sunnah by Muslims to excuse their crimes.
We are witnessing courageous Muslims who have no tolerance for people hijacking Islam. Muslims worldwide condemned the 9/11 attacks in the strongest language possible, albeit those condemnations were under-reported in the American and European press. And more tangible efforts to fight intolerance can be found in Saudi Arabia, which has experienced remarkable success in its rehabilitation and deradicalization program of returning extremists to true Islam. The program has only a 10 to 15 percent recidivism rate.
More recently, thousands of Libyans crowded the streets of Benghazi to protest radicals’ killing four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, at the US Embassy. Pakistanis have held demonstrations throughout Pakistan to voice support for Malala and condemn the Taliban.
A window has opened for the government of Pakistan, which appears to have growing popular support to crush militant organizations that disgrace Islam. The Pakistan Army is eager to avenge the shooting given its claim that it chased the Taliban from the Swat Valley in 2009.
Yet Malala’s attackers stopped the bus taking the girl and her 15 classmates to school in the center of the valley’s largest town of Mingora. Since the TTP appears to operate with impunity, it’s unlikely that the army has ability to wage an effective offensive, although under the chaotic circumstances in the region, the Pakistan government is doing the best it can. The true test for Pakistan is to stabilize the Swat Valley and create a deradicalization program similar to Saudi Arabia’s project. Pakistan also must put pressure on clerics to condemn violence in the name of Islam and to recognize that using religion as a weapon to gain political power through terror is in itself blasphemous.
If Muslim countries are going to demand that the West pass blasphemy laws to rein in hate speech, films and cartoons that denigrate Islam, then those countries must apply the same standard to its own people. A government official offers a $100,000 bounty to kill a filmmaker for insulting the Prophet. However, when he fails to offer the same bounty for the killers of children, the Muslim community should ask itself why it tolerates the double standard let alone offering the despicable bounty in the first place.

September 24, 2012

OP-ED: Toothess Hate Speech Laws Fail all Religions

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

24 September 2012

Three years ago, French law authorities arrested and later convicted famed fashion designer John Galliano for making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple at a Paris café.
It was a casual conversation that ended ugly, but John Galliano paid the price for his intemperance and bigotry due to France’s hate speech laws. President François Hollande also stripped Galliano of his Légion d’Honneur award following his conviction for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
Ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, yet bigoted comments from print publications, media outlets and even politicians run rampant with the sole intention of abusing Muslims. Extremist American and European writers and politicians claim they are simply exercising their right to free speech. In reality they hide behind free speech protections to voice hatred.
This week the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, on the heels of the release of that anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” published new cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that even to an atheist is insulting. Defended by Charlie Hebdo editors as satire, the cartoons badly miss the mark and border on the repulsive. This new round of cartoons only serve to heighten tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So how did it come that bigots face prosecution for directing hate speech toward Jews, but not Muslims?
France’s hate speech laws have been on the books since 1881, but the courts more often than not rule against religious organizations no matter what the affiliation.
And to be fair, Christian groups in France have lost more civil and criminal hate cases than any other religion.
The courts refused to ban “The Last Temptation of the Christ” in 1988. The courts also refused a request by Christian groups to remove a movie poster for the 1996 film “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” for its sexually suggestive imagery mixed with Christian icons. In 2005, the courts denied a request to remove a fashion clothing billboard depicting female models and a shirtless man in a scene from The Last Super.
Likewise, French courts refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Versus” in 1989. The courts acquitted Charlie Hebdo’s editor in 2006 on charges of maligning Islam by republishing the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet. The court ruled that the cartoons were directed at fundamentalists and terrorists and not the entire Muslim community.
Yet in 2008, a court convicted France’s most beloved actress, Brigitte Bardot, for inciting racial and religious hatred against Muslims. She had complained in a letter made public that Muslims are destroying the country.
The Muslim question, if you want to call it that, is relatively new, having arisen in the past 20 years with the rising number of immigrants coinciding with the mainstreaming of the right-wing lunatic fringe into European and American politics and media. These secular and religious extremist groups demand that free speech protections be exported worldwide without respect to the sensibilities of other religious organizations, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
The argument from the West is that a religion targeted for satire should be strong enough to take ridicule. More important, the attacks should not be taken personally. Since many Christian branches made a pact with governments centuries ago to separate church and state, Westerners generally view religion as private and at a distance. As Stanley Fish put it in the New York Times recently, religion in secular countries is an “add-on” to personhood, much like a political party or sports team. There is no such division in Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Faith is not a part-time endeavor. The entire person-hood is faith. This is what distinguishes Muslims and Orthodox Jews from other religions. While there are a great many Muslims who may believe in secularism or are indifferent to the haters — after all, Islam is not the monolithic religion the media portray it to be — for the vast majority in the Middle East and South Asia denigration of their religion is indeed a personal insult.
If secular groups want to drag Jesus through the mud in the name of free speech, must Muslims accept this denigration? Of course not. Such depictions of Jesus, Muhammad or Abraham are unthinkable in the Muslim community.
While French hate speech laws seem toothless, success in the courts depend on how Western societies regard their minority populations. For now, the laws treat Islam pretty much the same way it does Christianity. However, organized advocacy among disparate religious groups will help the courts rethink their approach to hate speech cases.
I am not singling out France. I am holding it up as an example of how Western nations in good faith keep hate speech laws on the books but apply the law inconsistently. They have yet to reconcile such protections with the increasing prominence of hate groups that abuse that right. The line between free speech and hate is so fine that governments can’t confidently prosecute the latter because it may come at the expense of the former. The United States is an entirely different matter, where the First Amendment is so highly regarded that it’s unlikely that lobbying to legislate hate speech will gain any traction.
Regardless of the path governments take to control hate speech, those who take offense to such things can take solace that thousands of insults have been hurled against the prophets and their religions still stand tall and sturdy as ever.

September 10, 2012

OP-ED: American Religious Education’s Shortcomings

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Al Arabiya

10 September 2012

CALIFORNIA’S governor signed legislation this week that prevents businesses from segregating from the public employees wearing obvious symbols of their religion. The new law puts restrictions on employers who want to keep Muslim women wearing the hijab and Sikhs wearing beards and turbans out of the public’s view.
The signing of Assembly Bill 1964 by Gov. Jerry Brown is a milestone in affirming the religious rights of all Californians regardless of their religious faith.
Brown told 400 Sikhs and their supporters at a rally in Sacramento that, “wearing any type of religious clothing or hairstyle … is protected by law.”
The new law comes in the wake of the Wisconsin murders of six Sikhs at their place of worship, but it was obviously intended not only to protect Sikhs but also Muslims who are facing a rising tide of religious intolerance.
It also follows a highly publicized lawsuit filed by a young Muslim woman against Walt Disney Co. The Moroccan-born Imane Boudlal alleged that co-workers taunted her as a terrorist because she wore the hijab. Boudlal’s supervisors ignored her complaints. She asserts she lost her job because she refused to remove her hijab while working with the public or to work in a position not in public view.
The law is similar to the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. The state law mandates that employers must accommodate an employee’s religious clothing, grooming and practices unless the employer suffers “significant difficulty or expense.”
The sad fact is the need for such laws in the first place. The highly partisan political climate created by the Republican Party that insists on defining American values as Christian values has served the agendas of the Islamophobes and the myriad religious and ethnic hate groups around the country.
But how did we get here? As much as I’d like to blame the far right for its increasing hostility toward non-Christian faiths, especially the witch-hunt against Muslims holding positions in government, the problem goes deeper than scoring political points to elect conservatives and marginalize Muslims and Sikhs.
Religious intolerance, while present in varying degrees throughout America’s history and particularly against Jews and Catholics before World War II, has accelerated in the past two decades largely due to the expanding social media and the fallout from 9/11.
However, the roots of religious intolerance were firmly planted in a postwar secular society that has virtually ignored its responsibility to educate its citizens about other faiths at the primary and secondary school level.
A US Supreme Court ruling in one case has led to public schools throughout the country to minimize or eliminate religious education in public schools.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in McCollum vs. Board of Education that tax-supported religious education in public schools was unconstitutional. It was an early examination of the separation of church and state issue. In a ruling four years later, the court allowed a New York school program to provide religious education as long as it did not use public funds or conduct classes on school grounds.
In the mid-1960s, the school district I belonged to when I was a child conducted religious education courses. The courses were voluntary and held off-campus once a week in the middle of the school day for about 20 minutes. An independent instructor taught the class.
But over the years the separation of church and state grew wider. The concept of religious education disappeared by the time my own children attended primary school in the 1980s.
At issue in the United States was making the distinction between teaching about religion and simply teaching religion, or as the Supreme Court put it, “teaching of religion.” The court determined that “teaching of religion” was unconstitutional, but the court encouraged “teaching about religion.” Yet parents and teachers alike blurred the distinction to the point where conducting any religious education class came under attack as forcing specific religious beliefs on children.
And in this battle over how to teach religion, children came out the big loser. Children at the primary school level can be exposed to the world’s primary religions under rigid controls and standardized curriculum developed by interfaith groups while under the supervision of local school districts. Ideally, such programs using the “teaching about religion” principle would reduce instances of intolerance and instill respect for different faiths.
It’s naïve to think that voluntary religious education courses alone will stem the flow of hate. A child’s home environment will likely have more influence than brief off-campus weekly classes. But teaching children the basics of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and the world’s other religions may give the young pause as they become adults to engage in hateful behavior. If respect for all faiths is instilled at an early age, then perhaps as adults, individuals would find membership in hate groups less appealing. It would also make laws regulating the conduct of employers’ treatment of their workers and their religious beliefs unnecessary.

July 30, 2012

OP-ED: Marginalizing Europe’s Muslims

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News/Eurasia Review

30 July 2012

Woe is the Westerner suffering through an economic crisis. And God help the Muslim who gets in his way.
In times of economic distress that leads to job losses and an uncertain future, Western Europe seeks scapegoats to vent its frustration. Enter the Muslim community.
Muslims and Islam have been the center of the cultural debate in Europe since 9/11, particularly when countries relaxed immigration requirements. The debate has intensified as Europe struggles to overcome its economic malaise. An estimated 20 million Muslims live among the European Union’s 500 million people. According to the Brookings Institution, France has the largest Muslim population at 8 percent, the Netherlands has a 6 percent Muslim population, Germany at 4 percent, and the United Kingdom’s Muslim population is estimated at 3 percent.
Right-wing political parties have gained wide acceptance among Europeans by seizing on voters’ worst fears that immigrants are responsible for stealing jobs and causing the crime rate to soar. Yet they often contradict themselves by complaining Muslims segregate themselves from society by living in crime-ridden ghettos — and perhaps forgetting few people want to live in crime-ridden ghettos — or that Muslims are forcing their culture and religion on European society. Leading the charge with such specious arguments are Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, Switzerland’s Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, and Germany’s Christian Democratic Union.
Most Muslims clearly want to assimilate into European society. The 2005 riots in predominately Muslim neighborhoods in Paris had nothing to do with religion, as right-wing extremists would have the white middle class believe, but about wanting employment and a piece of the European economic pie. Like most bigoted arguments about ethnicity and religion, there is a kernel of truth in some Muslims refusing to assimilate into society. The language barrier faced by first-generation immigrants, refusing to live in neighborhoods where alcohol and nightclubs are abundant, and the urgent desire for protection and comfort among people who share similar values all lead to self-segregation.
To native Europeans, self-segregation gives rise to Islamic extremism and jihadists. However, as Jocelyne Cesari points out in her book “When Islam and Democracy Meet,” people need to make the distinction between what is a religious conservative and what is a jihadist.
Yet the very people who demand assimilation into European society work diligently to prevent it. France and Belgium banned the burqa in all public places. France also prohibits the hijab in public institutions. Switzerland passed legislation preventing the construction of minarets on mosques. Add to the mix private businesses refusing to allow Muslim women wearing Islamic bathing suits to enter public pools and beaches, and banks routinely refusing to serve hijab-and niqab-wearing female customers.
Given the climate European Muslims live in, it’s hardly surprising they choose to isolate themselves. And it’s precisely what Europe’s right-wing political parties want. By passing Taliban-style legislation that prevents freedom of choice in the guise of freeing Muslim women from religious oppression, governments further marginalize ethnic minorities. Few people are willing to give up their cultural traditions and religious beliefs, so they will retreat into the comfort of their own community.
Muslims, like most immigrants, want to embrace all that democracy has to offer. After all, they left behind government oppression and absence of economic opportunities to pursue life in a democratic country. But when that country passes laws not that much different from what they rejected in their homeland, the desire for assimilation dwindles.
Although second- and third-generation European Muslims continue to make great strides in entering the workplace and academia, government-influenced roadblocks prevent low-income Muslim immigrants from finding employment, which is the first step toward assimilation. Poor language skills, due largely to under-funded schools in low-income neighborhoods and lack of childcare for young mothers, exacerbate isolation from society.
Rather than focusing on cultural barriers, governments should look at integrating Muslims into European society as a socioeconomic issue. At the same time, Europeans need to reinterpret what it means to be an European. If one in 10 people in France is a Muslim, does that make France solely a Christian nation? Not so much. As Cesari points out in her book, the blame for lack of assimilation can’t be placed at the feet of Muslims. Instead, Europe must “completely rephrase” the European national identity.

April 1, 2012

Saudi Consumer Debt Mounts

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

1 April 2012

When Reem Muhammad sought a personal loan to pay off some lingering debts, a Saudi bank offered 100,000 riyals ($26,667). The price tag? Repayment of the loan, plus 33,000 riyals.

“I took the loan and repaid it, but I never knew what the 33,000 was for since it wasn’t interest,”  Muhammad, 38, told The Media Line. “But it sure felt like interest.”

Muhammad is one of thousands of Saudis taking advantage of Saudi Arabia’s healthy economy and banks’ increasing willingness to offer personal loans and credit cards. Her loan also illustrates the continuing debate in the Saudi banking industry whether some aspects of the loan system contravenes shariah, or Islamic law, that guides how Muslims conduct financial transactions.

Personal loans in Saudi Arabia jumped nearly 20-fold to a staggering 219 billion riyals in 2011, up from an estimated 11 billion riyals in 1998.  Loans included 27.7 billion riyals in property loans due in part to the passage of the 2011 mortgage law. Credit card debt in 2012 is estimated about  nine billion riyals.

Asher Noor, chief financial officer for the Riyadh-based AlTouq Group, a global investment firm, told The Media Line the increase in loans reflects Saudi Arabia’s strong economy.

“I find the increase in line with the growth of the Saudi economy, an emergence of an affluent middle class and creation of more high net worth individuals now than at any time in the past,” says Noor, who emphasizes he was offering a personal opinion. “The surge in personal loans is not just due to proliferation of credit cards in the Saudi economy, although plastic money has clearly made it easy to stack up debts. Real estate loans have also been a big reason for personal loan surge.”

Until about 2000, banks were reluctant to issue personal loans to individuals, preferring to limit their lending to large companies. Consumer credit card use was also relatively rare.

However, the demand for easier access to money has increased as the Saudi middle class has grown more affluent. Banks devised methods to offer credit cards compliant with shariah. Islamic law does not permit usury, charging or paying interest and conducting business contrary to Islamic values, such as operating a casino and selling pork or alcohol.

Saudis pay a fixed monthly fee on credit cards. Banks may require customers to have a savings account with a specific amount of money on deposit. Charges for late payments may be about 3% of the outstanding balance. Another way the card issuer earns a profit is to pre-purchase an item a customer plans to buy and then instantly resell it to him at a higher price.

Noor acknowledged there is “cause for concern” over the rapid increase in consumer loan and credit card debt, but the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) has not allowed it to get out of control. “I think SAMA has not been asleep at the wheel and has kept the commercial banks in check with regulations like limiting loan to deposit ratios.”

SAMA in 2006 established regulations that total loans may not exceed 33% of the total salary of employees and 25% of the income of retirees. Nabil Al-Mubarak, executive-director of SIMAH, told the Arab News that, SIMAH’s policy labels card debtors as defaulters under two conditions: if they have not paid for six consecutive months and if the amount due is SR 500 and more.

Noor said the criteria to issue credit cards is heavily regulated in Saudi Arabia, noting that customers are rarely pre-approved and must prove their eligibility for credit cards. “There are SAMA regulations dictating the credit card and personal loan limits and the central database [Saudi Credit Bureau] SIMAH is monitoring defaults,” he said.

Noor said that given the large expatriate population, whose work and residence permits are linked, banks are very careful in credit card issuances and usually require having a bank account with them, salary transfer and employer letter before a card is issued.

“Since expatriates here are unable to leave the kingdom with credit card debts disproportionate to their earnings or end of service, the banks here have not struggled with staggering default rates as elsewhere,” Noor said.

Yet the explosion in obtaining credit cards and personal loans, and how banks charge fees, has led to consternation among some Islamic scholars whether the high fees are tantamount to paying interest.

Ahmed Alkady, a trainer at the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank, told The Media Line that he sees no difference between paying penalty fees and charging interest on credit cards.

“I don’t use or even recommend credit cards,” Alkady said, “It is a hidden type of interest as banks make you pay what they call a fine or a penalty for failing to pay them back on time. The same thing is applied in non-Islamic banks but they call it interest. I see no difference between the two unless you make sure you don’t use it for drawing cash. Or when you buy goods make sure you pay it back before the end of the time limit.”

Alkady also considers Muhammad’s 100,000-riyal loan as contrary to Islamic values with some Saudi banks skirting shariah-compliant regulations.

Islamic banks use an asset-based loan system, such as providing an automobile loan, in which the bank purchases the car, maintains ownership and then rents it to the customer. The customer makes monthly payments that add up to more than what the bank paid for the vehicle. Ownership is then transferred to the customer once all payments are made.

Alkady described Muhammad’s loan was tawreeq, or securitization, meaning the asset is made into financial tool like a share in a company. The transaction originates with an item, such as equipment or even property bought by the bank and then sold to the customer to be paid for on an installment basis. This allows the bank to raise the price of the item as a way of earning a profit while at the same time providing immediate liquidity for the borrower.

However, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s International Council of Fiqh Academy, a group of Islamic scholars, ruled in 2009 that tawreeq is “legal trickery” with roots in interest-based lending.

Alkady said the Islamic Development Bank followed with a similar ruling in April 2011. “The bank’s scholars have issued a decree in which they consider tawreeq un-Islamic simply because the bank is selling goods that it does not actually own,” he said.

Yet most Islamic banks worldwide embrace tawreeq, with many Islamic scholars in Muslim countries endorsing the practice.

Sami Al-Nwaisir, chairman of Al-Sami Holding Group, wrote in the Arab News recently that loans “favor the banks and their regulations” and “the unfair contracts by banks designed for their benefit alone, which victimize and suppress the individual through the systematic brutality of the one-sided agreement.”

Noor faults the banks for not educating borrowers. “Islamic banking is asset-based and borrowers need to understand that to better appreciate it,” he said. “Bankers, however, remain the culprit by complicating documentation and structures, and thus making it difficult for the layman to make a rational choice.”
Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

February 2, 2012

News Analysis: Islamic Feminism in the Middle East

By Rob L. Wagner

International Policy Digest

2 February 2012

As Islamist political groups continue to make gains in Middle East elections, women activists are evaluating their strategy to improve their roles to help form new governments and to strive for equality. The minefield facing Muslim women is whether to embrace a secular or Islamic feminist approach to achieve their goals and to gain a foothold in Arab politics.

Observing from the sidelines are women in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain hoping for answers to forge their own feminist path. But the 400-pound gorilla in the room that gives women pause is the Egyptian military’s organized campaign of sexual violence and the sexual harassment in the Saudi media of outspoken feminists.

Women in other Arab countries are experiencing varying levels of violence and harassment to crush their own rights campaigns.

The emerging role of women – and the physical and rhetorical violence that color that role – has highlighted the gulf between secular feminists who embrace the Western ideal of a liberal democracy and Islamic feminists seeking to shape their future within the context of religion. However, the secular approach to women’s rights is a luxury few Muslim women in the Middle East care to indulge in.

Secular feminism has never held much attraction for Muslim women forging a place in the Middle East’s patriarchal society. For one, the baggage of secular feminism is too great. It is perceived among Muslims as loosening morals and threatening family cohesion. Justified or not, it is also seen as encouraging women to abandon the hijab and modest dress. At a time when Muslim women activists need the support of men in powerful positions, a secular movement not only would fail, but also roll back progress.

The reemergence of the Egyptian Feminist Union following a 60-year ban is encouraging, but there are worrying signs from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom Party. The Brotherhood’s Azza Al-Garf, who is among only five women elected to the new 500-member Egyptian Parliament, has taken a regressive position on women’s rights. She argues that women should marry, procreate and remain separated from men. Reforming divorce laws is not her priority. The Salafists’ Al-Nour Party has given similar indications.

Treading Carefully

It is this environment where women activists tread carefully. More palatable to Muslim women is an Islamic feminist movement that seeks to marginalize cultural and tribal influence and grant women rights guaranteed in the Qur’an. Islamic feminism is not a new or novel concept. Iranian scholars Afsaneh Najmabadeh and Ziba Mir-Hosseini pioneered Islamic feminism in the early 1990s. Saudi scholar Mai Yamani popularized the concept in her 1996 book, “Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives.”

However, Islamic feminism has stalled since 9/11. It has gained little traction in the Western media that often confuses Islam with cultural and tribal oppression of women. The Arabic press conflates Islamic feminism with the secular women’s movement. In Saudi Arabia, for example, feminism is deemed a threat to society. It doesn’t help that the influential Islamic scholar and women’s rights ally Mohammad Akram Nadwi implied in his recent book, “Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars in Islam,” that secular and Islamic feminism are a single movement with a common goal to give women all that men have.

To tamp down the burgeoning movement, government-controlled Arab media and shadow military forces in some countries attempt to intimidate activists. Egypt continues to wage a brutal war against women challenging the patriarchal order.

Under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government waged a systemic campaign of sexual violence against women activists in 2005. The military then initiated so-called virginity tests for female protesters in 2011. Secular feminist Egyptian-American Mona Eltahawy says the tests are nothing more than rape with a foreign object.

Egyptian women responded by developing HarassMap, an initiative that helps women report sexual assaults and harassment through text messaging. The organization reports that more than 80% of the Egyptian women have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted since the overthrow of Mubarak.

Media Harassment

Systemic sexual violence is absent in Saudi Arabia, but organized media campaigns have targeted Saudi women challenging conservative clerics, male abuse of power and draconian guardianship laws.

A judge recently demanded the government revoke Saudi journalist Nadine Albodair’s citizenship when she complained in a television interview about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban and abuses by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Arabic language daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat responded to her interview not to address her concerns, but evaluate her body and sexual appeal.

In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists filed libel complaints with the Ministry of Interior following a report by the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” Male readers almost daily write obscene comments about high-profile Muslim women in the sensationalistic online Saudi newspapers Al-Weeam and Sabq.

Attacking the morality of women and bringing shame to their families have proven a useful tool to quiet advocacy for Saudi women’s rights. Leading women activists who were vocal last June during the women driving ban demonstration have toned down their advocacy after the Saudi government implemented tougher media and speech laws and journalists waged ad hominem attacks, including doubts about their religious faith.

Greater Weapon

Yet the greater weapon to silence critics who say that Arab feminists seek to destroy the moral fabric of the Ummah is the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations described at a recent Arab women’s rights conference in New York that Islam is the “cultural touchstone” that allows women to argue for rights that address child marriage, polygamy and education. By using the Qur’an to counter patriarchal interpretations, Islamic feminists have the ability to introduce discussions about rights without the secular revolutionary rhetoric that threatens government institutions. It has also helped that the literacy rate has improved dramatically for young Saudi women, who once relied on the men in their family to interpret the Qur’an. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen from 81.7% in 1992 to 96.5% in 2009. Coleman points out that this grassroots movement challenges conservative traditions and provides the necessary steppingstone to gain rights.

Muslim women living in conservative cultures that have marginal contact with the West recognize that the mere label of being a feminist spells trouble. Adopting secular feminist language that eschews religion and promotes a woman’s personal goals above the family is likely to leave a woman’s reputation in tatters and shaming her family, which is no small thing in Arab culture.

Although the label of Islamic feminist carries the similar dangers, Saudi women avoid the discussion of feminism and frame women’s rights as an Islamic obligation while at the same time appealing to the better nature of men.

Challenging Guardianship

Since the fall of 2011, the Saudi Ministry of Education has tightened its rules that require female university students to have a male guardian living with them while studying in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many young Saudi women send their guardians home, and live and study independently. The enforcement of the rules has stricken these women with the fear of losing their government scholarships. It forced them to beg to have their guardians return. The issue received considerable attention in the Saudi press.

Although Islam requires women to have a guardian during travel, there are no other mandates once the woman arrives at her destination. Almost to a man, male journalists endorse the Saudi interpretation of guardianship as vital to protect Saudi society. And with few exceptions, Saudi female university students see it as simply male control.

Yet the guardianship issue opens a window for Saudi women to loosen patriarchal dominance by arguing there is no religious justification for infantilizing women. By appealing to institutions to replace patriarchal interpretations of Islam with a more gender-neutral approach, women secure a foothold that leads to greater participation in society.

January 16, 2012

Saudi Women Target Guardianship Laws to Ease Employment Restrictions

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

16 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – When Shroog Talal Radain sought employment as a teacher’s assistant at King Abdulaziz University, her husband signed the necessary guardianship forms granting her permission to take the job.

It’s the law of the land. A woman must carry around a permission slip from a man to function in Saudi society.

“To me getting permission wasn’t a big deal because it felt like a piece of paper and that’s all,” Radain said in a recent interview. “But unfortunately to others it’s a big deal, especially to those who do not have a close guardianship like a father, brother, husband or son.”

As violent protests roil through the Middle East with ruling monarchies facing uncompromising demands from its citizens for a greater voice, women’s rights is emerging as Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Spring, albeit in a less demonstrative manner. Emboldened by the role women played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Saudi women are beginning to challenge the core of the kingdom’s interpretation of guardianship in Islam. A male family member supervising all aspects of a woman’s life is a belief among Saudis who view guardianship as a sacred duty.

It is also perhaps the most abused tenet of Islam. The Qur’an is clear on the issue of employment of women: Islam permits women to work with some conditions. Women can work as long as the job does not interfere with being a wife and mother. The job should also not force women to mix with men. Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. Nor does a government have the authority to demand that a woman receive such permission.

Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”

“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.

By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“It has nothing to do with Islamic concepts simply because our society is tied up where they throw every issue on Islam,” Radain said. “Guardianship in Islam [refers to] a person who protects the woman, and seeks shelter, love and protection for her. It’s not a person who is in control of her and her life actions.”

Writer Tara Umm Omar, who blogs about Islamic and women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, told me that blanket guardianship rules are not practical given the varying dynamics of Saudi families. Guardians are often too busy to help with paperwork or they use the right as a weapon. “Some of these male family members abuse the guardianship law out of spite and use it to their advantage, inconveniencing their female relatives as a result,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the global consulting company Booz & Co., nearly half of the Saudi population is female and 56.5 percent of the kingdom’s women hold university degrees. However, just 14 percent of the women are in the workforce, In contrast, women account for 25 percent of the population in Qatar with 89 percent holding university degrees. Qatari women make up 30 percent of the country’s workforce.

The study notes the Gulf region’s “mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the GCC’s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence on young women’s lives.” The study also found that only 22 percent of Gulf women believe they must devote their lives as wives and mothers before taking on a job. It marks a dramatic shift of Arab women’s attitudes from how their parents view their roles in society.

Yet Saudi women walk a tightrope between demanding their rights within the context of Islam while at the same time being perceived as challenging those very precepts as defined by the government.

US-based Muslim women’s rights activist Raquel Evita Saraswati, a frequent lecturer on religious and human rights issues, said that petitioning religious authorities might be seen as aggressive by Saudi authorities.

“But it really isn’t all that aggressive or extreme in the context of Islam itself as a religion with a rich history of debate and dissent among the faithful,” Saraswati said in an interview. “However, Saudi Arabia has implemented a specific interpretation of Islam as state law, effectively banning any other interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law).”

Mark Sedgwick, coordinator of the Arab and Islamic Studies Unit at Aarhus University in Denmark and a historian of modern Islam, said it makes sense that Saudi women want rights grounded in Islam. It does not make sense, he said, when it is incorrectly implemented.

“So many of the practical problems for women in Saudi Arabia derive from the way in which the concept of guardianship is interpreted there — ways in which it is not interpreted almost anywhere else in the Muslim world — that it makes a lot of sense to start with those interpretations,” Sedgwick said.

Saraswati said the guardian rules are simply a mechanism to control women.

“I do not argue that the Qur’an grants the sexes complete equality,” Saraswati said. “However, I find Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women in the workplace to be a conscious, calculated interpretation on the part of religious authorities, rather than absolute mandates set down by the religion.”

Saraswati said the Labor Ministry’s guardianship rules are so egregious that it renders Saudi women to the status of a child. “Islamists have burned embassies and murdered film directors over insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, while Muslim women live under rules more insulting to Prophet Muhammad than any cartoon could ever be,” she noted.

If push comes to shove, few Saudis will argue the religious validity of the kingdom’s guardianship rules. Umm Omar, however, said Saudi woman must shoulder some of the responsibility for their predicament.

“There has to be a line drawn as to how much a government and employers can interfere in peoples’ lives,” she said. “That goes for those Saudi women who think they know that what is best for them is also best for others. Sometimes I think that these types of women are their own enemies.”

Still, working women and young university students seeking employment are aware that abolishing the Labor Ministry’s requirements will only poke a stick in a hornet’s nest.

“If the Ministry of Labor had to loosen up the guardianship issue, then other ministries will have to loosen up as well, which will start a whole new dilemma,” said university teaching assistant Radain. “But for them to abolish it completely, believe me it will never happen.”

December 28, 2011

For Saudis Born Out of Wedlock, A Life Alone

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

28 December 2011

Marriage prospects are dim, which can consign a girl to adulthood in an orphanage

Ahmed is a precocious seven-year-old boy who idolizes his father and has a knack for mastering electronic games before any adult in the family. His home in the Saudi city of Madinah is filled with cousins ranging in ages from one to 16. Whenever the aunts gather at the end of the day, they often speculate about whom the kids should marry when they come of age.

Ahmed’s name never comes up. The boy was born out of wedlock and adopted by his loving family. The unspoken truth in the household is that Ahmed’s ability to find a wife is in doubt. Few Saudi families have an interest in marrying their daughters off to a man considered the “seed of the devil.”

For Ahmed, he carries the sins of his parents. And in Saudi society, so will his children.

“Someday he will wonder why his future is never discussed like his cousins,” his aunt, Umm Sultan, told The Media Line. “That’s the day he will know that he is different.”

Islam is specific about children born out of wedlock. They are not responsible for the actions of their parents. They are not sinners. They can lead prayer and Muslims must treat them with compassion and equity. However, Saudi Arabia’s tribal society not only stigmatizes orphans but also reserves a special brand of discrimination against abandoned illegitimate children. Although these infants may be born in hospitals and prisons, most end up in garbage dumpsters. Social workers often identify them as “anonymous babies” or “pickup babies.” Worse, many in Saudi society label them “seeds of the devil” and their voices “Satan’s flutes.”

It’s a stinging indictment that never goes away, according to Wafa Al-Shamari, director of Public Affairs for King Saud Hospital and the Ministry of Health in Jeddah.

“Those terms stigmatize the children and contribute to their isolation,” Al-Shamari told The Media Line. “It makes them more like aliens who don’t belong to the society when they are simply kids with special needs.”

The Saudi Ministries of Social Services and Health are reluctant to release figures of abandoned children born out of wedlock. However, the government recorded that orphanages in the kingdom had 621 abandoned children under the age of six and 1,045 between the ages of seven and 17 in 2005, the last year statistics available. In 2007, local health agencies registered 280 abandoned children, a slight uptick from 278 in 2002. In Makkah, the Umm Al-Qura Women’s Welfare Society cares for 90 illegitimate children, according to the ministry.

In April, the Social Affairs Ministry revealed that orphans with living parents accounted for 20% of all Saudi children. The ministry did not provide an exact figure, but it classified the children as “social orphans” that in addition to being born out of wedlock, include minors involved in custody disputes, come from an abusive environment, are homeless or have parents unable to provide proper care.

“Society is divided into two groups: the majority who look down on out-of-wedlock children and hold them responsible for a sin they haven’t committed, and the minority who treats them with extreme sympathy that again negatively reflect on their attitude towards the society and their feelings about themselves,” Al-Shamari said. “The children perceive themselves as sinners and ask questions about why society is treating them like this.”

Discrimination is so extreme that families are willing to adopt an orphan when the parents are known, but won’t take a child whose parents are anonymous. The result is boys remain in orphanages until they reach puberty, while girls may never leave. Only the unlikely prospect of marriage, which guarantees the woman a legal guardian, will save girls from living their entire lives in an institution.

The Saudi government compounds the discrimination by denying orphans the right to carry their adopted family’s name. Ahmed, for example, carries no tribal or family name. He has a series of first names given by the Social Affairs Ministry and two names given by his adopted parents.

When the boy receives his national identity card at the age of 15, his name will clearly identify his parentless origins. The administrators and the neighborhood mothers at his school already know his birth circumstances, with the likelihood that his fellow students will also discover it as well.

Further, according to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child, illegitimate children receive fictitious names, such as “Saudi” or “Jeddawi” (from Jeddah), which calls attention to the circumstances of their birth.

It hasn’t always been this way. Al-Shamari says tribes once eagerly gave their name to the anonymous as a means of protection.

“Tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, including the one I come from, used to give the tribal [family] name to people who were Al-Sonn’a, or manual worker, as a source of protection, to obtain loyalty and to help them blend into society,” Al-Shamari said. “Wherever they go, the name protects them. The same concept can be applied now.”

Time has obscured the reasons why attitudes among tribes have changed, although the increasing complexities and layers of bureaucracy in Saudi government institutions since the kingdom’s founding in 1932 have contributed to the woes of illegitimate children.

Yet Amani Hamden, a Saudi national and adjunct professor and sociology and anthropology researcher at the University of Ottawa, told The Media Line that the Social Affairs Ministry has done a remarkable job of giving orphans lifetime benefits.

“I believe that Saudi Arabia had done a great job to support orphans in offering them housing, medical insurance and education for a lifetime,” Hamden says.

Indeed, orphanages throughout the kingdom feature state-of-the-art educational equipment, including computers and audio-visual materials. The infrastructure is less institutional and more like a home. Buildings are modern with the clean interiors with carpeted floors, modern furnishings and all the comforts of an apartment. However, staff training is minimal at best with most employees paid low wages.

Last May in Madinah, six orphan girls between the ages of 12 and 18 received 10 lashes each following convictions for “acts of mischief” and assaulting the orphanage’s director. Muhammad Al-Awadh, a spokesman for the Social Affairs Ministry, told Reuters the ministry was powerless to intervene with a court order. The girls alleged that the director had harassed them.

Former orphanage social worker Umm Mesha’l told The Media Line she quit her job at a Western Province orphanage because employees physically abused the children.

“The employees forget that those children are not themselves and come from an abused background,” Mesha’l says. “The workers don’t come from an educational background. They have a high school education. They don’t understand how to deal with the children.”

While staff training remains a key issue to reforming institutional shortcomings, the Social Affairs Ministry has taken steps to help ease the stigma of illegitimate children. This month the ministry announced the illegitimate children born to unknown parents are full Saudi citizens.

Traditionally, the government denies citizenship to children born to non-Saudi fathers although the mother may be Saudi. Each orphan is granted a birth certificate and civil record numbers.

The ministry has yet to consider allowing orphans to take their adopted family’s name.

“We as social workers are not calling for mixing origins, like a son seeking his inheritance from his adopted father, which is against Islam, but for giving them known family names to help them blend into Saudi society,” Al-Shamari says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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