Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

June 25, 2012

OP-ED: OIC’s Anti-Blasphemy Efforts Mirror European Laws

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

25 June 2012

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has come under increasing criticism the past year for its strong advocacy of blasphemy laws. It also played a central role in successfully urging the United Nations to pass nonbinding resolutions condemning defamation of religion.
Western conservatives have taken the OIC to task, claiming the group is an agent to suppress speech freedoms. Conservatives in the United States, including anti-Muslim hate groups, have expressed particular offense to any laws that may restrict their First Amendment right to denigrate any religion they see fit to attack.
Americans are wishy-washy about the US Constitution. Save for civil liberties groups, Americans don’t seem to mind so much losing their Fourth Amendment rights to protection from illegal searches and seizures of property, as long as the government tells them such actions are in the name of security. Some federal legislators are toying with the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment that gives citizenship to any child born on US soil regardless of their parents’ immigration status. But play with the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to own firearms and the First Amendment that guarantees free speech and legislators will find themselves in hot water.
There was a time when the US media was the gatekeeper for political discourse. It seems somewhat quaint that Americans — now imbued with the power of social media — once relied on newspapers, radio and television to keep debate civil. Now, social media have led to the virtual abdication of responsibility and accountability for hate speech.
I single out Americans because many European countries and Canada have strong free speech laws, but also have hate speech legislation that demands accountability. The US has no such checks and balances in place other than slander and libel laws that place a heavy burden of proof on the offended party.
Individuals in Canada face up to five years in prison for distributing hate propaganda “that advocates or promotes genocide” or the “destruction of an identifiable group” distinguished by color, religion, race, sexual orientation or ethnic origin. In the United Kingdom, laws prohibit expressions of racial hatred or hatred against a group of persons due to color, nationality, ethnic origin or race.
Germany, France and Denmark prohibit hate speech, given Germany’s Nazi government and its occupation of France and Denmark during World War II. The memories of Nazi horrors inflicted on various ethnic groups remain fresh in the elderly population. Countries untouched by war on their soil and the hate propaganda that preceded ethnic cleansing have little appreciation for the history behind European hate speech laws.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about blasphemy laws or any restrictions of free speech, but the OIC’s campaign is not out of line with existing laws in Canada and the United Kingdom. In a recent interview with Arab News, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu expressed concern over the growing trend of Islamophobia and xenophobia.
Ihsanoglu takes issue with highly inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric designed as deliberate acts to insult and create “divisions and mistrust among diverse religions in society.”
This does not absolve the Muslim community of its own transgressions regarding hate speech, especially among marginal religious authorities that issue fatwas, or religious decrees, condemning other religions.
But Ihsanoglu is clear on the OIC’s position on fatwas. He noted that only “highly reputed scholars from prestigious institutions and who have an extensive and in-depth knowledge of Shariah” should issue fatwas. “Dubious figures” issuing “marginal fatwas” should be ignored, he said.
Ihsanoglu pointed to a fatwa issued by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, a subsidiary of the OIC, which states “freedom of expression is a right guaranteed in Islam within the framework of Shariah regulations.” The fatwa further states “not to offend others in a way that affects their life, honor, reputation or social standing; adhering to objectivity, truthfulness and honesty, committing to responsibility; to take into consideration the possible consequences; and that the freedom to express opinion does not contain attacks on religion or its rituals or sanctities.”
The OIC secretary-general added that fatwas do not apply to non-Muslims, who are not expected to comply since non-Muslim countries have their own laws, that is, except for the United States.
The obstacle to writing a hate speech law without infringing on the right of freedom of expression is how to define it since hate speech is so subjective.
Hate speech legislation should be a living, breathing document flexible enough for refinement over time. However, the law should also have specific definitions in place, such as regulating abusive and threatening language and using that language to stir hatred against a specific group of people.
The laws should distinguish this type of language from robust and lively debate. British law, for example, makes the distinction between stirring up racial hatred using “threatening, abusive or insulting language, but makes the distinction between public speech or publications and private conversation.
The polarization of the American political landscape has led to a loss of social responsibility. Radio and television pundits and hate websites use abusive and threatening language to marginalize individuals and ethnic groups. It generates media buzz but little in the way of consequences.
The OIC’s campaign to stem hate speech parallels current laws already on the books in many Western democratic countries. Perhaps it’s time US lawmakers joined in.


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.

November 5, 2011

Op-Ed: Firebombed Newspaper Charlie Hebdo a Victim of its Own Making

By Rob L. Wagner


5 November 2011

A thug is a thug. And thugs who firebomb newspaper offices deserve the harshest punishment under the law. But do I sympathize with the editors of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo when someone firebombed their offices after publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover?

No. The violence is inexcusable and the bombers must be brought to justice. But Charlie Hebdo hardly deserves victim status.

Do I believe the attack was an assault on freedom of speech?


Charlie Hebdo decided to publish an edition “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad as an attempt at satire to “celebrate” the Islamist Ennahda Party’s victory in the recent Tunisian elections.

This celebration took place in the form of demeaning cartoons of the Prophet and women in burqas, spoofs on Sharia and such fanciful lines as “100 Lashes if You Don’t Die Laughing.”

All in the spirit of good, clean fun because, you know, Muslims need to lighten up.

I have been a working journalist for more than 35 years. The First Amendment is the most vital component of what I do for a living. Without it I’m not reporting news or giving an opinion, but just someone writing advertising copy. One cannot work effectively in journalism without the legal protection of free speech. So it is not without considerable soul-searching that I reject the idea of pushing for solidarity on the issue of free speech for Charlie Hebdo’s editors who insist on mocking the religion of 1.5 billion people.

There are still enough news people out there who consider journalism a calling. We take the words we write seriously, and we carefully weigh those words that have an impact on our readers and community. And power to all those opinion writers who believe that being offensive is the best way to deliver their message.

Yet it is no excuse for publishing offensive material just because you can publish it. There’s no excuse for promoting racial, ethnic and religious hatred and say it is okay because it is just satire. Playing the free speech card is a cop out. It is nothing more than an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes and stoke the flames of bigotry. Islamophobic bloggers argue that republishing the Danish newspaper cartoons is a display of solidarity to fight for our free speech rights. They argue that since Christianity is fair game, so should Islam. Why, Islamophobes whine, should there be a two-tiered approach to mocking and ridiculing religion if one religion gets a free pass and the other doesn’t?

The mainstream media have managed to steer clear of mocking Jews, but many publications revel in portraying the Prophet as a dirty, hook nosed Arab or having a bomb in his turban. The ugly stereotypes of Jews in Nazi propaganda are still fresh in our minds. Today, publishing such hateful images is unacceptable under any circumstances. However, Charlie Hebdo and its supporters believe it is just fine to demean Muslims in the same manner.

Charlie Hebdo chose to publish its Prophet Muhammad edition because it could and because its editors knew that it would anger and hurt the Muslim community. In a seriously twisted effort to encourage Muslims to assimilate in French society, the government banned the hijab in public institutions and the burqa everywhere outside the home. These laws have done nothing but to marginalize a segment of French society. Charlie Hebdo’s editors are well aware of a disaffected Muslim community, but decided to further marginalize them by publishing images of Muslim stereotypes. The newspaper has a history of this kind of behavior when it faced criminal charges in 2008 for “publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion” after Muslim groups had complained. A French appeals court acquitted the publication of the charges.

The editors knew of the consequences of publishing the Prophet Muhammad edition. There are plenty of nasty people willing to do harm over the smallest slight. But when bad things happened, the newspaper’s editors, in a cynical ploy to gain attention and in a bid to become free speech martyrs, cried that it was an assault on free speech. It was really an assault of their own making. Now they are milking their suffering to create an image that they are champions of a free press.

Enacting censorship laws certainly would certainly stifle press freedoms and I have grave concerns over the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s efforts to pass anti-blasphemy legislation. But Charlie Hebdo’s editors and their ilk abuse the privilege of being journalists. Their behavior only strengthens the OIC’s argument that anti-blasphemy laws are necessary to keep bigotry out of the news media.

The newspaper’s staff can boo-hoo all they want – ultimately it they who are the bigots, manipulating their victimhood to gain undeserved support of the journalistic fraternity.

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