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Banking on Sharia

Sharia banking is growing fast and the mainstream banks are starting to offer Islamic accounts. Its

Sharia-compliant, or Islamic, finance is committed to promoting goals any proud progressive would recognise: equity, moderation, social justice. It is a system that revolves around prudent lending, the reduction of risk, the sharing of profits and an absolute ban on speculation and the short-selling of stocks. Debt is actively discouraged and so dealings with any organisation that has a balance sheet more than a third of which is debt (which is to say, all banks!) are forbidden, as are investments in enterprises deemed unethical by Islamic scholars, such as casinos or weapons factories.

Perhaps the rarest feature, however, is the prohibition of interest - or making money out of money. As it is not permissible for banks to charge interest on their loans, sharia-compliant deals are usually structured so that the bank ends up leasing the property to the homeowner, who essentially ends up paying rent until ownership is transferred. Critics charge that the rent seems suspiciously similar to interest payments. They also point out that it ends up costing homeowners more to set up and pay off Islamic mortgages than conventional products, like with all other niche products and, in particular, ethical investments: the so-called "piety premium".

Islamic financiers disagree, stressing the joint-ownership and profit-sharing aspects of the sharia model. "The relationship between us and the customer is based on sharing risk and sharing the rewards from the financing and investments we make on their behalf," says Sultan Choudhury, commercial director at the Islamic Bank of Britain, this country's only stand-alone, sharia-compliant retail bank. "The returns are based on the amount of profit realised from each transaction."

Let me declare an interest here (in case you had not already noticed the name on the byline): I am a Muslim myself, a practising, believing Muslim. Yet, to my shame perhaps, I own not a single sharia-compliant financial product or asset. Until the recent implosion of the banking system, I had paid very little attention to the Islamic finance industry, assuming it was simply a niche activity at best, or a gimmick at worst. As a result, my own current account, pension, mortgage, loans and credit cards are all as traditional, conventional and mainstream as the next (non-Muslim) man.

Islamic finance marries the freedom of the market economy to the fairness of social democracy

Yet the reality is that Islamic finance is growing faster than any other subset of world banking, at an average annual rate of between 15 and 20 per cent. The IMF says the number and reach of sharia-compliant financial institutions worldwide has risen from one institution in one country in 1975 to more than 300 institutions operating in more than 75 countries today. Over the past year alone, sharia-compliant assets across the globe have grown by almost a third to more than $639bn, according to the latest analysis of the industry from the Banker magazine. If the current trends continue, Islamic finance will have broken through the $1trn mark by 2010.

Here in Britain, the Financial Services Authority has licensed five stand-alone Islamic banks - including the Islamic Bank of Britain, which has been reporting a significant increase in the number of non-Muslim customers applying for accounts since the start of the financial crisis. Bank officials say the numbers are growing because Islamic finance offers a "safer option" for savers and investors, regardless of faith. According to the Islamic Bank of Britain's marketing director, Steven Amos: "Our core business will always be Muslims, but the numbers of non-Muslims are really picking up. We've had increased interest and it's one of the number of reasons why we're insulated from the credit crunch."

To get an Islamic bank account you don’t have to go to the Islamic Bank of Britain only. So far, 20 major global banks have set up units to provide sharia-compliant financial services. HSBC began offering Islamic products and services to its customers in 2003; Lloyds TSB followed in 2005. The mainstream has gone Muslim.

Emile Abu-Shakra, spokesman for Lloyds TSB, explains. "We started offering Islamic financial products about three years ago and when we started out we were just in five branches around the country," he says. "Now we are in two thousand branches."

The bank has now expanded its range of products to include a current account, a mortgage, a student account, an investment fund and a business and corporate account. Its Islamic finance products are designed with Muslims in mind, but anyone can use them if they fulfil their needs.

Does Lloyds TSB believe further growth and diversification in the field are still possible? "The principles of Islamic finance could be applied to a number of different products, so there are possibilities for Islamic versions of credit cards, loans, saving accounts and asset finance as well," says Abu-Shakra. "It's just a matter of time."

The remarkable feature of Islamic financial institutions, products and assets is that, although they may have not produced fantastically high returns in any one year, they have produced consistent returns over the past decade - and continue to do so even now, in the wake of the credit crunch. This year, global markets are down by more than a third off their peak but the Dow Jones Islamic Financials Index, in comparison, has lost 7 per cent over the same period and actually rose 4.75 per cent in the most recent September quarter.

Such statistics make me truly wonder whether Islamic banking, with its antipathy towards excessive risk, debt and interest, and with its emphasis on linking deposits and investments to real, underlying assets, could have saved us from the credit crunch.

"Had the Islamic financing principle of fairness and the concept of investing in partnership been slightly more prevalent in conventional banking of late, events may have turned out a little differently," says Dan Taylor, head of banking at the accountancy giant BDO Stoy Hayward. "The Islamic principle of requiring securities to be backed by assets means that the use of, say, collateralised debt oblig a tions, or CDOs, would not have been allowed by sharia-compliant institutions."

Professor Rodney Wilson, who teaches Islamic finance at Durham University, agrees. He mentions that not a single sharia-compliant financial institution has failed since the start of the current crisis. Why? "Islamic banks follow a classical model of funding from their own deposits rather than borrowing from wholesale markets."

Excessive leverage is therefore not an option for a sharia-compliant bank - as opposed to conventional banks, which in this country by 2008 were lending out roughly £700bn more than they took in deposits, betting that the good times would go on for ever and tomorrow would never come.

Well, it did: the conventional banking sector is now on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, Islamic institutions here in Britain continue to make money. The European Islamic Investment Bank, a UK AIM-listed sharia-compliant investment bank, reported revenues up 14 per cent in June 2008 interims. On the retail side, the Islamic Bank of Britain reported 5.5 per cent growth in customer numbers and 7.2 per cent growth in customer deposits in the six months to June.

So, it is no wonder that the British government - despite distancing itself from the Archbishop of Canterbury's ten tative support for sharia law courts - has been proactively encouraging the proliferation of sharia-compliant financial institutions for several years now. When he was chancellor, Gordon Brown repeatedly urged the City of London to become the "gateway to Islamic finance".

Just late last month, the government announced the launch of the first sharia-compliant pension funds, and officials are now even considering using special interest-free, asset-backed Islamic bonds, or sukuks, to help fund the building of the athletes' village for the London 2012 Olympics.

 

In America early last month, the US treasury

department hosted a course for policymakers called “Islamic Finance 101”. This followed a visit to Saudi Arabia by the treasury deputy secretary Robert Kimmitt, during which he confirmed that sharia-compliant finance is now firmly on his country’s agenda. “The US government is studying the salient features of Islamic banking to ascertain how far it could be useful in fighting the ongoing world economic crisis,” he said.

The Islamic finance industry is entering a brave and surprisingly welcoming new world - but obstacles remain. Determining exactly what is or isn't sharia-compliant, for example, can be difficult. Banks such as HSBC and Lloyds TSB have their own sharia advisory boards, made up of senior Islamic scholars, but one board's interpretation of compliance with the sharia is not necessarily the same as another's. Standardisation of rules and regulations across the sector is vital, but could take some time.

It could also be a while before we even have enough scholars to carry out the standardising - right now, according to one survey, there are only about 260 Islamic scholars worldwide who have the requisite knowledge, business savvy and linguistic skills.

However, others, like Professor Wilson, are more sanguine. "The shortage of qualified and experienced scholars should not be a problem in the longer run, as there are aspiring British Muslim scholars studying for higher degrees who have a good knowledge of both Islamic law and modern finance."

So Islamic banking is here to stay. It is a practical, viable and resilient alternative. To borrow a phrase from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spread of sharia finance, if not sharia law, now "seems unavoidable".

I have even convinced myself: I now intend to invest in a sharia-friendly sukuk and to try to switch my interest-only conventional mortgage to an interest-free Islamic version. In this era of financial crises and economic chaos, it may be time for all of us - Muslims and non-Muslims, investors and savers alike - to join the halal banking revolution.

It may be our only hope.

Mehdi Hasan is news and current affairs editor at Channel 4

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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