What Went Wrong? Funny You Should Ask – Imam Zaid Shakir

[Imam Zaid Shakir discusses the interplay between wealth and communal well-being in the Muslim world and in the West]

The refrain from an old popular song goes as follows, “What the world needs now is love sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…” According to Nicholas Kristof, in his recent New York Times editorial, Is Islam The Problem?, the Muslim world doesn’t need more love. It needs more banks, corporations and massive concentrations of wealth.

Referencing Dr. Timur Kumar’s study of Muslim economic stagnation, Kristof concludes that it is not Islam as such that is responsible for the economic stagnation of the Muslim world, rather certain stultifying Muslim business laws that have stifled the creation of the gargantuan financial institutions that are responsible for the economic prowess of the West.

It is interesting that Kristof would deliver this particular broadside at Islam at time when the Western nations are reeling from the debilitating influences of an ill-conceived financial system that is spiraling wildly out of control. Banks and the related financial “services” industry have orchestrated the greatest upward shift of wealth in human history. Ordinary citizens have had their pension accounts raided, their savings looted (remember the S&L scandal of the 1980s), and the equity sucked out of their homes by a set of business practices that would have led to the mass incarceration of the perpetrators in a just society.

Entire countries like Iceland have been rendered financially insolvent, while thieves in suits and ties walk out of national treasuries with billions of dollars in tax-payers money. Perhaps Kristof has not taken time to watch the Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job, a brilliant expose on the current fiscal crisis. If he had, I think he might realize that this is not the ideal historical moment to be pontificating about the virtue of the banking industry, monopolies and corporations.

Speaking of corporations, Kristof argues that in the Muslim world they did not assume the colossal size they have reached in the West owing to the nature of the laws governing business partnerships in Islam. What he fails to mention is that that the huge dimensions of western corporations have allowed them to orchestrate a de facto take over of our political system, to plunder the world’s resources and despoil the natural environment.

In terms of environmental degradation, consider another documentary, Gasland, which was nominated for an Oscar. It shows just how nefarious the resource extraction corporations can be. Led by that exemplar of the virtue of western corporate ethics, Haliburton, those industries are in the process of destroying aquifers all over this country through the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This film documents the influence of corporations, not only on our environment, but also on the political system as their lobbyists buy off politicians and manipulate the media to serve their sole interest -profits. Is this what the Muslim world needs more of if it is to prosper and create the just and equitable societies protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere are dreaming of? I would think not.

Kristof concludes with his hope that the current uprisings in the Middle East can address the issue of “what went wrong” in the Muslim world by creating the conditions for a new beginning. In light of the destructive impact of the banking industry, corporations and the huge concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever-shrinking few here in the West, the question of “what went wrong” is indeed appropriate. However, it is being hurled in the wrong direction.

We need to be asking what went wrong in the West, generally, and here in America, specifically. How is it that billionaires are not proportionately taxed and poor people end up having services they have paid for such as social security threatened, while those same billionaires are paid interest on the money they have “loaned” the government with tax dollars taken from the poor? How is it that private, corporate military contractors with a vested economic interest in the perpetuation of war are being paid billions of dollars to do things the military used to do for free, or at a fraction of the cost? How is it that a nation with 5% of the world’s population has half all its incarcerated individuals and corporate prisons are paying millions of dollars to judges to sentence teenagers to jail?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what has gone wrong in this country, and role of the banks and corporations in those developments. Yet the best Kristof can do is to point a patronizing finger at the Muslims and tell them their countries need more of what is destroying ours. As the Qur’an rhetorically asks, “What is wrong with you? How is it that you judge?”

Kristof is right about one thing in his article. Namely, that a new day is indeed dawning in the Muslim world and that new day gives the Muslims a chance to do things differently. However, that new day also gives America a chance to do things differently in the Muslim world. She can open a new era in her relations with the Muslim world, an era based on mutual cooperation, mutual respect and a collective effort to work towards the betterment of world for all of its inhabitants. She can also choose to continue to walk clumsily and to carry a big stick. Kristof seems to prefer the latter choice as the big stick approach has always been one that has sought to bludgeon the natives into submission in order to clear the way for the banks, corporations and filthy concentrations of wealth that Kristof seems so enthralled by. Kristof’s time in Cairo should alert him to a very sobering reality. The big stick approach does not command the fear it once did.

To return to the song, “What the world needs now is love sweet love, no not just for some but for everyone…”

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"Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a similar reward"-- The Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him)