Qaradawi on Economics and Politics

I have been derelict in posting, I realize, with more than two months passing since my last post. My wife and I had our first child about 40 days ago, and it's been busy, hence the delay.  Should be better henceforth, though perhaps not like the childless days of yore, when I could post several times in a day if I wanted.

In any event, last night I was flipping through the Arabic channels and happened upon Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi on Al Jazeera and thought I'd give it a listen.  I do this often enough, and as usual he was his maddeningly vague self, pretending to take strong positions while making it nearly impossible to understand the categories he had managed to create while doing so. Normally I tend to ignore this, as it is hardly worth writing on.  But I've been away, and last night was a little more interesting than most if not exactly newsworthy, and so I thought the matter was ripe for a few observations.

First, I really wish our reporters in the Arab and Muslim world would stop treating jurists and clerics with kid gloves, acting so deferential around them in a manner that they would not before a head of state, for example.  I do not mean engaging in a debate on first principles--if you are watching Yusuf Qaradawi you aren't doing so to hear him respond to someone who claims there is no God or that Muhammad was not the Apostle, any more than you watch the President to hear a defense of constitutional government--but when he takes a position, the reporter point out previous inconsistencies, ask why it is that some jurists seem to disagree, suggest it is entirely unworkable, something other than just moving to the next question.  I get that just about everyone seems to have a satellite tv station these days and so I get that when Kurdsat interviews Jalal Talabani, or Furat interviews Ammar Al Hakim, they are going to be more political ad than they are interview, but this is Al Jazeera, not some wing of some political party. It is the largest and most popular satellite station in the Arab world, and they have decent journalists.  Ask some questions.  An example from last night expounded:

 Interviewer: Honorable Sheikh [that sounds deferential, but really it's more of an honorific, like "Mr. President"], it is said that the definition of a modern state is one that holds a monopoly on violence, and our ulema have said over the ages that fitna and civil war are sinful and worse than decades of oppression.  What is your opinion then of armed opposition in Muslim states like Syria.

I am paraphrasing, but that was more or less the question, and actually I like it.  Never thought I'd see Ibn Taymiyya and Max Weber used in the same question but it's nice, it works here.

Qaradawi:  The state holds a monopoly on violence why? So that it can pursue criminals, and bandits!  So that it can make people safe!  But if it uses that violence to oppress the people, to prevent them from speaking out, so that they are afraid to say anything, because someone from the security services might be watching, if it uses violence to kill innocent people, then of course armed resistance becomes necessary because Islam demands justice and fairness, and the establishment of the scales of justice.

Then we move on, though I could think of about a dozen follow ups to this one. Here are a few:

Doesn't every armed resistance group suggest that it is fighting a regime that uses violence to oppress its people?  So how do we distinguish the just state fighting bandits and terrorists and seeking to provide security from the one oppressing its people?  What are the standards?  In which of the following countries is armed resistance permissible and why? Iraq Iran Egypt Qatar Morocco Jordan.  Are you disclaiming Ibn Taymiyya's theory that sixty years of unjust rule is better than a day of fitna?  Hasn't there been quite a bit of fitna in Syria now?  Didn't you just quote him in the context of Bahrain not long ago?

Alas, but we're stuck with these ill defined abstractions that pass for ideas until someone decides to push these guys, and these guys feel the need to get out into particular fora and get pushed.

Second,  I found it interesting that though the interviewer had no questions really on economics, Qaradawi kept returning to it as a theme.  Hence, for example, on a question about politics and Islamist movements, he delved into how the goal of "American capitalism" is about trying to corner the entire market for onesself to make millions and billions, while in Islam, it is about sharing, and cooperation to build and network and establish products and services that serve people.  On a question about different types of Islamism that exist, the diatribe ended up being somehow something about how in the US agriculture conglomerates "toss their seeds and their wheat" into the sea to prevent them from being sold at a cheap price, and Islam rejects this, it does not allow one to make money in this manner that robs the poor of their ability to buy bread.

To be clear, it's not interesting because it shows particularly much about economics, obviously it is simplistic nonsense hardly worth dissecting at length.  Most business owners I think would tell you that their efforts to increase market share are precisely about servicing the consumer, as there is no other way to do it.  That might not be true in many instances, and in many cases the whole market could fail entirely, though then the distinction between "Islam" and "capitalism" would need to be far more refined than whatever it is Qaradawi is saying it is. 

Nor is it interesting because it shows profound ignorance about economics.  It does, but there are Islamic economists who are more sophisticated than this many times over. Qaradawi's failure to understand economics cannot be fairly attributed to every single person who thinks in terms of Islamic economics in modernity.

Rather, it is interesting because it reveals a worldview, a stubborn and persistent one that has existed since Qutb and Sadr and Maududi began propounding it half a century ago--that Islam in its economic and social arrangements is more equitable, fairer, more cooperative and more attuned to the demands of social justice than, to borrow Qaradawi's words again, "American capitalism."  I'll only point out that so long as this remains the worldview, and is propounded by senior clerics even when not asked about it, on Arab wide satellite television, Islamic finance will continue to disappoint, as its methodology is hardly based on any of that, but instead on mimicking the methods of "American capitalism" while avoiding only its forms.

Third, it is surprising to me how much of mainstream Islamism continues to depend, as not a few forms of Marxism did before it, on the idea that when the proper society is established and put in place, all will be well because human beings will magically change from the selfish, wealth-maximizing, deceptive folks they are now to alms-giving, cooperative, sharing and honest people they will be under "true Islam."  Requring this presumption is usually a bad sign about the viability of a given set of ideas, because people don't change all that much all that quickly. 

So I don't really know what Qaradawi is talking about when he mentions selfish American capitalists dumping wheat in the ocean rather than giving it to the poor, as it makes no sense to me why a person who cares about profit and not a thing else would go through the time and expense of producing wheat, and then dumping it into the ocean.  They could have just grown tobacco, or hops, or leased the land to a local brothel (remember, I'm assuming amoral folks out for the best buck) instead of grown wheat to throw away.  I suppose if there was a farm subsidy for growing wheat, it's very possible, but that's not a problem of laissez faire capitalism, that's a demonstration of why the government shouldn't be intervening in markets.  

But I'll attempt to make sense out of all that he says and assume that the seeds he talks of being thrown into the ocean are patented, and that some bad evil corporation acting as only an "American capitalist" would, sells the seeds it can and destroys the rest even though it could just give them to poor Egyptian farmers.  This parallels the issue that arises with patented antivirals for HIV that arose a few years back and one can certainly see why poor Egyptian farmers would be upset.  And it has arisen I believe, though I'm not sure the seeds are actually destroyed, much less thrown into the ocean, but now I'm being a bit churlish I suppose.

Anyway, there is a problem, though it isn't really solved by just making the corporation give the seeds away at low prices.  They are going to argue that they spent a fortune developing these seeds and they do need to recoup their profits somehow.  Ignoring their patent is bad for future seed innovation.  You could still just grab their seeds and pass them out to the poor. You could grab the wheat that was to be thrown into the ocean and sell it.  Heck you could make them sell it at lower prices and start lashing them if they don't, as was done in the Mamluk era.  Or you could just raid their piggy bank, take all their money and pass it out to the poor and liquidate the bread selling/seed selling/wheat producing industries.  All of these forms of forced wealth transfer might make you feel good.  None solve your actual problem. Generally they make it worse.

But there are poor Egyptian farmers who could really use the seeds and those of us who care for the poor aren't willing to wash our hands of it, any more than we should be willing to ignore those desperately in need of HIV antivirals.  So give a few away?  Set up a program where some UN body gives some number away, exclusively to poor countries, exclusively to people who couldn't otherwise afford it?  I don't know the solution, let me say it's vastly improved with AIDS drugs, so there are paths. We can talk about it and give attention to it, we can call the corporation to task for not cooperating more, we can call international bodies to task for not caring more, there's much to criticize here and much to demand. 

What I don't think we can do is simply say that in Islam it would be better because in Islam everyone would know it is a sin to leave land fallow, or not to give away extra wheat when you have it, or to hold on to patented seeds, and so people would conduct themselves differently.  That seems to assume a certain selflessness on the part of people working in corporations in the true Islamic society, a concern for an Egyptian peasant that is as great as their concern for the Ivy League education of their own children.  I don't know any people like that. In the liberal law school professoriate among folks genuinely interested in the poor and more than willing to jump on any bandwagon that castigates Wall Street greed, I still don't know people who in their conduct put the needs of the poor above the need to cover their kids' college education tuition.  And I tend to think good economic policy tends to assume people will stay that way, and finds solution that don't depend on their changing fundamentally in order to create a better world.

There were other examples of this continuing problem in the talk--when the interviewer asked whether or not some of the Islamist candidates were justified in perhaps truth stretching in their ads because it was so commonly done that unless they did it, they'd surely lose, Qaradawi tells us this is only a problem in the West, with its lack of concern for truth, but true Islamic societies would consider adherence to truth as core virtrue and fail to depart from it.  This is naive.  Muslim brothers jailed for decades at their first real opportunity to taste power are going to find a way to justify an ad that takes maybe just a little bit of license if that's what they need to do to get power. And once you take that step, others come soon enough.  That's not to say one cannot regulate campaign ads, it is to say that the regulation cannot come on the basis of the assumption that declaring lying to be sinful is going to do very much to achieve it.

Anyway, that's enough for one Qaradawi interview.  Good to be back,



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  • 2/26/2013 12:20 PM Blake wrote:
    What, I would add to your questions, would Qaradawi believe if the American capitalists, instead of throwing the seeds into the ocean, planted them instead, harvested the wheat, and sold it at or below cost into the Egyptian marketplace, thus depressing the market price of wheat for the Egyptian farmers, thus depriving them of their livelihood? This is not a purely academic question either, as there are quite a lot of results that come up in a Google search for 'WTO wheat anti-dumping'.
    Reply to this
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