September 28, 2008

I Hate To Say I Told You So...

Metaphorically speaking, of course. One of the things I love about Islam is that it's a very practical religion. Non-Muslims may not like the various rules within the religion, but I have found, by and large, that Allah (swt) put them there for very good reasons. For example, "don't drink alcohol." How many benefits would there be to the individual, to society, if people didn't drink? How many lives would be saved, for example, if there were no drunk drivers? I used to read "Dear Abby." How many letter writers' lives would be changed for the better if they lived an Islamic lifestyle? "Dear Abby" would probably go out of business.

Likewise, the world is now in the midst of an economic crisis the likes of which no one has seen since my parents were toddlers. How much better would the economy be if it followed Islamic business principles? The following passage comes from one of the economics blogs I read, Angry Bear:

It was about an interview by Bill Moyers of John Bogle. He noted:

JOHN BOGLE: Well, it's gotten misshapen because the financial side of the economy is dominating the productive side of the economy...We've become a financial economy which has overwhelmed the productive economy to the detriment of investors and the detriment ultimately of our society.

I want to come back to the difference between the financial system and the productive system. The productive system adds to the value of our economy. And, by and large, the financial system subtracts. And, yet, it's growing and growing and growing. And this short term thing where short term orientation in which trading pieces of paper is regarded as a social value. It is not a social value.

Go listen to it. Then listen to Mr. Moyers latest interview with Kevin Philips.

But what's here that doesn't get the attention is the United States in the last 20 years undertook an enormous transformation of itself with no attention paid. And what it means is and what makes all this so frightening is the country is at risk because of the size of the financial sector that has never been graded on its competence and behavior in any serious way. They are the economy at this point. And we are now seeing what happens when a 20 to 21 percent of GDP financial sector starts to come unglued.

You had essentially a financial sector that, let's say, was sort of neck and neck with manufacturing back in the late 1980s. But they got control in a lot of ways in the agenda. Finance has been bailed out. I mean, everybody thinks this is horrible now what we're seeing in terms of bailouts. Even a lot of the people who do it think it's bad.

This has been going on since the beginning of the 1980s. Finance has been preferred as the sector that got government support. Manufacturing slides, nobody helps. Finance has a problem, Federal Reserve to the rescue. Treasury to the rescue. Subsidies this, that, and other.

I am certain we have to do something to help the money flow such that it does not take down the entire system. It would be cutting off our noses to spite our faces not to protect ourselves from what a few have done. We have to be adults, suck it up and clean up the alcohol aroma vomit all over our bathroom.

But, we do not have to let it happen again. There is only one solution to this and no one, not anyone is pointing it out: Put the financial sector of the economy back in alignment with the productive sector. What got us in this mess is our (well not all of us) belief that the financial sector can stand on it's own as a primary wealth/money creator. It can not. Never could. But, believing it put the impetus to the creation of “vehicles” for creating trades. You know all those securitized whatevers, and alphabet monikers, and insurance for insurance for insurance based on alphabet monikers of securitized whatevers. What did people expect would happen when you turn the part of your system that is dependent on activity in an other part for it's existence into a stand alone money creator. If you are going to keep generating money from money, then you are going to have to keep coming up with new “product.” New designs, new marketing to create an need and want, new packaging, BRANDING.

Again, Mr. Philip put's it this way:

But we've seen the central component of the rise of the financial sector is the rise of the debt industry. Mortgage, credit cards, all these gimmicks that Wall Street sells-- just all kinds of products. And, of course, the products are laying an egg all over the world right now.

Get it? We take an industry subservient to the needs of production and turn it into a competitor of production. I can polish and sell rocks without a bank to borrow from. I can accumulate wealth over time. My business may grow slowly and so may my wealth, but I can do it. But, remove all non-financial activities and what does financial do to survive? What does it do to survive with no one needing a loan, backing, no desire to produce in a way that increases our productivity such that we have more time to purse happiness (that constitution purpose)? We treat finance as if it is the chicken/egg question. It is not. Finance came second and is dependent.

This particular author, "Divorced one like Bush," isn't a Muslim as far as I know, but he actually advocates a principle of Islamic finance: Making money from money is not Islamically acceptable.

Money is only a medium of exchange, a way of defining the value of a thing; it has no value in itself, and therefore should not be allowed to give rise to more money, via fixed interest payments, simply by being put in a bank or lent to someone else. The human effort, initiative, and risk involved in a productive venture are more important than the money used to finance it. Muslim jurists consider money as potential capital rather than capital, meaning that money becomes capital only when it is invested in business. Accordingly, money advanced to a business as a loan is regarded as a debt of the business and not capital and, as such, it is not entitled to any return (i.e. interest). Muslims are encouraged to purchase and are discouraged from keeping money idle so that, for instance, hoarding money is regarded as being unacceptable. In Islam, money represents purchasing power which is considered to be the only proper use of money. This purchasing power (money) cannot be used to make more purchasing power (money) without undergoing the intermediate step of it being used for the purchase of goods and services.

Principles Of Islamic Banking

In Islam, we use money for productive purposes that are for the benefit of the community as a whole. Money is not to be used to make more money directly, such as through interest. We use money to make more money indirectly, by investing money into productive assets, such as businesses, that will (insha'allah) make profits. It's a slower process, but it's a much more stable and safer system than the highly leveraged economy that's now melting down.

Update: For some similar posts, read Islamic Finance Shows Banks the Way Forward and Islamic Banking Restrains Bankruptcy.

September 27, 2008

Your Urgent Help Needed

Classic; this would be funny if it weren't true. From Angry Bear:

Dear American:

I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.
I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.
I am working with Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of the Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transactin is 100% safe.
This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.
Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.
Yours Faithfully Minister of Treasury Paulson

September 23, 2008

Naomi Wolf: Veiled Sexuality

Naomi Wolf gets it. It's a shame most Westerners don't. Read the full article here.

But are we in the West radically misinterpreting Muslim sexual mores, particularly the meaning to many Muslim women of being veiled or wearing the chador? And are we blind to our own markers of the oppression and control of women?

The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I traveled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channeling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.

Outside the walls of the typical Muslim households that I visited in Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, all was demureness and propriety. But inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction, and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.

At home, in the context of marital intimacy, Victoria’s Secret, elegant fashion, and skin care lotions abounded. The bridal videos that I was shown, with the sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for her bridegroom, suggested that sensuality was not alien to Muslim women. Rather, pleasure and sexuality, both male and female, should not be displayed promiscuously – and possibly destructively – for all to see.

Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualizing Western gaze. Many women said something like this: “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to – and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.” This may not be expressed in a traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognizably Western feminist set of feelings.


Nor are Muslim women alone. The Western Christian tradition portrays all sexuality, even married sexuality, as sinful. Islam and Judaism never had that same kind of mind-body split. So, in both cultures, sexuality channeled into marriage and family life is seen as a source of great blessing, sanctioned by God.

This may explain why both Muslim and orthodox Jewish women not only describe a sense of being liberated by their modest clothing and covered hair, but also express much higher levels of sensual joy in their married lives than is common in the West. When sexuality is kept private and directed in ways seen as sacred – and when one’s husband isn’t seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long – one can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador comes off in the sanctity of the home.


I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognize that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top – in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue – it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

HT: Rozas

The Elitist John McCain

HT: FrostFireZoo

HT: WTF Is It Now?!?

Ayat 30:1-6 and the Wars Between Byzantium and Persia (I)

Alif Lam Mim

The Roman Empire has been defeated-

In a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious-

Within a few years. With God is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice-

With the help of God. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful.

(It is) the promise of God. Never does God depart from His promise: but most men understand not.
-- The Romans (30): 1-6

For many of us Muslims, the first six verses of the surah called The Romans are familiar, but we probably don't know much about the wars between Byzantium and the Persians that described the Byzantine defeat in the mid- to late-610s and the prophecy regarding the Byzantine victory over the Sasanian Empire in 627. This post, the eighth in my series about Hugh Kennedy's book, The Great Arab Conquests, looks at three passages that describe what happened between these two empires.

This first passage, taken from pages 68-70, gives a basic overview of the conflict between Persia and Byzantine Rome, and briefly discusses the problems Byzantium had after the warfare had ended.

Relations between the Byzantine and Sasanian Persian empires were largely peaceful during the fifth and early sixth centuries. Both powers respected each other's borders and their zones of influence in the Syrian desert to the south and the mountains of Armenia to the north. In the mid sixth century, however, large-scale and very damaging warfare erupted between the two great powers. The Sasanian monarchs invaded Byzantine territory on a number of occasions. In 540 they sacked the great capital of the east at Antioch and in 573 they conquered the important provincial capital at Apamea. On both occasions they returned with a large amount of booty and transported large numbers of the population to new cities in the Persian Empire.

If relations had deteriorated in the sixth century, they became much worse in the seventh. In the year 602, the emperor Maurice and his entire family were assassinated by mutinous soldiers. Some years before, the emperor had given refuge to the young and energetic Sasanian monarch Chosroes II when he had been temporarily driven from his throne. Chosroes now used the death of his benefactor as an excuse for launching a devastating attack on the Byzantine Empire. His armies won a series of spectacular victories. In 611 Persian armies invaded Syria, Jerusalem fell to them in 614 and in 615 the Persians reached the shores of the Bosporus opposite Constantinople itself. In 619 they took Alexandria and all of Egypt was in their hands.

The Byzantine recovery was the achievement of the emperor Heraclius (610-41). He had been governor of Byzantine North Africa but in 610 sailed to Constantinople with his provincial army to seize the throne from the brutal usurper Phocas. His reign had been dominated by the struggle with the Persians. After many years, when Persian armies had seemed unstoppable, Heraclius had turned the tables dramatically when he launched an attack behind the enemy lines in 624. In a move of great daring and brilliant strategic vision, he had led an army from the Black Sea coast of Turkey, through western Iran and northern Iraq, sacking the famous fire temple at Shiz and the palace of Chosroes at Dastgard. With the death of his arch-rival Chosroes II in 628 and the subsequent divisions among the Persians as they struggled to find a new ruler, Heraclius was able to make a peace that re-established the old frontier between the two empires along the Khābūr river. In 629 he negotiated the withdrawal of Persian soldiers from Syria and Egypt and set about restoring Byzantine rule in the newly recovered provinces. On 21 March 630 he enjoyed his greatest moment of triumph when he returned the relics of the True Cross, taken by the Persians, to Jerusalem.

Although the Persians had been decisively defeated, the conquest of Syria and Palestine had a very damaging effect on Byzantine power in the Levant. Apart from the bloodshed caused by the warfare, it seems that many of the Greek-speaking elite emigrated to the security of North Africa or Rome. The fighting had been very destructive, especially in the towns, but perhaps more important was the loss of the tradition of imperial rule and administration. For most of the period of Muhammad's mission, Syria and Palestine were ruled by the Persians, not the Byzantines, and it was not until 630, a couple of years before the Prophet's death, that Byzantine control was re-established. Nonetheless, this control must have been very patchy, and there were probably many areas where Byzantine government hardly existed. Most younger-generation Syrians would have had no experience or memory of imperial rule, and no cause to be loyal to Constantinople. Even as Byzantine government was being slowly re-established, the religious differences that had divided Syria in the sixth century came to the fore again. The emperor Heraclius was determined to enforce religious conformity on a Christian population that in large measure rejected his doctrinal position.

Byzantine control over Syria had been established for more than half a millennium. If Islam had been born fifty years earlier, and the early Muslims had attempted to raid Syria and Palestine in the 580s not the 630s, there can be little doubt that they would have been seen off very quickly, as the provinces were firmly controlled by the government and the defenses well organized. The coincidence that the first Muslim armies appeared in the area immediately after the traumatic events of the great war between Byzantium and Iran was the essential prerequisite for the success of Muslim arms.

To be continued, insha'allah...

Photo Credit: Cardo Maximus, a street in the ruins of Apamea (Syria), sacked in 573 CE by Chosroes I, from Wikipedia/Bo-Deh

September 21, 2008

The More Things Change... Sarah Palin and Petroleum Export Bans

The McCain/Palin strategy on economic talking points appears to be one of turning molehills into mountains: focusing on rather small issues and blowing them up dramatically in the hope that most people will take the Republicans' word for it. However, as Economist's View pointed out the other day, issues like the amount of budgetary earmarks may sound like a lot of money, but they constitute less than one percent of the federal budget. Likewise, the idea that we can start offshore drilling for oil now and that it will help us in any way today is completely bogus. Americans are being sold a bill of goods by the Republicans, but many people don't care. P.T. Barnum knew the American attitude all too well. The more things change...

Now there's a new issue where Sarah Palin shows her "expertise," that of petroleum export bans:

Of course, it's a fungible commodity and they don't flag, you know, the molecules, where it's going and where it's not. But in the sense of the Congress today, they know that there are very, very hungry domestic markets that need that oil first. So, I believe that what Congress is going to do, also, is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it's Americans who get stuck holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here. It's got to flow into our domestic markets first.

Oh, dear! We Americans are exporting our own oil to other countries when we need it first. Surprisingly enough, that's true. Considering the ferocious appetite Americans have for petroleum, one would think that all domestically-produced petroleum would never be exported outside of the country, but it does. OK, so how much is exported?

If you look at the EIA's Energy Flow chart [pdf] above, you'll see that, in 2007, the US produced 10.80 quadrillion BTUs (QBTU) of its own crude oil, imported 28.70 QBTUs of petroleum and exported 2.93 QBTUs of petroleum. So, 2.93/39.50 = 7.4%. That's how much oil is being exported out of the country. Seven percent.

Let's get into the nitty-gritty even further. The seven percent above includes both crude oil and other petroleum products. However, if you look at the US imports and exports of crude oil and other petroleum products, you'll see that only 26,000 barrels per day were exported (as of this writing) compared with the 12,498,000 barrels per day that were both produced domestically and imported into the U.S. That's a grand total of 0.2% of the daily supply.

In principle, I don't have a problem with the U.S. setting up an export ban on domestically-produced petroleum, although there may be some very good reasons why that oil is being exported to begin with that are not being addressed by the Republicans. But what I do want to point out, yet again, is that this is a very small issue. Crude oil exports make up a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the total amount of crude oil that America uses on a daily basis. But Republicans would rather focus on the inconsequential than deal with the more serious economic matters at hand.

September 19, 2008

Image of a Possible Exoplanet

Photo credit: Gemini Observatory

There's a very interesting image of a possible exoplanet around a sun-like star in the constellation Scorpius. This is noteworthy because no other exoplanet has ever been observed directly near such a bright star. Usually the starlight is so brilliant - and the planet(s) so close to the star - that the planet cannot be observed directly. Instead, exoplanets are normally detected either by the gravitational pull they exert on their star or they orbit very dim brown dwarf stars that don't hide the reflected light from the planet in their own brilliance.

Whether or not the planet in the photo is indeed gravitationally tied to the star in the photo can't be determined for another two years. This is due to the fact that the exoplanet is so far away from its star: 330 AU (astronomical units; the distance from the earth to the sun is 1 AU). This is
really distant! To compare it against the known dwarf planets orbiting our sun, the only one with a larger orbit is Sedna, which has an average distance from our sun of 486 AU.

Three University of Toronto scientists used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i to take images of the young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 (which lies about 500 light-years from Earth) and a candidate companion of that star. They also obtained spectra to confirm the nature of the companion, which has a mass about eight times that of Jupiter, and lies roughly 330 times the Earth-Sun distance away from its star. (For comparison, the most distant planet in our solar system, Neptune, orbits the Sun at only about 30 times the Earth-Sun distance.) The parent star is similar in mass to the Sun, but is much younger.

“This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our Sun,” said David Lafrenière, lead author of a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters and also posted online. “If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward.”

Until now, the only planet-like bodies that have been directly imaged outside of the solar system are either free-floating in space (i.e. not found around a star), or orbit brown dwarfs, which are dim and make it easier to detect planetary-mass companions.

The existence of a planetary-mass companion so far from its parent star comes as a surprise, and poses a challenge to theoretical models of star and planet formation. "This discovery is yet another reminder of the truly remarkable diversity of worlds out there, and it's a strong hint that nature may have more than one mechanism for producing planetary mass companions to normal stars,” said Ray Jayawardhana, team member and author of a forthcoming book on extrasolar planets entitled Worlds Beyond.

The team’s Gemini observations took advantage of adaptive optics technology to dramatically reduce distortions caused by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The near-infrared images and spectra of the suspected planetary object indicate that it is too cool to be a star or even a more massive brown dwarf, and that it is young. Taken together, such findings confirm that it is a very young, very low-mass object at roughly the same distance from Earth as the star.

Even though the likelihood of a chance alignment between such an object and a similarly young star is rather small, it will take up to two years to verify that the star and its likely planet are moving through space together. “Of course it would be premature to say that the object is definitely orbiting this star, but the evidence is extremely compelling. This will be a very intensely studied object for the next few years!” said Lafrenière.


Team member Marten van Kerkwijk described the group’s search method. “We targeted young stars so that any planetary mass object they hosted would not have had time to cool, and thus would still be relatively bright,” he said. “This is one reason we were able to see it at all.”

The Jupiter-sized body has an estimated temperature of about 1800 Kelvin (about 1500ºC), much hotter than our own Jupiter, which has a temperature of about 160 Kelvin (-110ºC), and its likely host is a young star of type K7 with an estimated mass of about 85% that of the Sun.

HT: Astronomy Picture of the Day

September 16, 2008

A'ishah's BFF

Milady and I haven't taken many pictures of A'ishah in recent weeks; between Ramadan and A'ishah's erratic sleep schedule, neither of us have had much time for picture-taking. However, I did take a photo of A'ishah's new BFF, a Toys "R" Us flower. We bought this last weekend and wrapped its "stem" onto the crib. When A'ishah is placed near it, it's like a beam of light turns on inside her. Yes, she does smile every now and then at Mommy and Daddy, but A'ishah smiles almost non-stop when she looks at the flower. It's really amazing. Milady says that A'ishah also tries to "talk" to the flower. At the other end of the crib we've placed a stuffed kangarabbit (the thing's supposed to be a rabbit, but it's got the face of a kangaroo). When she's near the kangarabbit, A'ishah will brush her hand against the legs and also try to "talk" to it as well.

September 15, 2008

The Fall of the American Republic

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.
-- Anonymous

I was unaware of this quotation until a few days ago when I read it in the back of a magazine. I find it of interest, even though the provenance of the quotation is very much in doubt (see below). The second half of the first paragraph, where the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, strikes me as the cornerstone of Republican fiscal policy, originating with the "voodoo economics" of Reagan's supply-side economics through McCain's "Bush-Plus" budget plan. One wonders when a Republican will "go the distance" and make the suggestion to eliminate taxes altogether.

Personally, I think that American culture currently falls somewhere between "from complacency to apathy" and "from apathy to dependence."

Note: The above quotation is old, but apparently not as old as it is often attributed. Most people have attributed it to Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (1747-1813), a Scottish attorney and writer, although it has been attributed to several other men as well. Research suggests that the quotation is relatively modern; it first began to be published back in the '50s; however, no one has been able to determine who the real author(s) is/are. (As a result, I've attributed the quotation to "Anonymous.")

For several interesting discussions on the quotation, see:
  • The Fall of the Athenian Republic
  • The Mythical Alexander Tyler and His Theory of Democracy
  • The Truth About Tytler
  • September 14, 2008

    Economist's View: John McCain's "Big" Economic Plans

    Classic. You're a damn fool if you believe anything John McCain says about the economy. From Economist's View:

    Here's John McCain's big plan for the budget: make a whole lot of noise about eliminating of the piece of the budget pie representing earmarks (and remember that most earmarks simply mandate where monies will be spent, they don't create any new spending):

    [Note: The OMB estimates earmarks to be 16.9 billion in 2008. Current federal expenditures for 2008 are not yet available, so the chart uses the 2007 value of 2880.5 billion from the BEA (the ratio is approximately one half percent, i.e. 0.59%). Since federal expenditures for 2008 will exceed those of 2007, this means that the area for earmarks shown in the diagram is overestimated, i.e. it is larger than the true value. The NY Times also notes that "earmarks ... make up less than 1% of the federal budget."].

    All the recent controversy over McCain lying about Palin's earmark requests, as he did most recently on The View, is noteworthy for what is says about McCain's (lack of) character, but more generally it is misdirecting us from more important issues. Earmarks are only a minor part of the overall budget, and issues such as health care reform are much more important since rising health care costs will absolutely dwarf any savings from earmarks.

    Here's the centerpiece of McCain's economic plan: drill for oil, then pretend like it will help at the pump:


    I can't even see the sliver of yellow until after 2015, and even after that it's not much of a contribution. That's supposed to lower gas prices?

    With such a solid foundation for the policy proposals - a couple of slivers of pie - I can't imagine why the McCain campaign would resort to lies, deceptions, misdirection, and misleading characterizations to sell these "big" plans.

    Update: I've expanded further on this thought with my post, The More Things Change... Sarah Palin and Petroleum Export Bans.

    September 8, 2008

    The Moral Content of Economic Terminology

    Some of these are amusing in a subtle sort of way. I'll explain below.
    The moral content of economic terminology in the popular press: A guide

    Foreign direct investment (inbound): Good
    Current account deficit: Bad
    Trade deficit: Catastrophic
    Capital account deficit: Not used. Presumably bad.

    Weak national currency: Bad
    Exports: Good
    Imports: Bad

    Rising house prices: Good
    Falling house prices: Bad
    Affordable houses: Good
    Unaffordable houses: Bad

    Free trade: Neutral
    Unfettered free trade: Bad
    Fair trade: Good
    Outsourcing: Evil
    Buying local produce: Divine

    Pay rises: Good
    Low interest rates: Good
    Inflation: Bad

    Communism: Very Bad
    Socialism: Bad
    Capitalism: Bad

    Three sets of these terms and their "moral content" strike me as humorous if you understand the ramifications of economics. (When I've taught Econ I've stressed to my students that one change in the system often leads to other changes, frequently in a specific pattern.)
  • Weak national currencies are "bad," but they help to increase exports, which are "good," and reduce imports, which are "bad." That, in turn, helps to reduce a country's current account deficit ("bad") and trade deficit ("catastrophic"). So are weak national currencies necessarily "bad?"
  • Rising house prices are "good," but in the long run they create unaffordable houses, which is "bad." Likewise, falling house prices are "bad," but create affordable houses in the long run, which is "good." So, which is more important, rising house prices or affordable houses?
  • Last, pay rises are "good" (I certainly wouldn't complain), but they also lead to inflation (of the price/wage spiral variety), which is "bad." Likewise, low interest rates are "good" (they help to stimulate the economy by increasing the amount of loans businesses ask for), but that increases the money supply, which causes inflation. So, are pay rises and low interest rates both "good?"

    Originally posted at Bluematter; HT: Economist's View
  • September 7, 2008

    Foreign Policy: Thomas Friedman’s Plan for a Hot, Flat, and Crowded World

    One other article I found of interest today, a short interview by Foreign Policy magazine with Tom Friedman, the NY Times columnist and author. Tom is coming out with a new book, and I thought three sections of the interview were worth bringing some more exposure: on American oil "independence" and offshore drilling, on Tom's vision of a "green revolution," and a brief discussion about the possibility of China going green before the U.S. The entire article can be read here.

    BTW, that "drill, drill, drill" quotation is a classic: When I hear McCain pounding the table for “drill, drill, drill,” it reminds me of someone pounding the table for IBM Selectric typewriters on the eve of the IT revolution.

    Foreign Policy: In his speech to the Democratic National Convention last Thursday, U.S. Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama promised, “In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.” Is that even feasible? Does anyone you talk to believe that’s doable?

    Thomas Friedman: Well, if you just talked about oil imports from the Middle East, I think it is feasible. I don’t know exactly how he would want to get there, but I think that it is a feasible goal if you’re just talking about the percentage of our oil that comes from the Middle East.

    FP: And what about drilling? Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, and President George W. Bush are implying that lifting environmental restrictions on drilling is the way to promote energy independence.

    TF: Well, I think it’s patent nonsense. No one believes that somehow offshore, there’s enough oil in any near term and even the long term to provide us oil independence. It’s the wrong approach because in a world that’s hot, flat, and crowded, fossil fuels—and particularly crude oil—are going to be expensive and exhausting. Therefore the focus should be on the next great global industry: clean energy technology. When I hear McCain pounding the table for “drill, drill, drill,” it reminds me of someone pounding the table for IBM Selectric typewriters on the eve of the IT revolution.

    I’m not against offshore drilling, by the way, because I believe the technology and the safety has improved far beyond where it was back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, even. What I’m against is making it the centerpiece of our energy policy. If all McCain said was, “Let’s drill, but let’s also throw everything into innovating the next generation of clean-energy technologies,” I’d say, “You’ve got it exactly right, pal.”

    FP: Your new book is called Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America. What do you mean by a “green revolution” and how do we get there from here?

    TF: The green revolution is about how we produce abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons, which are the answer to the big problems we face in the world today. I would point to five problems, and they’re all related: Energy and resource supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, biodiversity loss, and energy poverty. They all have one solution: abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons. The search for and the discovery of a source of those electrons is going to be the next great global industry. And I think the country that mounts a revolution to be the leader of that industry is going to be a country whose standard of living is going to improve, whose respect in the world is going to improve, whose air is going to improve, whose innovation is going to improve, and whose national security is going to improve. That’s what this book is about.
    Click Here!

    I want a green-energy bubble. I want so many people throwing crazy dollars at every idea, in every garage, that we have 100,000 people trying 100,000 things, five of which might work, and two might be the next green Google. But I don’t want a Manhattan Project of 12 people in Los Alamos. I want it to be like the IT revolution: everyone becoming a programmer. Only in this case, it’s everyone becoming a green innovator. What IT was to the 80s and 90s, ET, energy technology, will be to the early 21st century.

    FP: What conditions don’t exist right now that could create this bubble?

    TF: Three things. One is a price on carbon, a fixed, durable price signal that says, “Carbon is always going to be this price.” Let’s just use a simple example: We put a floor under the price of crude oil that says, “Oil simply will not fall below $110 a barrel. If it does, we’ll tax it up.”

    Second, we need to change the bargain we have with our electric and natural gas power utilities. Your dad was right when he came into your room and you’d left the lights on and he said, “What, do you own stock in the utility company?” He was right, because the more you left your lights on, the more money the utility made. And we need to change that bargain—this is already going on in California—so that utilities are paid by how much energy they help you save, not by how much energy they help you consume.

    And third, we need a national renewable portfolio standard that says to every utility, “By 2025, you need to produce 30 percent of your electricity by renewable power: wind, solar, biomass, hydro, you name it.”


    FP: You went to China for the Olympic Games, and I know you’ve been there many times in the past. Do you think China is serious about going green? Is China going to have a green revolution before the United States does?

    TF: Every time I go to China, as I say in the book, it always strikes me that people speak with greater ease and breathe with greater difficulty. As the country grows, it gets more integrated with the world, standards of living rise, and people are able to move more and have more personal freedom. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but clearly it’s a more open place.

    So, they speak with greater ease but they breathe with greater difficulty. And that’s a real tension. Right now, if you said, “Tom, snapshot today: Where’s China at? OK, choice: More growth or less pollution?” They’re going to go for more growth. Look what happened after the Olympics. They cleaned up Beijing for two weeks by shutting down factories and limiting driving. But as soon as the Olympics were over, they went back to the old system.

    But you’re also getting a transition. You’re getting the birth of wind power and solar companies in China, so they’re seeing the market potential. And you’re seeing the rise of an environmental consciousness. The inertia and the momentum of the old, pure GDP system is much stronger than the green GDP system, but there is now a competition between the two.

    China is hiding behind the United States, saying, “If the Americans aren’t going to do it, why should we?” When we move they will move, because we define modernity for them. They’ve copied us: our highways, our cars—the whole thing. And when we change, they will change.

    The Economist: Faith-Based Finance

    This is the second of two articles in this week's (September 4th) Economist about Islamic finance. This article is much shorter, and also easier to digest (even for most Muslims ;) ) than the main article, being more of an introduction to the topic of Islamic financing.

    The modern history of Islamic finance is often dated to the 1970s, with the launch of Islamic banks in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But its roots stretch back 14 centuries. Islamic finance rests on the application of Islamic law, or sharia, whose primary sources are the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Sharia emphasizes justice and partnership. In the world of finance that translates into a ban on speculation (or gharar) and on the charging of interest (riba). The idea of a lender levying a straight interest charge, regardless of how the underlying assets fare in an uncertain world, offends against these principles—though some Muslims dispute this, arguing that the literature in sharia covering business practices is small and that terms such as “usury” and “speculation” are open to interpretation.

    Companies that operate in immoral industries, such as gambling or pornography, are also out of bounds, as are companies that have too much borrowing (typically defined as having debt totaling more than 33% of the firm’s stock market value). Such criteria mean that sharia-compliant investors steer clear of highly leveraged conventional banks, a wise choice in recent months.

    Despite these prohibitions, Islamic financiers are confident that they can create their own versions of the important bits of conventional finance. The judgment of what is and is not allowed under sharia is made by boards of scholars, many of whom act as a kind of spiritual rating agency, working closely with lawyers and bankers to create instruments and structure transactions that meet the needs of the market without offending the requirements of their faith.

    Non-Muslims may find the distinctions between conventional finance and Islamic finance a trifle contrived. An options contract to buy a security at a set price at a date three months hence is frowned upon as speculation. A contract to buy the same security at the same price, with 5% of the payment taken upfront and the balance taken in three months upon delivery, is sharia-compliant. Then again, winning over non-Muslims is not really the point.

    There is no ultimate authority for sharia compliance. Some worry that this may hold the industry back. Malaysia has tackled this by creating a national sharia board. Some industry bodies, notably the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) in Bahrain, are working towards common standards. That a few scholars dominate the boards of the big international institutions also helps create consistency. But differences between national jurisdictions — between pious Saudi Arabia and more liberal Malaysia, say, are likely to remain.

    Both of these countries feature in the top three markets for Islamic finance, measured by the quantity of sharia-compliant assets (see table). Top is Iran, although international sanctions keep its industry isolated. The Gulf states, awash with liquidity and with a roster of huge infrastructure projects to finance, are the most dynamic markets. Britain is the most developed Western center, although France, with a much larger Muslim population, wants to close the gap.

    The Economist: Savings and Souls

    The Economist has come out with two articles this week (September 4th) on Islamic finance. Below is the main article, Savings and Souls; I've posted the second article, Faith-Based Finance, separately.

    The basic premise of this article is to give a primer about the state of Islamic finance in the world today, focusing on various problems and challenges facing the industry.

    To see Islamic finance in action, visit the mutating coastline of the Gulf. Diggers claw sand out of the sea off Manama, Bahrain’s capital, for a series of waterfront developments that are part-funded by Islamic instruments. To the east, Nakheel, a developer that issued the world’s largest Islamic bond (or sukuk) in 2006, is using the money to reorganize the shoreline of Dubai into a mosaic of man-made islands.

    Finance is undertaking some Islamic construction of its own. Islamic banks are opening their doors across the Gulf and a new platform for sharia-compliant hedge funds has attracted names such as BlackRock. Western law firms and banks, always quick to sniff out new business, are beefing up their Islamic-finance teams.

    Governments are taking notice too. In July Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, said it would issue the nation’s first sukuk. The British government, which covets a position as the West’s leading center for Islamic finance, is also edging towards issuing a short-term sovereign sukuk. France has begun its own charm offensive aimed at Islamic investors.

    Set against ailing Western markets such vigor looks impressive. The oil-fueled liquidity that has pumped up Middle Eastern sovereign-wealth funds is also buoying demand for Islamic finance. Compared with the ethics of some American subprime lending, Islamic finance seems virtuous as well as vigorous. It frowns on speculation and applauds risk-sharing, even if some wonder whether the industry is really doing anything more than mimicking conventional finance and, more profoundly, if it is strictly necessary under Islam (see article).

    Sukuks in the souk

    As the buzz around the industry grows, so do expectations. The amount of Islamic assets under management stands at around $700 billion, according to the Islamic Financial Services Board, an industry body. Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, thinks that the industry could control $4 trillion of assets. Others go further, pointing out that Muslims account for 20% of the world’s population, but Islamic finance for less than 1% of its financial instruments—that gap, they say, represents a big opportunity. With tongue partly in cheek, some say that Islamic finance should by rights displace conventional finance altogether. Western finance cannot service capital that wants to find a sharia-compliant home; but Islamic finance can satisfy everyone.

    Confidence is one thing, hyperbole another. The industry remains minute on many measures: its total assets roughly match those of Lloyds TSB, Britain’s fifth-largest bank (though some firms that meet sharia-compliant criteria may attract Islamic investors without realizing it). The assets managed by Islamic rules are growing at 10-15% annually—not to be sniffed at, but underwhelming for an industry that attracts so much attention. Most of all, the industry’s expansion is tempered by its need to address the tensions between its two purposes: to serve God and to make as much money as it can.

    That is a stiff test. A few devout Muslims, many of them in Saudi Arabia, will pay what Paul Homsy of Crescent Asset Management calls a “piety premium” to satisfy sharia. But research into the investment preferences of Muslims shows that most of them want products that benefit their savings, as well as their souls—rather as ethical investors in the West want funds that do no harm, but are also at least as profitable as other investments.

    A combination of ingenuity and persistence has enabled Islamic finance to conquer some of the main obstacles. Take transaction costs which tend to be higher in complex Islamic instruments than in more straightforward conventional ones. Sharia-compliant mortgages are typically structured so that the lender itself buys the property and then leases it out to the borrower at a price that combines a rental charge and a capital payment. At the end of the mortgage term, when the price of the property has been fully repaid, the house is transferred to the borrower. That additional complexity does not just add to the direct costs of the transaction, but can also fall foul of legal hurdles. Since the property changes hands twice in the transaction, an Islamic mortgage is theoretically liable to double stamp duty. Britain ironed out this kink in 2003 but it remains one of the few countries to have done so.

    However, just as in conventional finance, as more transactions take place the economies of scale mean that the cost of each one rapidly falls. Financiers can recycle documentation rather than drawing it up from scratch. The contracts they now use for sharia-compliant mortgages in America draw on templates originally drafted at great cost for aircraft leases.

    Islamic financiers can also streamline their processes. When Barclays Capital and Shariah Capital, a consultancy, developed the new hedge-fund platform, they had to screen the funds’ portfolios to make sure that the shares they pick are sharia-compliant. That sounds as if it should be an additional cost, but prime brokers already screen hedge funds to make sure that risk concentrations do not build up. The checks they make for their Islamic hedge funds can piggyback on the checks they make for their conventional hedge funds.

    Mohammed Amin of PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consulting firm, says the extra transaction costs for a commonly used Islamic financing instrument, called commodity murabaha, total about $50 for every $1m of business. That is small enough to be recouped through efficiencies in other areas, or to be absorbed in lenders’ profit margins. In addition, bankers privately admit that less competition helps keep margins higher than in conventional finance. “Conceptually, Islamic finance should cost more, as it involves more transactions,” says Mr Amin. “The actual cost is tiny and can be lost in the wash.”

    The other area of substantive development has been in redefining sharia-compliance. New products require scholars to cast sharia in fresh, and occasionally uncomfortable, directions. Some investors express surprise at the very idea of Islamic hedge funds, for example, because of prohibitions in sharia on selling something that an investor does not actually own.

    “You encounter a wall of skepticism whenever you do something new,” says Eric Meyer of Shariah Capital. “It is no different in Islamic finance.” He says that it took eight long years to bring his idea of an Islamic hedge-fund platform to fruition, applying a technique called arboon to ensure that investors, in effect, take an equity position in shares before they sell them short. Industry insiders describe an iterative process, in which scholars, lawyers and bankers work together to understand new instruments and adapt them to the requirements of sharia.

    Differences in interpretation of sharia between countries can still hinder the economies of scale. Moreover, the scholars can sometimes push back. Earlier this year, the chairman of the Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI), an industry body, excited controversy by criticizing a common form of sukuk issuance that guarantees the price at which the issuer will buy back the asset underpinning the transaction, thereby enabling investors’ capital to be repaid. Such behavior contravened an AAOIFI standard demanding that assets be bought back at market prices, in line with the sharia principle of risk-sharing. The sukuk market has enjoyed years of rapid growth (see chart), but early signs are that the AAOIFI judgment has dented demand.

    Although Islamic finance has done well to reduce its costs and broaden its product range, it has yet to clear plenty of other hurdles. Scholars are the industry’s central figures, but recognized ones are in short supply. A small cadre of 15-20 scholars repeatedly crops up on the boards of Islamic banks that do international business. That partly reflects the role, which demands a knowledge of Islamic law and Western finance, as well as fluency in Arabic and English. It also reflects the comfort that this handful of recognized names brings to investors and customers.

    There are plenty of initiatives to nurture more scholars but for the moment, the stars are pressed for time. That can be a problem when banks are chasing their verdict on bespoke transactions. It takes a scholar about a day to wade through the documentation connected with a sukuk issue, for example. But scholars are not always immediately available. “You’ve got to have the scholar’s number programmed into your mobile phone and be able to get hold of them,” says a banker in the Gulf. “That is real competitive advantage.”

    Assets are another bottleneck. The ban on speculation means that Islamic transactions must be based on tangible assets, such as commodities, buildings or land. Observers say that exotic derivatives in intangibles such as weather or terrorism risk could not have an Islamic equivalent. But in the Middle East, at least, the supply of assets is limited. “Lots of companies in the Gulf are young and don’t have assets such as buildings to use in transactions,” says Geert Bossuyt of Deutsche Bank. This limits the scope for securitization, a modern financing technique that is backed by assets and is thus seen by sharia scholars as authentically Islamic. There are not enough properties to bundle into securities.

    Governments have more assets to play with. The Indonesians have approved the use of up to $2 billion of property owned by the finance ministry in their planned sukuk issuance later this year. But oil-rich governments in the Gulf have little need to issue debt when they are flush with cash. That is a problem. Sovereign debt would establish benchmarks off which other issues can be priced. It would also add to the depth of the market, which would help solve another difficulty: liquidity.

    It may seem odd to worry about liquidity when lots of Muslim countries are flush with cash, but many in Islamic finance put liquidity at the top of their watchlist. The chief concern is the mismatch between the duration of banks’ liabilities and their assets. The banks struggle to raise long-term debt. In a youthful industry, their credit histories are often limited; they also lack the sort of inventory of assets that corporate sukuk issuers have.

    Desert liquidity

    As a result, Islamic banks depend on short-term deposit funding, which, as Western banks know all too well, can disappear very rapidly. “Lots of assets are generally of longer term than most deposits,” says Khairul Nizam of AAOIFI. “Banks have to manage this funding gap carefully.” If there were a liquidity freeze like the one that struck Western banks a year ago, insiders say that the damage among Islamic banks would be greater.

    There are initiatives to develop a sharia-compliant repo market but for the time being the banks have only limited scope for getting hold of money fast. Loans and investments roll over slowly. The lack of sharia-compliant assets and a tendency for Islamic investors to buy and hold their investments have stunted the secondary market. The shortest-term money-management instruments available today are inflexible. Cash reserves are high, but inefficient. Western banks with Islamic finance units, or “windows”, are just as troubled by tight liquidity as purely Islamic institutions are: their sharia-compliant status requires them to hold assets and raise funds separately from their parent banks.

    There are other sources of danger, too. Because Islamic banks face constraints on the availability and type of instruments they can invest in, their balance-sheets may concentrate risk more than those of conventional banks do. The industry’s ability to steer its way through stormy waters is largely untested, although Malaysian banks do have memories of the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s to draw on.

    None of these tensions need derail the growth of Islamic finance just yet. There is plenty of demand, whether from oil-rich investors, the faithful Muslim minorities in Western countries or the emerging middle classes in Muslim ones. There is lots of supply, in the form of infrastructure projects that need to be financed, Western borrowers looking for capital and ambitious rulers eager to set up their own Islamic-finance hubs. The industry is innovative; new products keep expanding the range of sharia-compliant instruments. And as in conventional finance, the economics of the Islamic kind improve as it gains scale.

    But further growth itself contains a threat. The AAOIFI ruling on sukuk earlier this year neatly captured the contradictory pressures on the industry. On the one hand, bankers are worried that the narrow enforcement of sharia standards is liable to stifle growth; on the other some observers fear that Islamic finance is becoming so keen to drum up business that its products, with all their ingenuity, are designed to evade strict sharia standards. This presents a dilemma. If the industry introduces too many new products, cynics will argue that sharia is being twisted for economic ends—the scholars are being paid for their services, after all. But if it fails to innovate, the industry may look too medieval to play a full part in modern finance.

    Balancing these imperatives will become even harder as competition grows fiercer. Anouar Hassoune of Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, believes that unscrupulous newcomers could harm the reputation of the entire industry, “like the space shuttle undone by something the size of a 50 cent coin”. Islamic finance serves two masters: faith and economics. The success of the industry depends on satisfying both, even if the price of that is a bit more inefficiency and a bit less growth.

    September 6, 2008

    What Do You Talk About?

    What do you talk about when you have nothing to say? What do you talk about when you cannot explain the last eight years of failure?

    In the meantime, Failin' Palin's selection brought in a record $10 million dollars to the Obama campaign in one day.

    HT: WTF Is It Now?!?

    September 5, 2008

    Bedtime Music: The Who - Who are You

    Milady is a rabid fan of the three CSI TV series, yet she's not really familiar with any of The Who's music. So it's sort of natural that I should look for a video from one of the three theme songs; in this case, Who are You, which is used for the Las Vegas CSI series. What's surprising about this song is that, despite its strong popularity, it only peaked at a mere #14 when it was released back in 1978. Strange.

    September 4, 2008

    Bedtime Music: Van Halen - Why Can't This Be Love

    Well, we'll try to resume our series as best we can, insha'allah. :)

    I really like Van Halen, both during the David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar eras, but trying to find a music video or concert footage that's "halal" from the DLR era is really difficult. So, we'll take this clip of the single
    Why Can't This Be Love, from the 1986 release 5150. This concert was filmed in Toronto for the 1995 Balance tour.

    "It's over."

    Mike Murphy: You know, because I come out of the blue swing state governor world: Engler, Whitman, Tommy Thompson, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush. I mean, these guys -- this is how you win a Texas race, just run it up. And it's not gonna work. And --

    Peggy Noonan: It's over.

    Mike Murphy: Still McCain can give a version of the Lieberman speech to do himself some good.

    Chuck Todd: I also think the Palin pick is insulting to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, too.

    Peggy Noonan: Saw Kay this morning.

    CT: Yeah, she's never looked comfortable about this --

    MM: They're all bummed out.

    CT: Yeah, I mean is she really the most qualified woman they could have turned to?

    Peggy Noonan: The most qualified? No! I think they went for this -- excuse me-- political bullshit about narratives --

    CT: Yeah they went to a narrative.

    MM: I totally agree.

    Peggy Noonan: Every time the Republicans do that, because that's not where they live and it's not what they're good at, they blow it.

    MM: You know what' sreally the worst thing about it? The greatness of McCain is no cynicism, and this is cynical.

    CT: This is cynical, and as you called it, gimmicky.

    MM: Yeah.

    For more, see Juan Cole, Think Progress, and Crooks & Liars.

    September 3, 2008

    CNN: Dangerous Ground

    CNN Int'l showed an excerpt of a longer documentary last night, entitled Dangerous Ground, about the tense relations between Australia's Muslim community vs. the non-Muslim population. Much of the excerpt focused on the feeling of alienation Muslims felt, especially the youth, when faced with the Islamophobic behavior of many Australians.

    Sure, we have racists. If you call it racist, not accepting a community that also happens to... they, they've got terrorists amongst them. OK? We can't say they haven't. They have! If we let 'em in here, they want to be here because they can go on hiding in their country-little farmhouses.

    The documentary highlighted a number of recent incidents, such as the Cronulla riots of December 2005 and the controversial decision last year to deny construction of the Islamic school in the Sydney suburb of Camden. Some of the more level heads presented in the documentary were the Australian police, who are starting to reject the "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric in favor of community policing, and the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, who are recognizing the need for Australian Muslims to remain involved with the greater Australian society.

    The problem is that there have been a number of cases where Australian Muslims have faced various barriers, not just by ordinary Australians who may spout Islamophobic and racist speech toward individual Muslims, but by various government bodies who have rejected various Muslim groups' requests: a youth center application being denied, a boxing gymnasium run by a Muslim being told to vacate their premises, and two school applications (one being the Camden school) being denied. The irony and disgust about the last is that one school's application was denied by a town council that, on the same night, also approved the expansion of a local brothel.

    Based on my watching of the excerpt, I don't have high hopes for an improvement between non-Muslim Australians and the Muslim community there. The larger problem, IMO, is the racist and xenophobic attitude of the Australian community. I've seen a lot of people argue that Muslims need to become more integrated into the local community, but when the larger community continues to build walls and shut doors in the faces of Muslims, I don't see how integration can be achieved. Non-Muslims need to realize that we're not going away, and that the problem is also theirs.

    From the documentary's reporter, Sally Neighbour:

    We set out to do this story after hearing anecdotal accounts of a rising sense of alienation and resentment among young Australian Muslim men, a result of the fallout from September 11 and the Bali bombings, and the subsequent "war on terror."

    Their typical experience is being yelled at in the street: "Go back to where you came from. We don't want you here."

    But the fact is 40 percent of Australian Muslims were born here. They have nowhere else to go.

    I felt this story was important, not just because everyone deserves to feel at home in the country of their birth, but because I know from my own research on terrorism that alienation is a key factor in the evolution of disillusioned individuals toward terrorism.

    The first obstacle we faced in making the program was getting anyone to talk to us. Muslim groups and communities are deeply suspicious and resentful toward the media, which they feel has stigmatised them.

    Many groups and individuals we approached refused to co-operate, out of (an often legitimate) fear that they would be typecast as "the bad guys" or potential terrorists.

    Thankfully some of them decided it was worth taking the risk, in order to have their say.

    Another difficulty was distilling the historic and political complexities of the current global Islamist insurgency into a 45-minute television program. We think the results are revealing and disturbing.

    The following two video clips are from the documentary. The first is from CNN; there's a second part, but I was unable to get the proper embedding code from their website.

    This video clip was taken from Youtube, which has just this ten-minute excerpt. Hopefully, both of these will give an indication of what the documentary is like.

    The entire video can be watched (for a £1 price) here.

    September 1, 2008

    Ramadan Mubarak!

    I wrote this as a diary for Street Prophets, and thought I would repost it here. It's more "educational" than what I might normally post on this blog but, then, the intended audience was for non-Muslims who may not know much about Ramadan.

    Once again, the fast begins. Today, Monday the First, in case you didn't know, starts the Islamic month of Ramadan. This is the ninth year I've fasted during Ramadan since my reversion to Islam; as a result, the experience isn't anything new to me now. I'm used to the hunger and thirst that can develop (not that it has for me as I write this, nine hours after I began fasting this morning). In fact, Ramadan, for me, isn't really about the fasting; it's about trying to be a better Muslim in my daily life.

    Today, I thought I'd give a basic rundown about Ramadan this year and what I and my fellow Muslims will do in the average day.

    First, Ramadan runs for an entire lunar month, from the sighting of the first sliver of the new moon (which should have happened yesterday) through the sighting of the first sliver of next month's new moon. That, at least, is how it goes around most of the world. Here in SE Asia, due to the heavy overcast that is frequently a daily occurrence, we rely upon a counting method that predetermines when the moon should be spotted every month. As a result, here in S'pore, Ramadan started today, on the first, and ends on the thirtieth, insha'allah.

    Muslims fast all day, from the crack of dawn through sunset, neither eating, drinking, smoking, nor having any sexual activity through that time. In S'pore, we begin fasting an additional ten minutes in the morning, on the theory that any last remaining food or drink in our mouths will be swallowed prior to the official start of the fasting period. Thus, I began fasting at 5:33 am this morning, with the crack of dawn starting ten minutes later, at 5:43. This is the time when the dawn prayers (fajr) starts, so I did my ablutions (wudu) and prayer (salat) before going back to bed. (I had a rough night last night; newborn baby, ya know.) I woke back up this morning to a dry taste in my mouth, but nothing worse than that. Of course, we must take any medicine and brush our teeth before the fasting starts, which I did this morning.

    Now it's almost mid-afternoon, but we don't break our fast until sunset tonight; locally, that's 7:09 pm. So, today's fast will be for a total of 13 hours, 36 minutes. One of the joys of living near the equator is that the length of day remains relatively the same from month to month; we don't suffer like some people do in higher latitudes, especially in those times near a solstice (which is what it was like about ten years ago). Because Ramadan falls this year during the time of a solstice, everyone worldwide should have relatively equal fasting periods.

    Later tonight, Milady, our maid and I will break our fast, insha'allah, with what is known as the iftar meal. Iftar can be very simple affairs, but can also be sumptuous banquets. It depends upon the family. A lot of people eat prepared meals either because they don't want to cook during the day or perhaps because they've gone to a local masjid and eaten there prior to doing their maghrib (evening) prayers. A lot of people also try to help the needy during this time. Zakat (alms) is required sometime during the year, but many Muslims pay their zakat during Ramadan. Usually, zakat is paid with currency, but some people may also pay their zakat in kind, especially with food. One Muslim blogger has discovered that the price of rice has skyrocketed and worries, quite rightly, about well the poor may be able to support themselves.

    Before bed, many Muslims go to additional prayers, done only during the month of Ramadan, known as tarawih (tara-wee). These prayers may be performed at a masjid, or at home. In S'pore, many people do tarawih prayers on the void decks of housing blocks because the masajid are otherwise overflowing with people. During the tarawih prayers, Muslims also listen to a recitation of the Qur'an where one-thirtieth of the Qur'an is recited every day. In this way, the entire Qur'an is recited in the month of Ramadan.