Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The end of Islam as we know it

The fasting month of Ramadan has come to an end and, along with other Muslims, I should be celebrating. But as every year, at least in Europe, the celebratory spirit is dampened by the confusion as to when it is time to stop fasting and when the day of Eid celebrations begins. Islam follows the lunar calendar in which months can be 29 or 30 days long. Traditionally, if the moon was not sighted physically with the naked eye, thirty days had to be completed. Thus, one could never be quite sure when important occasions, such as the start of end of fasting, would begin, until the evening before. Whilst adding to the excitement of key Islamic events throughout the year, this "unpredictability" is not very welcome in the modern industrial society where everything wants to be planned.

There is the added problem that the lunar cycle will not be the same for every place on earth, yet information travels instantly. It would be quite wrong, if relying on moon sightings, for Muslims on one side of the globe to start the month at the same time as those on the opposite side, but this is what often happens due to telephone and satellite TV communications. As a consequence, some countries have started to fix the calender rather than relying on moon sightings.

One such country is Saudi Arabia, the British-enthroned dynasty currently ruling over the two holy places of Makkah and Madinah. However, since the self-styled custodians of the holy places wish to be seen as strict adherents of traditional Islam, they are not honest about having fixed their dates in advance and pretend each year, that somebody has actually seen the moon. Since, when fixing the dates somebody must have confused the day the new moon is born with the day the nascent crescent can be seen, those Saudi moon sightings have consistently been too early and often at a time when it was physically as impossible to see the moon as it would be to watch the sun rise at midnight. This year, for example, the moon set well before sunrise on the day Saudi moon sighting reports after sunrise were announced.

Sadly, Muslims the world over have bought into the branding of Saudi Arabia as the custodians of the holy places and safeguards of traditional Islam, and thus follow them blindly. Many, of course, also go with where the money is, given that Saudi petrol dollars have paid for many a mosque around the world, strings attached, of course. A closer look at the political reality or a visit to US army bases in Saudi Arabia would quickly present a different picture: that of Saudi-America, the occupier of the holy places and instigator of distortion and corruption of the religion of Islam.

This corruption of traditional Islam goes a lot further than merely lying about the moon. It involves the banning of all Muslim cultural and poetic expressions as innovations, reducing Islam to a set of heartless rules Taliban-style, it includes fuelling the "clash of civilisations" between Islam and the West, and it features the subversion of Islam through so-called Islamic banking ventures in which forbidden interest and usury are renamed in order to make them palatable to an unsuspecting Muslim populace. In addition to halal banking, regulated by the Bank of England to which those banks guarantee to charge at least the base rate of interest, we now also have, regulated by the Financial Services Authority, halal mortgages at higher rates than from high street lenders and halal insurance products, with many such enterprises being run as side-lines by non-Muslim commercial banks or insurances paying a so-called Shariah Board to issue them with a certification of compliance with Islamic law.

Critical voices are few and have no forum, since all the major Muslim events and media are by now sponsored by one or the other bank or insurance company. Being a Muslim today simply means paying a little more for your mortgage, banking and insurance needs in order to placate your conscience, eating pre-stunned "halal" meat and poultry, buying Islamic designer wear and fashion goods and keeping out of politics lest you are accused of terrorist sympathis. And whilst new editions of the Qur'an with all references to Jihad removed would not be received with much accolade by Muslims for whom at least the Arabic text of the scripture is sacred, much of the same is achieved by new interpretations which reduce Jihad to a mere struggle against the evil inclinations of one's own sole.

Forget about the liberation of Palestine or the resistance in Iraq, the moderate modern Muslim keeps his faith private and obeys his government. Hence Hazel Blears, the secretary of state for Communities and Local Goverment, announced the British governments intention to set up a Muslim theology board in order to promote a "peaceful form of British Islam". Maybe, like the Sharia boards of the banks, they can turn the illegal occupation of Iraq and the British intervention in Afghanistan (and soon Pakistan) into a religious virtue for Muslims. And maybe they will have the authority to excommunicate unrepentant critics of this new form of Islam, like myself. So I better do celebrate the fact that for now I can still live Islam without first requiring a government certificate to practice, never mind what day the month will actually start.

Friday, September 26, 2008

How long will bankers keep fooling us?

Here is a typical example of half-truths and disinformation: This morning John Humphreys of Radio 4's Today programme asked his listeners whether they were baffled about the current financial crisis and wanted to know where all the money was and who got it. Together with his "expert" interviewee he then proceeded to confound them further. John Kay, author of "The truth about the markets" wasn't telling the truth at all. When asked by Humphreys why the banks, if they had lots of money but weren't willing to lend it, would need more money from the treasury, he explained that they had assets, but those assets were in IOU's from ordinary people and these were no longer trusted, hence the banks would want to swap those for trusted IOU's from the US government. Humphreys interjection that not all personal loans would default and did not people pay back their loans with real money and were not the properties against which they were secured still worth something, if not as much as last year, was met by the most laughable suggestion from Kay that in this case the American government could eventually even make a profit by bailing out the banks. Finally Humphreys wanted quoted an email from a listener stating that the banks would not put the new money from the government into circulation but use it to improve their balance sheets, to which Kay replied that their capital had been depleted due to past bad practices and needed to be improved in order for them to be able to put further money into circulation.

All this raises more questions than it answers. The simple truth is that almost all money in circulation, far from being "real money", to use Humphreys term, comes into existence as a debt. In what is known as fractional reserve banking, banks create credit, in other words, invent money which they then lend, backed only by a small ratio of assets, these assets in turn mostly not being gold, silver or commodities but entitlements to repayments from debtors. For example, a bank would lend to an individual a hundred pounds of non-existing money based on having a single pound of real assets; those hundred pounds of outstanding debt would then be declared an asset of the bank on the basis of which it then can lend another thousand, and so on. The current crisis, therefore, is not down to bad management but inherent in the system of debt-based finance. Governments have long since abdicated the right to issue money into circulation and given that right to private banks from whom they themselves then borrow back. In other words, governments have been privatised a long time ago.

What makes the situation so hard to understand for most people is that they have trusted their governments and economists for so long and put their faith into a fraudulent system, which makes it hard to now accept that we were all fooled into pledging our real wealth, e.g. properties, in exchange for phony money, and then put in real sweat and labour in order to pay it back plus the penalty of interest. To unravel the mysteries, here are some questions that should really be asked, although economists will avoid them at all costs:

If banks were justified in charging interest on loans they make because they allegedly took some risk, why should they now not also pay the price of having assessed those risks incorrectly? Why should the tax payer fund the result of their commercial incompetence? If a private individual invests into a business venture which returns losses, the government does not reimburse them, so why are the banks as commercial enterprises different in this respect?

If the government or treasury has so much money to inject into the banks in order to help them survive, why - at the same time - is the government borrowing money from those very banks? After all, there isn't a government in the world which does not have a national debt or so-called public borrowing requirement. Does the money the government will give to the banks reduce their debt? If it instead increases the indebtedness of the government, where does the government borrow that extra money from, seeing the banks are currently short of cash?

Given that governments represent or manage the wealth of their respective countries and people, and given that all governments are in debt, who are these fabulous individuals who own more than all the countries of the world put together in order to lend to those governments who are all in debt? And where did they get those vast sums from? Who sold them the earth and with what authority?

If governments need to give money to the banks so that the banks can put that money into circulation to prevent a deepening of the financial crisis due to lack of available funds, why does not the government simply put the money into circulation itself through development projects? Why should the government need to give the money to a bank who might not put it into circulation as intended? And why should that bank profit from government and tax payers money? Shouldn't those profits rather go back to the tax payer?

What happened to the theory of free markets if we now privatise profits and nationalise losses? If the banks' assets (outstanding debt commitments) are no longer worth as much as they were, shouldn't the banks have to bear that loss since they took profits for many years when those same assets were overvalued?

The questions could continue, and the only honest answer would be that we have been conned. This would finally lead to demands for accountable government and thorough monetary reform. Instead, we are more likely going to get plenty more of the misleading explanations put forward by "experts" such as Kay. The question of who is really in charge, the governments or the bankers, is not one they would like us ask, since we might then want to wrestle that power back off them.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Trumping up the charges

"Three men have been found guilty of a massive terrorist conspiracy to murder involving home-made bombs." This is how the BBC leads its article on the recent conviction of three British Muslims for to murder persons unknown. Most other news outlets carried similar hype, with only a few providing a more balanced picture of the outcome of the trial. In truth, the headline should have read: "There never was a conspiracy to blow up airliners with liquid explosives." Whilst the government is gloating at having secured convictions of sorts, the fact is that it's whole story of a plot on account of which every traveller in Europe had to surrender drinks at airport check-ins and carry toiletries in a clear plastic bag has been exposed as fiction.

This does not come as a surprise, since to carry liquid explosives disguised as drinks onto an aircraft in order to blow it up is a chemical impossibility as it would require laboratory conditions at sub-zero temperatures on board. The government knew this all along and in the first days of introducing new airport security measures drinks were simply spilled into large containers, proving that they were not considered dangerous at all even when mixed. The aim had always been to scare the public in order to justify greater control over them; the then home secretary John Reid also wanted to score political points, albeit unsuccessful.

The men charged and convicted had been stupid enough to plan staging an action in which detonating explosives was threatened in order to stage a political protest. The fact is that they never made any explosives whatsoever. All of them pleaded guilty to causing a public nuisance. The three who were convicted of conspiracy to murder were not convicted on evidence but because they had also pleaded guilty to this charge. None of those eight men before the courts who had not pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder were convicted of that charge. There is generally a lot of pressure put on defendants to plead guilty in order to receive a lesser sentence. In the case of terrorist suspects this pressure is often exacerbated by the very real threat of extradition to the United States and the prospect of death row. Faced with stark choices like this, the young suspects often give in.

There is no doubt that the trials were politically motivated, and as such they are a major setback in not achieving their intended outcome. Not long ago a research student at Nottingham university was investigated and held in custody for possessing al-Qaedah material he had downloaded from a US government website. On the other hand, in the 1990's leftist bookshops were awash with books calling for a "class war" and the execution of judges and murder of police officers. Although these were brought to the attention of the police, these were never banned and charges against their authors, never mind anybody having bought or read them, were never brought. As usual, the UK justice system does not care so much what you do, but who you are.

The only decent thing to do for the government now would be to ease the grotesque security measures at airports and allow travellers to take their drinks on and personal toiletries on board without the unwarranted harassment.