Update: A reader in Hungary just sent us this note:
There is a standard English translation of this article at: www.migraciokutato.hu/en/2016/08/02/mutual-benefits-islamic-moral-economy-and-neo-liberalism/
Abdessamad Belhaj is not an economist but an expert in Islam and social sciences.
The following interview with the Morocco-born economist was published at the Hungarian website mandiner.hu. Many thanks to CrossWare for the translation:
For the Jihad anarchy and war-economy are holy; the warlords are saints; the crimes are acts of mercy. Jihadism is heated by a religious and apocalyptic narrative, where the destruction of the infidel West and final victory of Islam is the focus. In reality all this serves economic interests while it creates an illusion of religious self-realization — says Abdessamad Belhadj, a social scientist from Morocco who teaches and does his research in Belgium and Hungary, to mandiner.hu (online magazine). Belhadj believes that Muslim migrants have the desire for the elegant West and its lavish lifestyle, but as the crisis of the second- and third-generation migrants shows, they can’t take possession of it. That is why violence can gain ground.
Abdessamad Belhadj is a social scientist who was born in Morocco in 1974. Presently he is a tenured professor at Leuven Catholic University and a member of the MTA-SZTE (Hungarian Science Academy- Szeged Scientific University) Religious Cultures Research Group. He earned his first doctorate in 2001 in Islamic Sciences and the second one in 2008 Political and Social Sciences. As a guest speaker and researcher, he works in Finland, France and Germany. He has written four books and had more than fifty studies published in international publications.
Interview by Bianka Speidl
Recently you lectured in Brussels about the relations of Muslims to material needs. There you described the neo-liberal economy profiting from Sharia as it regulates the life of Muslims. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
While studying the manifestation of different forms of European Islam, I found the phenomenon of “moral economy”. Under moral economy, I mean an informal economic system which looks at religious and cultural works of mercy concordant with Islamic laws as market products. Then it uses its financial success to prove the superiority of Islamic moral. This economic system is embedded in the basic principles of Islam and its societal reality and relies on a circular train of thought: everything regulated by Sharia (Islamic law) must be good, so everything which works must be regulated by Sharia. The moral economy is opaque and manipulative, even so if it declares itself just and ethical. It came up as a research topic when one of the leaders of a Belgian Muslim community explained it: “While the reform of Islam could be justified by moral reasons, any divergence from traditional Islam would be catastrophic for the community.” This is what I call moral economy and this is nothing else but the economy model of Islam.
In the lecture you said the “possession is the tool of the religion” How theology becomes economy?
Moral economy has interdependent religious and economical prerequisites. To simplify it, if you have money, you have it because of religion, and where religion is there money will be also, based on religious redistribution. Under Islam all earthly possessions are owned by God; when he gives it to a man, as an exchange, he expects the believer to use all of it to serve Allah’s cause. The only valid law; Sharia, appropriates all wealth to be used for religious purposes so Islamic law has the disposition of it. For the believer the wealth is coming from God, and not the fruits of work. The more he has at his disposal, the more he is convinced he must return it in the form of donations for mosque, mission and to support Jihad. With this attitude the moral economy, with continued expansion and exhaustion of resources, can be sustained indefinitely. The circular processes have two important consequences: the believer’s trust in Allah and his isolation from the state.
Everywhere in the Muslim world people live in poverty. Why do they still trust this system?
By the logic of the market economy and profit-oriented thinking, the situation is worse than miserable. The important difference in the thinking is that the Muslim believer has no doubts, while the Western man has doubts. Self-assurance, patience and dedication is inseparable from the belief in Allah, and this is an important pillar of moral economy, as you can see it: how well the various religious foundations and mosque buildings doing. This relationship to wealth explains the Islamization processes which started in the 1970’s, financed by the so-called allowance economies and based on oil sales. Allowance economy is when by the utilization of a natural resources or services gains wealth that is redistributed on this principle. Iran and Saudi-Arabia used this wealth to re-Islamize European, African and South-East Asian Muslim communities. They think of the profit as gift from God which must be spent on spreading conservative political Islam. The result is very visible with the spread of Salafism and Shiism and the financing of the Islamic State. The moral economy has autonomous and differentiated elements present in it, for example the “gift economy”, the Islamic view of material wealth, international transactions, family- or clan-level informal business connections, and of course the significance of population growth.
What do you mean by “Gift Economy”? Profit which serves God’s cause?
In the gift economy, valuables are not exchanged and not sold, but offered gratis. Someone donates for building a mosque, which will strengthen the identity of the community, and he will become the beneficiary of the moral economy. This is the polar opposite of market economy, where products and services are paid for. This is a “sacred” economy, in the sense that every economic activity from housekeeping to the market has religious meaning. One of the consequence is that someone can send support to a radical organization in Brussels without any thought that this is a financial or illegal act. He is convinced that his act is only a religious duty.
The state’s law and any secular laws means so little then?
Compared to the holy — or so-called — laws, human law is weightless. The sanctification of the economy is this: every act; every transaction a subservient tool for the spread of Islam, to ensure the survival and strengthening of the community. The typical manifestation of the gift economy is the Muslim charitable organization. In Europe this is usually directed by Islamists, mostly from Muslim Brotherhood circles, who have international connections from the United States to Indonesia. They provide for missionary activities and support Hamas and other Islamist organizations. They also have numerous business groups and projects worldwide and in Europe.
Why do they give, when they are in need of assistance?
This kind of economic system has a charismatic aspect, which attracts converts. The moral economy looks like works with God’s blessing. There is a specific expression for this type of godly providence in the Arabic language: “rizq“. This can be received without any special reason, just because a Muslim brother did well by God’s commandments and he benefits from this. The strategy of rizq sends a message to the convert: “if you submit to God and join us, your life will be blessed.” The fresh convert learns very quickly that to receive the gift he has to donate, too. This redistribution system makes it possible to survive even thirty years in the periphery without work, while he breeds the most offspring.
Where does politics come in?
The socialist and social-democratic parties played their part in the gift economy by providing social benefits and exchanging it for votes. Of course they supported the building of mosques. This alliance in the end isolated Muslim communities from integration and from employment. When the Islamists became the managers of moral economy, they overshadowed the leftist politicians. Now as the neo-liberal governments decreases the social support, the moral economy is losing an important income source, and as a result some turn to radical Islam, while others will follow the more moderate ones to whom the neo-liberal system offers the role of intermediaries.
What is the connection between the neo-liberal economic order and the Islamic moral economy?
The neo-liberal economic system, where the state has a minimal regulatory role, needs an adapted minimized society, where the people do not cost the state anything and only earn just enough to engage in constant consumption. In this society cohesion is very weak, because of the lack of a social support system and the lack of common cultural values. So nothing really connects people to each other, and the state has a diminishing role. The weakening of the middle class is quite observable with the decrease of health and education services, because the neo-liberal state measures everything with cost/benefit ratios. While the government maintains the people’s ability to consume, and a democratic pluralist political system, it can sustain their trust in the system. For a neo-liberal economy, one who can produce a cheaper product will have unlimited advantage, it is important to have a cheap, unskilled workforce a.k.a. immigrants. The side effect of this process is the polarization of the society and the increase of the popularity of the right wing. The objective of neo-liberalism is to establish a society where “sustainable” poverty will not lead to revolts, because it maintain the people’s ability to consume, while controlling them with it. This is what I call “creative controlled chaos”.
But how does Islam come into the picture?
Among the various religions, Islam is the one which in its present form, both radical and moderate versions, is capable of working with the playbook of neo-liberalism. Some of the basic Islamic principles are even consonant with neo-liberal economic logic.
What are those?
In Islam there is no normative supreme authority that could exert control. It looks at itself as a universally valid system and suppresses national feelings. Other than forbidding a few things, Sharia, which works as a primary controller, is pretty permissive, as you can see it with many type of foods receiving religious validation (halal), or even the invention of halal beer. While survival also ensured with the moral economy, albeit with minimal income, a large quantity of people can be kept alive. The neo-liberal “utopia” finds a natural environment in the Muslim outskirts where the state is no longer present. The significance and strength of these areas comes from the fact that more and more people can squeeze into them.
So the parallel societies are desired side-effects in this system?
In some aspects, yes. I believe the neo-liberal system has no convincing narrative for the people. Human rights and dignity, free speech and social care — which has strong emphasis in Christian-democratic parties — and a strong middle class are old fashioned ideals for neo-liberalism and maybe only exists as slogans. All of this looks too expensive for them. Think of it how excited the Western European neo-liberal thinkers and businessman were to welcome the migration and repeated ad nauseam that Islam is compatible with the European value system. The cooperation of Islam and neo-liberalism is structural, and not a coincidence.
So the neo-liberals have made a marriage of convenience with Islam? And this idyllic relationship is not ruined by the self-segregation of the migrants?
In the Muslim world the available resources are not infinite. When poverty is unsustainable some of the people migrate away, to resume somewhere else the same circular parasitic existence. In the Muslim narratives the migration is the beginning of the Islamisation of Europe. They are to take the “rich land” and change the future of Islam by transforming it from the religion of the poor to the religion of the rich. Of course this is a paradox, because poor people are only making Europe poorer. A migration to a non-Muslim land can only be justified if the community interprets it as a victory. The Islamic moral economy’s destructive power lies in the fact that is a nomadic migrant system and not a stable local one. They use the income to prove Islam’s moral superiority: with the population explosion, continuous migration and conversions to increase their numbers in the community while exhausting all the resources, and then looking for new areas to exhaust.
Does this system work inside Europe, too?
The European Muslim communities’ moral economy utilizes two sources: partly the Muslim countries whose populations are always ready to receiver donations, the other one the Muslims already living in Europe. This is not a simple charity but a societal market, because a mosque brings profit for the moral economy of the community. The mosque establishes school, creates organizations, open stores, has international bank accounts, provides employment for the young and also cooperates with Muslim countries. So Islamisation is made up of people who have stakes in it: families, clans, businessmen, who are not religious authorities but work for the cause of the religion. They also have owners’ stock interests: imams and religious lawyers who represent the authority and possess its symbolic capital. I had discussions with young Muslims living in Europe, and it became clear to me, even when they have a loose connection to religion, they still think that Islam is the best societal system in this world which seems to be falling apart. A good example from their viewpoint is that they send more than $4 billion per year to Morocco to build houses, mosques, to keep large families and keep the money in bank accounts there, while they are live in Europe on a minimal income from state welfare.
They live in poverty while they build mosques?
The continuous mosque-building is another example of this process. This does not come from state money, but we can see that a small group of believers can build their own mosque in just a few years. How? Of course this is from donations. In this process Islamism becomes an economic architect: it recruits the young ones so they can join to the Middle Eastern Jihad moral economy, and also causes the rise of the Islamist capitalist class in Turkey and other parts of the Muslim world. These are all manifestations of the Islamic moral economy.
How Jihad connected to the moral economy? At first it seems to be two very distinct phenomenon.
The Islamic State had a $2 billion dollar budget at the peak of its success. Radical movements stimulate the organized chaos, emphasizing community consciousness and the importance of submission to the people living in the fringes, while also preaching about paradise in the afterlife and victory in this one. The reward is not something theoretical or incomprehensible, as a Western. For the Jihad anarchy and war-economy are “holy”, the warlords are saints; the crimes are acts of mercy. To rephrase the theory of Benjamin Barber: Jihad vs. McWorld, I would say the Jihadist loves the dead McWorld, the fruits of the Western economy and society. The Islamist movements and migration show how McWorld is appealing for Jihad. Partly present is the desire for the elegant West and its lavish lifestyle, but in the other hand, as the crisis of the second and third generation shows, they can’t take possession of it. That is why violence can gain ground. Jihadism is heated by a religious and apocalyptic narrative, where the destruction of the infidel West and final victory of Islam is the focus. In reality all of this serves economic interests while creating an illusion of religious self-realization. The creation of terror strengthens the Islamic moral economy and shows its superiority to its followers, while it prepares for the long-awaited victory.
The neo-liberal elite still wants the Muslim migrants?
Immigration is very useful for a globalist neo-liberal model to wipe out national borders and establish a minimalist society, but it is very harmful for the European citizens. The initial costs of many millions of invited migrants will show a medium-term return with the low wages. While the native European residents will become poorer, because average wages will decrease and unemployment will rise. By the rules of neo-liberalism the cheaper producer will rule the market, so it looks at the Muslim migrations as cheap source of profit.
So terrorism is just falls into the category of an adverse side effect?
Exactly! They underestimate the source of two serious dangers, and only look at them as additional problems. First the fact that Islamic moral economy relies on exhaustion of resources, is uncontrollable, ruins the society, and causes decay and eventually collapse. Secondly, that Jihad is an integral part of Islam’s moral economy, which shows very clearly that violence is an indispensable means of sustenance. The neo-liberals underestimate these risks and embrace the momentary market advantage brought by redistributive, isolationist, minimum-wage communities, which after the termination of social benefits will be financed from Malaysia to the United States.
Not long ago a survey published in Germany shows that for Muslims living in Europe, its is more important to obey Sharia than state laws. What tools are available for the governments?
First of all, an attitude-change is required on the part of the state: they have to address individuals, not communities. They should not adapt to the demands of Muslims, just as they should not adapt to any other migrant group, either. The immigrant, as an individual, must adapt to the country accepting him. It requires a coherent strategy from the state, including a strict integration contract which emphasizes the importance of cultural and societal cohesion, laws, ethical norms and the accepted lifestyle expected by the society. Societies have based their economy on multicultural norms are for now accepting this anarchy caused by waves of immigration, which only serves the control system of the neo-liberal economy while bringing Europe to collapse.