Sunday, June 28, 2009

Shabbos Banker

Here's an interesting little story I noticed some time ago in the Economist. Apparently this gentleman, Adnan Yousif, has great ambitions for his particular brand of financial innovation. He is trying to rock the Arab financial world with what is currently only a niche industry. "People never thought big here, never thought globally," he says. Sounds good, right? Guess what this innovative service is...

Islamic Finance.

Now, you may be asking, as I did, what makes finance Islamic? According to the article:

Mr Yousif’s ambitions date to the founding of modern Islamic finance. During the 1970s oil boom the Gulf’s Muslim elite needed to put their new-found wealth somewhere, and American government bonds seemed the safest option. Yet Islam prohibits the charging of interest. So some sheikhs bought bonds but let their Western banks keep the interest, in the casual manner of a customer leaving change on a restaurant table. To Mr Yousif, then a young banker at American Express in his native Bahrain, this made no sense. At a time when Muslim countries had imposed an oil embargo over America’s support for Israel why, he wondered, refuse the Americans oil but give them billions of dollars?
So, nominally Islamic finance is about handling money without interest. Really, it's answering the question "How do we stick it to the Americans more efficiently?"

This concept of Islamic Finance--which seems to be simply replacing evil, unholy interest with "fees" and other equally silly price mechanism substitutions--reminds me of the Jewish concept of the Shabbos Goy.

For those of you unacquainted with the endearing habits of the Children of Israel, and please remember I am not making this up, "goy" is Yiddish slang for a gentile. Shabbos is the sabbath. In Jewish law, you are not allowed to do any work on the sabbath, including, but not limited to, turning on lights, starting a car, and even ripping paper (Yes, that includes wiping your ass, unless you have pre-ripped your sheets.

This poses a great problem for modern observant Jews. While, back in the good ol' second century b.c., one could easily avoid turning on lights or ripping toilet paper, such actions have become, to say the least, ubiquitous today. So what's a poor Jew to do? Why, hire a goy to do it for you, of course. Hence the term "Shabbos goy," a gentile who you hire to do all your sinful car starting for you on the sabbath. (Of course, you must pay the goy during the week, because handling money is also forbidden.

Returning to Islamic Finance, then, I find the practice funny--and sad--as it is simply a way for the faithful to pretend they're obeying God's ridiculous edicts, while still getting everything they want. They missed the whole point of being religious, which is the ample amount of suffering God wants you to endure.

In all, this is probably a good development, as the more integrated backwards religions get with civilized life, the more people decide, "you know what? This is stupid," and just junk the whole process. That's what happened to me when I attempted to keep kosher when I was young and naive. I thank God I grew out of that. If it weren't for him, I might never have turned atheist.


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