Abu Bakr Rieger

Islam, Finanztechnik, Recht & Philosophie

Abu Bakr Rieger

Islam, Finanztechnik, Recht & Philosophie

Order and Location: What can we actually do?

Foto: Khalil Mitchell for Visualaurum

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted and honoured to have been allowed to deliver what is in a sense a concluding word on the subject of ‘The Question concerning Economics’ here at the Muslim Faculty. But I would like to begin by thanking the directors of the Academy not only for this invitation, but also for what is undoubtedly a unique programme.

Given the sophisticated and highly impressive lectures that have been delivered here as part of the Economics module, it is of course a difficult task to sum up the themes discussed. I am unlikely to say anything new, but rather I would like to touch upon the question of what we can actually do. I will attempt to build a bridge between our economic questions and some political answers.

1. Introduction

There is a German saying which suits this situation quite well: “Es gibt nichts Gutes, außer man tut es!” – “There is none such thing as something good unless you do it.”

It is only human for us to want to put our knowledge into practice. When we think about how we can act, we are however forced to think politically and philosophically. And then there is always that nagging doubt: can we actually do anything at all? Or, to put it in a more philosophical way: do we now have the sovereignty needed to act politically?

It is no coincidence that we are asking this question in the shadow of the greatest financial crisis in human history. In Europe we see the primacy of politics threatened by the colossal power of banks, holding companies and corporations. Confronted by the extraordinary power of international capital flows, one might question the extent to which States and their parliaments are able to steer things at all. “Money rules the world” – so goes the saying.

But let’s just take another step, beyond the crisis so to speak. In order to understand the condition humaine properly we also have to shed light upon the fundamental relationship between man and technology, and in particular what you might call ‘financial technology’. I use the word ‘technology’ in its German sense, which means both physical engineering, and, in a more general sense, technique itself.

This is not a new problem. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe grappled with financial technology. In his Münzgutachten (1793), he reflected on the ‘Note Banks’ (“Zettelbanken”) , which were an innovation by financial institutes who had introduced mere paper as a means of payment. In his Assessment, Goethe spoke in favour of a money which would have an inherent value. In the second part of his famous Faust he describes the magical effect of the new paper money. This poet, who was certainly a political thinker, foresaw that the possibility of reproducing money would basically engender a new, expansive type of power politics.

Goethe’s thinking therefore remains very modern. The President of Germany’s Bundesbank, Mr Weidmann, rightly summed up in 2012: Goethe foresaw all of the basic regulatory difficulties of modern monetary policy.”

As you all know, over the past few decades Germany has entered European intellectual history not only as a nation of brilliant engineers, but also as a place where technology been severely criticised. The question of what one can do has been met with a certain scepticism by such thinkers. If we take the famous image of the sinking Titanic, we may be forgiven for wondering who exactly is steering the ship, and whether they can still steer it at all.

Heidegger summed up the dilemma of politics in an epoch shaped by technology as follows: “It is not we who have technology in our hand, but technology which has us in its hand.” This simply means that technology has become something non-negotiable, forcing us into perpetual reaction.

Heidegger’s insight is not a moral plea for or against the use of technology. Rather it is a reminder of the limits of human power, which are especially stark in today’s technological age. One need only mention nuclear power, security, and genetic engineering to realise what he meant. Paradoxically, technology is not merely a facility to help us, it is also an ongoing opportunity to do what Heidegger referred to as “challenge” nature.

The technical philosopher Günther Anders speaks of a dimension of technology beyond the issue of whether it is good or bad: “It is very possible that the danger we face consists not in the bad use of technology, but in the nature of technology itself.”

So, when we pose the question of what we can do in the face of this danger, then that includes reflecting upon this seemingly pessimistic analysis of our human situation.

I am mentioning these introductory thoughts in order to distance myself from the kind of simplistic politics which think in categories of simple solutions and political programmes. Similarly unhelpful are conspiracy theories that speculate about ‘secret’ powers. You may already sense with me that a ‘party political programme’ is inadequate to the seriousness of the situation.

Rather what we propose is a different form of political thinking and acting. To do this we must make man’s situation clear, partly so that we can be clear about the actual message of Islam in this age. This course at the Muslim Faculty and the questions it asks about economics serve precisely that aim. But at the end of this series of discourses we would like to pose the controversial question of whether, under the circumstances, Islam can be political at all.

To do this we wish to begin by looking at what any such potential politics may entail.

A) The alternative

In Europe, when it comes to the dominant economic system, the general feeling is that there is no alternative. This supposedly god-given lack of alternatives is of course unacceptable to us as Muslims. Given the threat of the global financial crisis and the crisis of politics, is naturally meaningful and relevant to highlight the relationship between Islam and economics.

Islam can only attain a political significance in this century of finance if it succeeds in clearly positioning itself in terms of economics.

Many Muslims today are only dimly aware that we possess an economic model. Many Muslims associate simplistic phrases with this model such as ‘Islamic bank’. That is why it has been necessary to dedicate ourselves to unearthing the original Islamic economic model, as has so impressively been done here in Norwich. That is why we asked ourselves about markets, money, and the rules of trade. Part of this important work has been, consequently, to clearly state the most important principles, categories and prohibitions in Islamic economic law.

This research has been rather like archaeology.

It is only on the foundation of this original knowledge that we can now begin to understand how our model was either relinquished, neglected or reformed over the centuries.

In order to clearly delineate this knowledge it is frequently necessary to analyse the history, effects and dynamics of the dominant political order today. This political order is still characterised primarily by the State. In political theory, the subject, which is the People, rules by the agency of Parliament, over the object, which is the State. One strongly suspects that this model has long since reversed itself, so that the State rules over the People by the agency of Parliament. Many people doubt whether the logic of ‘People’s rule’ still applies at all.

But over and beyond day-to-day politics, it is worth examining the phenomenon of the State more carefully. There is no doubt that when we as Muslims reflect today on our political possibilities, we should understand as clearly as possible how the modern State relates to our original model. It is precisely there where an understanding of European philosophy and State theory is so significant. We are talking about the theoretical question of whether the modern State and the original Islamic model can coexist at all.

3) The State

The development of the State and its encounter with Islam is an important historical subject. Because of the time available, I can only mention one example to illustrate it. I would like to recount an interesting historical document from the 19th century. In it the Austrian diplomat, Metternich, instructs his ambassador in Istanbul. He speaks about the relationship between Western institutions and the Islamic world, in this case the Osmanli Empire. Metternich writes: “We advise the Porte: establish your government upon respect for your religious institutions. They are the foundation of your existence as a power, they are the ties that bind the sultan to his Muslim subjects (….) Do not borrow from European civilisation institutions which do not coincide with your own, since our Occidental institutions are based upon principles other than those that serve you as the foundations of your Empire.”

I mention this example just to show the kind of things we should be asking about our own history. Unfortunately there is almost no critical reflection about the State in the Islamic world today. The question of whether a State can be Islamic at all is rarely asked. The intellectual history of Europe can provide important pointers towards understanding the evolution of the State.

An example of one area of study which remains completely ignored is the ‘Austrian School’, which examines the systematic interrelationship between national banks, politics, and the State. The process which every State embodies is described relatively simply: “Banks create money, politicians distribute it.” Added to that is a simple rule: “The more money there is in circulation, the more State there is established.”

In this context I would like to mention an interesting key political demand of the Austrian School. It is: “The State must lose its monopoly on money. Instead, the free market should decide on currency.”

One well-known representative of the Austrian School in Germany – Thorsten Polleit – sums up what we have to do: “The damage which the enforced State monopoly on money has already done cannot be undone. But we can still prevent it from getting any worse. What can we do? If we want to retain freedom and affluence, then sovereignty over money must be taken away from the State, and currency-rivalry must be permitted. From now on, the State and its central bank may not determine the amount of money, this should be done instead by the free market.”

As you see, it is important to bring to mind the many ways in which the State impacts upon our thinking and being. States change over time, and they change us too.

Ibn Khaldun saw that already in his Muqaddima: “Know that the State passes through various stages and characteristics. Those who live in it acquire in each phase, from their relationship with that phase, character traits that are different from those of other phases, since a person’s character naturally follows the character of the situation in which they find themselves.”

While the Austrian School thinks primarily about external freedom within the circumstances of modern States, it is also worth reflecting upon the influence of the State on our inner freedom. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu touched upon the subject in his lectures On The State (1990): “The further I get with my work on the State, the more convinced I become that the peculiar difficulty of imagining this entity lies in the fact that – and I choose my words carefully – it is almost unthinkable. If it appears so simple to say simple things about this entity, then that is because we are to a degree permeated by that which we wish to examine.”

Bourdieu also points out the theological dimension of contemplating the State: “A warning: every proposition which has the State as its subject is a theological proposition – which does not mean it is wrong; the State is a theological entity, in other words, an entity which exists on account of belief.”

This means, according to Bourdieu, that when we imagine the State as an entity, we always define ourselves with it. This insight has so far remained totally overlooked by political Islam, which wishes instead to blindly conquer the State because it believes power to lie therein.

I would like to formulate the real problem which confronts us firstly as a question: as a phenomenon of social technology, does the State inevitably neutralise political and religious activity?

3) The age

As well as investigating the historical relationship between the State and Islam, it is important to ask ourselves about how models, cultures and the State interact in the time we live in. The philosophers tell us that nihilism is dominant. But what do they mean by that?

We will begin with Carl Schmitt’s famous definition and thesis that “nihilism is the separation of order and location.”

By this definition, Schmitt alluded to an assertion of global values and structures which would act everywhere but no longer be ‘locatable’. This is why all modern States have a tendency towards absolute uniformity. (Giorgio Agamben illuminates this theory of the „modern Nomos“ with practical examples: to him, Guantanamo Bay is a location without order, and the Internet is an order without location.)

In his own way, Schmitt posits the idea of the World State as an ultimate spatial and social order. Carl Schmitt, who wrote Nomos of the Earth (1955), would probably not be especially surprised about the current crisis in the Ukraine. In terms of modern geopolitics it is an attempt by the USA – an Air and Sea Power – aided by NATO, to gain influence over the Continent and its Continental Powers. We are seeing once again that old antagonism between Land and Sea, accompanied by the dissolution of Europe’s old State Order.

In this respect only zones of influence (China, Russia, NATO/EU) are left facing each other to wrestle over political power within what are, from an economic point of view, global circumstances. The Nation State has, as part of this process, long since forfeited its old sovereignty – geopolitically, because it can only be sovereign in conjunction with other States, and economically because it is enmeshed in international financial structures. Seen this way, the Ukraine is a good example of a State which cannot and may not be truly sovereign.

However, as Ernst Jünger foresaw, the emergence of an overarching World State can also lead to new types of local freedom which we are seeing today in the form of failed States, separatism, and anarchy. In such areas, we are witnessing the archaic return of the Political and its old friend-and-foe categories.

It is into one such vacuum that the so-called ‘Islamic State’ has burst. We are seeing an attempt to establish an original model, or rather the model they consider original. There are doubts about the religious depth of the Muslim partisans involved. Theologist Susan Sonntag said aptly about the IS: “It is not religion which justifies their war, it is war itself which has become a religious revival experience.”

In actual terms, the IS is attempting to establish its model by means of violence and terror. In the economic field, such coercion is especially inappropriate since the economic laws of Islam cannot themselves be forced upon anybody since they are based upon the freedom of markets. The so-called IS is basically an attempt to “disconnect from history” and is based on ignorance of the Islamic model and ignorance of the nature of the State and its techniques.

I therefore believe that we must add something to Carl Schmidt’s thesis and state that “nihilism is the separation of order, location, and time.” The idea that one could establish an order and location outside of the parameters of time is delusional.

C) Politics

What does this all mean to our future understanding of politics? It remains a historical fact that every attempt to establish ‘political Islam’ in all its facets has failed. By political Islam I mean the attempt to establish Islam and its model by means of associations, parties and States. Political Islam places itself over and above the law, especially economic law, and always considers the imposition of emergency law to be acceptable in the pursuit of political aims.

Within the modernist theory of political Islam, our original model does not appear suitable for power. Their approach was to copy Western instruments of power and use them for their own empowerment. Yet this political Islam remains blind to the fact that our original model is changed by technology, the State, and ideology itself.

An analysis of political Islam throws up the question of whether Islam today is in fact entirely apolitical. I believe we can answer this question in the negative, although in doing so we would be affirming a different kind of politics, beyond that of political Islam.

In this entirely different political context we understand the Muslim not as a mere party or association member, and as more than just an individual. Islam is of course more than just politics, it is a Nomos which unites economic, social and political aspects. Law is not merely a factor subsumed beneath politics.

But how do we see the political role of Muslims?

The sociologist and author Siegfried Kracauer contends that the modern age demands a literature which no longer revolves around the portrayal of subjects. He says this because our techno-economical reality has obliterated the influence of the subject on the progress of things.

If we transfer this insight into the political realm, then we might well ask whether the political subject may ever develop political power at all. Today’s individualisation of Muslims, put forward as liberal Islam, relinquishes every such aspiration. But the Islamic model is based not upon individuals, it is based upon communities which create social realities when Muslims gather in mosques, in waqfs, and in marketplaces. The mosque and the marketplace are symbolic of the urge to establish order and location.

It makes perfect sense that political Islam has either entirely prevented this free Muslim civil society, or at least fundamentally changed it. In Europe this has happened through associations which not only control mosques, but also deny the meaning of awqaf and markets. Nor is there any Islamic State which permits this original model of freedom.

D) Practice

Before mentioning some of the practical dimensions of politics, let me finish by emphasising the importance of the work of Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi in this context.

Heidegger was of the opinion that philosophy, up until the revelation of the Internet, could only be understood by returning to Greek philosophy. According to Heidegger, a new beginning can only happen by undertaking such a return. The political thought of Shaykh Abdalqadir also calls us to return: firstly to the model of the community of the Prophet in Madina, and secondly to the origins of the modern political system in Rome.

In The Engines of the Broken World he says: “The Emperor minted coin in massive quantities, the Senate modestly. The Emperor minted gold and silver. Copper was assigned to the Senate. Minting was not a source of income. Minting coin is the root of power.”

Here Shaykh Abdalqadir mentions the dynamics of monetary policy in the history of the Roman Republic. Could that be one of the secrets of the Qur’anic Revelation which emphasises so strongly the moderation of economics? To us there is no question that the moderation of financial technology and limitation of the quantity of money are inextricably linked.

So what can we do? Abu Said al-Khudri (radi allahu ‘anhu) transmitted that he heard the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, say: “Any one of you who sees something bad should change it with their own hand, and if he cannot, he should change it with his tongue, and if he cannot do that, then with his heart, and that is the weakest form of Iman.”

So I would like to propose a political practice consisting of the following elements. They combine knowledge with the necessary local application. We can envisage the interaction of these elements as a mosaic.

I would like to explicitly mention six major dimensions of this approach. At its core, this approach aims to manifest order and location in the time in which we live.

1) Conveying knowledge (models, history)
2) Engagement with other schools of thought (Austrian School) and initiatives
3) Local community politics (city councils)
4) Order and location based around the mosque and market
5) Alternative money and regional currencies, payment systems, virtual marketplaces, e-dinar, e-qirad
6) The politics and organics of Zakat