Mar 5, 2009

Hell-fire banking

Fasi Zaka
It’s hard to make sense of things anymore. The Sri Lankan team gets paid back for their goodwill of touring Pakistan by having their blood spilled. Just days before this, the government decides to arm the people in lieu of their failure to curb militancy, and at the same time announces a de-arming initiative! Putting these factoids together would seem funny, if it weren’t so tragic.The government continues to surprise us in just how incompetent it is, just how naked its ambition for absolute power is. One would hope that our only sources of sanity would come from the common folk and the business community for whom stability is a value highly cherished. But like the government’s obsession with a power grab, even businesses can go over the top with the desire to capture markets by behaving irresponsibly. Not that this is anything new. Banks, financiers and manufacturers often have no concern for others, and without control their profligacy has brought down the world’s economic system, made it rife with inequality and hurt the environment.Witness Bank X’s recent advertisement on television in Pakistan right after its launch this February. After sensationalist news casting, we now have sensationalised advertising. The TV advertisement urges people to shift to their bank and follow the path of righteousness…which is a good thing. But the problem lies is in the imagery and the tone of voice used. It shows the conventional banking system aflame through visual allegory, hinting at the Hell-Fire. So after politics that abuses religion for its own ends, one bank has taken it up as an aggressive selling proposition as well. The hypocrisy in this is that the investment group which owns Bank X in Pakistan also operates a financial services and investment firm which is involved in both Sharia-compliant investment funds and "conventional" funds. By "conventional" funds I presume they mean those that are encompassed by Hell-Fire? Since Bank X has taken a stand in Pakistan on the type of banking they do, I wonder how they justify their parent company earning both "Halal" and "Haraam" simultaneously. Or did they think no one would notice?This kind of communication from businesses is the last thing we need. As the security situation continues spiralling out of control, rabble rousers don’t need to be exposed to irresponsible storytelling in advertising. Since the parent company of Bank X in Pakistan does operate Sharia non-complaint funds elsewhere, it has no business passing blanket judgement on others, which could incite the reactionaries. Toxic marketing environments like these that preach but do not practise have a long history in business. The most noticeable was Unilever and its Dove Soap campaign for real beauty that celebrates women for who they are and underplays looks as a means of judgement. This would be commendable if Unilever wasn’t also making skin whitening creams like Fair & Lovely that prey on women’s concerns about their complexion. But using Sharia as a business tool, especially in the context of today’s Pakistan, is truly playing with fire.In spirit, Islam has one underappreciated quality as a religion. It seeks to put man in contact with God directly without intermediaries. That makes it truly democratic, in a sense like the principle of one-man, one-vote. But over the centuries we have a class of gatekeepers who have hijacked the religion. Thanks to them, now when we see a mosque we have stopped noticing the beauty of the egalitarian rows and lines where communities come together, but notice instead the religious groups which clamour for power and justify creatively the use of murder indiscriminately. With all the violence that has changed the fabric of our country over the past few years, we need to reclaim Islam from those who have hijacked it to further their own ends by preying on an illiterate and often ill-informed public. This means the militants whose thoughts of purity are awash in blood, this means the media that romanticises them. And now, we must save Islam from businesses that cynically want to use religion for market share.The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and former academic.

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