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Reflections on the Middle East and the arms trade

The current eruptions of civil unrest and protest across North Africa and the Middle East – no wonder oil prices are surging – has also thrown into unflattering relief the issue of Western arms sales to some regimes, such as that of Libya. And no doubt the argument will be made that, for example in the case of the recent, unlamented Blair/Brown governments in the UK, the administration put export earnings (oil, arms contracts) above such niceties as basic morality or even, arguably, long-term national security.

But here is a thing: according to Shariah law, it is prohibited for Muslims to invest in things such as the arms trade. Making weapons of war is put on the same banned list as pork, gambling, usury and pornography (sounds like all the really good things, Ed). So let me get this straight: some of the most fanatically Muslim regimes on the planet, such as Saudi Arabia, insist on sweeping prohibitions on making arms, but are more than keen to spend all that oil wealth on buying Typhoon fighters or whatever. This is surely an example of the contortions that Islamic law imposes on people. Another case being usury, as I have noted before.

Of course, all belief systems, secular and “religious” variety, come up against the issue of awkward realities and human hypocrisy. But when you next read a story bashing Western arms manufacturers for shipping instruments of death to the Middle East, perhaps it would be well to remember that the locals are apparently banned from making these instruments, but some of them are quite happy to reach for the wallet and buy them.

And lest you think this is just an issue for Islam, it is arguable that even those investors who put money into “ethical” funds that avoid arms trades would do well to reflect on where they think governments buy weapons for even strict self defence? I make this point in case anyone claims I am singling out Islam in general; I mention it in this case since obviously, much of the current buying of weapons is being driven by the Middle East.

16 comments to Reflections on the Middle East and the arms trade

  • PaulH

    I’m puzzled about your point – I don’t see what the fact that a particular group (in this case, Islamic states) shouldn’t buy something has anything to do with the fact of whether we sell it to them. Sure, I guess it’s something they should be ashamed of, but that’s a long list, none of which should make us feel any better about selling weapons to dictators.

  • Making weapons of war is put on the same banned list as pork, gambling, usury and pornography

    Interesting, I didn’t know that. I wonder what was the logic behind that.

    Afghans used to be known for their weaponry-making skills, but I guess they were not good enough Muslims anyway, seeing as the Taliban had to intervene and set things straight.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I’m puzzled about your point – I don’t see what the fact that a particular group (in this case, Islamic states) shouldn’t buy something has anything to do with the fact of whether we sell it to them. Sure, I guess it’s something they should be ashamed of, but that’s a long list, none of which should make us feel any better about selling weapons to dictators.

    It is not puzzling. The point is that Shariah law bans supposedly devout Muslims (cough) from making weapons. If so, then it is grotesquely hypocritical for said followers of this religion to buy things they consider it immoral to make. My point was not about the immorality of us selling weapons to dictators – I think that it was obvious from my remarks that I have an issue with that.

    Or put it another way, practitioners of Shariah, and some other legal/religious edicts, want to have their cake and eat it.

  • Smited, twice. Sigh.

  • But we here in the UK also have laws against the private making of weapons (and against their sale and possession, except under strict licence in some limited cases).

    The issue is surely one of governmentisation of armed force, no matter what one’s nationality or religious belief.

    Best regards

  • I’m with Alisa on this. I was before I read her comment. I know of no commandment from the Qu’ran or hadith to this point. Indeed in ultra strict interpretation the only sports and games allowed are those to prepare the Ummah for jihad. I think Muhammed specifically singles out horse and camel racing and archery. You can’t have folks practising archery without someone making bows and arrows.

    Mohammed anyway was a military commander amongst other things so it makes little sense. What were the lads meant to use – harsh language?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Nick, several sites I checked about areas which are banned under Shariah-compliant investment name “arms” as off-limits. From the link I put up, here is this paragraph:

    “The initial screen tends to be the sector one, filtering out stocks benefiting from associations with markets and activities proscribed according to Sharia principles. This would include companies involved with pork, financial services, alcohol, gambling, arms, pornography and some sections of the media and advertising industries compromised from a Sharia perspective by their involvement with those markets”…

    (Emphasis mine.)

    Of course, it may be that the linked article, and that of many other articles, is wrong. In which case, someone had better pass on the memo.

  • It makes little sense to me either, Nick – but what do we know, quite literally?

    Of course, it may be that the linked article, and that of many other articles, is wrong.

    Seeing as lying to an “infidel” is sanctioned, we may never know.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Alisa, quite possibly. Actually, I work in the wealth management industry and talk to folk running these sorts of portfolios quite a bit; I might put this to them and see what they say.

  • Please let us know, Jonathan, if you find out – this whole thing got me quite curious.

  • Investment is not the same as the Emir or whatever setting up a state controlled arms factory for the purposes of jihad or defense against the infidel or some such.

    If it’s anything I suspect that fabricating arms in the cause of jihad is OK – indeed encouraged but doing it for profit is not on.

    I think we are looking at a very different world view. Central to Islam is the idea that everyone (certainly every able-bodied male old enough to swing a scimitar is potentially a holy warrior. So not only can an Islamic state have a state arms industry but individuals can bear arms on the proviso that when Allah’s balloon goes up… I guess this all goes back to the crucible of Islam forged in what was essentially guerilla warfare.

    I’m just speculating.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Something is screwy!!! Mo-heads love their weapons, and always have, and they have spread their faith by the sword! Of course, they are not supposed to innovate (shirk), and they may interpret that to mean that only the types of weapons that Mo used are allowable.
    If you were to specialise in swords, knives, daggers, and archery equipment, they might be your best customers!

  • TwoWorlds

    Jonathan – one point to bear in mind is that Islamic finance is very focussed on correct form in structuring transactions rather than underlying economic content.

    That said the general rule about not investing in haram activities is more broadly interpreted though there is much debate over what would be de minimus.

    I spent some time structuring a sukuk al ijara with some conservative Kuwaitis who would list pork, alcohol, gambling, prostitution and non-islamic finance as excluded but never mentioned arms.

    As this would have to be based on the Koran, hadith or other texts, and given how much smiting goes on in them I would be surprised if the there is one on weapons manufacturing.

    But equally if there is a rule against weapons making specifically that might not apply to weapons buying. If M-PBUH’s specific one-liner left the loop-hole in then he must have meant to.

  • I suspect the problem is that when you invest in a weapons company, that company is likely selling weapons to infidels as well.

    I know that the Talmud forbids selling weapons or “Hindustani iron,” which was exclusively used to make weapons, to non-Jews (see Avoda Zara 15b-16a), as well as to Jewish bandits. (I think the underlying principle is that all non-Jewish weapons customers were legally presumed to be bandits as well.) The only exception was the local government, which protected Jewish communities.

    Not that the modern Israeli state cares about this prohibition, as a quick perusal of IMI’s contracts will show.

  • Rich Rostrom

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    Mr Pearce asserts that “Shariah law bans supposedly devout Muslims (cough) from making weapons.”

    This is in extreme contradiction to centuries of well-attested history. Weapons made by Moslems are famous: swords such as the scimitar (made from “Damascus steel”), the tulwar, the yataghan, and the kris, to firearms such as the jezail rifle-musket, and of course the composite bows used by Turkish archers. Afghan Moslem craftsmen produced hand-tool copies of the British Martini-Henry rifle in the 1800s, and of the AK-47 in the 1900s.

    There is nothing to indicate that there is or ever was any scriptural prohibition on Moslems making arms.

    A passing statement that investment in arms manufacturing may violate sharia law is not sufficient evidence for the assertion.

  • Paul Marks

    J.P.s specific claim was that Muslims are forbidden to INVEST in arms making – not that they were forbidden to make weapons themselves.

    Of course to back this claim JP should have cited a specific part of the Koran or the H.

    Citing some report will not do – as such reports tend to be written by Westerners who just ASSUME that a devout Muslim would find the same things objectionable that a “Jesus freak” finds objectionable.

    This is not the case…..

    For example, devout Christians (even in the days of the Roman Empire) often objected to investing in the slave trade.

    That did not stop the Church of England (for example) owning slave plantations – but there were always voices pointing out the irritating fact that this was an unChristain thing to do.

    But it is NOT unIslamic.

    To a devout Muslim what matters about a slave trading enterprise he is asked to invest in are commercial concerns (the share of the profits he will get, the risks the business runs and so on) – there is no ETHICAL objection involved.

    After all the Koran specifically upholds slavery.

    It is the same thing with investing in weapon making – J.P. must seek the verse that bans it (otherwise such investment is lawful for a Muslim).

    Although, of course, it must be on a share of the profits basis – it must NOT be a loan of money with interest (that is forbidden).