Mutual benefits: Islamic moral economy and Neo-Liberalism 

An interview with Abdessamad Belhaj by Bianka Speidl


You conduct research in Belgium and you gave a lecture in Brussels on the Muslim perception of the goods in Europe. You argue that the neo-liberal economic order profits and accommodates the way sharia governs the life of Muslim immigrants. How did you reach this conclusion?

Multidimensional academic research of Islam in Europe as a discursive tradition and a contemporary social complex reality unveils a solidly based “Islamic moral economy”. By an Islamic moral economy, I mean an informal and parallel economy expressed, practiced and expanded through everyday religious, cultural and social acts. In turn, the material gains justify the viability of the ethics of Islam. It is an Islamically and socially embedded economy based on a simple circular argument: whatever is framed by sharia should be good and whatever works should be framed by sharia. Islamic moral economy leads to collapsed societies and stateless territories, although it often claims to be just and virtuous. It struck me as a research idea when, one of the highest representatives of the Muslim community in Belgium told me that “even if the arguments for the necessity to reform Islam are valid from an ethical point of view, abandoning traditional Islam would be an economic disaster for the community”. As such, what I call Islamic moral economy is the sanctification by Islam of an economic model that reflects the deep social structures (families, clans and tribes) of North African and Middle Eastern societies. It is the spiritualisation of an economy in which every act, violent or moderate, and transaction, legal or illegal, serves as a tool to spread Islam, support and maintain the Muslim community.

At some point in your lecture you state that “property is a religious instrument”. How does theology transform into economy?

Islamic moral economy relies on religious and economic premises that are closely interconnected. To put it briefly: Islamic moral economy believes that if there is money, it is because of Islam, and if there is Islam it will bring money because of the constant redistribution of the goods. In Islam, all property belongs to God, and when he gives it to people, he expects a deal: that of spending it in “the way of Allah”. Islamic law urges to use every property in the service of religion. Property is regulated by sharia, the only valid law from an Islamic point of view. The faithful considers all property as “given” and not “acquired” by work. So, the more property a person has, the more it feels she or he should give it back to God, that is to mosques, call to Islam, pilgrimage, supporting jihad, etc. If a person acquires property and does not redistribute it, religion and society will activate a discourse of guilt, that we might call the trade of guilt. Here, hell appears as the ultimate scarecrow through which Islamic moral economy threatens anybody who does not contribute to it. Conversely, paradise is an incentive to participate in this economy. So, this trade sustains the Islamic moral economy, leading to expansion and the exhaustion of resources. This moral economic circle has two additional consequences. First, trust is based on the apparent practice of Islam (showing up to the mosque, etc.). Second, it alienates the believer from the modern society and its citizens. 

How is it that while poverty prevails in the Muslim world, people still trust this system?

In terms of market economy and instrumental rationality, the situation is disastrous. The point lies in the different ways of thinking: the faithful Muslim does not doubt even if he or she is miserable, because God supervises this moral economy, while the average European doubts. The certainty, the patience and the determination of the Muslim, concomitants to his faith, are sustained daily by this moral economy as we can observe in the flourishing of religious foundations and the construction of mosques. The massive Islamisation worldwide financed by the rentier economy of oil since the 1970s has been another result of the same perception of property. Rentier economy means income generated not from labour, production or service, but from donations by oil countries, and Muslim governments which redistribute international funding. In particular, oil allowed countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to re-Islamise migrants in Europe, and Muslim societies from Africa to South East Asia. This income was sold as a divine grace, to disseminate conservative and political Islam, the results of which we see today in the spread of Salafism and political Shiism. This Islamic moral economy is autonomous and nurtured, among other things, by a “gift economy”, the Islamic perception of property, transnational exchange, Islamic finance, halal industry, family or clan based informal economic activities, demography, illegal money, etc.

What is a gift economy? Is it about profit serving God’s cause?

In a gift economy, valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. The person who donates for building a mosque – sadaqa – provides a gift, the function of which is to strengthen the identity and the cohesion of his or her own community, and the place of the donator in this community. It is the opposite of market economy where goods and services are primarily exchanged for value received. It is a sacred economy in the sense that economic activity, from the household to the market, is formulated in a religious language and acts, so much so that a person would donate money for a radical organisation with the complete conviction that it is not at all an economic activity – an illegal one I should add – but a pure act of religion. The typical manifestation of gift economy is how Islamic charities function: the more money you donate to an Islamic charity in Europe, the more central your position becomes in the community, which allows you to get material benefits. Islamic charities are usually led by Islamists, mainly Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, with international webs from Indonesia to the United States. They practice missionary work, while funding Hamas, and other Islamic projects controlled by Islamists, sustain numerous teams and business projects in Europe and elsewhere.

And the law of the state matters nothing?

Well, state law has no weight compared to the law of God – or what is considered as such. Often, Islamists accept state law as a parallel law, to establish a parallel society. Islamists today defend secularism in Europe because in the current form of secularism, parallel economy is possible.

But how come that a person donates while living from social benefits?

There is a sort of charismatic economy around Muslim communities that also attracts converts. This moral economy appears as a blessed subsistence, rizq that you get with no specific reason; it just happens that your brother or a sister (in Islam) fulfilled his or her religious duty and you benefit from this. The ethics of rizq send the message to the convert that, “if you submit your will to God, and join us, you will be blessed”; the convert learns quickly that he or she should give to continue getting gifts. This redistributive system allows surviving on the periphery even without having a job for 30 years while having as many kids as possible.

And what about the European policy makers?

Socialist and social democratic parties also played a major role in this gift economy: they gave Muslim families social assistance, in exchange of votes, and then supported the construction of mosques and the spread of Islamism, etc. It is an alliance that, at the end of the day, discourages Muslims from integration, citizenship and work. Meanwhile, as one might expect, Islamists emerged as leaders of this Islamic moral economy, replacing the left wing politicians. Now, as neoliberals stop this welfare policy, Islamic moral economy will lose a source, and some impatient young Muslims will turn to radical Islam while others will rely on moderate Islamists blessed by neoliberalism as mediators.

What is the link between the neo-liberal economic order and Islamic moral economy?

I argue that the neo-liberal economic order that minimalises state control needs an accordingly minimal society in which people do not cost, almost anything to the state, except a minimal income that should be used for consumption. Also, such a society would have necessarily a minimal cohesion since without social services and culture, people are disconnected. This results in weakening further the state and the middle classes, diminishing the social burden to the minimum in terms of health and education, while keeping people’s impulses for consumption and – with the help of pluralism and democracy – maintaining their trust in the system. However, this leads to sustained poverty, which is going to be the fate of a considerable portion of people in the West. Neoliberalism puts in a winning position those who produce at a cheap price, and here come immigrant workforce into the picture. One of the side effects of this process is the deepening rift in the society and the growing support for radical right wing parties. In a sense, the aim of neo-liberalism is to maintain a society in which sustained poverty does not lead to rebellion, due to the necessity of securing the capacity to consume and as a result to be controllable. This should remain, in the neo-liberal perception, a creative and controlled chaos.

But why does Islam gain special importance in this process?

Because among all religious traditions Islam, as it is practiced today by many Muslims and promoted by radical and moderate Islamists alike, has the potential to play the game of neo-liberalism. Some basic principles of Islam are consistent with the logic of neoliberal economy.

What principles do you mean?

Islam does not have a central authority to restrain it, it claims to be universal, it legitimates poverty, yet it is socially active, keeps national feelings weak or prevents them from evolving. Also we have to add that sharia is permissive beyond the few forbidden things as we can see with branding as halal various food products and even inventing halal beer. The point is that the redistributive character of this moral economy guarantees self-subsistence. In other words, minimal wage maintains a huge mass of consumers. That said, the neo-liberal utopia finds a natural environment in the Muslim suburbia, from which the state withdraws. Parallel to this process these grey zones disrupt social cohesion and peripherialise societies.

Are parallel societies wanted side effects then?

To some extent, yes. I think this neo-liberal order does not have a persuasive narrative to offer to the people. The narrative of human rights and dignity, freedom of expression, welfare-state, which are very connected to Christian democracy by the way, and solid, extended middle classes are outdated for neoliberalism, except as slogans. They cost too much according to neoliberals. Islam as an ideology today offers all the possibilities for such policies to be justifiable. One can also mention how neoliberal thinkers and managers in Western Europe, encourage migration and accommodate Islam. The affinities of Islamisation with neoliberalism are structural, and not accidental.

Is there a marriage of convenience between neoliberals and Islamism? If so, does this idyll remain unshaken by mass-migration and self-segregation?

As actual resources in a Muslim society are limited and when poverty cannot be sustained any more, some people will move to another place to start another cycle of Islamic moral economy that ultimately means exhausting resources. In Islamic discourses, migration is seen as a beginning of the Islamisation of Europe, the rich land that will change the fate of Islam, from a religion of the poor to a religion of the rich. This is of course a paradox since the poor can only make Europe poorer. Furthermore, immigration is justified as victory to the community. The reason Islamic moral economy is disastrous is that it is nomadic and moving, and not sedentary and local: it uses income to justify moral viability, increases the number of the community through demography, converting and migration, exhausts resources and moves on.

 How does this system realize itself in Europe?

The moral economy of Muslim communities in Europe is active at different levels. One of these levels is donations: those collected in Muslim countries, always ready to donate for Muslims in Europe, and those of Muslim communities in Europe. This process is not mere charity; it is a social market as the mosque, for example, will contribute to the moral economy of the community in return. The mosque creates a school, runs associations, opens shops, has an international bank account, employs young people, establishes partnership with a Muslim country, solves conflicts, contracts marriages, and so on.  Islamisation is a matter of stakeholders, who do not possess necessarily the capital of religious authority (families, clans, small shops, etc.) as much as it is a matter of shareholders, who possess this capital (imams, theologians), if not more. My discussions with young Muslims in Europe reveal how they feel confident about Islam as the most viable social and economic system in a world they see as falling apart – even if the links they entertain with Islam as a religious tradition are usually loose. This perception is well exemplified by the Moroccan community in Europe that sends, every year, more than 4 Billion dollars to Morocco as financial transactions to build houses, mosques, sustain large families, invest in banks, etc. while living in minimal conditions in Europe, benefiting from social assistance.

Are they constructing mosques while living as destitute?

The building of mosques is another example for this process. Because of neutrality, the states in Europe do not build mosques, yet a bunch of few activists can build a mosque in a couple of years. How? Through donations. In this process, the role Islamism plays as an economic planner, the attraction of youth to the Middle East to benefit from a “moral economy” of jihad, the emergence of an Islamic bourgeoisie in Turkey, and in other places in the Muslim world, are all manifestations of this Islamic moral economy.

You have just mentioned the link between jihad and moral economy. Could you tell us more about the link between them?

At its height, the ISIS disposed of a budget of 2 billion dollars. Radical movements in particular promote the strategy of „managed chaos”, emphasize communitarianism, submission, and also promise salvation for the marginalized in the hereafter as well as victory in the herein, etc. The gain is not abstract as a western person would think. Jihad blesses anarchy and economy of war as “sacred anarchy”, considers warlords as sanctified men, and crimes as acts of piety. To use differently Benjamin Barber’s terms, I think “jihad deadly loves MacWorld”. Islamic movements and the migration waves provide examples of how MacWorld attracts jihad. On the one hand they yearn for the living standards of the West. On the other hand, as shown by the crisis of the second and third generation of immigrants, they cannot obtain what they desire. This failure, ineptness and exclusion generate aggression. Jihadism sustains a religious narrative – an apocalyptic one I would say – stressing the need to demolish the “pagan” West and bring Islam to victory. However, in fact it serves economic interests, usually of international dimension, while it provides false feeling of religious self-realisation. Generating fear strengthens the Islamic moral economy, as it proves to its adherents the moral superiority of Islam, and prepares for its long awaited victory.

Even so, the neoliberal elite needs Muslim immigrants in particular?

Migration is useful for the neo-liberal model of the borderless, minimal, global society, but is calamitous for the European citizens as a whole. The millions of migrants neoliberalism welcomes appear as a cheap work force; it believes that the expenses spent on them will pay back by lower salaries, etc.. In the meantime, European citizens get poorer since average wages are decreasing, and unemployment is on the rise. The logic of neoliberalism only looks at the profit it could get from Muslim migration. It does not want to see that Muslim migration has its own moral economy, and that this moral economy is a deadlock.

And terrorism is the unwanted side effect?

Exactly. Neoliberals underestimate three threats and consider them as collateral damages. First, that Islamic moral economy leads to bankruptcy and collapsed societies. Second, that jihadism is inseparable from the Islamic moral economy, and indeed a sign that it needs violence to sustain its existence or to expand further its boundaries. Third, that a reaction of European citizens to Islamic radical violence might lead to disintegration. Neoliberalism overlooks these risks and surrenders to the promises of Islamic moral economy such as Islamic finance, sustained by a global flux of money from East Asia to the US, cheap work force and population growth.

A recently published poll in Germany revealed that sharia for Muslims living in Europe is far more important than the respect for state law. What are the means available to the state then?

Above all, the state should change its perception and management of migration; it should address individuals and citizens, not communities. It should not adapt itself to the demands of the Muslims, as it should not adapt itself to the demands of any other group of migrants. It is the immigrant, as an individual who should adapt itself to the state that receives him. That said, the state should base its policy on a coherent strategy: a strict contract of integration, a persistent discourse and policies of cultural and social cohesion, on the respect for law, ethics, secularism, and being part of the nation. I think the panic of European citizens is justified and legitimate: it is a moral panic of resistance to the neo-liberal order, and rejection of the peripheralisation of Europe. European citizens see every day how immigrants evolve in a parallel economy and who display ethics that do not meet European ethical standards and do not serve local interests. As for Muslims, I think there is hope that with a radical movement of self-criticism, the migrants in Europe will stop the machine that produces sectarianism, ISIS, terrorism and maintains the oppression of women.




Abdessamad Belhaj is a research fellow of the Research Group for Religious Culture pertaining to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Szeged. He is also a visiting lecturer and research fellow at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). Since 2014, he also held visiting lectureships and fellowships and conducted research in Finland, France, Germany and Belgium.  He received a PhD in Islamic Studies in 2001 and a PhD in Social and Political sciences in 2008.  He has published books and articles on different facets of Islam. His latest book is entitled The Ethical Thesis: Practical Reason in Islamic Legal Hermeneutics (2015).