UK government urged to make good on Shariah-compliant loans promise

UK government urged to make good on Shariah-compliant loans promise
Muslim Census found that of its survey’s 36,000 respondents, roughly 10 percent missed out on higher education entirely because of a lack of alternative financing options. (Getty Images)
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Updated 19 October 2021

UK government urged to make good on Shariah-compliant loans promise

UK government urged to make good on Shariah-compliant loans promise
  • Survey: Thousands of Muslims miss out on university every year because they cannot access Shariah-compliant finance
  • Implementation of Islamic loan system a ‘question of political priority,’ expert tells Arab News

LONDON: MPs, campaigners and Islamic finance professionals will deliver a letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday urging him to take action that would end the annual exclusion of thousands of British Muslims from higher education.

A survey by the Muslim Census, published on Monday, found that thousands of young British Muslims choose not to go to university every year because the loans they rely upon to fund their studies bear interest.

“There is a genuine and widespread need for ASF (alternative student financing), and its absence is leading to unequal access to university,” reads the letter signed by Lord Sharkey, MP David Timms, Islamic Finance Guru CEO Ibrahim Khan, Rizwan Yusoof of the National Zakat Foundation and Asha Hassan, a student finance campaigner.

It is religiously prohibited for Muslims to borrow or lend money upon which interest is paid. This means British-Muslim students are forced to pay up to £9,000 ($12,361) per year upfront for their education, as well as cover all their own living expenses.

Muslim Census found that of its survey’s 36,000 respondents, roughly 10 percent missed out on higher education entirely because of a lack of alternative financing options.

A further one in six self-financed their education, which “resulted in severe restrictions with regards to which course and university they decide to attend,” it said.

Extrapolated to the UK’s Muslim population as a whole, these results mean that more than 4,000 potential students are forgoing a university education every year, while close to 6,000 are forced to self-fund.

In 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to deal with the inequity in access to education for Muslims, saying: “Never again should a Muslim in Britain feel unable to go to university because they cannot get a student loan simply because of their religion.”

But nearly 10 years since that promise was first made, Muslims are still being forced to choose whether to pursue an education or stick to the principles of their religion, Hassan told Arab News.

“This is really important to our community, but we’ve so far felt like we have no voice. This letter is hopefully a chance for the prime minister to see that this is a big issue,” she said.

“There are thousands and thousands of students who have the grades, the ambition, the aspiration, but because they don’t feel like they can compromise on their religious convictions, they’re left with no option,” she added.

“Four out of five Muslims who do take out loans feel conflicted by it, but they’re in a position where they feel like they can’t do anything else about it.”

Omar Shaikh, managing director of the UK Islamic Finance Council, told Arab News that the creation of a financing system for British Muslims is “workable” and that its creation is a matter of politics, not practicality.

“UKIFC was appointed by the Department of Education to put together a detailed product that’s efficiently implementable and works at parity with the existing student loans system,” he said. 

“Following various workshops and input from the Student Loans Co., Shariah scholars, the Department for Education and lawyers, we were successfully able to create a workable pragmatic structure. We know it can be done and isn’t onerous to do so,” he added.

“It’s now a question of political priority. We look forward to the government progressing matters, and commend the Department for Education for driving this inclusive policy.”


Diaspora in Brazil reconnecting with Lebanon

Diaspora in Brazil reconnecting with Lebanon
Updated 58 min 36 sec ago

Diaspora in Brazil reconnecting with Lebanon

Diaspora in Brazil reconnecting with Lebanon
  • Renewed interest caused by socioeconomic crisis, Port of Beirut blast
  • Embassy urging Lebanese citizens living in Brazil to register to vote in upcoming elections

SAO PAULO: The ongoing Lebanese socioeconomic crisis, and the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut in August 2020, have led many Lebanese Brazilians to show greater interest in the Arab country’s affairs.

Over the past couple of years, Lebanese Brazilians — whose numbers are estimated at between 3 million and 10 million — have promoted drives to assist Lebanon’s people, and have become more involved in its politics.   

This trend was intensified by a campaign launched in 2021 by the Lebanese Embassy in Brasilia to encourage Lebanese citizens living in Brazil to register to vote in elections scheduled for May.

“Many Lebanese Brazilians know very little about Lebanon. But now I think people are more conscious and trying to be informed,” said trader Nagib Makhlouf, 69, who was born in Brazil but has Lebanese citizenship.

He has already taken part in three Lebanese elections: Two in the country — he used to visit to see his mother, who lived there — and one from Brazil.  

“Lebanon is in such bad shape that many people in Brazil are outraged with the situation. I know a group of 10 Lebanese Jews who decided to register and vote for the first time,” Makhlouf said.

Lebanese-born Lody Brais, a community leader who helped publicize the embassy’s campaign, said more and more young Lebanese Brazilians have been manifesting their wish to get involved with Lebanon and help it overcome its crises.

“The diaspora’s vote may help change Lebanese politics. People have lost confidence in politicians,” added Brais, who helped collect food and medicines to be donated to Beirut after the explosion.

“Many descendants who have relatives there sent them money. Everybody was concerned for the victims.”

At the time, lawyer Hanna Mtanios Hanna Jr., honorary consul of Lebanon in the Brazilian city of Goiania, received dozens of calls during his COVID-19 confinement from people who wanted to do something to help Beirut.

“Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Lebanese immigrants would call me saying they had a family connection with the country and wanted to help. Since then, their ties with Lebanon have been growing,” he said.

Lawyer Maggie Chidiac, 58, who has family in Lebanon, told Arab News that it is perceptible how living conditions in the country have declined in recent years.

“We’ve been sending them food and medicines. Community associations and churches usually coordinate donations,” she said.

“The people are facing terrible challenges. We know it because we’re always in touch with them through the internet.”

Communication between Lebanese and their Brazilian relatives have served to inform the latter about Lebanon’s politics, Chidiac said.

“Their reports and opinions are very important for us because they help us understand their situation,” she added.

One of the institutions that coordinated the donations campaign in 2020, the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce — known by the Portuguese acronym CCAB — not only funded healthcare items that were sent by Brazil’s government to Beirut, but also launched money-donation drives.

“The Lebanese consulate in Rio de Janeiro organized a music concert in which Brazilian musicians played with the Beirut orchestra,” said Mohamad Orra Mourad, CCAB’s vice president of international affairs.

“It was televised, and people could donate money to one of our accounts during the show. It all was sent to the Lebanese Red Cross.”

A Brazilian plane carried 6 tons of food, medicines and healthcare items, including mechanical ventilators.

CCAB was awarded a medal by Brazil’s government in December due its efforts in that campaign.

Mourad said the Lebanese Embassy met with Lebanese-Brazilian business leaders in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro last year, and asked them to find a way of contributing to the Lebanese economy.

“We’ve been organizing informal gatherings and discussing forms of answering that request, which can include an investment fund, for instance,” Mourad said.

CCAB will establish a juridical entity that can centralize donations for Lebanon and plans to launch different initiatives, including a program to train businesspeople in the country. Mourad said it also intends to connect Lebanese and Brazilian startups.

“We’ve been pushing for ratification of a commercial agreement between Lebanon and Mercosur,” he added, referring to the South American trade bloc. With ratification, “the commercial exchange could rapidly increase.”

Mourad believes that if more Lebanese Brazilians obtain Lebanese citizenship, they will feel more connected to the country and may decide to invest in it.

“The revived interest among Lebanese Brazilians can certainly lead businessmen to invest in Lebanon,” he said.

“But that will only happen if Lebanon can demonstrate that it will work to overcome instability.”


Royal Navy cannot solve English Channel migrant crisis, veteran tells MPs

Royal Navy cannot solve English Channel migrant crisis, veteran tells MPs
Updated 27 January 2022

Royal Navy cannot solve English Channel migrant crisis, veteran tells MPs

Royal Navy cannot solve English Channel migrant crisis, veteran tells MPs
  • Tom Sharpe: ‘We have to acknowledge … where the solution to this lies, and it’s not at sea’
  • Over 28,000 people made perilous crossing in 2021, many from Middle East, North Africa

LONDON: The British Royal Navy is incapable of patroling the English Channel to prevent further migrant crossings, and increased ships in the area could encourage more to attempt the perilous journey, a former patrol boat commander has warned MPs.

Tom Sharpe, who served in the navy for 27 years, made his comments as Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed to it taking over the Channel patrols operation from the Border Force.

A record 28,381 migrants arrived on British shores on dinghies or other small vessels last year, triple the number for 2020. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel last week told Parliament that she had “commissioned the Ministry of Defense as a crucial operational partner to protect our Channel against illegal migration.” 

On Wednesday, Sharpe told the House of Commons defense committee: “We have to acknowledge right at the start, in terms of context, about where the solution to this lies, and it’s not at sea.”

He added: “If you fill the Channel with ships you could make this problem worse because you’re now making the crossing safer, and therefore more attractive.

“In terms of what the navy’s got right now, as I say they could use anything, but there is no fat, there is no spare capacity.

“The person in the planning board ... is going to be hoping desperately that naval vessels aren’t requisitioned for this task because they’re all in use on other things.”

John Spellar, acting chairman of the defense committee, said it is “unfortunate that the Ministry of Defense has declined to provide either a minister or an official or a senior navy officer” to respond to queries. 

Sharpe said the navy could assist with intelligence collection and resource organization, suggesting that ministers could spend on 10 surveillance nodes to track attempted crossings. 

Under this approach, he said, “you’re not playing ‘whack-a-mole’ any more, to use that expression, which is what I think is happening now.”

The veteran sailor said he could not “conceive a situation where you’re physically turning these ships back that’s either legal, or perhaps more importantly, safe.”

His comments against more confrontational tactics come as Border Force workers this month threatened to strike over Patel’s “pushback” tactics, which were passed in September but are currently under judicial review. 

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “We cannot have a situation where our members could be open to potential civil and criminal action for implementing a policy that they do not agree with and know is not safe.”


Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1

Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1
Updated 27 January 2022

Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1

Violence erupts at rally in Pakistan’s port city, killing 1
  • MQM mainly represents ethnic MoHajjirs, who fled to Pakistan from India during 1947′s partition

KARACHI: Police in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi clashed overnight with activists demanding the repeal of a law to limit powers of local mayors, killing one, officials said Thursday.
The violence erupted when police swung batons and fired tear gas to prevent rallygoers from marching toward government offices in the southern port city, drawing nationwide condemnation across the political spectrum.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, told reporters that party member Mohammad Aslam died at a hospital after being injured in the ensuing crush with police. Women and children were also among the dozens of injured.
MQM mainly represents ethnic MoHajjirs, who fled to Pakistan from India during 1947′s partition, and it dominates politics in Karachi, the capital of southern Sindh province. It is an ally in the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Thousands are expected to attend the activist’s funeral on Thursday, and the MQM has called for another day of protests.

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India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border
Updated 27 January 2022

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border

India probes illegal immigration after tragedy near Canada border
  • Hundreds of Indians, mostly from the western states of Punjab and Gujarat, attempt to cross the US-Canada border each year

MUMBAI: Indian police have detained six people in a crackdown on illegal immigration after four Indians were found frozen to death near the border between the United States and Canada last week, officials said on Thursday.
Hundreds of Indians, mostly from the western states of Punjab and Gujarat, attempt to cross the US-Canada border each year, braving harsh weather conditions in search of a better life and job opportunities in the West.
Police in Gujarat said they identified the four, belonging to a single family, after law enforcement agencies on the border provided photographs of passports and other belongings.
“We are now trying to nab the human traffickers who managed to send this family and others abroad via illegal channels,” said police official A.K. Jhala in the state capital of Gandhinagar.
The six detained by police were running a travel and tourism company in the state, he added.
US authorities have charged a US man with human trafficking after the four — a man, woman, baby and teenager — were found dead in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a few yards north of the frontier with Minnesota.
They were among four families from the same village who had traveled to the border this month.
Officials said they got separated from the group of 18 people and were probably caught in a blizzard, resulting in a tragedy described as “mind-blowing” by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The situation came to light only when the group was intercepted by authorities and one of them was found to be carrying a backpack with baby supplies, although there was no infant among them.
“The nexus of human trafficking runs deep, often involving local politicians too,” said Jhala, adding that people even sell their land and homes to fund efforts to get to the United States or Canada.
A foreign ministry official in the Indian capital of New Delhi said authorities were coordinating with border officials in the United States and Canada to investigate the illegal immigration case.


North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border
Updated 27 January 2022

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border

North Korea, after harsh 2-year lockdown, slowly reopens border
  • The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighboring China

SEOUL: After spending two years in a strict lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea may finally be opening up — slowly. The reason could reflect a growing sense of recognition by the leadership that the nation badly needs to win outside economic relief.
The North’s tentative reopening is seen in the apparent resumption of North Korean freight train traffic into neighboring China. But it comes even as Pyongyang has staged several weapons tests, the latest being two suspected ballistic missiles on Thursday, and issued a veiled threat about resuming tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the American homeland.
The apparently divided message — opening the border, slightly, on one hand, while also militarily pressuring Washington over a prolonged freeze in nuclear negotiations — likely signals a realization that the pandemic has worsened an economy already damaged by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions over North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s crucial trade with its ally China shrank by about 80 percent in 2020 before plunging again by two-thirds in the first nine months of 2021 as it sealed its borders.
The partial reopening of the border also raises questions about how North Korea plans to receive and administer vaccines following a yearlong delay in its immunization campaign.
“North Korea could end up being the planet’s last battlefield in the war against COVID-19. Even the poorest countries in Africa have received outside aid and vaccines or acquired immunity through infection, but North Korea is the only country in the world without a real plan,” said analyst Lim Soo-ho at Seoul’s Institute of National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s main spy agency.
Commercial satellite images indicate that the first North Korean freight train that crossed the Yalu River last week then returned from China and unloaded cargo at an airfield in the border town of Uiju, according to the North Korea-focused 38 North website. The airfield is believed to have been converted to disinfect imported supplies, which may include food and medicine.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said trade between the border towns will be maintained while pandemic controls stay in place. But South Korean officials say it isn’t immediately clear whether the North is fully reopening land trade with China, which is a major economic lifeline.
Some South Korean media have speculated North Korea may have temporarily reopened the railroad between Sinuiju and China’s Dandong just to receive food and essential goods meant as gifts for its people during important holidays, including the 80th birth anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s father next month, and the 110th birth anniversary in April of his grandfather who founded North Korea.
Many experts, however, say it’s more likely that the pandemic’s economic strain is forcing North Korea to explore a phased reopening of its borders that it could quickly close if greater risks emerge.
Following two years of extreme isolation and economic decay, Pyongyang’s leadership is looking for more sustainable ways to deal with a pandemic that could last years.
While North Korea has so far claimed zero virus infections, it also calls its antivirus campaign a matter of “national existence.” It has severely restricted cross-border traffic and trade, banned tourists and kicked out diplomats, and is even believed to have ordered troops to shoot-on-sight any trespassers.
Pyongyang’s leadership knows that a major COVID-19 outbreak would be devastating because of North Korea’s poor health care system and may even fan social unrest when combined with its chronic food shortage, experts say.
South Korean officials have said that North Korea established disinfection zones in recent months at border towns and seaports. The World Health Organization said in October that the North had started receiving shipments of medical supplies transported by sea from China through its port of Nampo.
The pandemic is another difficulty for Kim, who gained little from his nuclear disarmament-for-aid diplomacy with former US President Donald Trump. Those talks imploded in 2019.
Kim in 2020 acknowledged that his previous economic plans weren’t working and opened 2021 by issuing a new development plan for the next five years.
But North Korea’s review of its 2021 economy during a December ruling party meeting indicated that the first year of the plan was disappointing, Lim said. A rare piece of tangible progress was a modest increase in food production, which rebounded from a 2020 marked by crop-killing storms and floods.
North Korea’s resumed trade with China will be driven by imports. Most of North Korea’s major export activities are blocked under international sanctions tightened since 2016 after Kim accelerated nuclear and missile development.
The North may focus on importing fertilizer to boost food production. It also needs construction materials for development projects important to Kim. Factory goods and machinery are crucial to revive industrial production, which has been decimated by two years of halted trade.
Experts, however, still expect North Korea’s trade with China to be significantly smaller than pre-pandemic levels.
North Korea can’t immediately purchase a huge amount of goods because the multiyear toll of sanctions and pandemic-related difficulties has thinned out foreign currency reserves.
“Still, it’s clear that North Korea isn’t a country that can survive without imports for two or three years, so it’s certain they will attempt to slowly increase imports within a limited scope,” said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
North Korea has so far shunned millions of vaccine shots offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly reflecting an unease toward accepting international monitors. But the country may still seek help from China and Russia to inoculate workers, officials and troops in border areas as it proceeds with a phased resumption of trade, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea may also be forced to adopt a scaled-back vaccination program by tightly restricting access to border areas and providing regular testing and vaccination for border workers.
“It could take nearly 100 million shots to fully vaccinate the North Korean population of more than 25 million, and the country will never get anything close to that,” Lim said.