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Islamization of a Secular Nobel Laureate

by Alamgir Hossain

30 October, 2006

The Nobel Prize was instituted according to the will of the Swedish inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), who stipulated that his wealth fund annual prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. A sixth prize for economics was added in 1969. However, the prize given for peace in recent years has tarnished the entire Nobel initiative.

Last year, the Peace Prize went to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Mohamed ElBaradei. The well-paid head of the IAEA has contributed absolutely nothing toward promoting peace or deterring nuclear proliferation. ElBaradei assumed his post in 1997. During his tenure, it took an initiative from the Clinton administration to bring North Korea's secret nuclear activities under the surveillance of IAEA. Subsequently, his agency did little but keep watch on these facilities until it was kicked out of the county.

The other important nuclear proliferation related case overseen by ElBaradei is that of Iran. Iran has conducted its secret nuclear program for 18 years, under the nose of the impotent IAEA. It was the work of dissidents and pressure from Western countries that uncovered and brought Iran's nuclear activities under IAEA surveillance. Here, too, the IAEA merely kept an eye on the nuclear sites before being kicked out by the Iranian regime.

In 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Shirin Ebadi of Iran for her campaign for women's rights in Iran. In truth, Ebadi has done little to alleviate the human rights situation for women in Iran, except that as a lawyer, she fought a few cases for victims of discriminatory laws against women in court. After Ebadi received the prize, human rights for women in Iran may even have only gotten worse.

In 2000, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung for the "sunshine policy" that promoted reconciliation with North Korea. Peace has proved illusive and tension there is today is at its highest level in decades. Moreover, North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon.

In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Yasser Arafat (together with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin), who until the last moment of his life only sought to trample underfoot every good peace initiative that came along in the Middle East, and incited terrorist activities, including suicide bombing, against Israel.

Against these bizarre disbursements of the Nobel Peace Prize, this year's prize seems to have gone to a very deserving candidate, Muhammad Yunus (and Grameen Bank) of Bangladesh, for his successful microcredit initiative.

Bangladesh has been perennially ridden with poverty and political turmoil. Rampant corruption has distinguished the country for five years. It has become the breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. Over the last decade, numerous terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, have killed nearly 200 people. Terrorists, trained in Bangladesh, have also perpetrated attacks in India and Pakistan.

In the midst of this bleak picture of Bangladesh, Yunus cuts a very hopeful figure. His microcredit venture, which later got the trademark of Grameen Bank (Village Bank), started with a capital of only US$27 in 1983. It provided loans to society's poorest members who were not eligible for loans from traditional banks. It has 6.6 million borrowers in Bangladesh. An overwhelming 94 percent of Grameen's loans went to women, and 98 percent of the loans have been paid back. The microcredit principle has been adopted by 58 countries. There are 500 Grameen-based schemes in the U.S. alone.

One of the greatest pillars for promoting peace in the world is to provide hope to the hopeless by creating wealth for all sections of society and helping the desperately poor out of poverty. Women remain a seriously disadvantaged and repressed section of Muslim society and Yunus has been a huge proponent of women's liberation, empowerment and education, and not just in Bangladesh, as the ever-increasing expansion of his formula to all corners of the world attests. This year's Nobel Peace Prize has gone to a truly deserving person.

Interestingly, his Nobel Peace Prize is being exploited by Islamists in Bangladesh and across the world as a great Islamic achievement. A flurry of commentaries has appeared in the media attempting to give his Nobel win an Islamic color. I will cite two examples here.

A Bangladeshi Islamist Web site,, published a photograph of the Nobel laureate praying with a tupi (Islamic hat) on his head. In the U.K., the Al-Hayat newspaper published an opinion piece, titled "Between the Owner of 'Grameen' and Bin Laden," which labeled Yunus and his Grameen initiative as Islamic and Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida as un-Islamic.

The Bangladeshi Web site promotes the agenda of Jamat-e-Islami, the most fanatical Islamist political organization in Bangladesh and a junior partner in the current government, which is gaining momentum for establishing a Taliban-style Sharia-ruled state. While Yunus is a fierce proponent of women's emancipation, independence and education, these Islamists are striving hard to force women into an Islamic veil, ban them from school and education and confine them at home.

Yunus also has many critics and these Islamists have been the fiercest opponents of his program. While interest-free Islamic banking is mushrooming even in Western countries, Grameen Bank is totally based on interest, which is thoroughly un-Islamic. Prominent Bangladeshi Islamist politician, Mufti Fajlul Haq Amini (whose party is a partner in the current government) expressed his reaction to Yunus' Nobel Prize win by saying, "No Muslim can accept change of fortune by money earned through interests." Indeed, Yunus' initiative is hated by the Islamists, especially for engaging women and charging interest -- so much so that it was a prime target of Islamic terrorist attacks very recently, until the government's crackdown on them.

There is little doubt that Yunus is only a born Muslim and personally a thoroughly secular person. His organization does not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. When the prophet of Islam established an Islamic kingdom under his rule, non-Muslims were not employed in any position of his administration. According to biographies by pious Islamic historians, the prophet single-mindedly acted on expanding his domain into non-Muslim territories through war and reduced non-Muslims to Dhimmis (second-class citizens).

After the prophet's death, the early caliphs followed in his footsteps, establishing a huge kingdom at the expense of the non-Muslim territories with concomitant destruction of non-Muslim religions and religious institutions. There are no instances of women being given opportunities to hold high positions in civilian life or in the administrations of the state during these glorious years of Islam.

According to the standard of Islam set by the prophet and his closest companions, who became the early caliphs, Yunus and his microcredit initiative never falls within the principle and spirit of true Islam. The perennial criticism of his initiative by the Islamists is thoroughly justified according to the tenets of Islam. But the exploitation of his Nobel Prize as a triumph of Islam as attempted by the Muslims now is thoroughly dishonest and unethical on part of the exploiters and very undeserving of Yunus.

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