Social justice, neo-liberalism and Islamic thought

Mahmoud El-Gamal, the second speaker in today’s plenary session, tackled themes at the very heart of this year’s conference. Asking what do we mean by social justice, El-Gamal examined theories of neoliberal economics and concepts of social justice from classical economics and Islamic thought.  Addressing whether or not neo-liberalism is compatible with Islamic law and Islamic thought, El-Gamal challenged the assumed incompatibility between the two. He argued that this was no longer compelling.

El-Gamal proposed that the majority of Muslims view Islam as favouring redistribution as a form of social justice, saying that “if the core theme in Christianity is love, in Islam it is justice”. He enhanced this argument by explaining that this was not simply a call for more equality of income, but rather that the very rich should contribute more and the state should play a greater role in redistribution and provision of public goods.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZArfibXY7Oc]

On the recent uprisings in Arab states, El-Gamal proposed that these were not initiated by the poor in those countries, but were in fact started by a disaffected middle class whose income levels has not fared well in the last two decades. In Egypt, the middle classes were losing everything they had gained and were regressing to levels of wealth their grandparents experienced before the 1952 revolution. They had been catching up, but started to lose ground and were not getting their fair share. With more wealth being accumulated through capture and political control by the elite, the seeds were sown for widespread social unrest fuelled by anger from the middle class.

In conclusion, El-Gamal highlighted a consistent egalitarian streak in Islamic history and thought that  mostly favours post-hoc redistribution. For this reason, Muslim societies are likely to accept neo-liberal economic policies and place greater emphasis on the scope of redistribution. He noted that each country’s Islamist-egalitarian nexus depends on her history and current interpretations of ‘justice’, which has implications for the viability of various policy reforms.

View El-Gamal’s presentations on the ERF SlideShare account.

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