Thursday, August 30, 2007

Poverty Is Also an Issue for Muslims

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) Aug. 30, 2007 - There were two bits of interesting economic news that surfaced this week. In one story, the late hotel magnate, Leona Helmsley, willed the sum of $12 million from her vast estate for the care of her beloved dog, named Trouble, while leaving absolutely nothing at all for two of her grandchildren.

The second, and much more relevant story, was a report that the poverty rate in America had declined, for the first time in the years of the Bush presidency, to a little more than 12 percent of the population. This means that, statistically, a little over 36 million people in America are classified as "poor"- that is, having less than $20,000 in income for a family of four persons.

In the Washington, D.C. area, the statistics were less than encouraging. The capital of our nation has a higher statistical poverty rate (21% of our residents) than all but one state in the union (Mississippi), and the reported racial income and wealth gaps that separate black and white D.C. residents were startling. White Washingtonians earn, on average, 150 percent more than their African-American counterparts.

Poverty is not an economic issue that most people in America - except the poor themselves - pay much attention to. With the exception of former Senator John Edwards, none of the Democratic or Republican candidates have mentioned poor people in their campaign speeches. We are, for the most part, much more likely to watch the gyrations of the stock market, or the rising price of milk, or worry about the interest we pay on our mortgages, than to think about the 36 million Americans living in poverty, or the 35 million more who are classified as "working poor" - barely surviving from paycheck to paycheck.

Poverty has not gone away in America. It is pervasive, and destructive – and an it an issue that Muslims must engage. But how?

I have two suggestions. First, and most radical, is that we share with others the Islamic concept of prohibition of Riba, or interest, as a cornerstone of our interpretation of economic justice. Our religion teaches that people must not be oppressed by usury, and that economic fairness requires us to seek alternative ways to engage in financial transactions. In an Islamic economic system, for instance, predatory payday loans, with annual interest rates sometimes exceeding 300 percent, would not exist - and society would seek to eradicate the financial exploitation of poor and working people by encouraging fair and livable wages, instead of "minimum" wages that only allow for a "sub-minimum" standard of living.

Secondly, a more immediate Muslim response is simply that we vote, as individuals and members of a value-centered community, and that we cast our votes for policies that address the terrible reality of poverty in America.

All too often, we seem to forget that poverty is not just about personal issues, or purely economic factors. It is also dependent upon a large set of factors determined by political empowerment. When we vote on issues related to, for instance, funding for public schools, or health care, or child care for working moms, or public employment creation, we are voting for policies that impact on the economic lives of tens of millions of poor people. Similarly, when we support (or hopefully challenge) the enormous allocation of public funds for the war system, we are sending a direct message to the leaders of America regarding whether we should wage a war in Iraq, or a serious war against poverty here in the most affluent nation on earth.

In a nation where dead billionaires leave millions of dollars for their pets, and the shopping mall is a virtual temple of worship, some might say that the goal of totally eradicating poverty in America is hopelessly utopian. But I believe that ending poverty is a struggle that can be won in a generation, and one that Muslims can positively impact. It will require moral character and courage, but the task is far from impossible.

I truly believe that the plight of poor people is one than we must lift up, not only by sharing the positive Islamic vision of economic justice and fairness for all human beings, but by also taking our "souls to the polls" in 2008 and voting for public policies that will move us all toward the end of eradicating, once and for all, poverty in America.

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