25/07/2011

New Interest in No Interest

I never cease being annoyed by Bank Asya. Firstly, when I joined them I had to wait over a month for their card to come in the post. I went to the local branch and queued-up twice to enquire about speeding-up the process, and as though the card was attatched to some kind of elaborate tracking device clipped onto a pigeon, they looked at the computer screen and told me it was on its way. It was only the third time I came, that from beyond the sublime, frosted-glass offices adjacent to the main service desk a man came and told me they could cancel it and prepare a new one for me in fifteen minutes, if I could wait that long. Words fail me at this point.
The second reason for my constant annoyance is that Bank Asya’s bank machine distribution per square mile of Turkey correlates equally with the number of karaoke bars per square mile of Saudi Arabia. If you are familiar with the Levent district of Istanbul, you will know that it is the centre of every bank in the country. Not for Asya. You may also know that Istiklal Caddessi is the longest, most crowded shopping street in the city with banks everywhere. Except for Asya.
Thus, if you ever saw me on the street in the last few months you missed crime of the century as at any one time I'd have had at least five hundred liras on me. You may consider it unwise to announce this on the internet but trust me, I would only be spending that on the amount that other banks charge me for using their machines every month as a 'loyalty charge'.
Sometimes I wonder why my employers ever recommended the bank in the first place, and why did I go along with it? To be honest I don't know much about the difference between banks and settled for it as I tend to keep grudges with other banks. I like the green logo for Garanti, but I remember them shutting their doors on me with ten minutes before closing once, and Finans Bank are everywhere, but two years ago in Izmir they consistently denied me access to Western Union, thereby attempting to starve me out of the city.
So why suggest Asya? One of two reasons: Either because the business I work for, Leeds Akademi, finds itself pride of place amongst religiously-inspired businesses, which according to rumour Bank Asya is, or it is because it’s the closest bank to the religiously-inspred school they said company place me with a job in.
I should point out that many Turks will talk about certain companies, even certain supermarkets, as being ‘Islamist’ - which I do find petty, as though I have to remove my shoes before entering, and might have a hand sawn off for using a friend’s bonus card. Of course I’d heard the gossip about Asya being 'Islamist', but I sort of dismiss things like that with all the other lob-sided conspiracy-theory chatter that unfortunately obsesses anyone who opposes the government from the safety of a bar stool.
Whilst looking for the online banking option on Asya’s website yesterday however, I discovered exactly what they meant from a page titled “about interest-free banking”. I merely stumbled on it but of course – a bank declining to make money from usury is working in-line with Islamic economic principles.
The sense from the website is that Asya are quite coy about being labelled religiously-inspired. Obviously this is not to alienate potential share-holders from other faiths, but you kind of get the feeling they are trying too hard in places to not mention the 'I-word' when others, are clearly not bothered - here are some highlights taken from the FAQs:
“the history of interest-free banking dates at Hammurabi who reigned in Babylon between 2123 and 2081 BC... The interest-free banks do not bear any ideology… Since their foundation, regardless of religion, language, political view, religious sect or ethnicity interest free banks have worked with all parts of society... (Are they going for Miss Universe?) ... Switzerland, Luxemburg, Denmark, Philippines, United States of America, England, South Africa and the Bahamas are among the countries which have the banks working on interest-free banking principle. Besides, Citibank, Union Bank of Switzerland, Kleinwort Benson, ANZ Grindlays, Goldman Sachs (last but not least!) United Bank of Kuwait and Arab Banking Corporation have interest-free banking departments”
Dobra dobra konush. Translation: Call a spade a spade.
The famous Turkish Sheikh Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was once asked, during the occupation of Istanbul, what the remedy was for man’s troubles. His reply was “the prohibition of interest and usury, and the obligatory payment of charity”. The man was proved correct about a good deal of things in his own time, so I’ve decided to investigate the pros and cons of interest-free, that is to say, Islamic finance in the current age.
One of the things I’ll be most interested in, apart from how Islamic finance could have prevent the bust-and-boom (well, bust-and-bust) patterns we have been used to for our entire lives, but which apparently were a lot less influential on our day-to-day existence not to long ago.
I’ll also be interested in exactly how these banks bag and distribute the money they do. For if I opt for it, apparently my account can gain money which is not interest, despite looking and feeling a lot like interest. This basically entails investing “in all kinds of raw material, goods and semi-manufactured goods, real estates, machines and equipments required for enterprises… payment of the costs in cash to the dealer on behalf of customer and debiting it to the customer for a certain period.” I would thus earn a share of the profits in the future.
The difference according to Asya, is that “whereas the earning acquired at the end of a term is guaranteed in interest-bearing systems, it is determined as per the efficiency of the supported projects in interest-free systems.” What I can gather from this that a one-size fits all approach is given to lending in interest banks, in terms of time or quantity, but a flexible and more ethical-sounding approach is said to be maintained at Asya, where the profits are shared-out whenever they are yeilded.
As far as conspiracy theories go, then there is arguably a circle of connections between government and the new big economic players who have spawned out of Anatolia with a more politically liberal, socially conservative attitude. The main share-holders listed on Asya’s website include Ortadoğu Tekstil Ticaret San. and Birim Birleşik İnşaatçılık Mümessillik San. along with a guy called Abdulkadir Konukoğlu owns 2,23%.
Regard the latter fellow, one impartial observer on eksisozluk.com wrote that “if Karl Marx returns from the grave, then we should have this man thrown into it”, citing poor pay and working conditions for workers in his factories in Gazi Antep, whose football team he also owns.
That’s all very well, but it doesn’t show big businessmen doing anything out of the ordinary. If we want intrigue then we could look at the fact that Ortadoğu Tekstil Ticaret San. is a connection owned by the chalik family of Çalık Holdings, whose CEO, Berat Albayrak (the son-in-law of Turkey's Prime Minister) was tainted with suspicion for abuse of his connections when he bought two big media outlets in 2008 for minimum price, as the sole bidder, with mega loans from two state banks.
So two options: Seeing as they openly flooded my local branch with AKP leaflets before the election, you can assert that Bank Asya are, quite openly, a religiously-based company supporting a religiously-inspired party who thus don't have to try quite so hard to curry favour with the big men in Ankara, or, you could weave all of these connections to show that they are "turning Turkey into Iran" and creating a religious elite which controls all the money the state should control.
It’s your choice, but I wouldn’t worry about a bank setting-up a new Iran when they don't even think to set-up a cash machine in Taksim.

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