The Golden Compass

Islam versus global capitalism

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Photography by Boru O'Brien O'Connell

On the morning of July 10, 2003, Umar Ibrahim Vadillo stood beside the whitewashed brick facade of the Mosque of Granada and looked out over the Darro River. Before him lay the ramparts of the Alhambra, where five hundred years earlier the legions of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had completed the Reconquista of Moorish Spain. Beyond the Alhambra, Vadillo saw the shores of the eurozone, and beyond them the citadels of world finance: Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, London; the marble-floored temples where hedge-fund managers, central bankers, and currency speculators paced and traded and plotted. Vadillo had been invited to Granada to celebrate the opening of the mosque, the first to be built in the city since the fall of Al-Andalus; the occasion was being marked by an ecumenical conference on the theme of “Islam in Europe.” Rather than invite some wizened imam promising to build bridges, or a conciliatory local politician, the organizers had invited Vadillo, a forty-six-year-old convert and a bookish interpreter of the relationship between Islam and paper money, to deliver the keynote.

Inside the mosque’s prayer hall, an audience of two thousand local converts, Moroccan and Syrian immigrants, and North African students had gathered. When it was his turn to speak, Vadillo ambled to the center of the stage and hunched over the lectern, his hair slicked back and his ferret-like face wreathed by a trim beard. After putting his notes in order, he began a measured disputation on the origins of debt, the commodification of currency, and the proper Islamic medium of exchange. The members of the crowd sat rapt as Vadillo outlined the history of currency and its role in the subjugation of peripheral economies. Eventually he revealed how Muslims could undermine Western capitalism. “The end to the enslavement of the Muslim masses does not require a jihad in the traditional sense,” but a struggle to quit the dollar, the pound, and the euro and return to a single, gold-backed currency: the Islamic dinar. The fortresses of fiat money standing beyond the sylvan hills of Granada could be besieged by prudent investments, their walls breached by the revival of the caravan, and their treasure usurped — if only Muslims would “stop being naive about the banks and the financial institutions.”

The conference was a uniquely high-profile event, and many in the audience were new to the gospel of the gold dinar. But Vadillo had been honing his message for years. It was in Granada, in 1991, that he had first delivered his “Fatwa Concerning the Islamic Prohibition on Using Paper Money as a Medium of Exchange.” Communism had fallen, Francis Fukayama had declared the end of history, stock markets were bustling, and the New Economy was ascendant. Where many saw the promise of a new, benevolent world order, Vadillo saw magical thinking. “The enormous debt of the countries and the even bigger debt of the individual persons to the banks DOES NOT EXIST on paper,” he wrote. “It is pure computer data.” National economies were financing growth by borrowing vast sums and manipulating their currencies. The financial system, he argued, would only exist for as long as people believed in it; once they realized it was an illusion, the global economy would collapse.

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Although the Granada speech provoked controversy in the West (“The Corrosive Hagiography of Muslim Spain,” one headline read), it also buoyed the popularity of the Murabitun, the modern Sufi sect that counts Vadillo as a lieutenant. Named after an eleventh-century Spanish Islamic revival movement, the Murabitun is devoted to restoring the world to the economic and political system established by the prophet Mohammed when he governed Medina. Though militant, the Murabitun eschew violence; shortly after 9/11 they issued a statement announcing that “capitalism will not be abolished on the battlefield, but in the marketplace where it is practiced.” They consider the obsession with sexuality among Islamic fundamentalists to itself be a sign of decadence. And as discontent with globalization has peaked, the Murabitun have established outposts in England, Indonesia, Germany, South Africa, and Mexico, where missionaries found willing converts among Mayans caught up in the Zapatista rebellion. (They now number more than three hundred there and run a pizza restaurant, carpentry workshop, and Islamic school in San Cristóbal de las Casas.)

Vadillo, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, is a peripatetic finance guru, part Ali Shariati and part Joseph Schumpeter, traveling far and wide to lecture on the “mutation in social values” caused by a half-century of American imperialism underwritten by the dollar. In the past decade he has barnstormed halls of government, corporate boardrooms, and academic conferences from Kazakhstan to the Philippines, armed with PowerPoint presentations featuring outstretched hands cupping piles of glimmering currency stamped with the Dome of the Rock (his own design). The West’s prosperity is illusory, he insists, an empire of rot concealed by the veneer of the middle-class lifestyle its citizens have enjoyed. If Muslims would just turn away from the West and adopt the dinar — if Indonesian rice farmers would stop accepting paper money, if the Saudis would price oil in gold, if Iran would demand dinars for dates — it would induce a cataclysm on par with the Wall Street crash of 1929, and a golden age of Islamic trade would ensue.


Even before the global recession, Vadillo had prominent supporters, the most influential being former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. After the East Asian financial crisis in 1997, Mohamad blamed George Soros and other currency speculators for the collapse of Malaysia’s currency. While other countries restructured their economies along IMF guidelines, Mohamad rejected its recovery package for Malaysia, suspending the trading of ringgits abroad and barring foreign capital from leaving the country for a year. Inspired by Vadillo’s theories, he convened the International Convention on Gold Dinar as an Alternative International Currency, in Kuala Lumpur, where he argued that adopting the dinar would “do more towards countering the oppression of enemies than futile, violent retaliation.” In 2003, not long after Vadillo’s address to the Granada mosque, Malaysia was to become the first nation in the world to adopt the dinar as legal tender. But Mohamad’s long tenure as prime minister ended that October, and his successor scuttled the idea.

The global financial collapse has launched Vadillo into the rarefied set of oracles who foretold the crisis (he is the only one among them who was actively eliciting the collapse). Recently, finance ministers, economists, and heads of state around the Muslim world have committed to employing the Islamic dinar; today the coins are minted in four countries and used as an alternative currency — though not yet legal tender — in more than twenty. What we are witnessing is, in Vadillo’s estimation, “the end of the American cycle.” Since Granada fell to the Catholics, paper money has come to order the life of all humanity. The United States has for the past century employed its military might to ensure the steady export of depreciating dollars (which satisfies Americans’ ravenous appetite for consumer goods) and protect its economic interests abroad, with the Federal Reserve printing — counterfeiting, in his opinion — money to finance its escapades.

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Of course, patriots, economists, hucksters, and zealots have been predicting the fall of the Western financial system — and positioning themselves to profit from it — since the dollar was made the official US currency in 1792. But never before have the dissenters been so many, so various, so vociferous, and in such general agreement. At the root of the consensus is a sense of revulsion toward the abstraction of value and the ruin that has resulted. “The more abstract the instrument,” financial markets expert Martin Mayer has said, “the less it depends on real developments in real economies, and the more likely it is to be a vector of contagion.” Texas Representative Ron Paul, who entered politics the day after President Nixon closed the “gold window” in favor of a fiat currency, compares the US financial system to the ancient Roman model — plunder, export currency, import goods — which “destroys the character of the counterfeiting nation’s people.” World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently acknowledged that “one of the legacies of this crisis may be a recognition of changed economic power relations.” (This was Bin Laden’s dream: “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” In 2004 he said, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda” and the “generals race there, causing America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”) Lately Glenn Beck’s apocalyptic melodrama on the ruinous state of Obama’s America has been sponsored by a gold dealer called Goldline. The founding fathers “talked about what the future of America was going to be like, and how bright it was going to be,” Beck says in one testimonial. “It was going to shake apart, and there would be troubled times, but then it would reset itself and be great again. But I’d like a little bit of insurance.” Gold is a great hedge — even if it’s your own country you’re wagering against.

National allegiances have been frayed by the global dominion of the financial elite, and the Murabitun propose that a new network of Muslim traders fill that void. Ironically, it is in Dubai that the Murabitun’s complementary business ventures operate. In addition to furnishing the theological and political rationale for the adoption of the dinar, Vadillo also invented and oversees the financial apparatus for the currency’s production and implementation, a web of interconnected dinar boosters and vendors. He is the founder of the World Islamic Trade Organization, which works to form a regional trade bloc based on the dinar; chairman of World Islamic Mint, a Murabitun-run company that fabricates dinars and dirhams; director of e-dinar, an electronic payment system based on the mint’s bullion; and chairman of Goldex International, an enigmatic Maltese business that “you can trust to look after all your e-gold needs.”

The Murabitun would seem to share little with Dubai. While the Murabitun sought to form a neo-traditional Islamic trading network, Dubai disappeared into Dubai Inc. — the moniker for its aggregate of state-owned companies — and accumulated $80 billion in sovereign debt as it erected figural skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes, and high-concept island resorts. Yet there are continuities between the two. Both dream of remaking the world in the image of Al-Andalus. Sheikh Mohammed says his model for modern Dubai is cosmopolitan tenth-century Córdoba. The deflation of Dubai’s real estate boom — the embodiment of Sheikh Mohammed’s striving to “overcome the impossible” — and the looming threat of a sovereign default have lately been a boon for newspaper-headline writers spinning variations on “Dubai’s Dream Is Built on Sand.” But it may also benefit the Murabitun, which has managed to profit handsomely from the trade in gold — its value has skyrocketed as the dollar has depreciated — while demonizing Dubai’s peculiar East–West fusion. “This old doctrine with Islamic labels is being revealed as a fraud,” Vadillo has written. “Modernist Islam has died alongside that obsolete model of society that they wanted to ‘Islamise.’” If the Murabitun and Dubai occupy two poles of Islamic finance, then the evaporation of Dubai’s putative wealth could mean a windfall for Vadillo and his band of traditionalists. Late last year, the British journalist Robert Fisk reported that officials from several Arab countries had held secret meetings with counterparts in Russia, China, Japan, and France, where they discussed settling on a new currency for the pricing and purchasing of oil. The alleged plan: to drop the US dollar — the exclusive currency of the petroleum trade since World World II — in favor of gold and a new, unnamed currency to be adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council.


Vadillo was inducted into this milieu by Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, the Scottish convert who founded the Murabitun. (Their relationship has been compared by some Murabitun to that of Aristotle and Alexander the Great.) Abdalqadir, aka Ian Dallas, was a Scottish actor and playwright who had found his way into the heart of bohemian London. He eventually became alienated from the hedonism, cheap mysticism, and inferior hashish of the English counterculture and drifted to Morocco, where he happened upon the Sufi spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. When he returned, he began proselytizing a version of Islam built on Marx’s theories of commodification, anarchic communitarianism, Heideggerian phenomenology, and Goethe’s secretly Muslim humanism. (Eric Clapton got the idea for “Layla” when Dallas gave him a copy of classical poet Nezami Ganjavi’s The Story of Layla and Majnun; it is said that Dallas convinced Cat Stevens to convert at the house of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan.) He established the Murabitun with the goal of fostering a global financial system in line with Shari’ah law and harkening back to the halcyon days of Islamic commerce under the caliphate, which would lead to the creation of an international community of Muslims and, ultimately, the Islamization of the world. Supermarkets, distribution monopolies, disaggregated labor, interest-bearing loans, and inflationary currency would be a thing of the past, replaced by open marketplaces, traveling caravans, traditional guilds, and metal coinage. Most importantly, the pillar of zakat — the obligatory annual “purification” of one’s wealth by donating 2.5 percent of it to charity — would be restored.

Zakat must be paid with tangible goods. The currency that came into use under the caliphate was based on this gift-exchange aspect of the economy, and minted at a precise measure: a dinar of twenty-two-karat gold weighed four and a quarter grams (the equivalent of seventy-two grains of barley), while a dirham of pure silver weighed three grams. Muslims could calculate zakat precisely, and know that they were handing out a static store of value. This standard was abandoned with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which plunged Muslims into a world of interest and inflation. The apotheosis of this new order was the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, which established the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, effectively replacing gold; it was only a matter of time until the gold standard was abandoned entirely, and the global economy was restructured around exchange values that fluctuated in accordance with the whims of traders and central banks.

“The most important political issue facing our Muslim nation today,” according to Vadilla, is that of riba, or usurious trade. This recondite stuff, gleaned from expansive extrapolations of commentaries on hadiths, is the crux of Murabitun theology. In an economic exchange, riba encompasses all “excess” value of goods received above that of the goods given, whether as interest on a loan (riba al-fadl) or as a change in the value of something being traded due to an unjustified delay in payment (riba al-nasiah). After all, paper money is just an inflationary note of debt — a pledge to pay in the future what you don’t have in the present — and speculative investment is the transformation of that debt into wealth, the production of money from money.

This is not such an easy concept to unravel. Fortunately, Vadillo’s writings refer often to others who have elucidated these concepts in starker terms, chief among them Ezra Pound. (Robert Luongo, a prominent American Murabitun and English professor, wrote a whole book about the poet’s pronouncements, called The Gold Thread: Ezra Pound’s Principles of Good Government and Sound Money.) Take this, from one of Pound’s radio speeches: “Usurers provoke wars to impose monoploies, so that they can get the world by the throat. They provoke wars to create debts, so that they can extort the interest and rake in the profits resulting from the changes in the values of monetary units. A nation that will not get into debt drives the usurers to fury.” For Pound, as for Vadillo, the problem is finance: “The foundation of the Bank of England in far away 1694, with the openly declared prospectus: ‘The bank hath the benefit of the interest on all monies which it creates out of nothing.'”


According to Vadillo’s magnum opus, a thousand-page tome called The Esoteric Deviation in Islam (2003), the Murabitun are not simply engaged in toppling Western finance, but in remaking a religion rent asunder by a century of heretical conciliation — the product of feel-good purveyors of an all-inclusive ummah, the Baha'i-inflected claim that there exist many paths to a single God. “The doctrine of the brotherhood of mankind is not a Sufi doctrine, it is not even Jewish or Christian, it is simply a freemasonic ideal,” Vadillo argues. He pledges on behalf of the Murabitun to “create people” who will stand apart from all the accommodationist sects and kowtowing imams, and, together, wage a quiet war against the West, starting with its financial apparatuses. Muslims have been lulled into believing that the meaning of life and the answers to their problems lie in another realm; in fact, the material world is the arena of their redemption.

Dallas College is the breeding ground for the future leaders of this movement. The ostensible reason for the school being in Cape Town is the symbolic power of the place. South Africa has long served as headquarters for the continent’s Western-oriented “banking elite,” and Cape Town epitomizes the disparities created by global capitalism, with gleaming downtown office towers encircled by sprawling slums. (“Islam has universal knowledge,” a recent commencement speaker said, “but it needs the right location in order to revive that unity of knowledge and action of the Ancient Greeks.”) But Cape Town is also far from the controversies that have hounded the Murabitun in Europe. In the mid-nineties, when Abdalqadir was based in Inverness, Scotland, his followers were involved in the takeover of a Norwich mosque — the Murabitun refused to allow non-members inside to worship — which brought the group to the attention of local media. Newspapers reported on “the shadowy world of a sect.” Pamphlets were uncovered that decried mainstream society as a cadre of Freemasons, and evidence of crooked business practices led to a criminal investigation. Defectors claimed that Abdalqadir was fashioning himself as a cult leader and had links to right-wing extremists. “Wagner was the authentic Sufi of the century,” he had said in a 1990 lecture that was unearthed at the time. “Adolf Hitler was the only mujahid! And Heidegger… was the one to say ‘Allah’ after Nietzsche had said there is no God.”

Abdalqadir fled Scotland shortly thereafter, and with age seems to have moderated his views. His public remarks now focus on the treacheries of global financial institutions, and though they have their own distinct flavor (one recent talk was titled “The Supreme Name and the Dogs of Kufr and Shirk”), their substance hardly differs from the opinions emanating from the American Tea Party Movement or MoveOn.org. He attacks Malaysia’s leaders as “servants of the ruling financial system” and predicts that the country will soon become a “Chinese colony” if it doesn’t turn to the Islamic dinar.

Though Abdalqadir’s website pictures him shrouded in a Jedi-esque cloak and hood, the videos on ShaykhAbdalqadir.com show a dapper gentleman with a Windsor-knotted tie, a kerchief in his jacket pocket, a crocheted cap on his head, and a neatly trimmed white beard. In “The Bankers’ World War,” he reclines on an overstuffed paisley couch and, with all the fury of a bemused grandfather, contrasts the decline of the nation-state with the “absolutely indestructible” fraternity enjoyed by Muslims, which persists despite “all the attempts of the syncretists and the interfaith movement of the atheists, run by gangsters like [Tony] Blair.” There is prejudice, to be sure, but it is of the anodyne variety. He beseeches Muslims not to partake of dialogue with Jews and Christians, or participate in the “freemasonic” financial and political systems that serve their elite.

At Dallas College, situated at the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, students are taught the Western canon alongside Islamic fiqh. The Murabitun have established an alternative to both the madrassa, which cloisters students in the world of the Qur’an, and the European model, which aims to integrate Muslims into the liberal state. But before being educated, they must be deprogrammed. “Young adults are adrift in a warped view of what they are told is reality,” one follower of Abdalqadir said at last year’s Islam in Europe conference. In such a state, they “attempt to obtain an education to prepare for a world that becomes their prison.” Once rid of false consciousness, they can get to the business of liberation: studying geopolitics, biopolitics, law, and information technology; reading Shakespeare, Carl Schmitt, Henry James, Heidegger, and Ernst Jünger (whom Abdalqadir credits with “winning back for man his centrality to existence just at the very point in history where he is most reduced and dehumanized”); learning Arabic, Urdu, and Ottoman Turkish (a nod to the sect’s empirical aspirations); and honing their fencing and horsemanship skills.

The results of this curriculum may be mixed — Dallas College graduates tend to write as if they’ve spent three years being force-fed sections of the Harvard Classics while copying generic denunciations of Western decadence on a blackboard — but Abdalqadir’s enterprise is not without its merits. He is, of course, fixated on the collapse of meaning in Western thought; he attacks Marx, Freud, and Einstein as “jugglers” who have done little more than overturn preexisting systems of thought in favor of their own crackpot theories, clouding the path to true knowledge of the self and the divine. But at the same time, he echoes their analyses, and suggests that Western critiques of capitalism aren’t separate from Islam; they are, in fact, subsumed by Islam’s prohibition against the incessant accumulation of capital. If the Europeans had only looked to Al-Andalus, they would have seen their utopia.

While the West’s phalanx of philosophers and critics have been unable to produce any real solutions to the various crises of capitalism — the social welfare state, now debilitated, having been their singular achievement — the Murabitun have a program of action for all Muslims: economic warfare, a return to the time when people traded a dirham for a chicken. (There are no ancient or modern forms of exchange, they argue, only natural and unnatural ones.) In the Islamic dinar, they have not only their weapon of choice, but also a perfect icon of their ideology — a rare and enviable thing for any mass movement. The coin does what all alternative currencies do, which is to make apparent the artificial nature of the prevalent system of exchange: how it compensates, spurs, and indeed embodies labor; how it ushers into being the very thing — value — for which it’s supposed to stand. It was Marx who, in his juggling, noted that money can never fully stand for anything. Every transaction leaves us with a remainder. The market fails to transcend and encompass, determine and measure, all things, whether goods or services or life insurance securities. It leaves us with a sense of the apocalypse on the horizon, when money will burn along with all else. Or it leaves only what can still be gotten from beneath the surface of the earth.