A wave of Islamic insurers gears up to woo Syrians

As the secular government eases its firm control over society, Islamic firms are increasingly cropping up.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    No protection: A Syrian family squeezes onto a motorbike as they roll through Damascus.
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Every morning, as Ibrahim al-Mohammed opens the shutters of his Damascus store, he invokes the name of God. For Mr. al-Mohammed, who sports a trim white beard and a portly belly, divine protection is key to safeguarding his array of soaps and cleaning products. The thought of insurance has never crossed his mind.

"I believe in God and to be a good Muslim you have to believe in his destiny for your life," he declares.

Mohammed's thinking reflects the logic of many Syrians in a country that has long shunned protection. Per capita spending on insurance stands at just $9.50, and most of that goes to compulsory car policies. It is a far cry from the regional average of $30 and the global figure of $550.

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Now, however, Islam may be stepping in to fill the gap.

For the first time, a wave of Islamic insurers are entering Syria, and their Islamic brand could well capture a large slice of the market. According to analysts, the move reflects not only increasing religiosity but also, significantly, loosening government control over Syrian society.

"I need to find an Islamic style because our people are looking for an Islamic style," says Mohammed Habbash, a Syrian parliamentarian and Islamic cleric, pointing to a growing desire for Islam to be asserted in everyday life.

While this trend is not new to the Middle East, in Syria the transformation is particularly significant. The country has long rejected overt forms of Islamization. The ruling Baath Party promotes pan-Arab secular nationalism and in the 1980s the government brutally crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest popular Muslim organization.

Today, however, the government maintains less control over the public sphere and the struggle for morality is increasingly visible. Beyond insurance, an Islamic society is growing more prominent, as reflected by new Islamic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) meeting medical, educational, and other social needs, as well as the growing number of private sector Islamic companies across the economy.

"A large proportion of this society believes in sharia [Islamic Law] so governments allow these businesses to open because you have to give people choice," says Alayham Hamami of Al-Aqeela, the largest of the Islamic insurers about to open in Syria.

In the case of insurance, these new companies say that they offer a model that overcomes the ills of traditional protection. According to Islamic scholars, the element of risk and uncertainty on paying premiums for something you do not know if you will ever use, as well as the illicit activities of many investment houses make the product inappropriate.

Instead, takaful – literally "solidarity" in Arabic – insurance is based on the principle of mutual cooperation. Customers do not pay premiums; rather they donate to a common pot that is then given to any member suffering damages. Standard policies including car, medical, and property insurance are offered, but they are established in line with Islamic law and profits are returned to the donors. Islamic scholars stand watch over all proceedings.

"Some people might think that all insurance is forbidden and we should leave everything to God, but this is not an Islamic concept," says Hamami, pointing out that Islamic insurance now enjoys annual growth of 25 percent in the region, significantly higher than the industry average of 7 percent.

While the service has swirled around Gulf and Asian Muslim states for around 10 years now, it accounts for only a fragment of the total market. Today, however, even international financial powerhouses like HSBC are opening up takaful facilities.

Choice is increasingly available, and in such an environment Islam is adapting to meet new settings and challenges, even where there is perhaps no need.

According to Habbash, the parliamentarian and cleric, Islamic texts provide no specific injunctions against traditional insurance and he sees no religious need for an Islamic model. Nevertheless, he says he supports the project, because it reflects the desire of Syrians for greater Islamic morality.

Whether Syria's Muslims will embrace insurance and other modern incarnations of Islam entering the country remains to be seen. Al-Mohammed, for one, remains unconvinced.

"I don't know much about Islamic insurance," he said. "But, every morning when I open my shop I say the name of God and I believe this is the best insurance for my life."

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