A few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI cited a Byzantine emperor who claimed that Muhammad had brought nothing new to the world except war and violence. Yet in the past two years, the secretive Norwegian Nobel Committee has chosen Muhammad to receive its prestigious international peace prize. And not once, but twice in a row.
Well, not exactly. But it’s certainly significant that the two most recent recipients of this award have been prominent members of the Muslim intelligentsia who share the world’s most commonly used name given to male children.
Last year it was the Egyptian-born head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei. This year, the committee overlooked 190 other candidates to award the prize to an eccentric banker from the Indian sub-Continent.
Muhammad Yunus is a Bangladeshi-born and American-trained economist who invented microcredit - an unusual method of lending money to people with no assets to mortgage and nothing to offer except a business plan and economic desperation that forces them into hard work.
Yunus’s Grameen Bank has now lent over $8 billion, most of it to impoverished villagers in Bangladesh and other parts of the Third World. Although largely unknown in the West (as opposed to prominent politicians and activists among past winners), Yunus and his bank are household names in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Grameen Bank has an impressive array of assets. It owns Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone network. The bank has played an important role in assisting women from impoverished backgrounds gain some financial independence, particularly women whose male providers are unable to find work.
Muhammad Yunus’ unique banking methodology has been applied outside Bangladesh to great effect. His bank has worked on development projects for women in Vietnam and other parts of the world. From time to time, he has fallen foul of religious zealots in Bangladesh unhappy at what they perceive as Yunus’ methods challenging traditional Bangladeshi gender relations.
Yunus isn’t the only Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize. This year, the Nobel Committee awarded prizes to two prominent Muslims, the other being Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.
First published in the Crikey! Daily alert for 18 October 2006.
Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf