Wednesday, 26 May 2010

a religious perspective on the tax burden

i was asked to write something last week regarding the tax changes in the recent budget, and a religious perspective on the resulting shift of the tax burden from those at the top to those at the bottom. so i wrote the piece below, and thought i'd put it up here for posterity.

one of the most basic islamic values is that of community. every muslim person has a series of responsibilities towards other people in society. the highest level of responsibility is to immediate family members - spouse, children, parents, siblings. then there is the responsibility towards extended family members, towards neighbours, and towards friends. then a there is a level of responsibility towards more distant members of society - the poor, the wayfarer (ie travellers who are far from home and in need of help), the sick, the elderly.

a muslim person can't opt out of these responsibilities - can't in the sense of "wouldn't be a good muslim if you did". to the extent that seclusion from society (eg like catholic nuns, or like hindu and buddhist ascetics) is not allowed. we are part of society and are required to fulfill our responsibilities to the best of our ability.

part of a successful society, then, is a concern for those who are less well off. for example, a muslims who goes to bed with their stomach full while their neighbour is hungry is not a good muslim. we should be on well enough terms with our neighbours that we know what state they are in.

another value that is extremely important for us is charity. that's why we're required to give 2.5% of our savings to charity. for those who have no money, teaching someone to read is charity. moving an obstacle from the road which might harm others is charity. even a friendly smile to a stranger is charity.

our economic system is underpinned by the values of community and charity. that is why interest and profiteering are forbidden. hoarding of wealth is also forbidden - we are urged to spend our wealth and be generous with it. the theory is that you spend now, and if the day comes when you are in need, then other members of the community will spend on you as you spent on them in your time of plenty.

by spending, i don't mean just on consumer goods. spending includes money going towards key infrastructure (hospitals, schools, etc) and includes money lent to others in need. forgiveness of loans is a considered to be one of the highest acts of worship.

islam approves of trade and entrepreneurial activity, and to be successful in business is considered a good thing. however, there are two key factors. the earning of wealth should not involve any exploitation such as unfair wages to employees, harm to the environement, cheating of any kind. second, once the wealth is earned, a muslim will have to account for every cent. the focus of a muslim's life should not be the accumulation of material possession, but should be on acts of worship which includes the sharing of that wealth with others. our attitude should be that our wealth is not something we own by right, but rather is something we hold on trust.

when it comes to the modern world, the implementation of islamic values would mean that muslims don't begrudge paying their taxes. it's part of the spending on infrastructure and on the needy that is required of us. and of course, islamic values would require that the wealthy should pay more and the poor should pay less. in fact, in islam there is a level under which the poor are not required to give.

in a time of recession, with cuts to social services and a budget deficit, i can not see how it would be consistent with islamic values to cut income taxes for the rich while increasing the burden on the poor who are already suffering disproportionately. it goes against all values of compassion, community and charity that are integral to the muslim character.

given that a lot of the very wealthy in this country have earnt their wealth through profiteering, it is immoral to increase their level of wealth while cutting core services like home help for the weak and elderly, or ACC funded counselling for the sexually abused.


Deborah said...

Thank you, anjum. I knew some of the Islamic values, but only as an outsider, and only in part. It was good to hear how they all fit together, and how they work, or should work, within contemporary society.

stargazer said...

thanx deborah. the "should work" is definitely right! knowing how things should be is one thing, trying to implement in your own life is another. i think i have a long way to go...