Monday, 22 of December of 2014

Trade is a Mutually Lucrative Means of Establishing Relationships Between the Muslim and Wider World

My column published in the Huffington Post in December 2012

As a British Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, I find myself at the forefront of debates about the kind of relationship that can be held between ‘Islam and the West’, whether ‘Islam and Modernity are compatible’ and why Muslims allegedly can’t engage with the western world. By its very nature such discussions come with a bias and are set against a political backdrop.

But as someone whose family travelled in the early 20th century from India to East Africa for economic reasons, and whose parents did the same by moving to the UK as part of the British empire, I have a different take on this subject: and it comes in the guise of trade. Simply put, many of our social attitudes may be shaped by political grandstanding, but the reality of our lives and our political relationships are much more pragmatically shaped by trade and commerce.

In the eigth century, King Offa of England decided to mint coins with the Islamic declaration embossed on the rear. It was no doubt a practical decision by a ruler who wanted to trade with the increasingly close by and wealthy Muslim world. Sought after spices could only be procured along the old Silk Road, whose route passed through many Muslim nations. And even our increasingly fashionable cup of coffee has its roots in the Muslim world. In fact, coffee houses in the 17th centuries were considered hotbeds of sedition, partly connected to the fact that coffee was seen as the drink of the Ottoman enemy, and it was referred to as ‘the wine of Islam.’

The 21st century is no different: trade still governs the reality of life. And in my view, alongside cultural and artistic transactions, trade is a mutually lucrative means of establishing robust and enduring relationships between the Muslim and wider world.

“Building bridges through business” is the wording used by the World Islamic Economic Forum that is taking place this week in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a commercial city that sits on the southernmost tip of the peninsula, and once the last built place before the marshes of Singapore.

It’s a lofty goal, and one much needed. We live in a world of 1.8 billion Muslims (1 in 4 of the population today is Muslim) and which is set to grow to 2.2 billion by 2020. And yet today they collectively earn 80% less than world average income.

From 4-6 December, Muslim political, business and cultural leaders including 2,100 delegates from 86 countries will discuss topics from the more economically expected such as innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship and sustainability, to more diverse subjects like nanonetch, waqf investments, and disaster mitigation. There will be the expected dignitaries: the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the President of the Comoros, the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, special representatives of the Prime Minister of Qatar and the President of Pakistan, and the President of the Islamic Development Bank based in Jeddah.

What I’m particularly pleased about is to see streams focusing on young leaders as well as business women, and I’ll be speaking at the Forum about ‘Revolution unveiled: The rising innovation of Muslim women. ‘

The business world is only slowly waking up to the potential of the global Muslim consumer. With such a young growing Muslim population that is open to brands, and whose faith guides their consumption, it is an opportunity for savvy marketers. But even within this rich seam of consumers are Muslim women. Forget being misunderstood, even when not misrepresented, they are under-understood and under-served. Muslim women have expectations that companies, governments and civic organisations will innovate to meet their needs. And when they don’t, they innovate themselves.

I also mentioned the power of arts, and so it’s heartening to see an unusual development for a Muslim organisation: a Marketplace of Creative Arts, featuring film makers, singers, dancers, musicians, spoken word artists and cartoonists. Western and Muslim art and architecture has been mutually influential over centuries.

The hope – like in times past – is that economics will trump politics in building links and result in a more peaceful and secure combined future.

Thousands of years of trade have told us that the relationship is a positive and fluid, and mutually beneficial intellectually as well as economically.

Ideally, the future ahead of us is one where I stop having to discuss inane and passé questions like the compatibility between the Western and Muslim worlds. Commerce and arts are two of the powerful demonstrations of what is possible.


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