Global Business Basics -- Business And Islam

Dec. 21, 2004
Understanding cultural differences is especially important during turbulent times.

At this writing, the horrible events of Sept. 11 have been attributed to fanatical Muslim terrorists. As businesses strive to adjust to this strange new world, they are reexamining their relations with the enormous market of Islamic customers. First off, it must be said that Muslim leaders immediately denounced the bombings as an aberration, contrary to the laws put down in the Koran. To the vast majority of Muslims around the world, terrorism and murder are in direct violation of their faith. The average Muslim bears no more responsibility for these acts than the average Protestant can be held accountable for the Protestant Unionists who threw a bomb at Catholic schoolgirls as they walked to school in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Sept. 5. Few (if any) Western businesspeople are currently doing business with the Taliban or Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, Al Qaeda. And the rationales for bin Laden's hatred of the U.S are beyond the scope, or desire, of the average businessperson to change. The U.S. is not going to voluntarily reduce its global influence, nor will we stop supporting Israel, or evacuate U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there may be increased U.S. presence in the countries neighboring Afghanistan. Until the threat from Afghanistan is over, the U.S. military will base troops in any Central Asian nation that will allow us on their soil. All of these nations (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) have Muslim majorities. And all of them are potential U.S. customers. This increases the scope of an already enormous market that stretches from the Far East (Indonesia has the largest Islamic population of any country) to the West Coast of the U.S. Since most North American corporations do market to Muslims, they should be aware of some cultural issues that a wide number of Muslims find sensitive. While there are some differences among the branches and sects of Islam (e.g., the Sunni, the Shiite, and the Sufi), there are many common threads as well. How important is it for North American businesses to consider Muslim sensitivities? It might be as basic as having a U.S.-based multinational firm try to coordinate a convenient time for a global sales-force meeting. Appointments -- whether they are global videoconferences, conference calls, or face-to-face meetings -- must occur during a time when the participants around the world are not on holiday, asleep, or praying. If your employees or clients are devout Muslim, their holy day is Friday -- no business is conducted (many people take off Thursday too). So if your Islamic prospects or personnel work from Saturday through Wednesday, U.S. schedules need to be adjusted accordingly. Or it can be as devastating as discovering a multi-million dollar ad campaign and product release must be scrapped. In a previous article we related how Nike was forced to recall thousands of pairs of shoes in 1997. The flame design on these shoes inadvertently resembled the Arabic word for God (Allah), and Muslims saw this as a desecration. Facing worldwide protests and boycotts of their shoes, Nike implemented the recall. Arabic tradition holds that the foot is unclean. Protests are sure to erupt any time the word Allah is put in contact with the foot (or other unclean parts of the body). That is where Nike encountered problems. Nike marketed a series of basketball shoes (including the Air Melt, Air Grill, Air B-Que and Air Bakin' series) with a decoration intended to resemble fire. Unfortunately, when viewed right to left (which is the way Arabic is read), the flames resembled the Arabic word for Allah. Nike is not the only footwear company to have made that error. Some years ago, the Thom McAn company had a similar problem. (It should be noted that there is a wide range of opinion on this topic among Muslims. As long as there is no evidence of an actual intent to defame Islam, some North American Muslims shrug off such controversies, realizing that these incidents arise from ignorance on the part of advertisers. However, it is safe to say that no observant Muslim likes to see the name of Allah misused.) Compare the Nike protest to incidents involving Christian groups. Today it is unusual for Christian organizations to protest actions by any corporations, let alone be powerful enough to cause the corporations to change their actions. In recent years, protests by Christian groups did not stop the release of allegedly sacrilegious entertainment, such as Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ or Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi. Nor were Christian protests against the Walt Disney Co. successful in changing Disney's policy of welcoming gay employees and patrons. In fact, some entertainment purveyors welcome such protests as a way of generating public attention. Today such protests usually represent the actions of a small minority of Christians. The majority of Christians may agree or disagree with these protests, but they aren't about to inconvenience themselves by joining in a boycott. On the other hand, Muslims seem able to generate substantial numbers of participants in their protests and boycotts. One reason for this disparity between Islamic and Christian participation in secular affairs is the Western concept of the separation of church and state. This separation arose after centuries of violent conflict between European Catholicism and Protestantism. Although a legal separation of church and state (such as in the U.S.) is uncommon, the attitude that religion has little part in business and government is quite common throughout Europe and the Americas. Church and state are rarely separate in countries with an Islamic majority. Relatively few Muslim-dominated countries have strict laws keeping religion out of state affairs. Of these, only Turkey has managed to maintain a democracy within a secular government. Other secular governments tend to maintain their power over their Muslim population through dictatorships, as in Iraq. Other Muslim-dominated states are governed by an Islamic code of law called the Shariah. In addition to the standard civil offenses, offenses against religious standards of propriety are illegal in such countries. Most U.S. citizens are surprised to discover that defaming Islam or the Prophet Mohammed is punishable by imprisonment in many countries. Such laws can be applied in unusual ways. A Muslim professor in Pakistan recently was imprisoned for defaming Islam when he suggested that Muslims during the time of Mohammed did not shave their armpits! Of course, beliefs and laws vary all over the world. Islamic law is acceptable for Muslims, and the purpose of this article is to outline some general areas in which Western businesses can avoid inadvertently offending Muslims -- based upon their customs and tradition. What are the areas of concern for Muslims? Perhaps the primary taboo involves impious use of the name of God, or Allah. The name of Allah is considered sacred; when written, it must be treated with reverence. Some Muslim African schools, too poor to afford paper for students, teach them to write Arabic in washable ink on boards. So sacred is the name of Allah that, when the ink is washed off the boards, the ink is reverently disposed of, lest the name of Allah be defiled! The Saudi Arabian flag displays an Arabic inscription that includes the word Allah. To a Muslim, this demands that the Saudi flag be treated with particular reverence. One constant irritation occurs every time the Saudi Arabian soccer team qualifies for the World Cup. Someone always markets a soccer ball decorated with the flags of all the World Cup countries. But kicking a ball illustrated with the Saudi flag puts the name of Allah in contact with the foot, which is unacceptable. Other Islamic prohibitions are well known to anyone who has visited Saudi Arabia. Visitors are warned that the possession of alcohol, pork, or pornography is prohibited, in accordance with Muslim law. (Another recent World Cup-related product was a special edition of World Cup wine, sporting the Saudi flag. Since Islam proscribes alcohol, a bottle of wine should never be decorated with the Saudi flag.) Naturally, not all Muslims strictly obey Islamic law, just as many Christians violate their own rules. For example, many Muslim men (especially the ones who deal with Western executives) do drink alcohol. But Western businesspeople should not make assumptions based on a single experience. A Turkish executive who drinks alcohol when visiting the U.S. might not do so back in Turkey. Or, he might choose to imbibe in a Turkish nightclub but never at home. So, just because you have shared some drinks with that executive in a nightclub, do not assume he'll be pleased if you bring him a bottle of wine when you're invited into his home. Modesty is also an important virtue among Muslims. When visiting a country with a Muslim majority, it is important to dress appropriately. This doesn't mean just covering the skin: the profile of the body should be obscured. Tight clothing is unacceptable. Women, especially, should opt for baggy, loose clothing. This is vital in Saudi Arabia, where the religious police (known as the Matawain) often use their camel-hair whips on offending, exposed body parts. Your status as a foreigner is no protection. In advertising pictures, people must be dressed modestly. Indeed, some interpretations of Islam object to any representation of the human form. Sorting Out The Branches Of Islam The ability to differentiate between the main branches of Islam also is desirable for Western businesspeople. Islam grew out of the Christian tradition just as Christianity evolved out of Judaism. The majority of Muslims throughout the world are members of the Sunni branch of Islam. Countries with majority populations of Sunni Muslims range from North Africa throughout the Middle East and all the way to Indonesia. The second-largest group consists of the Shiite Muslims. The point of bifurcation between Shiites and Sunnis occurred after the accession of the fourth Muslim caliph. The first three caliphs (as spiritual leaders are called) were related to Muhammad himself. The fourth was not. The Shiites believe succession continued through the fourth caliph; the Sunnis disagree. Today, Shiite Islam puts great emphasis on a political and religious leader called an imam. Shiites form the majority of only a few nations, including Iran and Iraq. Non-Muslims sometimes associate Shiite Islam with strict religious fundamentalist governments, such as that of Iran. However, the government of Saudi Arabia is equally (if not more) strict, and the majority of Saudis are Sunni Muslims. Within these two divisions are many separate sects. The version of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia is called Wahabism. It is among the most fundamental and rigid forms of Islam, delineating strict roles for its adherents. The roles of women are tightly prescribed: Women may not drive, hold most jobs, or mix with men who are not relatives. Wahabism also has spread outside Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabian benefactors donated billions of dollars following the 1979 invasion of the Soviet Union. They also endowed many religious schools in Afghanistan. Today, the strict form of Islam imposed upon the Afghani people by the Taliban is an outgrowth of Wahabi Islam. (It must be noted that the majority of Saudis disapprove of the support the Taliban has given to terrorists. Nor do they support Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden.) There are other sects of Islam as well. Sufism is a third divergence of Islam belief. Arising in the 12th century, the Sufis added a mystical philosophy and emotional component to Islam. A highly divergent sect is the Druze, a small group based in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The Druze came to worldwide attention during the decade-long battle for control of Lebanon, where many Druze held positions of authority. The Druze, who are known for their emphasis on education and their tradition of hospitality, keep many of their religious beliefs private. Due to the vagaries of geopolitics, the Druze often find themselves aligned with the Israelis against neighboring Sunni Muslims, such as the Syrians or Palestinians. Many Israeli Druze serve in the Israeli military. The differences between these branches of Islam are significant. The gulf between the Wahabis and the Sufis is at least as great as the gulf between, say, the Southern Baptists and the Quakers. Persons from different Muslim groups may not even acknowledge other sects as co-religionists. For example, the authorities in Saudi Arabia put strict limitations on U.S. soldiers stationed there. Christian soldiers are prohibited from outward displays of their religion, such as the wearing of visible crosses or holding public services. However, U.S. soldiers who are members of the Nation of Islam (formerly known as the Black Muslims) also are prohibited from public services. The Wahabi Islam of Saudi Arabia does not publicly recognize the Nation of Islam (although Nation of Islam followers are allowed to visit Saudi holy sites, such as Mecca). Similarly, the Druze often are not accepted as followers of Islam. That hostility is reciprocated; one traditional Druze imprecation calls for "fifty curses on the Shiites, forty on the Sunnis, thirty on the Christians and twenty on the Jews." Since the different Muslim branches do not always get along, it is important for people doing business with Muslims not to confuse the beliefs of their customers with those of another Islamic sect. For the global executive, adapting to the beliefs and desires of your clients is essential to success. Appreciating the diversity of the global marketplace, and avoiding offense to Muslims -- or any religious group -- promotes a stronger economy and a higher level of civilization for all of us. Reviewing and test marketing of products, advertisements, and campaigns by Muslims and Arabic speakers will ensure your success when the products are finally released to your international markets (and the media). Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway are the coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World (revised 2000); The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America; The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union; and The World Holiday and Time Zone Guide 2001. For further information on seminars, online database, and books, phone 610/725-1040, fax: 800-529-8167, or e-mail [email protected].

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