Artwork by, Saba Barnard, USA [photographed by: Jonathan A.J. Wilson]
Thursday 31st October brought the final day of the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in London. The focus was on education, women, health and microfinance. Former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi opened the day with a keynote, saying:
"We must prepare our education system against secularism...Under the framework of secularism, education is only seen as a temporary measure...Knowledge from the secular world view is just a means to an end. As the western philosopher Francis Bacon said - knowledge is power. This is in contrast to the religious world-view which sees knowledge as the highest virtue, and therefore is an end in itself."
The event finale was a rich MOCAFest arts display, of 39 artists and creatives from around the globe. WIEF showcased the role that art, culture, and creativity play in the lives of young people and within a global economy - as a means for economic empowerment and social enterprise.
These are a signal of how the Muslim world is now looking to define economics from a broad-based perspective - championing ideals of knowledge transference, heritage, reciprocity, empathy, femininity, transcendence, and spirituality. Nothing unique you may say, as the rest of the business world is moving this way - but the significance and branding of faith in the foreground is.
On Friday 1st November we hosted a panel session at the University of Greenwich, at the Old Royal Naval College - overlooking the Cutty Sark ship, and Canary Wharf's financial district; with WIEF across the water; and surrounded by our graduating students from 140 countries. Quite fitting as the World Heritage site provided a backdrop that mirrored the week's WIEF experience.
I was joined on the panel by: Chair, Anwar Zaidi, Chief Executive Officer of Habib Bank plc UK; Baron, Lord Sheikh of Cornhill, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Islamic Finance and Diversity in Financial Markets; Nigel Denison, Director of the Bank of London and the Middle East plc; John Grant, author of 'Made With - The Emerging Alternative to Western Brands'; and colleague, Dr. Aleksander Stojanovic, Director of the Centre for Governance, Risk and Accountability.
Our discussions started with a historical overview of Islamic finance and banking - picking up on my recent chats with Daud Vicary Abdullah, President of INCEIF, who calls for Islamic finance to rebrand itself as ethical finance; Abdalhamid Evans of HalalFocus.com's suggestion that Islamic finance and the Halal food sector need to converge; and Raja Teh Maimunah, CEO of Hong Leong Islamic Bank, who talks of some prevailing misinformed mainstream perceptions of higher risk and lack of full secular legal cover.
Collective observations are that, in theory and practice, culture plays a significant role - drawn along lines of Muslim minority and majority geographies; Arabic language natives and non-natives; and of course the 'I' word evoking fear [Islam].
John Grant offered case examples from his book where he drawls parallels with the Muslim world [which he calls the Interland] and the rise of Japanese brands, like Sony [whose name connoted smart, presentable young men] - which manifested a desire to change negative world perceptions towards Japan. John states that,
"The typical Western brand is all about authorship, personality, and identification; Made By - (and for) the ego. The Interland brand is born out of an ethic that distrusts the ego, having a tradition of unsigned art, avoiding icons."
Following the 1945 occupation of Japan by the United States of America, and an enforced change in the Japanese constitution to becoming a pacifist nation; a dim view was taken globally of the Japanese military's role in university and school curricula. After a period of prohibition, Japan was able to adapt the training and practice of Martial Warfare successfully; towards an acceptance of it being something which became a national treasure: preserving culture, espousing ideals of pacifism and sporting excellence, and as an offering to non-Japanese individuals - the birth of Martial Arts. Comparisons can be made with Bushidō (the way of the samurai) and the transformation from European practices of the art chivalry in the Middle Ages, into a sanitised romantic ideal of masculine codes of conduct.
I also charted the roots of 'cool' and how it migrated from of being a mask that Africans created during the Atlantic slave trade to project a sense of pride and grace under pressure - into becoming a low profile means of survival; later a youthful rebellious alternative to class-based status systems by all; and finally a commoditized branded identity, embodied by 'black' music, comedy, fashion, cosmetics, and sports.
Artwork by, Qasim Arif, Netherlands [photographed by: Jonathan A.J. Wilson]
Now, some Muslim and non-Muslim sources have argued that Western hedonism, embodied by conspicuous branded consumption and consumerism is opposed to Islam. For me, this plays into the hands of Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations'. He was right to identify the fact that many cultures are based on religion - but his thesis that Islam "and its bloody borders" clash with most other civilizations and this is the "real [Global] problem", is something I contest.
Artwork by, Tasnim Baghdadi, Germany [photographed by: Jonathan A.J. Wilson]
Whilst Muslims are under the microscope: if this is accepted and embraced positively and with a thick skin, then there are potential long-term gains for all. For in a relatively short time, Afro-American culture, as an allegory, has been commoditized and packaged with great success and benefit to them and wider communities. There is also evidence of a more recent Afro-American Muslim sub-culture, which is being embraced throughout the Muslim world.
Therefore, I'm arguing that if the Muslim faithful is to carry their caravan mainstream, they have to remain mindful of the various cultural, racial, and political connotations associated with their faith; and in terms of phenomenological patterns, what we are experiencing here is nothing new. I'm looking forward to the next WIEF to be held next year in Dubai, and how an Islam-based economic approach can rise like a phoenix from the ashes of 9/11.