9th World Islamic Economic Forum

A selection of soundbites from the program, followed by an article:

As the World Islamic Economic Forum took to the stage in London amidst jokes relating to it’s acronym – WIFE instead of WIEF, from some of the speakers themselves – I found myself immersed in a stream of information, delivering a much needed attitude of positive change along with a sobering reality of where we are today and where we need to go.

Malaysian PM Najib opened with a brilliant address focusing on the inclusion of women in all spheres of society. Whether referring to the economic impact of women in the workforce, or the wider cultural one, women when present as contributing members add even greater value for us all. The corollary of which was the marked absence of certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia, whose current anti-driving position, while utterly absurd plays into the hands of the religious ruling classes: a price paid by family of Saud for sustaining regional stability over recent generations.

Our changing world, garnished with information and learning has, as PM Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan opined, raised awareness of what life can deliver to the masses: opportunity, stability and success. A similar message was echoed by President Hamid Karzai whose stress on the importance of clear and transparent institutions would be better absorbed were it not for the blatant corruption which still plagues much of his region of the world.

Yet for any genuine initiative to succeed one must seek to reach it by adopting continuously shifting goal posts that respond to the perpetual changing circumstances of life. This process of continuous evolution has been attested to by the Moroccan delegation led by Abdelilah Benkirane who shared his country’s gradual shift towards a more democratic system. Thus to expect change, individual, organizational, political or otherwise, overnight, is both impractical and unrealistic. Perhaps this is why Saima Bouchareb, the GM of Coca-cola for Morocco and Equatorial Africa shared details of an initiative being run her company, empower 5 million women by 2020: change will take place but will only do so with time.

Closer to home, PM Cameron announced the launch of the first government backed sukuk (bond) by a non-Muslim sovereign government and Mayor of London Boris Johnson shared details of his own Muslim heritage – his father’s father’s father’s father, and renewed “King Offa’s Offer.” For those less familiar, the Anglo-Saxon Offa was the King of Mercia who minted a gold dinar with the shahadah (Muslim testimony of faith). Why? During his period, the 8th century AD, the Muslim world flourished, so it made sense to establish a currency with which to appeal to, and trade with, Muslims. Hence “King Offa’s Offer.”

But as the President of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid observed, trade, enabling growth, would not empower people towards social justice. This disparity was further touched on by Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo, who spoke of their efforts to engage with the wider global community, citing commonly shared traditions and customs. The same set of values espoused by Craig Cannonier, the Premier of Bermuda who spoke of how his comparatively smaller island nation continuously adapts to offer competitive value – in this case, reaching out to establish a stronger foothold in the Muslim financial investment market.

The reoccurring theme was that for growth to succeed we need to find common value and build from there, a message elucidated by King Abdullah of Jordan who opined that best practice does not mean single-minded thinking. Hassanal Bolkiah the Sultan of Brunei, took this further saying that both the Islamic and Western world, together, faced the same challenges of growth: our modern era simply does not allow any society complacency.

Throughout, the conference touched on a wide variety of subjects including the growing Halaal business sector. The founder of the Halal Food Festival, Dr Imran Kausar for example, shared both his own experience of trying to reach this market along with research from institutions such as Pew, recognizing that a significant part of the world is indeed Muslim and as such creating products and services for that community makes sense.

However, and crucially, Dr Kausar shared his value-inspired methodology giving the examples of Lipton and Nido as being two of the most popular brands adopted by Muslims, where the target market isn’t Muslims specifically, rather, a set of values: the same set of ‘values’ shared by most people, irrespective of faith. The implication being, that when addressing the Muslim demographic, it is not the label of something appearing to being Islamic that matters, rather the substance of the product, brand or service delivering commonly shared values.

This position was no better made than when the former head of the Halal certification organization shared an anecdote. One day at home the doorbell rung and he was greeted by the Muslim version of Jehovah’s Witnessess: Tablighi Jamaat. After greeting him with salam alaikum, they asked him to recite the shahadah, the Muslim testimony of faith. His response: “Why, has it changed?”

The most successful periods of Islam have always been when Muslims removed the insular interpretations of faith, adopting the Prophetic model of engagement: with people, cultures and societies, irrespective of their belief structure. This cornerstone of mutual respect is embodied in the Quranic verse, that there is no compulsion in faith, for it is only when we are given choice, the freedom to express ourselves, to engage, to learn, to trade; it is only then that we will optimize our actions in life.

It is not the disparities of wealth that create our problems, rather, it is mismanagement. And if any lesson is to be taken away from the 9th WIEF, it can be summed up in a quote from PM Najib: “The Quran and the hadith are clear, learning is an honorable pursuit, regardless of gender.” A sentiment I agree wholeheartedly with, for without learning, there will be no meaningful change.

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