Saturday, October 23, 2010

Is What’s Good For Corporate Profits, Good For Al Qaeda?

Finger Chopping Swords!

Call it “terror marketing.”

Of course, niche marketing is nothing new. Focusing on specific demographics – women between the ages of 20 and 30, say, or gray-haired men who play baseball – is an enormous part of how marketing is done. But the latest such trend has some people seriously worried – and for good reason.

On October 30, marketing executives from companies like Pepsico, Ogilvy & Mather, and Best Buy will convene to absorb the wisdom of speakers like Safaa Zarzour, Secretary General of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an organization with known affiliations to terror groups like Hamas. The goal: to raise awareness of the buying power of the Muslim market, and to encourage sharia-compliant branding through the creation of halal products–products which conform to the tenets of sharia (Islamic) law. (Though usually understood to refer to meat, “halal-compliance” can include other foods, as well as bath products and even clothing.)

Is this smart?

Ogilvy & Mather think so, as do many corporate giants: KFC has introduced halal chicken in many of its U.K. franchises, and Campbell’s recently introduced a halal-compliant soup (are you listening, Andy Warhol?). Other companies on the halal bandwagon include Nestlé (one of the pioneers in the market), Domino’s, and Subway. According to the Web site for the October 30 American Muslim Consumers Conference (AMCC), “the consumer preferences of the world’s nearly 1.5 billion Muslims are faith-based, and largely non-negotiable.”

It’s that “largely non-negotiable” phrase that irks me. While this may be the case for (most) Muslims in the Arab world, I do not believe it’s true for Muslims in the West, most of whom, until now, have had little choice. Their “non-negotiability” has already been compromised–and they’ve survived. Indeed, in making such compromises, they have had to assimilate into Western culture. Are corporations, in the name of profits, now going to help them take a step back? Is further separating Muslims from non-Muslims really a good idea?
Numerous other problems arise as well – too many to address here fully, but here are a few to consider–points that make this particular niche marketing idea different than, say, marketing to Latin-Americans or, for that matter, teenagers with tattoos:

* Jews who follow kosher laws may not consume halal foods, which are blessed with a prayer to Allah. Sharia-compliant Muslims, however (despite the AMCC claims that they can eat nothing that is not halal), are in fact permitted to consume kosher foods, providing that they otherwise conform to halal rules, such as being all-natural and alcohol-free. In fact, according to a 2006 article in the Halal Journal, a propagandist publication promoting sharia-compliant marketing ”Sixteen percent of the kosher market in America is made up of Muslims” – a cross-cultural trend that, to my mind (especially given the rise in Muslim anti-Semitism in the West) we would do better to encourage than to interrupt. Meantime, it would seem that halal products discriminate against the Jewish market.

* In a secular society, faith-based marketing in general creates schisms that undermine the notion of an interwoven social fabric, a “melting pot” in which all are viewed as equal. While kosher products, for instance, are available for Jews, they can be consumed by all non-Jews. Moreover, the notion of promoting them on the basis of conforming to religious precepts – another goal of the AMCC and its supporters – has never been a part of their branding and marketing campaigns. By contrast, the AMCC web site notes that “71% [of Muslims] said they rarely see anyone of their own faith or ethnicity in advertising” while “73% said they could not think of one mainstream brand that showed a Muslim in its advertising.” And what I want to know is: How do they know if someone in an ad is Muslim or not? Can they tell by looking? What did the other 27% say? Did they, as I do, remember Kareem Abdul Jabaar’s spokesmanship for LA Gear? Why does the religion of a spokesperson really matter?

* ISNA is the largest official body that confers and approves sharia compliance in America. It was also named one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the U.S. government’s counterterrorism case against the Holy Land Foundation, a front group for Hamas. And Zarzour, its General Secretary? Before coming to ISNA, he served on the Council for American Islamic Relations – CAIR – another unindicted co-conspirator in the case. Is this really an organization U.S. corporations should be partnering with?

* Some aspects of these campaigns are outright idiotic. Throughout the UAE, for instance, cosmetic companies have started to claim sharia-compliance based on the “all natural” composition of their products. Not only is this patently untrue (cosmetics without preservatives would have a shelf life so brief they’d barely make it to the stores, never mind last for a reasonable amount of time in women’s purses), but it flies in the face of sharia law itself: wearing cosmetics is considered “haram,” or forbidden, in Islam.

Whoops.

Not that this has stopped millions of Muslim women around the world from wearing it– or from purchasing brands like Revlon or Lancome. And if, however “non-negotiable” their buying choices are said to be, they are in fact using these brands anyway, then why re-brand them? Why create a new niche – or rather, separate it out?

Here’s why: Because radical Muslim groups – like ISNA – want to encourage exactly such a divide, and create a stronger sense of Islamic identity among Muslim communities in the West. The AMCC web site even notes that price point is not what’s important to these consumers: being Islamic is. And this is what the conference sponsors (and ISNA) want American corporations to indulge, the market and ideology they want corporations not only to encourage, but reward.

In other words, rather than encourage American Muslims to think of themselves as Americans who happen to be Muslim, ISNA and other radical groups aim to build a growing community of Muslims who happen to live in America – Muslims who are, that is, devoted to the “ummah,” or worldwide Muslim community. And by building allegiance to the ummah and their faith, such organizations facilitate the efforts of recruiters for terror groups – like Al Qaeda. Because it is exactly on the basis of this – emphasizing defense and loyalty to the ummah – that Al Qaeda’s recruiters work – and succeed.

Interestingly, in this regard, the Halal Journal notes that the demand for such products comes largely from second-and third generation Muslim immigrants – not from their parents. And it is exactly these generations – not the immigrants themselves – which are radicalizing across Europe and the USA. These are the young men who head off to training camps in Pakistan and Somalia, seeking to defend, yes, the ummah.

Moreover, notes Robert Spencer, author of the book Stealth Jihad, catering to those seeking sharia-compliance in the West opens doors to other aspects of sharia, such as sharia courts – already in place in Canada and the UK – which have repeatedly been shown to violate women’s rights. “Halal food lines are a concession to a belief system that claims authority over unbelievers,” says Spencer. “One concession to it will lead to another, and the demands will never cease until the full sharia is implemented, and that would destroy the equality of rights of women, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of conscience.”

Think that’s going too far? Not according to Time magazine which recently reported that “the movement’s more bullish advocates envisage Muslim cars and halal furniture built in accordance with Muslim finance, labor, and ethical principles.”

Muslim cars? (Late night TV could have a field day with that one.)

But I wonder, more seriously, about those “labor and ethical principles.” Like what, exactly?

Moreover, and more seriously, we are talking about feeding a movement that, as Spencer notes, seeks domination. Just two weeks ago, after all, speaking to Christiane Amanpour on ABC’s “This Week,” British radical Muslim activist Anjem Choudary declared:. “We do believe, as Muslims, the East and the West will one day be governed by the sharia. Indeed, we believe that one day, the flag of Islam will fly over the White House.”

And herein lies exactly the problem intrinsic to the idea of “Islamic marketing.” For while Islam the religion poses no threat to Western culture, Islam the theocratic political system does. And sharia, as a body of laws, serves as the basis for that system. Sharia marketing facilitates and endorses exactly that form of orthodoxy we are presumably attempting to discourage – with which, indeed, we are ostensibly at war.

So to the corporate leaders who envision enormous possibilities in this prospective new market, whose dreams of corporate profits wake them starry-eyed each morning, one question: Just how much is your freedom worth to you, anyway?

Forbes

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