Held from 29th to 31st October 2013, the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum saw David Cameron announcing plans for a new Islamic index on the London Stock Exchange as part of a broader strategy to make London the hub for Islamic finance in the West. Such efforts tap into the popularisation of the conscientious ‘halal consumer’, the new target demographic for the forward thinking entrepreneur. But will they impact upon the perception of Muslims in the West, and can they actually help remoralise the finance industry?
The 9th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) held in London recently is my third such conference. My previous participation has been as a member of the Muslim Council of Britain’s delegation to conferences in Jakarta, Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The London conference, held for the first time in a non-Muslim majority country, is testament to the growing significance of the Islamic finance industry to the city. The PM and Chancellor used the WIEF conference platform to announce the Treasury’s issuing a £200 million sukuk (Islamic bond) and the development of shari‘ah compliant student loans and seed capital for Muslim entrepreneurs. Not to be outdone in the global race for foreign investment, the PM proudly set up stall and presented a compelling case attracting Islamic investments, which are set to grow to £1.3 trillion by 2014, to the UK.
The Islamic banking industry and sovereign wealth funds represent huge sums and big business. It’s no surprise the UK should want a good size of that pie.
My own involvement in the WIEF has oscillated between the parochial and the universal. Between my day job analysing representations of Islam and Muslims in the print media and participating in conferences that give me a sense of being a member of a global religious community.
“The Islamic banking industry and sovereign wealth funds represent huge sums and big business. It’s no surprise the UK should want a good size of that pie.”
In my work analysing representations of Islam and Muslims in the British media, the depiction of ‘halal’ looms large in my dataset. Media representations are predominantly focused on the narrowest definition, that denoting the Islamic method of animal slaughter (though this is changing), and is usually used in the context of basket of variables denoting the steady, creeping ‘Islamisation’ of British culture and commerce. Coverage over the years – barring the few positive examples generated by the first ever Halal Food Festival held, again, in London a few months ago – have been overwhelmingly negative. I find the disparity in representations of these commercial sectors, food and finance, fascinating.
What we now witness in the finance sector is the instrumentalisation of ‘halal’ for public diplomacy: the winning over of ‘hearts and minds’ through the popularisation of the conscientious ‘halal consumer’, the new target demographic for the forward thinking entrepreneur. This is a market that is expanding, wealthy, ethical and lucrative – and not to forget, innovative. My most interesting encounter at the WIEF this year was a young American entrepreneur, who is about to set up a loans fund for Muslim students despite the received wisdom that it can’t be done, and whose halal clothing brand is PETA-approved.
In Turkey, the phenomenon of the burgeoning socially conservative middle class was dubbed ‘green capital’. In the UK, with our history of race preceding religion in discussions of ethnic diversity, the ‘brown pound’ has given way to the ‘Muslim pound’. However we describe it, both the market and Muslim consumers are growing in self-confidence. How far this will diffuse in the media discourse and attend to one of the aims of the WIEF – to use commerce as a means to undermine the ‘clash of civilisations’ – is an open question.
With the sums bandied about of the size of the Islamic finance industry and the pool of foreign investment it opens up, it is easy to overlook the moral-conceptual framework that underpins Islamic finance and banking. But this was eloquently raised by the Prince of Wales in his gala dinner address, on the moral responsibility presented by ‘alternative’ finance, and in the gauntlet he threw down to the assembly of Ministers, CEOs, entrepreneurs and delegates from around the world.
“The Islamic finance market and Muslim consumers are growing in self-confidence. How far this will diffuse in the media discourse and undermine the ‘clash of civilisations’ is an open question.”
The concept of stewardship over the natural environment, inherent in the Qur’an and Bible, and the model of Islamic finance, predicated on risk-sharing and based on real assets, paves the way for the proper ‘integration of stewardship into financial structures’. How the spirit inherent in the moral economy of Islamic finance can help the management of systemic risks – from depleted fish stocks and scarce water resources to climate change – through incorporating and fairly judging the value of natural capital in the risk-sharing model is the challenge laid down.
The global Islamic finance industry and its growing significance to London ought to be about more than the sums involved and the jobs created. It is an opportunity to inspire new approaches to suffuse morality in markets; to transmute the regard for ethical means and equitable outcomes from conceptual deliberations to contemporary problems. Moreover, as the work conditions scandal surrounding the Qatar 2022 World Cup has shown, trumpeting ethical means must be as relevant to illustrious property portfolios in London and Paris as it is to migrant worker rights in downtown Doha.
The task for the future, for the WIEF Foundation, the Forum itself and for delegates, will be to match the sums boasted and the expanding size of the industry – from banking to halal produce – with a vision worthy of the principles on which Islamic or ‘alternative’ finance is predicated. An alternative vision shared, I would argue, with those George Pitcher calls the ‘new Power Christians’.
Shenaz Bunglawala is Head of Research at ENGAGE, an organisation seeking to enhance the engagement of British Muslim communities in British national life, particularly in the fields of politics and the media. She has taught undergraduate courses in political science at the LSE and King’s College, London. She sits on the Research Excellence Framework 2014 expert sub-panel for Theology and Religious Studies and advises on various AHRC/ESRC research projects. She is a Non-Resident Executive to the Razak School of Government in Malaysia and sits on the executive committee of Faith in Europe.
 George Pitcher, ‘For the New Power Christians, God Is the New CEO’, New Statesman, 6 June 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2013/06/new-power-christians-god-new-ceo.