Monday, April 30, 2007

Art & Commerce: Marketing to Muslims

From Adweek Magazine

Over the past year, we've become acutely aware that most brands and marketers are turning a blind eye to the multibillion- dollar American Muslim market. Maybe they don't recognize that there is an opportunity. Maybe they harbor some of the anti- Muslim fears and prejudices that are so apparent in American media and public life. Maybe they are scared of offending American Muslims, or they fear that by embracing Muslim consumers, they will alienate non-Muslims. Whatever the reason, they are failing to connect with consumers whose combined disposable income is well in excess of $170 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

Marketers are consummate opportunists, constantly looking for new angles, new ways to sell products and new target markets to address. The best among them have an intuition for identifying significant shifts in societies. The marketing industry was the first to recognize "teenage" as a life stage, in the 1950s, and has helped popularize notions of social segments ever since, from yuppies, empty nesters and boomers to Gen Xers, metrosexuals and singletons, not to mention dinks (dual income, no kids) and skis (spending the kids' inheritance). More often than not, the labels they come up with seem familiar even before they are explained. They are intuitively right, sometimes to the point of being blindingly obvious with hindsight.

So it's all the more mysterious that global marketers have overlooked a social segment of truly global proportions. Around the world, well over 1 billion people identify as Muslim. Islam shapes their sense of identity, their beliefs and values, and their behavior. From a marketing perspective, it's unthinkable that Islam would not influence them as consumers, too. Yet there is a gaping void in the global marketing industry's knowledge of Muslims. Where do global marketers turn for guidance about Muslim consumers? At the moment, there is no single resource.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Don’t Blame Hip-Hop

Interesting commentary by New York Times writer Kelefa Sanneh.

Hip-hop has been making enemies for as long as it has been winning fans. It has been dismissed as noise, blamed for concert riots, accused of glorifying crime and sexism and greed and Ebonics. From Run-D.M.C. to Sister Souljah to Tupac Shakur to Young Jeezy, the story of hip-hop is partly the story of those who have been irritated, even horrified, by it.

Even so, the anti-hip-hop fervor of the last few weeks has been extraordinary, if not quite unprecedented. Somehow Don Imus’s ill-considered characterization of the Rutgers women’s basketball team — “some nappy-headed hos” — led not only to his firing but also to a discussion of the crude language some rappers use. Mr. Imus and the Rev. Al Sharpton traded words on Mr. Sharpton’s radio show and on “Today,” and soon the hip-hop industry had been pulled into the fray.

Unlike previous hip-hop controversies, this one doesn’t have a villain, or even a villainous song. The current state of hip-hop seems almost irrelevant to the current discussion. The genre has already acquired (and it’s fair to say earned) a reputation for bad language and bad behavior. Soon after Mr. Imus’s firing, The Daily News had Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, splashed on its cover alongside the hip-hop producer Timbaland, whose oeuvre includes some Imusian language. He had helped arrange a fund-raiser for her and apparently was now a liability. Oprah Winfrey organized a two-show “town meeting” on what’s wrong with hip-hop — starting with the ubiquity of the word “ho” and its slipperier cousin, “bitch” — and how to fix it. The hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who appeared on the show, promised to take action, but last Thursday a planned press conference with hip-hop record label executives was canceled at the last minute, with scant explanation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons

From the New York Times

BELTSVILLE, Md., April 23 — What is happening to the bees?

More than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost — tens of billions of bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping. So far, no one can say what is causing the bees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

As with any great mystery, a number of theories have been posed, and many seem to researchers to be more science fiction than science. People have blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone towers and high-voltage transmission lines for the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American agriculture? Or, as some blogs have asserted, the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven? Researchers have heard it all.

What is Sufism?

From The Shadhili Tariqa

Sufism is a knowledge through which one knows the states of the human soul, praiseworthy or blameworthy, how to purify it from the blameworthy and ennoble it by acquiring the praiseworthy, and to journey and proceed to Allah Most High, fleeing unto Him. Its fruits are the heart’s development, knowledge of God through direct experience and ecstasy, salvation in the next world, triumph through gaining Allah’s pleasure, the attainment of eternal happiness, and illuminating and purifying the heart so that noble matters disclose themselves, extraordinary states are revealed, and one perceives what the insight of others is blind to

— Muhammad Amin Kurdi

The way of Sufism is based on five principles: having godfearingness privately and publicly, living according to the sunna in word and deed, indifference to whether others accept or reject one, satisfaction with Allah Most High in dearth and plenty, and returning to Allah in happiness or affliction. The principles of treating the illnesses of the should are also five: lightening the stomach by diminishing one’s food and drink, taking refuge in Allah Most High from the unforeseen when it befalls, shunning situations involving what one fears to fall victim to, continually asking for Allah’s forgiveness and His blessings upon the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) night and day with full presence of mind, and keeping the company of him who guides one to Allah

— Imam Nawawi

Aspects of Sufism, defined, delineated, and explained, amount to nearly two thousand, all of them reducible to sincerity in turning to Allah Most High, something of which they are only facets, and Allah knows best. The necessary condition of sincerity of approach is that it be what the Truth Most High accepts, and by the means He accepts. Now something lacking its necessary condition cannot exists, “And He does not accept unbelief for His servants” (Koran 39:7), so one must realize true faith (iman), “and if you show gratitude, He will accept it of you” (Koran 39:7), which entails applying Islam. So there is no Sufism except through comprehension of Sacred Law, for the outward rules of Allah Most High are not known save through it, and there is no comprehension of Sacred Law without Sufism, for works are nothing without sincerity of approach.

— Ahmad Zarruq

PERHAPS the best description of the path of Sufism, certainly one of the most frequently cited among its scholars, is the hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace):

Allah Most High says:

“Whomever is hostile to a friend of Mine I declare war against. My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him, and My slave keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks. If he asks Me, I will surely give to him, and if he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him. I do not hesitate from anything I shall do more than My hesitation to take the soul of the believer who dislikes death; for I dislike displeasing him” (Bukhari, 8.131: 6502. S).

This hadith describes the means to the change that is central to spiritual realization, in conformity with the teaching of the sheikhs of the path who define a Sufi as “a scholar of religious learning (faqih) who practiced what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.” While people differ in their capacity both to learn the religion and to attain the consummate awareness of tawhid or ‘divine unity’ expressed in the above hadith, everyone who travels the Shadhili path (tariqa) must know the works needed to “practice what one knows.” If one is great in them, one will be great in spiritual attainment, and if one is weak in them, one will be weak in spiritual attainment, unable to pass from transitory experiences (ahwal) to permanent realization (tahqiq).

Sunday, April 15, 2007

For Obama, A Little Religion Might Be A Little Too Much

Originally published in Illume Magazine. Found at alt.muslim

In a 1937 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans said they would not support a Jewish candidate for President, regardless of a candidate's qualifications. During the past 70 years that number has dropped to a low of 15 percent, even prompting a Vice-Presidential hopeful in 2000 (Joe Lieberman).

The zenith of that anti-Semitic era was the "Red Scare" of 1919-1920. Mitchell Palmer, the US Attorney General of the time, accused Jewish Americans of being "foreign-born" subversives, claiming that in their midst they had 60,000 organized agitators of the Trotsky doctrine (much like today's "Green Scare", which claims that Muslim sleeper cells hide in every mosque).

Leon Trotsky was a Ukrainian-born revolutionary who lived in New York before leaving to lead the Red Army against communist opponents, including American troops.

Two decades later, half of all Americans said that they would never vote for a Jewish president; and in a subsequent poll (1944), one-quarter accused them of being "less patriotic".

So, why rehash this dark chapter in our history? Because, in truth, bigotry never dies, it merely blends in to its chronometric background; like a chameleon stepping from yesterday's narrative into today's, seeking a modern antagonist.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Western Muslims Need A "Fourth Estate"

From alt.muslim

The editors of are approached by the news media on a weekly - and sometimes even daily - basis for our insight into affairs in the Muslim world. As a result, we've come to know the reporters on the "Islam beat" at many major US and UK newspapers, as well as several radio and TV journalists, and have become familiar with their individual mastery of issues regarding Islam and the Muslim world. And over the years, we've come to some well-founded conclusions regarding Islam and the media.

First, while there are some very knowledgeable journalists that have done their homework and do a fair and responsible job, there are many other reporters assigned to write about our religion and community that have no business doing so. (Case in point: Any reporter that asks me, as one did a few weeks ago, the definition of "Assalamu alaikum" after four years of all-Islam-all-the-time media coverage is better off writing about something else.) Second, there are far too many columnists who have made it their mission to degrade Islam and dehumanize Muslims, often asking rhetorical questions challenging Muslim ideas and views, betting that the silence that follows will validate their points. Third, the agenda that defines how Islam is treated in the media is not based on our interests, nor is it based in the interests of reducing tensions between Muslims and others. It is driven by sensationalism and eyeballs, blood and guts, and creating a bogeyman on which frustrations ranging from the Iraq war to economic malaise can be pinned. Fourth, and most significantly, the collective Muslim response to the media's coverage of Islam has been anemic at best, relegated to organization spokespeople that limit their insight to defensive bumper-sticker "talking points" and lay Muslims who are no match for aggressive reporters that have an agenda and who have done their homework.

Though Muslims have a stake in how our community is framed and discussed by the media, we have ceded that responsibility to others who have agendas that are not in our interest. We have allowed ourselves to be defined by others in the worst possible way - and too many well-meaning media consumers are buying it. What is needed in the face of this onslaught is a professional, independent Muslim press that can engage the media at large in a professional manner, helping to burst the alternate-reality bubble that has been allowed to grow so large. Dynamic, independent, and professional Muslim voices, free of restrictions based on organizational affiliation yet intimately connected to the mainstream Muslim community, can make a difference even if their numbers are small. We know this firsthand - our mere presence in major media outlets constantly changes the direction of the discourse away from "us vs. them" towards a more nuanced look at the issues facing our community. In other words, Muslims in the West need their own fourth estate.

But the value of an independent Muslim media is greater than simply being a more effective PR machine. These voices are needed to ask tough questions and spur critical thinking within Muslim communities, and take us beyond the defensiveness, dismissiveness, whitewashing, and self-promotion that we have become so used to in our internal dialogue. Muslims in the West are savvy and voracious consumers of the Western media. So why then should the Muslim media be afraid to rise to that same level of professionalism and open inquiry? It is inexcusable that a Western Muslim population of over 30 million has only a handful of folks analytical and objective enough to challenge both the sensationalism against Muslims in the Western media and the echo chambers of dialogue between Muslims that is addicted only to the obvious (i.e., support for the Palestinians, opposition to the Iraq occupation) to the detriment of honest internal critique and a meaningful engagement with a critical non-Muslim audience.

The current state of the Muslim press in the West has a number of unique characteristics which contribute this mess. Many press outlets are linked (explicitly or otherwise) to an organization or other agent with a vested interest that conflicts with a truly free press. Full-time, university-trained journalists are both scarce and tend to take mainstream media jobs, leading to a lack of professionalism in the Muslim media. Those that wish to make a career in the Muslim media will find only a handful of full-time positions available (in our estimates, there are probably less than 25 full-time journalist positions in the US Muslim media). As businesses, the Western Muslim press is advertiser-dependent, and fear of controversial opinions that would drive away readership leads to self-censorship. What is left is only feel-good coverage that infers that our collective communities are passive, undynamic, and devoid of confidence.

An English-language Muslim press that reaches out to English-speaking Muslims and non-Muslims needs to be proficient and effective in its use of the language. And, in general, we have a press that engages in a sort of intellectual tribalism, refusing to question or criticise actions by Muslims simply because they're Muslim. This is an understandable response to external pressure, of course, as these journalists see themselves on the front lines of defending our community against unfair attacks. The problem, however, is that the defense of the Muslim community in such an arena is best served by open and honest debate and inquiry, not in knee-jerk defensiveness. It is seen by many professional journalists, Muslim and otherwise, as proof that the Muslim media does not understand the power of a free press or how to best use it to serve the interests of the Muslim community. The Muslim community is best served by the truth, and a free press works best when used in the pursuit of truth rather than a building public relations facade. Here's a tip for Muslims who have put themselves forward as spokespersons for the media: Many reporters that I have come to know can tell when they are being fed talking points rather than genuine insight, and they resent it - even the ones who are naturally inclined to support us.

In our opinion, however, the greatest need for an independent Muslim media is to engage inward, not outward. For too long, we have not cultivated a sophisticated dialogue within the Muslim community that we believe is needed in order to confront the challenges facing us. (There are some hopeful signs of such a dialogue in the Muslim blogosphere, but this is irrelevant and/or inaccessible for the vast majority of Muslims in the West.) An aggressively independent and professional Muslim media can explore the religious, cultural, and political plurality within the Muslim community, hold Muslim advocacy groups, businesses, and institutions accountable for their actions, present a forum for the civilized discussion of underrepresented or even controversial opinions, and increase the ability of ordinary Muslims to defend their faith beyond bumper-sticker platitudes. Without such a media at their disposal, ordinary Muslims are both blind to the sophistication of anti-Muslim forces that use the media and virtually unarmed against their attacks on our community.

How do we get to this promised land of a free and vigorous Muslim press? Muslim media organizations, even those that are not independent, should insist on universally-accepted journalistic standards. Take chances with subject matter - we think you'll be surprised at how accepting most Muslims are of controversy that serves a higher purpose. Promote journalism as a professional career among young Muslims in the West. Spin off organizational media to be stand-alone, self-sufficient publications. Build and/or grow press associations for Muslim journals/journalists to promote professionalism. For Muslim journalists, professional or otherwise: create networks with mainstream journalists and use them to help hone your craft. Tap into the emerging talent and independent voices in the Muslim blogosphere to ensure journalistic transparency. And most importantly, subscribe to or otherwise support the independent Muslim media - outlets like Islamica Magazine, Azizah, Q-News, Illume, Radio Islam, Bridges TV, and others are on the vanguard of building healthy Muslim media sector, and they should be more widely supported.

We started because we could no longer tolerate the damage being done to our community in the absence of an independent Muslim media. We would be happy if the emergence of one made us redundant.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Backstory: A country-western Muslim

From the Christian Science Monitor

Cambridge, Mass. - Kareem Salama – the main act on this evening's Muslim Student Association program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – nervously sips a bottle of water backstage as his guitarist/producer tunes a 12-string guitar.

The crowd buzz softens to a deferential hush as a bearded student takes the stage to start the evening with readings from the Koran in an Arabic melody that sounds like a medieval hymn.

It's Koranic recitations like these that inspired Mr. Salama, the son of Eygptian immigrants, to become a musician. But it's the peculiarly American circumstances of his life that drove this devout Muslim with a Southern drawl to his musical passion – country.

And so on this evening Koranic verse dissolves into the main act: the upbeat twang of what is perhaps the first Muslim country singer. In a down-home sound that seems at total odds with his look – an elegantly built man with a goatee style popular with young Arabs in his parents' Middle Eastern homeland – Salama croons to the enthusiastic audience. "Baby, I'm a soldier and I hear those trumpets calling again ... It's time for this simple man to be one of the few good men," go his original lyrics to a war ballad about the shared humanity of two soldiers on opposing sides.

As any musician emerging at the grassroots level, Salama performs mostly at smaller, niche events like this one. But he clearly has a growing following. Mariam Kandil, an MIT brain and cognitive sciences major who first heard him at another Muslim conference, says that Salama "got me to like country music."

But further, adds Ms. Kandil, a Muslim who wears hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, "What really caught my attention was his voice. But also the lyrics of the songs ... cater not only to the Muslim population but to a more universal group of people because of their meaning."

Sunday, April 01, 2007

For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too

This reminds me of my sisters; one in middle school the other a freshman in high school. It's from the New York Times

An excerpt:

But being an amazing girl often doesn’t feel like enough these days when you’re competing with all the other amazing girls around the country who are applying to the same elite colleges that you have been encouraged to aspire to practically all your life.

An athlete, after all, is one of the few things Esther isn’t. A few of the things she is: a standout in Advanced Placement Latin and honors philosophy/literature who can expound on the beauty of the subjunctive mood in Catullus and on Kierkegaard’s existential choices. A writer whose junior thesis for Advanced Placement history won Newton North’s top prize. An actress. President of her church youth group.

To spend several months in a pressure cooker like Newton North is to see what a girl can be — what any young person can be — when encouraged by committed teachers and by engaged parents who can give them wide-ranging opportunities.

It is also to see these girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents then from the culture, since elementary school. The first message: Bring home A’s. Do everything. Get into a top college — which doesn’t have to be in the Ivy League, or one of the other elites like Williams, Tufts or Bowdoin, but should be a “name” school.