Serving unmet needs of 9 Million underserved American Muslims is an obligation
Recently, articles, like this ABC news report, or a Patheos article written by my friend Shahed Amanullah, pontificate that Ramadan is becoming a boldly commercialized holiday in America, similar to Christmas or Hanukkah. The parochial concern, as expressed in these articles and recent social media, is that this so called “commercializing” of Ramadan may diminish the spiritual essence of this holy month, as well as risk running contrary to Islamic traditions. As the CEO of the leading halal brand sold in US mainstream supermarkets nationally, I have an altogether different perspective on this topic. Accordingly, my take is that in fact most American Muslims do not yet feel bombarded with Ramadan marketing, but rather are uplifted by finally being validated, even if to date only nominally, as meaningful American consumers. At Saffron Road, we have received hundreds of letters from passionate Muslim consumers affectionately thanking us for providing halal options to a community of millions of Americans that hitherto had zero national availability of halal products.
When adding deeper context to these ads, one can learn that the degree of commercialization is not as dramatic or widespread as these articles perceive them to be. The DKNY launch was for only 7 of their 70 stores, focused on 12 items, and it was aired only in the Gulf countries. Mustafa in the Best Buy commercial was never actually identified as a Muslim, instead focusing on his “American” attributes like his love for football. More importantly, the ad never aired during Ramadan. The Macy’s display that went viral was designed for one store out of their 793 stores and one that was considered to have a large Muslim consumer base. If this is mainstream commercialization, I say bring it on!
The reality is this: the vast majority of companies have yet to tap in to the American Muslim demographic despite its being among the most educated, affluent, and youthful in America. American Muslims have $200 billion in buying power, of which the American halal industry has barely scratched the surface. These consumers are still not at a point of walking in to a Hallmark or CVS and buy an Eid or Ramadan greeting card. New York city ranks one in America in terms of the number of hotels and yet this Ramadan, I could not find one (out of 700!) that offered or supported the pre dawn “suhoor” meal to its guests, let alone even understood what that was. To my surprise, not even the famous Roosevelt Hotel, owned by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, could accommodate.
As far as halal foods go, there are still only 1000 halal products sold in mainstream national grocery stores and supermarkets in America compared to 100,000 kosher and over 1,000,000 non-halal certified products. This is all in spite of there being nine million American Muslims, and growing at a much faster rate than the Jewish population at 5.4 million. Even for a successful brand like Saffron Road, it’s taken four years for Whole Foods Market’s stores to partially stock and
promote Ramadan—and still despite our success, our promotion during Ramadan was in only 360 Whole Foods stores out of over 50,000 total grocery stores in America, whereby none of the other major supermarkets in the U.S. yet promote Ramadan in any way.
Indeed, there is still a long way to go before it could be said that Ramadan is commercialized in the same vain as Christmas or Hanukah.
Further commercialization and dramatically wider availability of halal products nationally, I argue, is a necessary step to serve the totally unserved needs of this disenfranchised and growing population of American Muslims, and one that should be welcomed and cheered. My experience in almost 30 years in mainstream consumer businesses, particularly in the food and beverage industry, has taught me that business and commerce can be a powerful tool for social change. The inspirational wisdom that my friend Gary Hirshberg at Stonyfield Farms so eloquently said rings true here: “Business is the most powerful force on earth. Unlike governments, which are bound by politics, bureaucracy, conventions, businesses in America are free to lead. Unlike churches, community groups, and non-profits, business has serious resources to back up its ideas. Business acts quickly, can get rules changed for its interests, and overcomes others special interests.” Carpe Diem – it’s high time for American Muslim entrepreneurs to lead as social change agents to inspire our communities.
American Muslims have it within their historical teachings to be commercial in nature. Unlike the Jewish tradition where you are prohibited from conducting business on Sabbath, the Islamic tradition is a daily call to work and service, including on the sacred Friday. And during Ramadan, despite abstaining from food and water, life and work, goes on. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was known to be the ultimate businessman and trader. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, was a very commercialized event and continues to be today, where Mecca and Medina were the hubs of commerce and people prepared financially for it a year ahead of time. When the early Muslims of Arafat and Mina objected to the mixing of commerce with religious practice during hajj, the Prophet (PBUH) compelled them to indulge in commerce and trade and cited “It is of no fault for you to seek bounty of the Lord (during Hajj)” (Quran, 2:198).
I do believe strongly that a balance of commerce and charitable outreach, especially during Ramadan, are critical to the core values of American Muslims as well as inwardly gratifying. I would be concerned with “over” commercialization of Ramadan if in conjunction with these holiday promotions the stores or our communities were not simultaneously doing good works or giving back. Accordingly, my challenge, even for Saffron Road, is questioning if we, as business enterprises and communities of faith, are optimally distributing a portion of our profits from commerce to the needy and uplifting poorer communities for the betterment of humanity.
No doubt, things are changing for the better. Whole Foods, the largest natural food retailer in the world, is a trail blazer for finding ways to serve the needs of the American Muslim community. This is a serendipitous sign of the changing times and our growing economic relevancy to the American diaspora (which 112 million of Americans, nearly half, claim ethnic heritages.) The fact that Macys sought to cater to the sensitivities and needs of American Muslims is actually quite heartwarming —as evidenced by ModernEid’s Jomana Siddiqui’s account of her uplifting experience with producing this Macys Ramadan display. The Best Buy ad featuring a new-age American Muslim as part of the American cultural melting pot, is also a welcome celebration of diversity. The DKNY ads and the hipsterhijabis challenge the long held oppressed views of the veiled Muslim women by, proving that Muslim women could be stylish while balancing their values of Islamic faith, culture and family. When interviewed and asked what they most enjoyed about Ramadan, the female DKNY designers responded “majlis (islamic study circles) at mina salam, volunteering to aid the needy and sharing suhoor with family.”
In my observations, I am seeing greater interest by American Muslims to celebrate their faith and be recognized for their diversity as an inclusive American value. What’s most enlightening to me is that every year I am so moved to see the huge crowds at Friday prayers and especially the evening Ramadan prayers (“taraweh”) go up dramatically. It appears that American Muslims are very comfortable simultaneously straddling both halal consumerism and their communal and religious obligations during Ramadan. And why shouldn’t they be?
Change is never easy for any community to initially embrace, especially one like ours that has been subjected in America to so much injustice, discrimination, and lack of empathy. But we should welcome the soft overtures we are receiving from American corporations—even if they are materially motivated. We should leverage it to be change agents. Indeed, my hope is that this will evolve gradually over time to address our community and our needs. We are proud Americans—not citizens of a utopian caliphate. So instead of lamenting over some quixotic notion of yester years Ramadans, maybe we should be embracing this new normal as intrinsic to our tradition and cosmically, totally in sync with our American Islamic identity and history. As Victor Hugo said, “no army in the world can stop an idea whose time has come.” It is high time for our Golden Age—and I for one, as well as many American Muslims, can’t wait to usher it in.