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Looking for Business in the Muslim World

An expert on Islam offers a primer for companies planning to go East

Recently, Gallup published the Gallup Poll of the Muslim World, a follow-up survey to its polling in the region in 2001.The results give us a view into the minds of Muslims from Mecca to Marrakesh, and pack a few surprises: Majorities in many of the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed support women's rights to vote, drive, and work. In addition, Muslims in each of the countries most often mention the West's political freedom and technological advances as what they admire most about the West.

PHOTO: A thoughtful approach.

John L. Esposito, Ph.D., is one of the few people who isn't surprised by what the Muslim world has to say. Dr. Esposito is a university professor and a professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and the founding director of Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is also the past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies and a consultant to governments and multinational corporations. He is editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, and his more than 35 books include What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam and Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. Dr. Esposito is coauthor of the forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me? Listening to the Voices of a Billion Muslims.

The findings from the Gallup Poll of the Muslim World are surprising and occasionally contrary to Western assumptions. This research has had enormous political and social impact; it can also be incredibly valuable to business. Though Islam is quintessentially business-friendly -- the Quran makes numerous references to commerce and business ethics -- entré into the Muslim business world is tricky. The rules of the game are not so different, but the culture is, and few Westerners understand it. In this, the first part of a two-part series, Dr. Esposito discusses what the West has gotten wrong about the East and vice versa, what pioneering Western business leaders have learned from their travels in the Middle East, how to socialize in a dry country, and what to do to close the deal.

GMJ: What has the West gotten wrong about Islam?

Dr. Esposito: That it is a violent religion.

GMJ: Where do you think Westerners get that idea?

BOOK: Who Speaks for Islam?

Esposito: Well, because Muslims commit acts of violence. Christians commit acts of violence, and Jews commit acts of violence, but we distinguish very carefully between extremists and the mainstream in Christianity and Judaism. I think that often the magnitude of global terrorism and the rhetoric of terrorists like Osama bin Laden, their so-called "Islamic rhetoric," leads people to think this must be what their religion is all about. So for many Westerners, their engagement with Islam is through the acts of extremists.

Westerners were able to make distinctions when, for example, a Jewish fundamentalist killed Yitzhak Rabin or a Christian bombed an abortion clinic, because we have a context within which to place it. Until the Iranian revolution, Islam was not on most Americans' cognitive maps. We weren't conscious or aware of it.

GMJ: But the terrorists are still setting the context for many people, including those who would like to do business in Muslim countries.

Esposito: I've been doing consulting with companies for a long time, and years ago, many companies felt no need to be aware of this part of the world. Some companies that worked in the region had orientation sessions, but they were primarily business-related, and they didn't really get into the religion and culture. In America, the attitude is often, "I do business with you, and it doesn't matter what your religion is." Well, that works until there's a crisis, and then suddenly, a businessperson's asking, "What are these people really like? Are they really a threat to my country? Are they ultimately a threat to my company?" And many people in Muslim countries whom Westerners dealt with were very Westernized, or at least came across as very Westernized. Westerners interacted with a very small section of the business population, a very secular elite. But you can no longer assume that someone who seems very Western isn't also a very, very devout Muslim.

GMJ: How valuable is it to know religious traditions if you're doing business in a Muslim country?

Esposito: If you really want to get involved in a broad-based way in a Muslim country, eventually, you'll have to hire local people. Your own employees will be functioning and living there, too. So, if you're going to work with people in a country, you ought to know them better, but you also want to make sure that you don't offend or screw up. You want to understand ahead of time, and have your employees understand ahead of time, how the culture functions. Religion is a marker in people's identity in many parts of the Muslim world, and it does play a role in society and politics. Clearly you need training sessions.

QUOTE: Until the Iranian revolution, Islam was not on most Americans' cognitive maps. We weren't conscious or aware of it.

GMJ: Oil companies were pioneers in doing business in the modern Middle East. What can we learn from them?

Esposito: A while back, oil companies that did business overseas realized that they needed to put more into understanding religion and culture. One reason is because they would bring local employees to the United States for training, but the oil companies would be training them for jobs that many of them would regard as jobs that you hire foreigners to do, not educated people like themselves. So they would come over for the training session, but when they went back home, they weren't happy in the level of job. The oil companies were operating out of an American mentality, thinking, "Well, we're a good company; we're giving them a good entry-level job -- or one close to it -- and they can fast track." But in their culture, if you have an education, and if you're at this stage of work, you don't start in an entry-level position. And it was insulting. That's not something you understand unless you know the culture.

I remember talking to a CEO whose oil company was operating in a Muslim country. Everything was fine when he was at work, but when he would give a social at night, almost nobody would show up. There were all kinds of cultural reasons for this, including the way the social was organized, whether or not alcohol would be served, and also how Americans and America was viewed. It's one thing to work with Americans; it's another thing to socialize with them. He had to learn a lot, fast.

Good training deals with everything, including the political, religious, and cultural situation of the country you will be working in. You need it when you make decisions about expanding your business, what kind of folks you'll hire, and what you should be aware of in terms of the workplace.

GMJ: But you're not saying people need to have a deep comprehension of Islam.

Esposito: I think they need to understand the basic faith of the people. But remember, there are big cultural differences among Muslim countries. In today's environment, you certainly can do business in lots of countries, but in many parts of the Muslim world, religion and identity are being expressed more in society. So if you want to be able to make crucial decisions about where you'll work, how much you'll invest in a place, if you want to have your own employees interacting with a variety of segments of society, it's important to understand the diversity among the people you'll be dealing with. It's not just enough to know that you'll be dealing with a small group of, let's say, highly Westernized secular elites -- you need to be aware of what I call "alternative elites." Many members of parliament or businesspeople are professionally oriented, but they also take their religion very seriously. You need understand that, both for damage control and for productive reasons. You want to be able to relate to them and get along with them better and form good relationships with them.

GMJ: What should executives know before starting business relationships in Muslim countries?

Esposito: In many Muslim countries -- again, not all, as we're generalizing about them -- most people like to deal with foreigners who really have an interest in the culture, history, language, and faith of the country they're in. But if they're meeting with someone who demonstrates in many ways that he's uncomfortable in their culture, it will be hard for them to connect with him. Now, many people like it when businesspeople ask questions; if they don't, that's an issue. On the other hand, if all of the questions are basic, it can have a negative effect. People feel more confident when they're dealing with somebody who is interested enough and respects them enough to take the time to learn about the country, the culture, and the person. By the way, the role of religion in society has become so important today that you need to be sensitive to it. If you don't know the religion, culture, and society, you can mean well but say things that seem so ignorant that they can be offensive.

QUOTE: If Westerners suggest that Islam is more violent than other religions, that can be seen as offensive.

GMJ: How do Westerners offend?

Esposito: If Westerners demonstrate that they don't have a clue about the basic beliefs of a people, this can be seen as offensive. So can suggesting that Islam is more violent than other religions. So can being less than respectful about dress or modernity. In some societies, covering your head is not simply a sign of being traditional; many modern-minded Muslims don't want to wear Western dress. Tactless observations can be offensive even to people who don't dress that way or think that way. You could be working with somebody who's very secular minded and very Westernized, you go out and knock down the Johnny Walker Reds together, and you can make all kinds of judgments from this. But if you start ridiculing or knocking their religion and culture, then you're ridiculing their identity.

GMJ: What about those Johnnie Walkers? How does business socializing work when you can't buy someone a drink?

Esposito: Businesspeople often go out of their way to create social situations that involve going out for drinks, or playing golf together, or that involve theater or music. But there are other ways to socialize, and you need to socialize. In many parts of the world, it's important to go beyond just the formal relationship to establish a personal connection. Well, this is really important in many parts of the Muslim world. Not just in the Muslim world, but in many parts of the world, the personal dimension becomes really important; it enhances somebody's willingness or ability to do business with you.

GMJ: How does that work specifically?

Esposito: There are lots of things that people do, but it seems to me that the most important thing to do is establish a human connection. For example, Americans and Europeans are willing to do business simply on the basis of business. They expect to move pretty quickly on something based on phone calls, on maybe one quick visit, or after just an exchange of letters and e-mails. In many Muslim societies, people like to really get to know the person they're going to do business with. I know some very, very prominent people in the Arab and Muslim world who, before they make a final decision, will have wanted a number of visits. They do their due diligence of course, but part of the way they do that is by meeting the top management of the company they'll be partnering with.

I dealt with this with some corporate people who communicated the idea that, "I want to do a deal with you, so I'll have somebody lay some groundwork. Then I'll fly across the world, we'll sit down for an hour or two, we'll talk, we'll do the deal, and I'll leave." Well, they could do that, but if the person they're doing business with is as powerful as they are, or even more so, he'll expect them to spend more time and show more interest. It's not like he needs what they have so desperately that he's going to be simply delighted when they come in to give him a signature. Unless they know that the person they're doing business with likes to operate that way, it's too much of a slam-bam approach. It's important to realize that. If they have a sense of the culture and the people that they're dealing with, then they can fast track with them.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

In Part Two of this interview, Dr. Esposito discusses the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran, investing in the Middle East, what women need to know before they go, and what the inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad cost the West.


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