The New York Times recently interviewed several American Muslims, including me, working in the financial arena for an article Muslims on Wall Street, Bridging Two Traditions. It explored two ‘conflicts': Muslims working in conventional finance may encounter ‘interest' against their faith, and challenges of abiding by Islamic ‘traditions' in a secular workplace.
Today, it seems to an outsider, the burning issues for Muslims on Wall Street include prayer breaks, fasting and productivity, bonding after-office drinks, shaking a woman's hand wearing a hijab, and structuring instruments dealing with (the prohibited) interest.
This cannot be what Muslims are about. Also, more credit must be given to working non-Muslim colleagues on understanding Muslim sensitivities.
Common shared values
Muslims, like other people with strong beliefs, do not see themselves exclusively focused on or defined by such issues. Islam has spread throughout the world because of its dynamic nature, where it influences local customs and is ‘influenced' by the older local culture.
Religion is a private matter and it's looked upon as foundation for building inner discipline and external strength to address challenging situations. People of faith, like their secular colleagues, want to climb the corporate ladder and break the glass ceiling to get to the executive floor, if not the corner office. Muslims have been on Wall Street and High Street for many years, if not decades, and it's only now they are being noticed. The difference between then and now is there are more Muslims in the financial sector and non-Muslim colleagues know more about Islam because of a combination of internet, 24-7 news, 9/11, documentaries, Dubai's accomplishments, Islamic finance and personalities like His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
It should be noted that many Muslims were involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement because of common shared values. In the New York Times article there are two quotes that best summarise how Muslims, residing in a non-Muslim country such as the US, should think about and approach a place of work and perception of fellow workers. "I think Muslim professionals are too sensitive and underestimate our co-workers," comments a consultant in the article.
"Seek the opportunities and firms that speak to their set of values, expertise and passion," said Mohammad Al Arian, CEO of Pimco.
Just as an employer interviews a potential employee, the latter also needs to interview the former.
I have worked at two multinational companies in the US, heading their Islamic finance business, in New York. First at Dow Jones Indexes for 10 years and now at Thomson Reuters.
A common denominator for international companies is their diverse employee base due to extensive international presence, including many Muslim countries. The corporate culture in these companies reflects common shared values formalised in codes of ethics. Thus, these companies understand ‘sensitivities', and have high expectations of all employees.
As Muslims working in the West we do have a tendency to initially "underestimate our co-workers" in understanding our rituals (prayers, fasting, etc.), and our prohibitions (alcohol). While it could be attributed to many things, such as prejudices, with time there is a mutual understanding and respect.
The New York Times article used examples of Muslims finding places for praying during working hours or Friday prayers, and fasting during Ramadan. The article should have taken this one step further, and asked the Muslim worker about non-Muslim colleagues fasting or visiting a mosque.
Most, if not all, of us have non-Muslim colleagues who have fasted, some partially (till lunch time) and others until sunset. One of the great attributes of Americans is they like challenges, and will push the envelope of endurance. Others have visited mosques, and made observations such as "nothing fancy inside", "where are the stained glass windows, pews, gold crescent and star?"
Maybe the article should have interviewed non-Muslims working in senior positions in Islamic finance in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Malaysia on drinking alcohol, shaking hands with conservative women, breaking meetings for prayer time and so on. As senior executives, they are deemed ambassadors of the Islamic financial institution, and it does imply abiding by a certain level of Islamic code of conduct in public places.
The bottomline is that there is understanding and respect for rituals as long as teamwork, quality and deliverables are not compromised.
Muslims working in non-Muslim countries do understand work is for work, even in Islamic finance, and informed non-Muslim colleagues understand basic tenets of Islam. Muslims need to continue taking a pragmatic, over dogmatic, approach to finding the balance between faith and finance.
The writer is Global Head, Islamic Finance and OIC Countries, Thomson Reuters. Opinion expressed here is the writer's own and does not reflect that of his own organisation or that of Gulf News.