Ginetta Sagan once said:
Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.
Today the pressure on brands to speak up for social justice is coming from protestors on the streets but also by both customers and employees. Neutrality is no longer an option.
Brands Taking Action Against Social Injustice
In the summer of 2020, we witnessed many brands doing something they had never done before. They spoke up against racism. In the United States, when the spotlight turned on racial justice, brands communicated extensively about their commitment to social justice.
Sadly enough, most brands prefer avoiding such issues as they worry about the impact of their bottom line. They were now in an uncomfortable position. But they had little choice; the times have changed.
According to Forbes:
60% of the US population, and 78% of those aged 18 to 34, expect brands to take a stand on racial justice.
The Islamic Perspective of Business and Social Justice
To be completely honest, it’s about time businesses move towards social justice. Six centuries ago, Islam stated that business owners should be part of the social fabric and make sure that they have a positive influence on society.
A business in Islam is the direct antithesis of most businesses today that only care about profit at all costs. It’s about profit but also about taking care of the community and that includes speaking out on social injustice.
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:
Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.Source: [Muslim] Hadith 34, 40 Hadith an-Nawawi
Where governments as authorities can “change evil with their hands” (social injustice) by instituting laws and legislation, brands can fight it with their ‘tongue’, meaning to say, they can use their resources and influence to speak out.
We will talk more about Islamic Business Principles and social justice later in this article.
Do Consumers Have Confidence in the Brands’ Initiatives for Equity?
Brands have taken an initiative so far by signaling intent through internal channels (to employees) and external channels (PR campaigns).
A recent article by Harvard Business Review identifies consumer skepticism regarding the brand authenticity of those brands lining up to promote social justice. In the article, “When a Brand Stands up for Racial Justice, Do People Buy It?” the authors explain:
Recent protests demanding social justice and the affirmation of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have provoked a flurry of activity among corporations as they drop brands that have racist connotations, reposition other brands with ambiguous to outright offensive racial implications, explicitly state their solidarity with the movement, and donate money to racial justice causes. But do consumers perceive these actions as authentic — especially when many of these companies are not Black-owned and/or have a lackluster history of Black corporate leadership? And will these strategies result in long-term brand loyalty?
They then lay down a framework that brands can use to create a proper social justice strategy that is more in sync with the consumer sentiment.
They divide it into two sections ‘Corporation-Oriented Actions’ and ‘Societally-Oriented Actions.
- Atone: Making amends for past mistakes. These are internal decisions like withdrawing a campaign, product, or brand line with negative racial or Islamophobic connotations. This, while necessary, is both passive and self-focused. Consumers are likely to give such actions a low authenticity score.
- Allure: A corporation-oriented action that is a bit more proactive is when a brand becomes an activist and supports a cause in a way that’s also directly in their self-interest. Why? Because it will also bring in more revenue as consumers seek to support the cause through their purchases. As such, consumers perceive these sorts of actions as those of medium authenticity at best.
Brands can take a lesson in the selflessness of Abu Bakar bin Siddiq, who was one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him.
As a wealthy business owner, Abu Bakar spent a large chunk of his wealth buying and freeing the slaves of Makkah. The following verse in the Quran was revealed about him.
Those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification. And have in their minds no favor from anyone for which a reward is expected in return. But only the desire to seek the countenance of their Lord, Most High. And soon they shall attain complete satisfaction.Source: Qur’an, 92:18-21
- Acknowledge: When acknowledging broad social issues, brands take societally-oriented actions in support of social justice that might not lead them to profit directly. However, these actions also don’t hurt the business. In the eyes of the consumers, the authenticity of this brand action is medium to high.
- Advocate: Brands that advocate for important social issues in a manner that feels truly authentic to consumers, can be risky. Remember when Nike supported Colin Kaepernick after he was abandoned by the NFL after kneeling during the national anthem? They used him as the face of their Just Do It campaign. It faced widespread backlash, with some unhappy people posting videos showing them burning Nike sneakers. This campaign in the eyes of the consumer exemplifies a high-authenticity action.
Zara’s Underwhelming Atonement
One of the motivations behind this article that you are reading now is an incident concerning one of Zara’s senior employees who used discriminatory comments on Instagram against Palestinians.
Vanessa Perilman – head designer at Zara – verbally abused a Palestinian model who expressed his support for his home nation. She said:
The people in my industry know the truth about Israel and Palestine and I will NEVER stop defending Israel… Maybe if your people were educated then they wouldn’t blow up the hospitals and schools that Israel helped to pay for in Gaza.
The Middle East Eye explains that:
The comments come a month after Israel waged an 11-day war with the Hamas movement, during which Israeli airstrikes killed at least 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and Palestinian rockets left 11 dead in Israel.
Zara finally came out with a statement after some serious backlash and threats of boycotts. They said:
We condemn these comments that do not reflect our core values of respect for one another, and we regret the offense that they have caused.
Perilman has since deleted her social media accounts after apologizing following the condemnation online. However, the Palestinian model explained that he could not accept her apology as it was half-hearted.
He went further to highlight the selective nature of brands when it came to social justice stating that:
If Zara wants to make a statement with me, the statement needs to say that they stand with the indigenous people and are against what is happening in Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang.
Amid the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in May 2021, Facebook employees accused their company of bias against Arabs and Muslims.
At a time when Facebook is dealing with internal allegations of censorship, unequal enforcement, and pro-Israel bias, its employees have stated that it is once again mishandling the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
An open letter by Facebook’s Egyptian engineer highlighted the selective nature of Facebook’s social justice efforts. In it, he explains that Facebook had been a huge help for activists during the Arab Spring of 2011, but during the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence, censorship — either perceived or documented — had made Arab and Muslim users skeptical of the platform.
For instance, an Instagram post from actor Mark Ruffalo about Palestinian displacement had received a label warning of sensitive content. While ads from Muslim organizations raising funds during Ramadan with completely harmless content were suspended by Facebook’s artificial intelligence and human moderators.
At the date of writing this article, there is a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. However, Facebook must deal with employees who are worried that the world’s largest social media platform is exhibiting anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias.
How Businesses Based on Islamic Principles Destroy Social Injustice at its Roots
In 2017 The New Internationalist wrote an article known as The Equality Effect that stated:
…even a cursory study of inequality reveals that the greed of the rich is the real problem, not some laziness among the poor. In practice, the ‘one-per-cent-take’ statistic correlates closely with other measures of inequality, but it may be one of the best to focus on because the very richest have such a disproportionate effect.
Kasim Renderee of Coventry University wrote a paper in 2014 titled, “An Islamic Perspective on Economic and Social Justice” which depicts the teachings of Imam Ghazali (1058-1111) – a reputable scholar in Islam on economic and social justice.
The Islamic tradition has a proud history of providing economic and social justice during its ubiquitous leadership of the early Islamic period.
Muslim societies need to reexamine their currently Euro-centric understanding and model of social advancement. Muslims today must strive to serve global equity through a more balanced approach.
Trusteeship in Business
Islam has many important economic principles. Muslims regard resources as gifts from The Creator given to human beings as a trust, with us being the trustees. This belief has practical implications for ownership, either of wealth or the means of production.
Islam teaches us that entrepreneurs, businesses, brands, etc. must enact a principle of economic trusteeship that is rooted in collectivism. This is the complete opposite of the principle of self-interest, which is central to the free-market economy of today.
Disclaimer: Understand that Islam is not teaching socialism. Islam recognizes private ownership. It also recognizes that Allah has given some individuals more sustenance than others. However, this recognition is not absolute and unconditional. Private ownership in Islam is subject to the interest of the community.
Kasim Renderee mentions in his article:
The Shari’ah (Islamic Law) decrees that the private interest of the individual should be secondary and subsidiary to that of the community as a whole.
Excessive and Disproportionate Accumulation of Wealth
Islamic business principles combat the excessive and disproportionate accumulation of wealth and its concentration in the hands of the few.
Islam ensures public ownership and management of utilities in the broadest sense. On the flip side, free-market economies advocate adverse domination by private monopolistic industries.
Kasim Renderee further brings to light that Islamic business principles demand that all extractive industries relating to the production of water, mining, and even food should be treated as state enterprises within a just legal and regulatory framework.
Even domestic and industrial fuel, cannot justifiably be left in the hands of a few private entrepreneurs. He explains:
This energy sector, for example, is consequently extensive, as is currently the case across many parts of the Muslim world, such as the Arabian Gulf states
Today, the Arabian Gulf States have come under criticism for overspending and human rights violations.
Contrary to this, Islam teaches us that as social beings in this temporal life we must satisfy our basic needs. However, this satisfaction demands moderation and avoidance of excess. Respect for and tolerance of others are essential requisites for virtuous living.
Businesses and entrepreneurship are necessary for our progress as human beings. Effectively exploring and exploiting existing and potential resources for the wellbeing of humanity separates us from all other beings on earth.
Businesses and their brands fall under two main categories:
- the market/private sector economics that’s based on commercial entrepreneurship (self-interest-centric)
- the state/public sector economics relying on state entrepreneurship (public-wellbeing-centric).
However, both have, individually and collectively, failed to ensure the fundamental goal of well-being for human societies.
So expecting these entities to suddenly become advocates of social justice may be quite a stretch.
Islamic entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is a community-centric model of business. It is the cure to the problem of intolerable economics and a natural strategy against all forms of capitalist exploitation to control world resources.
Muslim Ad Network aims to be on the right side of history by supporting communities through our Giving Back project. As an Islamic-based Muslim advertising company, we strictly adhere to the Islamic Principles for Advertising.
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