Corporate West embraces Ramadan but culturally it’s a work in progress


A big business. Ramadan decorations for sale at Dearborn Fresh Supermarket in Dearborn, Michigan. (AFP)

A popular Washington restaurant signs on to a campaign to stay open longer or start serving meals two hours before dawn during Ramadan. British supermarkets run dozens of special Ramadan offers, not least Humza meat samosas and Haribo halal soft jelly bears.

Ramadan chocolate calendars are for sale in the United States and the United Kingdom to tick off the days until Eid al-Fitr, just as Advent ones pleasurably countdown to Christmas.

Ramadan is becoming big business in Western countries with large Muslim populations but some say it should aim higher, using the Middle East seasonal model as a template.

Richard Kestenbaum, an investment banker in New York who runs a company that raises capital for consumer-facing businesses, recently suggested American firms should seize the “opportunity” afforded by Ramadan.

“Increasing marketing spend and focusing on US-based Muslim consumers will likely have an unusually high return in the period immediately preceding and during Ramadan,” Kestenbaum said. “The data are pretty compelling to conclude that Muslim consumers are more likely to be shoppers during Ramadan,” he added, in a reference to figures compiled by Webpals, a performance marketing company, in coordination with a prominent e-commerce retailer in the Middle East.

The data indicated that Middle Eastern consumers are especially busy during Ramadan. They download shopping apps more often that month and shopping via the apps rises 35%.

Last year, the commercial opportunities of Ramadan in the United Kingdom were highlighted by Ogilvy Noor, the Islamic branding consultancy. Ogilvy Noor Vice-President Shelina Janmohamed described Ramadan as “Britain’s biggest untapped business opportunity… following only Christmas and Easter in scale and size.”

All signs point to growing Western market interest in Ramadan, which is hardly surprising considering the State of the Global Islamic Economy report forecasts the global Muslim economy as worth more than $3.49 trillion by 2021.

In the United Kingdom, which has 4 million Muslims, the Ramadan economy is estimated at upward of $232 million. It’s probably roughly equivalent in the United States, where 80% of the country’s 3.45 million Muslims say they observe Ramadan. Ironically, merchants everywhere can count on consumption inexorably rising during a month dedicated to abstinence from sunrise to sunset.

What’s clear is growing corporate acceptance of the Muslim presence in the West. There is increasing willingness to make money selling halal food, cosmetics and travel, Islamic financial products and modest fashion.

What of cultural acceptance? That remains a work in progress.

Consider the debate around Ilhan Omar, the hijab-wearing American-Somali who was one of the first two Muslim women elected to the US Congress. Omar has featured in a video tweeted by US President Donald Trump. The video reran Omar’s remarks about civil rights for American Muslims after 9/11 but they were juxtaposed with footage of the Twin Towers as they fell.

Omar has also been the target of a poster display by Trump’s Republican Party in the West Virginia legislature, comparing her to the 9/11 terrorists.

Admittedly, Omar’s comments on the issues of the day are not always well-judged or carefully phrased but the attempt to link her to mass murderers seems to focus on her choice of headgear and her faith. While Omar may be the most prominent American Muslim facing hostility, she is hardly alone in her predicament.

As for the United Kingdom, the Islamophobia national monitoring project Tell MAMA has claimed an almost 600% rise in incidents in the week after the March 15 mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand. Tell MAMA said the incidents included people pretending to point pistols at Muslim women, comments about British Muslims and “associating” with the Christchurch shooter’s actions.

How to explain this aggression even as there are commercial moves to cater to Western Muslims? A society’s cultural perceptions change slower than corporate strategies.

At some point, there will come a realisation that cultural distinctions between Muslims and local communities in the West are narrowing, with Ramadan as a case in point.

For instance, the preferred iftar choice for fasting 18-to-24-year-olds in the United Kingdom is chicken and chips, which can truthfully be described as pretty darn British. American Muslim families routinely queue up for suhoor at IHOP, the 24-hour pancake chain.

Business knows Muslims are a valuable part of the Western market. In this appreciation, it is well ahead of the rest of society.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly