Thursday, June 22, 2006

From halal toothpaste to Muslim holidays, Islamic products beckon world’s Muslims

(AP)11 June 2006

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Afghan fabric businessman Sayed Rahim Sarwari glows with pride as he shows off a nearly 5-meter-long (16-foot-long) crimson-and-silver carpet inscribed with religious verses that took months to weave.
“This carpet is better than the ones you can buy in shops in America, Europe and everywhere in the West,” Sarwari says in an exhibition booth at the three-day Islamic International Fair, set to end Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city.
The trade fair, bringing together more than 100 Islamic businesses from 14 countries, aims to tap into Muslims’ growing demand for consumer goods made by Muslims - from digital versions of the Quran to vitamin supplements deemed halal, or permissible under Islamic dietary rules.
Some of the demand for the products - such as Islamic soft drinks providing alternatives to Pepsi and Coca-Cola - has been fueled by calls to shun Western products following a backlash in the Muslim world over the US-led invasion of Iraq and Washington’s perceived support for Israel.
For Muslim entrepreneurs, most attention so far has centered on food deemed halal - made of ingredients that comply with Islamic principles of hygiene, humane treatment of animals and other production rules.
According to estimates, the worldwide industry for halal food is worth US$500 billion to US$2.3 trillion (Ð412 billion to Ð1.8 trillion) a year.
But the Islamic fair also showcases a staggering range of other sectors in which Muslim firms are striving to carve a niche, such as banking and finance, health, publishing, electronics, fashion, the arts, tourism, education and entertainment.
“Muslims have the responsibility to help improve the world with whatever they can deliver,” says the fair’s organizing director, Sabariah Abdullah of Malaysia’s Saba Islamic Media, a distribution and promotions group.
Some businesses at the fair entice customers with holiday packages to Egypt, Morocco and Turkey, DVDs and CDs featuring Muslim pop bands or halal toothpaste without pork-based gelatin, while others tout the spiritual benefits of their wares and services.
Malaysian art dealer Tuty Sumarni Hoessein, displaying Indonesian-made oil paintings, ceramic plates and wood carvings etched with calligraphy of Quran excerpts, says her ambition is to “ultimately create awareness about Islam through the beauty of art.”
Meanwhile, representatives of the Australian Islamic College in Perth hand brochures promising parents that their children will be educated in an environment that will “save them from such problems as disobedience, violence, drugs and promiscuity and homosexuality.”
Opening the fair, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Muslim businesses that expand beyond national boundaries could even help bolster cross-border peace and security by promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding.
“Where there is trade, there will be less incentive for us to go to war,” Syed Hamid said. “We must be innovative and place ourselves in the mainstream of the global economy.”
Some companies claim their biggest hurdle is competing with secular, established brands. Even in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the country’s 26 million people are Muslims, large stores provide relatively little shelf space for the offerings of tiny, homegrown Muslim businesses.
“What is the point of creating high-quality products if they fail to reach the customers?” asks Sabariah, the fair’s organizer. “We all know that the potential market is huge, so we must increase exposure for our goods and services.”
Highlights of the fair will be televised in Europe by the London-based Islam Channel Ltd., a religious-themed satellite broadcaster. Saba Islamic Media hopes to help organize similar events in other Muslim-majority countries such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

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