Opinion: Urban Muslim youth are making an impact


By:  Riaz Naqvi

Source: Gulf News

When young Muslims are covered in the news, it’s often for political reasons. From the hashtag #IllRideWithYou that went viral in Sydney following last year’s café siege to the Muslim teen who was arrested in Texas last month for making a “bomb” — actually a clock — there’s a common thread of minorities being first discriminated against, then venerated in societies across the world. In his 2014 book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire and The New Muslim Youth Culture, Columbia University lecturer Hisham D. Aidi describes cultural bridges being built by young Muslims across the world. “In Europe today, Muslim youth are weaving Islamic, Afrocentric, Asian and Latin elements to produce new identities and movements,” writes Aidi.

But a topic far less discussed is young urban Muslims as consumers.

“Young Muslim consumers are simply an untapped demographic for big brands and businesses,” says Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Editor-in-chief and Founder of Muslimgirl.net, a platform with stories for and by young women across the globe that aims to “take back the narrative” surrounding modern Islam. In an email to GN Focus, she explains that a lack of products catering to them impacts young urban Muslims everywhere, particularly those in the West. “When DKNY launched its Ramadan line a year ago, it released it only in the Middle East and missed out on the interest it garnered among Western Muslims, who don’t have these ready-to-wear lines from the mainstream brands they’re familiar with.

“Brands are seeing the growing popularity of hijabi beauty and fashion gurus on Instagram and it only makes sense that they would cater to it,” says Amani. She adds that social media breeds ecosystems of intense brand ambassadorship, loyalty and commercialization for big brands.

Travel is another industry to watch. Irfan Ahmad, Founder and CEO of Irhal, a web- and app-based halal travel platform he runs from his office in Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO), says 108 million Muslim tourists spent more than $140 billion (Dh514 billion) last year.

“The halal tourism sector is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry — it is growing faster than even Chinese tourism,” he explains, following up with a list of examples. “The Ritz-Carlton in Berlin is offering halal food to its guests; the Grand Hotel in Vienna has hired a Lebanese chef to cater to the needs of Muslim travellers; Orlando Airport has opened a prayer room for Muslims; Tokyo airport has halal food outlets and a prayer room.

“There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Most are young. If e-commerce is not your cup of tea, start an entertainment app. Video is rapidly becoming the most consumed format on smartphones. Gaming is another big industry. Stay within the halal space and create something that is currently trending globally. Remember, there is no shame in copying a successful model that has worked in the West.”

Ahmad, whose company was named Best Islamic Start-up by DSO last year, also has advice for entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the booming Islamic economy. “How do you start the world’s largest halal e-commerce store?,” he asks. “By thinking big but starting small — create a store where you sell halal food, make money. Add halal clothing, make more money. Add more products. Make even more money. Expand beyond your home country.”

He advocates businesses hire the kind of people they are targeting. “Make young Muslims your partners,” he says. “Micropayments are growing in importance. Pay them for their efforts. YouTube pays people who have created content. You can, too. Incessantly scout for talent. Successful companies are not one-man shows.”

Islamic finance is another area where people are spending big money. “Young, affluent Muslims are likely to be interested in the full range of Sharia-compliant products, which include wealth management solutions that encompass sukuks,” says Waleed Barhaji, Business Head of Consumer Finance at Noor Bank.

He adds that locally based banks may hold advantage over multinationals. “While there definitely is a segment that would prefer a multinational brand, the banking decision would ultimately be driven by the following generic factors: product range and features; accessibility and convenience — the branch network, online and mobile banking functionality, and user experience; and quality of service. Local banks may actually have an advantage over multinationals that operate an Islamic window, as some customers would prefer to bank with a fully Sharia-compliant entity.” At Noor Bank, the fastest-growing segment is young professionals, he says.