Irshad Manji’s Interview with David Frost on Al-Jazeera

Here’s a point of view that you won’t see in the mainstream media:

My views on Irshad Manji (self-proclaimed “Muslim refusenik” 🙂 🙄 ) are mixed. One one hand, I find it refreshing that Irshad Manji is a Muslim who saw the way that Islam is being practiced, but chose not to reject the entire religion. She can see that it is not the Islamic ideology that is the problem, but rather how some people choose to interpret their faith, and this I find refreshingly open-minded. Additionally, the victim mentality is dangerous, which means that if we want things to change, I agree that we need to be self-critical.

However, I think Irshad Manji’s world view is rather simplistic. For example, I find her staunch defence of Israel to be rather hypocritical. There’s clearly a double standard there; I don’t understand how on one hand she can be self-critical when it comes to her own brethren, but isn’t at all critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank. I think empathy is absolute; if you sincerely believe in truth and justice, then you empathise with anyone facing oppression and persecution. I just can’t understand how someone can one hand empathise with Israelis persecution but places no emphasis on the rights of the Palestinians who are also facing persecution every single day. It is sheer ignorance to suggest that only Muslims have a role to play in the Palestinian conflict.

I think it is important for Muslims to be self-critical, but at the same time, Manji ignores all effects of the Western media, instead attributing all blame to only Muslims. The irony is that she is herself as victim of Western bias towards Islam; since she is a relatively progressive and moderate Muslim, the only channel that will give her air-time is Al-Jazeera.

Nevertheless, given that the media only chooses to portray either fundamentalist Muslims or ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who completely reject the faith, Irshad Manji provides an alternative view that at least challenges conventional beliefs about Islam. You could argue that it takes an open-minded person to face the kind of reaction that Irshad Manji has from her Muslim brethren and still remain loyal to their religion.

On the other hand, when you consider her perspective on global issues (she was once quoted as saying “Neither Israel nor America lies at the heart of Muslim problems”), one wonders about her sincerity. One would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps, at the end of the day, she is just another attention-grabbing mediocre author looking to sell a few books.

Stelios on Entrepreneurship and Giving Something Back

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Stelios Haji-Iannnou, founder of Easyjet (or just Stelios, as he prefers to be known). I have to confess that prior to attending, I did have some pre-conceived ideas about what the talk would entail. Nevertheless, it was definitely interesting to see the contrast between the different styles of entrepreneurship, particularly after seeing Muhammad Yunus speak last week.

Of course, famously, Stelios started his first business with funding received from his father. However, it was refreshing that Stelios talked very candidly and openly about this, even joking that the first step for entrepreneurs should be to get themselves a rich father.

One member of the audience asked what Stelios would do if he did not have a rich father, and his advice was to start a franchise. This did not strike me as particularly entrepreneurial. It seem the sole aim of this kind of business to only make profit. Perhaps this is a rather romanticised view of entrepreneurship, but I believe that there should be some other objective other than to just make money.

I was reminded of a comment by James Hong (founder of HotOrNot) at a panel that he was part of; that you are never more creative and entrepreneurial when you have no money.

Despite being a serial entrepreneur, Stelios represents a very conventional way of thinking about business. He was particularly disparaging on the issue of social entrepreneurship, saying that he could not understand what the difference was between Easyjet making money and then giving it to charity. The point is that social entrepreneurship empowers the poor to work for themselves and I believe that it provides a long-term viable solution to mass poverty.

To some extent, the contrast with Muhammad Yunus demonstrated that there is no formula for being a successful entrepreneur, and of course, different people are inspired in different ways. For me, however, entrepreneurship is inspiring when it invokes out-of-the-box thinking and challenges conventional concepts. I am inspired by Guy Kawasaki’s first rule in the Art of the Start to “make meaning” and this is what impresses me about social businesses.

The airline industry at the moment is under a lot of pressure to reduce carbon emissions, and going forward, the environment is likely to be a key issue for all businesses. At the same time, consumers are becoming increasingly cynical and demanding greater transparency when it comes to ethical consumerism. It will be interesting to see how traditional industries will adapt their approach meet the demands of the consumer.

Overall, it was interesting to see a different approach to entrepreneurship. Stelios is quite the character: an engaging speaker with a great sense of humour. You’ve got to admire his guts for the risks he took, both with innovating a new business model and experimenting with the Easyjet brand. In addition, he’s taken that brand and diversified it into many other industries, taking a substantial risk that not many entrepreneurs have been able to successfully pull off.

I’ll just round off with the infamous story of the launch of Go.com, where Stelios managed to get ten tickets for the first ever flight. He then took ten staff members, along with him, all dressed in orange jump suits, boarded the flight and handed out free Easyjet tickets to all the passengers, thus stealing Go.com’s “thunder” and transforming their launch into a promotional event for Easyjet! Most certainly, an innovative branding strategy. 🙂

Oxytocin and The “Self-Imposed” Glass Ceiling

I read a rather interesting article published in The Times last week, about Susan Pinker’s new book, about the hormone oxytocin.

It talks about a lady who was offered a high-powered promotion in her company, but turned it down because the position would destabilise her family. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable basis for turning down a job to me. Afterall, it was personal choice, right? The interesting thing is that she felt that she needed to explain herself. Why?

I believe that the objective of feminism was to give women the choice and freedom to do what they wanted in life. The whole point was to avoid imposing the lifestyle that societal stereotypes traditionally demand of women.

However, if that were really true, such women who choose to look after the interests of their family first, would not (and should not) have to justify themselves.

The central point of the article was that the supposed glass ceiling in the workplace is partly self-imposed by women themselves. According to The Times:

  • 60% of gifted women turn down promotions or take positions with lower pay.
  • A study in the States showed that 1 in 3 women with MBAs chose not to work.
  • 38% turned down a promotion.

Part of the blame for wayward feminism must surely be attributed to Germaine Greer. In The Female Eunch, she asserted that: “only when women took on men’s roles would they truly be equal.”

This is surely denial of female identity. Feminism gives women equal rights and a voice; it does not mean that they have to take on men’s roles. In today’s society, even though women have the same rights that men do, we see that many are not making the choice to act exactly as the men around them.

However, I say that the difference is not a weakness. It is a strength. The conclusion of the article seems to me, to be a rather obvious one: that men and women are not the same, even suggesting that “there are distinctive design elements in female brains that evolved to promote the survival of infants.”

Of course there are different design elements. Surely, the conclusion that women are better equipped to nurture children than their male counterparts is no surprise. But is it something that they should apologise for? Of course not.

The idea that society now seems to be imposing on women, that they should feel guilty for putting their family first, is not only unfair, it is also far removed from the original objectives of the feminist movement. The fact that women have some natural maternal extinct, does not imply that they are any less capable of competing with men in the work place.

Oxytocin is another important driver of female behaviour, as it helps people to read emotions in other people’s faces. However, rather than concluding that this means that “girls are wired not to win,” consider Bob Sutton’s piece on female superstars. Sutton’s research concludes that firms should hire female superstars, as they are far more “portable”; they build on external relationships, which they take with them, so perform well at their new firm. Men, on the other hand, tend to perform worse at their new firm.

If oxytocin allows women to build trust and external relationships, that’s surely an advantage in the work place. Surely, then, the conclusion must be not to deny that women are different from men, but to change our perspective and stop making women feel guilty about choosing a lifestyle that puts their family first.

I would love to hear your comments or personal experiences of “the glass ceiling” in the work place. Do you think enough has been done to progress women’s rights in the workplace, and do you think the glass ceiling is, at least partly self-imposed?

Professor Muhammad Yunus on Removing the Seeds of Poverty

“They cripple the bird’s wing, and then condemn it for not flying as fast as they.” –Malcolm X

On Friday evening, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director of the Grameen Bank, at the London School of Economics. It was humbling to have the opportunity to meet someone who has done so much to change the lives of so many. On a more personal level, Professor Yunus is a deeply engaging speaker, with a great sense of humour.

Profit Maximisation: The Means or the End?

A central theme of the evening was about changing mindsets and challenging conventional ideas. Time and time again, economics professors tell us that the objective of business is profit maximisation. Professor Yunus, however, says that taking into account profit maximisation alone is a robotic view of the world that fails to take into account the multi-dimensional nature of humanity. Making money is the means, but somewhere along the line, society has made making money the end goal.

Challenge Existing Conventions

The business model of the Grameen bank defies traditional banking conventions. In fact, Professor Yunus said that prior to starting the Grameen Bank, they looked at how conventional banks did business, and then they did exactly the opposite!

In the traditional lending model, the more you have, the higher retention you get. Grameen Bank turned that model on its head, lending money to those who are most impoverished, what one might describe as a trust-based banking system, one that includes no collateral, no guarantee and no lawyers.

Empowering Women

When Grameen first started, one of its objectives was to make change the ratio of male and female borrowers to 50:50, which it achieved six years later.

Not only do conventional banks not lend to poor people, they also do not lend to women. In 1970, less than 1% of borrowers were women, and in 2008, the situation remains largely unchanged.

In many places in South Asia, the man as the head of the household controls the division of the family income. By lending money to the women, Grameen empowers women and overturning the voice of history that says that women have no place but to look after the house and take care of the children. Now women are empowered to take decisions for their family and for their children.

After Grameen achieved the 50:50 rule, they set up opening up lending even further. Remarkably, today, 97% of Grameen’s borrowers are women.

Educating Children

Just some of Grameen’s achievements in furthering education include:

  • Today 100% of borrowers’ children are now attending school.
  • In 2007, 51,000 children were given scholarships.
  • 21,000 students are engaged in higher education programmes, with scholarships being offered by Ivy League universities, including Harvard and MIT.

The Five Star System

Grameen has approximately 2,500 branches in Bangladesh alone. Each branch is awarded stars using the five star system, depending on its achievements.

  • Green stars are awarded when a branch achieves 100% repayment
  • Blue stars are awarded once the branch becomes profitable.
  • Grameen does not offer handouts, so the first task is to mobilise deposits. When the branch has generated surplus deposits, they are awarded a violet star. This means that they are not dependent on handouts even in emergency situations
  • Amazingly, the brown star is awarded once every child of every borrower is in school. This is a remarkable achievement when you consider a branch has on average 4,500 borrowers.
  • And the fifth red star is when each of those 4,500 has worked themselves out of poverty. In this way, Grameen empowers people to work themselves out of poverty at no cost to the taxpayer.

Criticism of Microcredit

One of the criticisms of microcredit is that it requires an entrepreneurial spirit, so only the entrepreneurial poor are able to work themselves out of poverty.

Professor Yunus addresses through his firm belief that all human beings are born entrepreneurial, that we all have innovativeness within us, but not all of us discover it within ourselves.

Some human beings are simply not allowed the opportunity to ever unwrap that precious gift.

My own views on this are that we have to start somewhere. We could sit back and criticise Professor Yunus’s achievements, but at the end of the day, if we only look at the negative, then nobody would try to change anything. Change does not come overnight. Of course, there will always be things that Grameen could do better, but just consider the scale of the goal that they are trying to achieve.

It’s these same people who criticise fair(er) trade, but that is because they have the one-dimensional view that Professor Yunus is talking about. Should we just sit back and do nothing then? Or instead, should we look at the millions of families that Grameen has helped to work themselves out of poverty?

Nobody said that changing the world would be easy. But surely, if you can make the life of just one human being better, then that’s progress.

Removing the Seeds of Poverty

The central message of the talk was that individuals do not create poverty. Poverty is a product of our existing institutions and pre-existing concepts, which leave the most vulnerable in society impoverished. Like Malcolm X once said: “They cripple the bird’s wing, and then condemn it for not flying as fast as they.”

Getting out of poverty does not mean simply crossing a line. Rather, social business offers a genuine, sustainable way to permanently remove the deeply sown seeds of poverty.

If you want to find out more, please check out Grameen’s website, and read Muhammad Yunus’ s book, Creating a World Without Poverty. I just got my copy, so I’ll let you know what I think of it! 🙂

Photo credit: New Life by Justin Tosh on Flickr.

Interview with Guy Kawasaki, Launch of Alltop.com

When I’m not blogging or Truemoring, I work for Econsultancy.com. As well as this personal blog, I also have a professional blog, which you should totally check out. I’ve been working there for about a month, so it’s early days.

Anyway, to coincide with the launch of Alltop.com, today I interviewed Guy Kawasaki over on Econsultancy. It was great to have the opportunity to do this, and we got some interesting insights. I particularly enjoyed Guy’s advice to entrepreneurs about valuing a start-up:

These days, each full-time engineer is worth $1 million in pre-money valuation. Each MBA is worth a negative $500,000.”

He also talked about Truemors, and how the site is doing now. Regardless of what you think of Truemors (as a Truemorist, I think it’s great, and I will explain why in another blog post!), the Truemors launch is inspirational because the key lesson is keep going and stay positive, even when people are trying to bring you down. It also provides a great lesson for entrepreneurs: success or failure, what would life be, if you don’t put yourself out there and take some risks?

If you always thought too much about what other people thought, then you would never start anything. So, hats off to Team Truemors: Guy, Will Mayall and Kathryn Henkens.

Today was also the launch of Truemors’ sister site, Alltop.com. In the E-consultancy interview, Guy pitched this as:

It’s for the 99.9% of the world who don’t use home-page customisation sites, feed readers, or even collections of bookmarks. We think we can help people read their favorite sites more efficiently and discover new sources of information.”

Looking at the site, it’s beautifully designed, with a consistent, clean layout, and an Apple-esque feel about it. Guy also talked about the site on ValleyZen.

Incidentally, I am one of those people that use personalised home pages such as NetVibes and bookmarks such as del.icio.us. There are a few important points here:

The blogosphere is not always right. Guy predicts that like the Truemors launch, there will be some who say the same old clichés. However, the thing is that when you start working in technology or web strategy or internet marketing, you kind of get stuck in a bubble and start taking these web tools for granted. You forget that the rest of the world is not like you! Most people just don’t use personalised home pages or even del.icio.us in their browsing experience, so Alltop makes things easy, uncomplicated and simple.

Secondly, as a NetVibes user, I have to disagree with Guy that Alltop is for 99.9% who don’t use such sites. It’s also for the 0.1% of people like me. If you’re a power user, then your NetVibes page is probably concentrated with about 100+ feeds.

I love the Internet because I’m an information junkie. But even I can’t add all the feeds I would like to, and every day I add a few new feeds to NetVibes.

So, now I have Alltop to do it for me, much better than I can. 🙂 Those people who say that they could do this themselves, well yeah maybe you could, but I doubt you could be bothered or could do it this well!

My favourite part is the Egos section; this is the section that most closely resembles my own NetVibes page, as I read a lot of VC, web strategy and marketing blogs. However, occasionally, when I want to read about shoes or fashion, I usually don’t know where to go, as I don’t visit these sites regularly. In that respect, Alltop is great for discovering new sources whereas personalised aggregators might be more useful for sites that you use on a daily basis.

The Egos part is obviously the controversial part of Alltop. Having a large ego isn’t enough; being on Egos shows that you are significant.

Whether you think being an Ego is a good or bad thing kind of says a lot about your personal psyche. 🙂

For me, anyway, I already have the ego part, I just need to work on the rest. 😉

Who Wants Sharia Law in the UK?

Not me. And I’m sure I’m right in saying that most moderate Muslims would agree.

Silly of Dr Rowan Williams, then, to suggest that Sharia law in the UK is unavoidable. I actually like Dr Rowan Williams, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably had good intentions when he said this: that he thought that Muslims need and want that choice.

However, he is misguided, and in this case, wrong. Muslims don’t need the law to be changed in the UK. There may be some who feel they can’t live in a country without Sharia law, and whilst I don’t represent anyone but myself, but I can tell you that in my experience, the Muslims I’ve met are happy living under the laws of the UK.

I like that I live in a democracy, where we have the freedom to practice religion as please. Note that I am using “I” instead of “We”, because I don’t have the capacity or right to speak for anyone but myself. It would be wrong for me to generalise and talk on the behalf of Muslims as some sort of representative. I can only tell you how I feel.

Religious practice is entirely personal. It is not for the government to tell you how to practice it. In addition, those that want Sharia are those that don’t recognise what Islam says: that when you emigrate to another country, you have to follow the laws of that country.

Not only that, but this comment fails to recognise Muslims like me who are born and bred in the UK, who hold British values. In fact, it only creates further divisions, by fuelling the perception that “those Muslims, they’re just not like us.” It only creates an environment of “Us versus Them,” i.e. again, the “West vs. Islam.”

Muslims do not have to make a choice between their religion and cultural values and British law. There is nothing in the law that is in conflict with religious practice. There have been controversies in the past, such as the hijaab, but no laws that vindicate Muslims for practicing their religion.

One thing I do not understand, however, is why the media gives a voice to the likes of fundamentalists to speak on the behalf of Muslims, or allows Dr Rowan Williams to make claims about what Muslims want, but does not give a voice to moderates, such as Ziauddin Sardar, or Tariq Ramadan. Indeed, you will only hear the voice of Zia in left-wing publications, such as The New Statesman. However, we can’t only blame the media, (although undoubtedly, it has its part to play). The victim mentality is dangerous as it avoids the truth and self-reflection.

At the end of the day, the message that there should not be separate rules for one group of people. Most Muslims, I’m sure, are happy under UK law and would never dream of seeing Sharia implemented. And those that do, must learn to progress and adapt to the land in which they are living in. It will take time, but progress always does.

“There Is No Spoon”

The sub-title of this blog is “There is No Spoon.” For those who don’t know what that means, shame on you, you are clearly not geeky enough to be reading this blog. ;

It’s a reference to one of my favourite films of all time, The Matrix. It basically implies to “think outside the box,” but that’s a bit of a cliche. “There is no spoon” is one step beyond that because it means broadening your mind, such that there isn’t even the concept of a box (or in this case, a spoon).

That kind of sets the theme of this blog: basically not accepting what society expects of you, but challenging existing beliefs, realising the truth, and broadening your horizons to make up your own mind.

Anyway, here’s the video, just in case you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t seen The Matrix yet and don’t know what I’m talking about . 🙂

Professor Tariq Ramadan at LSE

On Tuesday, I went to see Professor Tariq Ramadan give a speech about leadership at the London School of Economics. It was refreshing to see a large and diverse audience, made up of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Tariq Ramadan is one of those guys who just doesn’t get enough attention in the mainstream media, because his ideas about Islam are not the ones you will normally hear; it’s progressive, broad-minded, and self-critical.

He doesn’t conform to the Samuel Huntingdon model of the “clash of civilisations,” but rather believes that it is possible to follow Islam without conflict with Western values. Like Tariq Ramadan says, the conflict comes whenever a group of people emmigrate to another country. Rather, it is a misunderstanding between different cultural traditions, and rather than having an African version of Islam, or an Asian version, there needs to be a European or American version, which allows people to practice their faith but at the time embrace the secular values that are necessary for living in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society.

It’s important to understand that the way that Islam is reported in the media is a consequence of this deep-rooted misunderstanding. Whilst we cannot discount the role that the media has to play in fuelling such misconceptions, Muslims must incorporate a degree of self-reflection, look within their communities to understand the roots of the problem, and reach out to people of other backgrounds. Therein lies the solution, as this victim mentality is completely counter-productive.

There is an important lesson about all forms of discrimination here, whether it’s discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender or sexuality. The message here is universal, as people always fear that which they don’t know or understand, but reacting defensively never helps. The way to change people’s perceptions about you is through your actions and through the way you treat people every day of your life. That’s the true essence of leadership and humanity.

Homeopathic Medicines: “Belief Required”

I was reading the comments section in New Scientist the other day, when I came across this rather amusing website for homeopathic medicines.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m open to trying to trying alternative medicines; in fact I use them myself and find they work rather well when nothing else seems to work. I use homeopathic medicines, based on something called Dr Schuessler’s cell salts biochemistry. Apparently, they replace mineral deficiencies in the body.

However, Fair Deal Homeopathy illustrates how truth marketing is can sometimes backfire. The website claims to tell the truth about homeopathic medicines, although the marketing message is a little contradictory, as the site claims “Nothing works well as well as FairDeal Homeopathy,” whilst also claiming that the medicines work through the placebo effect, and work as well as any other homeopathic medicines.

Unfortunately, for the medicines to work, a rather complicated caveat arises, in that “belief is required,” even though the honest homeopaths admit that “treat does not imply cure.”

My favourite part, however, is the testimonials section:

“Wonderful products, but I just don’t believe you about it being just a placebo. I gave some of your pills to my dog, Oscar, and he was not sick over the carpet last night (which is unusual). Luckily, Oscar cannot read your web site otherwise, I am worried he will chuck his doggy guts up again”.

It’s lucky for Oscar that he can’t read the website, but clearly an inability to read is the only way that these medicines will be able to work. 😉

Interesting Article in the Guardian About Teetotalism

I read this great article in the Guardian today about teetotalism. For the record, I don’t drink, but I don’t think it’s for someone to tell others what to do. I think it’s a personal choice, and I agree with the tone of this article.

We’re living in a liberal, progressive, multi-cultural society, so people who choose not to drink should not be treated as “social pariahs,” in this day and age. It’s too much of a big deal in Britain, when it really shouldn’t be. We should learn to stop being so judgmental.

I also did not know that there were so many teetotallers in the public eye; Nicholas Sarkozy, Tony Benn, Tobey Maguire, as well as many others.