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Three Innovations Set to Soar in 2017

18 Dec, 2016

… the Year of Religious Freedom & Business

As Mark Twain, Yogi Berra and numerous others have reportedly said, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

With his quip firmly in mind, three innovations in religious freedom seem likely to take off in 2017. This is thanks to religious freedom’s contribution to a good climate for business, making 2017 what I believe will be the year of religious freedom & business.

1. Muslims Making Progress

News headlines miss significant Muslim initiatives supporting interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace (a) at the grass roots level, (b) by Muslim business leaders, and (c) by highly respected Islamic clergy.

Grass Roots: Manchester, UK

In Manchester, England, we have been piloting (for global scale-up) our Empowerment-Plus interfaith social cohesion & enterprise initiative. Empowerment-Plus helps young adults from all faith backgrounds to channel their energies and capabilities toward building lives, families, careers, businesses and friendship networks with a lively faith in the Lord.

The curriculum links basic principles of success, such as wise stewardship of resources, with scriptural principles from the Bible, Quran, and other scriptures, helping young adults make the connection between faith and daily decisions. The focus is not on interfaith dialogue, but on interfaith action. For instance, rather than debating faith, the participants share how their faith does (or doesn’t) guide decisions. And rather than debating theology, the participants look at the best ways to set up and run a socially responsible and profitable business.

Among our most enthusiastic participants and partners are Muslims. Several came from a Nigerian mosque in Manchester, that has born the brunt of several attacks, including having a pig’s head thrown into their property.

Pictured above with me are Imam Muhammad al Akkas (right) and his colleague Abdullah from the Al-Furqan Islamic Centre, where we’re planning to hold the next Empowerment-Plus course on “Finding a Better Job” as well as seminars on how to be a good listener-facilitator. As you see in the photo, we’re holding a shirt Muhammad had made saying, “Being a Muslim, I Jesus the Messiah.”

Although Christians have a different notion of what being the Messiah means, the Quran refers to Jesus as such at least nine times (Quran Suras 3:45; 4:157, 171, 172; 5:17, 72, 75; 9:30, 31). For instance, Sura 3:45 says “… the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah ].”

While Muhammad and I (as a Catholic) might not agree on the theology, we certainly agree that it’s important to honor the Lord by helping young people practice solid principles grounded in faith and virtue that leads to employment and empowerment.

Muhammed is not alone in his willingness to work at the grass roots level in interfaith action – he’s one of a legion of Muslims from around the world who have studied in the United States and worked in the West. While experience in the West doesn’t always lead to such collaboration, it certainly may begin to take off in 2017 and the years ahead.

Business Leader: Beirut, Lebanon

Empowerment-Plus draws its inspiration from business leaders around the world engaged in similar enterprises and initiatives. For instance, the Makhzoumi Foundation founded by Lebanese industrialist Dr. Fouad Makhzoumi, CEO of Future Pipe Industries Group Ltd., engages in similar projects and serves as a successful model informing the development Empowerment-Plus.

Dr. Makhzoumi is key advocate for interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace in Lebanon and a Sunni Muslim.

Dr. Makhzoumi is a recipient of the Global Business & Interfaith Peace Prize award by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations Global Compact with support from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. He received the award for his work in founding (in 1997) the Makhzoumi Foundation, motivated by his strong desire to help empower fellow citizens to achieve self-sufficient independence via improved career prospects, regardless of religion or creed.

Starting the Makhzoumi Foundation was a significant step forward given that Lebanon was emerging from a 15-year civil war that fell along sectarian lines and left the country in a state of disrepair with a desperate need to rebuild and jumpstart its flailing economy and educational system.

Indeed, Dr. Makhzoumi – a Sunni Muslim – powerfully lays out the case for interfaith understanding and religious freedom in his acceptance speech for the Global Business & Interfaith Peace Prize in a video already viewed by more than 75,000 (see newly added video with Arabic subtitles here).

Dr. Makhzoumi’s wife, Mrs. May Makhzoumi leads the work of the Makhzoumi Foundation in carrying out computer, language and vocational training for minimal fees. They also provide health care as well as microlending services for new business start-ups, and Dr. Makhzoumi just this past week launched a new centre for entrepreneurship at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

Islamic Scholar: Marrakesh, Morocco

As I write this, I’m in Abu Dhabi, UAE, for the third follow-up meeting I’ve participated in to help promote a remarkable achievement – The January 2016 Marrakesh Declaration: Protections for the Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Lands.

At the Forum for Peace annual meeting occurring now, His Eminence Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah (pictured at left), the President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, noted that Muslim societies are sick, and it’s a problem of the heart. And to bring peace, Muslim solutions must address the heart.

One step toward putting the heart in the right disposition is viewing non-Muslims as having equal rights and status as citizens. This view has historic roots dating to the time of Prophet Mohammed and the Medina Charter. The Marrakesh Declaration was issued at a time of heightened social hostility fueled by violent extremism, widespread Islamophobia and the denial of rights, sometimes justified by misrepresentations of Islamic teachings.

A summary of the Marrakesh Declaration includes:

— “The objectives of the Charter of Medina provide a suitable framework for national constitutions in countries with Muslim majorities, and are in harmony with the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

— “Affirm[s] that it is impermissible to employ religion for the purpose of detracting from the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”

— “Call[s] upon representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all words that promote hatred and racism.”

This past summer, Shaykh bin Bayyah agreed to prepare a special video discussion on the Marrakesh Declaration for me to show to a standing room only meeting in Rimini, Italy, at a conference that attracts over 800,000 each year.

Interviewing me in the session was the president of Italian State TV Monica Maggioni. After she watched the video, she exclaimed, “Why doesn’t this make news?!”

I replied, “You’re the journalist, you tell me.”

2. Workplace “Fairness for All”

Ted Childs, former chief diversity officer for IMB, asserts that religion is the next big thing that major corporations will need to navigate. Corporations worldwide have recently focused on LGBT issues, and, using the same argument of “fairness for all,” companies will grapple with how to reasonably accommodate and not discriminate against religion in the workplace.

Why?

Freedom of Religion or Belief is an internationally recognized human right. Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, 36% of American workers report experiencing or witnessing workplace religious discrimination, according to a recent Tanenbaum survey, “What American Workers Really Think about Religion.”

But the most successful businesses encourage an environment in which employees can bring their “full self” to work. Employees need to feel comfortable being who they are in the workplace, including being true to their core identity and beliefs. That includes recognizing and respecting an employee’s religion and its practice.

In today’s increasingly more competitive business environment, companies will need to draw upon the talent and experience of every employee. They can’t afford to leave anyone out. If they exclude or alienate someone for reasons having nothing to do with a person’s ability to do the job, they might also be excluding the next great business solution or the next great product idea. The very thing a company might need for its success. At the very least, they’ll be missing out on lots of really great talent.

And as companies become increasingly more global, they’ll need employees who reflect the increasing diversity of their customers. They’ll need employees who can relate to the daily experience of customers and who can see the customer point of view. For potentially billions of customers, religious belief and practice are a part of daily life. Having employees who understand that will not only help companies avoid costly missteps, it will also help companies develop products and services better tailed to customer needs. That’s an essential part of being competitive.

The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation has developed a Corporate Pledge that supports religious diversity and freedom in the workplace and sends two clear messages to current and prospective employees:

  1. (1) You can work here without changing who you are; and
  2. (2) the company respects all employees and will not favor certain employees over others … and that’s good for the business of all.

In the coming year I believe that the principles in the Pledge will increasingly become one component of a company’s overall strategy to value its employees and increase their loyalty for the benefit of customers and shareholders. The FoRB Pledge is a company’s public commitment to take reasonable steps to ensure that working at the company does not put employees at odds with their deeply held religious convictions.

3. Asia Will Take a Lead

Silence – the new Martin Scorsese film set in Japan – is scheduled for release in the United States on December 23, 2016. Based on the historical novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries sent to Japan to discover whether a colleague denied God in the face of brutal persecution. By Pew Research estimates, however, today Japan scores among countries with the highest government respect for religious freedom – outranking the United States. And Japan is not the only Asian country besting the US.

Specifically, among the 26 most populous countries, governments of three Asian countries have higher levels of government support for (i.e., lower levels of restrictions on) religious freedom than the United States, where government restrictions on religious freedom are higher and have been rising according to Pew Research.

As shown in the chart, the United States scores 3.0 out of a maximum of 10.0 on the Government Restrictions on Religion index, according to data recently published by the Pew Research Center.

The Philippines, by contrast, scores 1.0 out of a maximum of 10.0 on the index, Japan scores 1.1 and South Korea 2.0, all with fewer government restrictions on religious freedom than the U.S.

Among the 26 most populous nations, however, three East Asian countries have governments that are very highly restrictive of religious freedom: China (scoring 9.1 out of 10.0), Indonesia (8.5), and Burma/Myanmar, according to the Pew index. One East Asian country is highly restrictive: Vietnam (6.1), and one is moderately restrictive: Thailand (4.4).

Although Taiwan is not counted among the 26 most populous nations, Pew scores Taiwan as low on restrictions and therefore high on freedom.

Given the recent political posturing between U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and China, which included Trump being the first U.S. president or president-elect to talk to the president of Taiwan since 1979 when the United States recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of China rather than Taipei.

The prospects for new innovations coming from East Asian nations committed to religious freedom are likely in 2017. For instance, this year Taiwan organized an international symposium attended by representatives from 27 countries resulting in a Declaration of Religious Freedom, prominently citing the connection between religious freedom and business.

And the prospects of a possible run for the South Korean presidency by outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been a clear supporter of the role of business in advancing interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace, add another reason to expect religious freedom & business innovations coming from Asia.

Of course, much depends on China itself, the biggest player in the region. Of course, the devil’s in the details, but given a rash of recent government actions to impose its supremacy over culture, in particular, religion, China’s economic success is under threat.

This conclusion is based on a new study which I authored, The Modern Chinese Secret Sustainable Economic Growth: Religious Freedom & Diversity.

The study’s findings – published in this past summer’s edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs – will be surprising to the half of China’s population for whom religion is not a significant part of life. To the other half, they will make some sense, but still may be surprising. The reason is twofold.

First, those who do not practice religion often tend to have their closest personal and social connections with people like themselves. Accordingly, people who do not encounter religion on a day-to-day basis may consider it to be an insignificant factor.

Second, even those practicing a faith may not be aware of the connections between faith, freedom, and business because there has been very little research looking at the connections.

Also, if external threats are perceived to be growing by the government, then rallying the population may also mean some additional concessions to religion in order to keep them on China’s side. Whether they will reduce restrictions on religious freedom in 2017 is yet to be seen.

For more on the Yin and Yang of religion and religious freedom in China, see my Weekly Number China blog. But one thing’s for certain, with nearly half of the Chinese population being religious active, and with research showing the positive contribution to the economy of religious and religious freedom, China has incentive to ease restrictions.

Welcome 2017

2017 marks the third anniversary of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s first-of-its-kind effort to engage the global business community in advancing interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace. It’s fair to say that the progress we’ve seen gives some reason to believe that this coming year will be the Year of Religious Freedom & Business. The advances so far include:

  • • Recognizing business champions at the inaugural Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards
  • • Launching the Corporate Pledge on Religious Freedom
  • • Piloting (for global scale-up) our Empowerment+ interfaith social cohesion & enterprise initiative
  • • Seeing our research covered by global press (from Forbes to Fox and Al Jazeera to EWTN)

Writing now from Abu Dhabi, and having travelled around the world several times over just this year, there is hope that the three religious freedom innovations discussed above are set to soar in 2017. Certainly, I’ll be doing my best to give them some fuel. Let me know if you’d like to help too.

With abiding faith, hope and love, I for one am looking forward to the New Year.