Belief and Business

Stephen DeAngelis

March 20, 2009

As president and CEO of a company that conducts business internationally, I must be aware of cultural differences in how business is conducted in the countries I visit. Although most business people are understanding when someone from another country commits a local faux pas, avoiding embarrassment and insult remains important. Local business people appreciate the fact that you respect them enough to learn and abide by their customs. In some countries, however, even local business people are finding it difficult to rationalize their business success with their belief system. This conundrum has been highlighted in two articles about business people in Turkey and India.

 

Turkey is one of the few secular states with a Muslim majority (a situation it is finding increasingly difficult to maintain). In this secular setting, religious merchants often found themselves on the outside of the mainstream economy looking in — nevertheless they have flourished. As a result of their success and the wealth they’ve accumulated, they find themselves in a position where they can influence Turkish politics (much like America’s so-called “religious right”). At the same time, they are trying to reconcile their fortunes with their faith [“Newfound Riches Come With Spiritual Costs for Turkey’s Religious Merchants,” by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, 25 December 2008].

“While other Muslim societies are wrestling with radicals, Turkey’s religious merchant class is struggling instead with riches. ‘Muslims here used to be tested by poverty,’ said Sehminur Aydin, an observant Muslim businesswoman and the daughter of a manufacturing magnate. ‘Now they’re being tested by wealth.’ Some say religious Turks are failing that test, and they see the recent economic crisis as a lesson for those who indulged in the worst excesses of consumption, summed up in the work of one Turkish interior designer: a bathroom with faucets encrusted with Swarovski crystal, a swimming pool in the bedroom, a couch rigged to rise up to the ceiling by remote control during prayer. ‘I know people who broke their credit cards,’ Ms. Aydin said. But beyond the downturn, no matter how severe, is the reality: the religious wealthy class is powerful now in Turkey, a new phenomenon that poses fresh challenges not only to the old secular elite but to what good Muslims think about themselves.”

Tavernise notes that the struggle for identity in Turkey is not just about religion but about status. The secular elite have always looked down their noses at the merchant class as well as those openly religious. Now that wealthy, but religious, merchants are driving around in the best cars and live in fancy houses, the old elite are a bit jealous and probably a little bit fearful. In some ways, the situation is like the social wars conducted in New York City during America’s “Gilded Age.” New York’s “old” elite was shaken by the arrival of large numbers of newly rich individuals who had made their fortunes in mining, railroads, and industry. Some of them accumulated enormous wealth. Caroline Webster Astor, the self-crowned queen of New York and Newport, was so upset by these upstarts that she published a list known as the “Four Hundred,” who represented the epitome of “old” New York Society during the last quarter of the 19th century. Her objective was to maintain the position of her old friends and keep the new rich out. Mrs. Astor was chagrined when, despite her best efforts to ignore them, the newly rich gained prominence and fame. The fact that Turkey’s religious but wealthy merchants could gain political influence is exactly what concerns many analysts. If they manage to turn Turkey from a secular state into a Muslim state, it could set back political transformation elsewhere in the Middle East.

 

The upside of the situation is that religious merchants have had a positive economic impact on Turkey. As Tavernise reports, “Istanbul, Turkey’s economic capital, is No. 4 in the world on the latest Forbes list of cities with the highest number of billionaires. Luxury cars stud its streets. Shopping malls, 80 at last count, are mushrooming.” Of course, Turkey has suffered setbacks just like other countries as a result of the current global recession. How Turkey’s merchant class eventually reconciles its wealth with its religious beliefs could in large measure determine Turkey’s economic trajectory. There is room for compromise.

“An Islamic concept called israf forbids consuming more than one needs, but the line is blurry, leaving rich Muslims struggling with questions like whether luxury cars can be offset by donations to charity, a central tenet of Islam. … Islam requires that the wealthy give away a portion of their income to the poor. In the Ottoman Empire, it paid for everything from hospitals to dishes broken by maids in rich houses. Donations to Deniz Feneri, one of the largest charities in Turkey, jumped almost 100-fold in the six years ending in 2006, when they topped $62 million. Even house designs take charity into account. Mr. Cak described a multimillion-dollar house whose design included an industrial-size kitchen where food was cooked daily and distributed in trucks.”

If Turkey’s merchant class can continue to prosper in a secular economy and reconcile its faith by supporting charities, then Turkey should remain positioned to thrive once the global economy recovers. Business people in India are also learning how to blend business and belief [“Applying Meaning to Management With Ancient Hindu Mythology,” by Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, 26 January 2009]. Lakshmi reports that one company decided to deal with dilemmas confronted by its employees by hiring “renowned mythology expert Devdutt Pattanaik, [as its] ‘chief belief officer.'” Lakshmi continues:

“The round-faced, bespectacled author, who graduated from medical school and has worked as a business strategist for the consulting firm Ernst & Young, says he is not like the wise old grandmother who sits under a banyan tree telling stories. Instead, he says, he is helping to create a set of management principles that are steeped in Indian culture. He calls it the ‘3-B’ model: belief, behavior and business.”

In a company like mine, there is no single belief system upon which to base business principles. I have employees that span the religious spectrum. I nevertheless stress the importance of ethical behavior and practices which all employees can understand and live by. That is basically what Pattanaik does. “Business is run on a pattern of behavior,” he says. “I help create the belief that governs behavior.” Interestingly, Lakshmi reports that “since Pattanaik began his work … the company has seen less attrition and better connections with its customers.” I think that employees appreciate working for a company that asks them to conduct business ethically and to avoid shady business practices. The bottom line is that business people in Turkey and India are trying to apply the best principles of their belief systems to their business practices. Good leaders establish the ground rules that govern behavior within their companies. When leaders forget that they have a moral duty as well as business responsibility, they often end up being photographed in handcuffs during a “perp walk.” Most American’s believe there haven’t been enough perp walk photos taken of business people whose greed created the economic freefall. They also conveniently forget their own role in accepting too much credit and being caught up in the conspicuous consumerism that fed the bubble that eventually burst. Tavernise and Lakshmi remind us that being grounded in some core beliefs is not always a bad thing.