A quick trip through a supermarket provides us with countless options of the same product at prices so meager that we end up purchasing more than we need. After all, the globalization narrative states that since international trade has taken over for the past 30 years, the world market has benefited from an influx of a more diverse and inexpensive product presentation. It's great - with McDonald's in third world countries, who needs clean water when you can enjoy a Big Mac? Globalization and the unmitigated rise of capitalism as a social and ethical doctrine has led to the ascent of India and China as emerging world super powers –at least this is what we are indoctrinated through dirt-cheap products to believe. The contradictory breaking point emerges from the fact that the world celebrates a country's plunge into capitalism instead of mourning the loss of an opportunity to create a fair and equitable society.
Then again, how does poverty in India and child labor in Thailand have an impact on Muslims? The lack of comprehension of the Islamic economic system has swayed Muslims into accepting our conscious support of businesses who present absolutely negative ethical business practices. This is ironic and disappointing – somewhere, sometime back, our community decided we are going to boycott Israeli products and companies that support the Zionist regime, thereby placing economic pressure on the companies and following in the spirit of the compelling boycott of the South African Apartheid regime which began in the 1960s and achieved its purpose in the 1990s. How is it that any God-conscious Muslim can boycott Coca Cola, Starbucks, and IBM for supporting Israel, yet continue to shop at WalMart, which has engaged in the most dehumanizing labor practices towards impoverished women and children and purchased grain produced by Archer Daniels Midland, which has pushed millions of Indians into utter poverty and forced tens of thousands of farmers into suicide?
The diseases and inadequacies of the capitalistic system can only be countered by Islam's answer to economics; indeed, it has been proven time and time again that any man-made system is bound to failure and subsequently becomes a mechanism for injustice. Muslims living in the West and around the world are not privileged to live under Islam's economic system which stresses honesty, fairness, and dignifying the worker and consumer. So instead, we must strive to apply Islam's guiding principles in every aspect of our daily lives, and this begins with where we spend our money.
Islam was sent as the answer to oppression, a system for mankind to follow and implement in order to strive towards justice and equality. In addition, it is stressed that Muslims must put others before themselves. Companies such as WalMart, Nestle, Kraft Foods, and many others are creating a society where the poor are crushed. By purchasing their products and shopping at WalMart because it is cheaper, we are supporting a system of structural inequality. Muslims are not neoliberals, so why is it that we continue to support these policies? The Holy Qur'an suffices as the sole guide for producers and consumers:
"And, o my people! Give full measure and weight fairly, and defraud not men their things, and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief." (11:85)
"O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor, for Allah can best protect both." (4:135)
Islam does not reject business, profit, or trade. It merely states that both consumers and producers are equally responsible in maintaining a society free of cheating and manipulation. Those who are aware that a company's practices conflict with justice must make a conscious effort to administer fair dealing and avoid their products. Muslims are accountable before God regarding the steps they take – be it individual or collective – in order to change society for the better, and if this means spending several more dollars so as to not support child labor, it is a small sacrifice.
One must be conscious of the many companies and countries that are oppressive, and measures must be taken to minimize, even attempt to eliminate, our support for these systems to the best of our abilities. There is a glaring hypocrisy found in neoliberal policies which have refused to spend 60-80 billion dollars to sort out the human race's basic problems (including sanitation, water, literacy and hunger in the third world). The irony is most apparent seeing that these same governments figured out they could raise one and a half trillion dollars in a mere few weeks to address the Wall Street melt-down. Instead of creating answers to poverty, the world's dominating powers are entering into marriage with multinational corporations and creating superficial markets that exploit the poor, destroy the environment, and ruthlessly impose inequality on millions. How can any person who acknowledges justice, humanity and compassion, support such a system? It is evident however, that these unfair labor practices and exploitation of complete nations is not a theme presented in every company. There are alternatives, so instead of celebrating the cheap prices found at big box corporations, we should instead critically think and ask: why is this so cheap? How many children worked on this product? How many cents were they paid – if any – for that day's work?
The world has grown accustomed to blaming third world countries for the problems of the developed world. We neglect to realize the current system has regressively broken complete societies in order for large corporations to make a profit and for us to be able to purchase a pair of shoes for 5 dollars at WalMart. Food prices reflect another oppression in and of themselves, and we must consider which companies we purchase our meals from. Just as the food prices in India led 75-year-olds to return to work performing physically demanding jobs, food companies recorded all-time historic profits. Wall Street companies and index funds like the Black Rock index funder were also betting on food. Additionally, unprecedented levels of speculation similar to those that had pushed oil prices to all-time highs were also responsible for skyrocketing food prices, which then never recovered to their original amount. As index funds invested unmitigated amounts of money in food production, food prices began to skyrocket. Rising food prices might hurt us by a few dollars per purchase in the West, but in the third world, where much of the grain is produced ironically, it leads to wide spread poverty and desperation. At the height of the crisis, the highest profits were recorded by Archer Daniels Midland, a grain processor in India. The unit of Archer Daniels Midland concerned with grain storage, transportation, and trading reported a seven fold increase in income while tens of millions fell into the starving ranks around the world.
It is incumbent upon every Muslim to understand and respond to the system of inequality. It is hypocritical to boycott Israeli products and companies while still support those that abuse women, children, and destroy complete nations. Islam commands justice and social progress from each and every one of its adherents, thus by consciously spending and working to protect the abased, we are simply fulfilling our Islamic obligation to better the world we live in.
Editor's Note: This article is part one of a two-part series. The next issue will include an article containing a list of companies that engage in un-Islamic and unethical labor and business practices.