The Quran on those who Exploit

May 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

“WOE UNTO THOSE who give short measure: those who, when they are to receive their due from [other] people, demand that it be given in full – but when they have to measure or weigh whatever they owe to others, give less than what is due! Do they not know that they are bound to be raised from the dead [and called to account] on an awesome Day – the Day when all men shall stand before the Sustainer of all the worlds? “(Quran 83: 1-6)

I have been thinking a lot about these verses, and wondering about production around the world. There is an expectation that when we buy commodities in North America, we pay the full price – no bargaining, no compromise. Companies make billions off of this. But how do they reward those who make their goods? They pay them meager wages, barely enough to live on. They often don’t even pay their North American workers enough or give them benefits (think Walmart). During the market crisis, heads of corporations paid themselves millions in bonuses, while the common citizen paid the price of their company bailouts.   God in the Quran addresses these sorts of people by the use of the word ‘wail’ ( وَيْلٌ), the definition meaning ‘woe unto you’ or ‘destruction, ruin, or doom unto you’ and they are later in the same chapter promised Hellfire. Exploitation, even on a small scale, is a very serious offense in the Quran. Are we a part of this? Do we even care?

I remember a few years ago MSA National was giving a scholarship to Muslim students from Chevron-Texaco. I wrote them a long letter explaining that it makes no sense for those who believe in Islam and its truth to accept money from a company that has raped (I didn’t use that word exactly) parts of Nigeria (along with other places in the world, but I used Nigeria as an example) and has put almost nothing back. How can we as Muslims be a part of that? The outer forms of worship (prayer, fasting, etc.) mean nothing when we’re accepting money stained with the blood of those who were exploited for oil.

I never received a response. This may be overly cynical to say, but I don’t think many Muslims care about exploitation as long as they don’t see it, don’t hear it, and don’t think about it. Looking Muslim and acting Muslim as well at following religious ritual is enough. This example was of a group simply accepting money from a major oil company, but many are directly involved in these dealings. Even on a small scale, cheating on business deals is a norm among many I’ve observed.

God curses those who exploit others, and those who are unfair in their business transactions. Ritual is not enough, if we do not make sure our actions are fair and just, we’ll be answerable to Him for what we’ve done to others.

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American Apparel Adventure

May 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

It was only a few months ago that I discovered American Apparel is a sweatshop-free, made in America clothing line (hence the name American Apparel). Before that, I’d passed it many times but never went in – it seemed like the same sort of clothing you could find at Old Navy or Banana Republic. But upon discovering their merchandise is not produced in sweatshops, I decided it was worth checking out.

Turns out I was completely wrong about it being a generic clothing store. There are many pieces in fashion now that are eighties revival that I like, some that I sort of understand, some that I would never wear but think might look trendy on a few brave souls. But I could only describe their line as Denise Huxtable whacked out totally eighties-style clothing. I actually stood confused at the front of the store for a few minutes  because I felt like I’d walked into the wrong decade.

After looking around a bit, I found a shirt that I actually liked and ended up buying. That was a lucky find though because I’m neither ‘trendy’ enough nor brave enough to wear most of the clothing in the store. They do have undergarments and nice accessories which I think would be worth a trip there a few times a year. But otherwise, I was pretty disappointed. Maybe the solution is for me to be more daring in my clothing choices? Maybe not.

Winter Made in Canada

November 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

Since I determined in the summer that I would try my best to buy clothing made in Canada, the USA and other countries that have protective labour laws, I’ve avoided buying much.  I did end up at H&M because I’d been given gift certificate for my birthday. I’m not sure how I feel about shopping at H&M. Their website has a whole section devoted to corporate responsibility that explains the steps they are taking to make the company more sustainable, as well as their involvement in improving worker conditions using the company’s financial power and influence. I’m still pretty skeptical about H&M’s claims, but I wasn’t going to let the gift certificate go to waste!

Other than that, I’ve avoided buying clothing. One reason for this is the realization that I have way too much stuff already. The other reason is that I was afraid of the commitment I had made. I made the commitment in the first place not only because supporting companies that avoid sweatshop labour  (like American Apparel) is important, but for me simply knowing that the clothing on my back was not made by a woman or child who was abused and exploited while working in slave-like conditions is important for my mental and spiritual well-being. My purchasing power may not change the world, but like I’ve written in earlier posts, I do believe that all of this goes back to my responsibility to God, the Judge of all things. However, although I’m not a big shopper, I do love nice clothes and I’ve been afraid of entering the mall only to fall in love with clothes that were off limits to me because of my resolution.  Therefore, I’ve simply stayed away. It has been a good thing so far because I’ve saved money I’ve earned and thought a lot more about my consumption.

Then winter hit. I have a winter coat but it’s not warm enough for the dropping temperatures. I couldn’t put it off any longer; it was time for a trip to the mall. I know that God blesses good intentions, so I set my intention to do something good, and put my trust in Him that he would guide me to what I needed. I then laid out a plan in my head: I would only shop at the stores that had items that were made in Canada, and if I couldn’t find anything there, I’d go to H&M as a last resort. I knew three stores, Le Chateau, Tristan, and Jacob, manufacture some items in Canada so that’s where I would start.

I made the mistake of going to the mall on Saturday, the day after Black Friday (the official beginning of Christmas shopping season) and people had come out in droves for the Christmas shopping pilgrimage. I became frustrated within minutes of entering the building, but knew I had to get this coat or freeze this winter. I first went to Le Chateau and was surprised to find that half of their large winter coat selection was made in Canada. I tried things on, but didn’t like anything I tried on. It frustrated me because I couldn’t believe that I would be this superficial as to pass up these coats for the sake of fashion! I decided then to check out the other stores and return later to resolving this internal dilemma if need be. The other stores didn’t in fact have any ‘made in Canada’ coats, and I couldn’t even find anything I liked at H&M. I was ready to (temporarily) give up on my resolution at this point and get a coat from any other store.

But I realized I was being stupid, and that it would be better to go back to Le Chateau and just pick something; my principles are so much more important than fashion! This time a store clerk helped me, and suggested I try a particular coat. He told me he really liked how it looked on me, and then it dawned on me that it was the first coat I’d tried on when I got to the mall. It did look good, I don’t know what had prevented me from seeing that earlier.  Before I could change my mind again, I purchased the coat and headed home.

I wondered about this frustrating trip and thought to myself, “If I had just bought a coat at Le Chateau in the first place it would have saved me a lot of trouble.” My experience may seem like no big deal, but it’s important to me because I learned a few things about sticking to my principles. I was also so proud of myself because, while others at the mall lost themselves in the race to buy the latest products that are commonly mistaken as the keys to happiness and fulfillment, I had set myself apart by setting out only to buy something I needed that was manufactured by workers that were fairly paid for the items they made. I also didn’t fail by buying another coat I liked a lot better (I did like other coats a whole lot better than the one I purchased, but they were made in China) resisting my own mental slavery to fashion.

I know that the One sees into my heart and I pray that His witnessing the good I tried to do will lead to my happiness in His happiness with me.

I Am Free…?

October 9, 2010 § 5 Comments

Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his life long. The mind that judges and desire and decides-made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 2

Every time I drive into the city, I am struck by the incredible number of billboards that line the roads as I drive into the downtown core. Once upon a time I was able to observe to beautiful lake to my right, but now that view is blocked by a cluster of waterfront condos that have turned the public space into corporate profit. Now my eyes are drawn to the left, to the wonderful billboards that educate me on where I’m lacking in my life: how imperfect my body necessarily is, how behind the times all my current electronics are, how much TV I’m missing, and the things I must buy in order to correct all of these problems that are keeping me from my true happiness and satisfaction.

I am constantly bombarded by advertising wherever I go and there seems to be no escape. Everything – everything – can be made into an ad. I often don’t know what to do with myself when I’m in urban centres because my mind is overloaded with these messages that make me feel that the magic of life is in what I buy. I wonder what it’ll be like as these centres expand and if there will truly be places to escape. I wonder what this constant bombardment is doing to my brain: Do I make proper choices or am I fooled into doing what I’m being told to do and fooling myself into thinking I have real control over what I do?

Personal Responsibility

September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Lately I’ve been thinking about the motivations behind certain actions and their results or potential impact.  Though this may seem like a trivial example, when I recycle small items I wonder if I should even bother when the environment is being severely damaged by large polluters daily; what would my little piece of garbage matter when companies like BP have wreaked havoc on the planet?

The same sort of question could be asked about my desire to make ethical choices when I shop, purchasing fair trade products and trying to avoid sweatshop-made items. What would those small acts amount to in the face of such large corporations like Nike and the Gap who wield considerable power and influence all over the world? My purchasing power seems paltry in comparison – as does my small act of recycling – so why bother?

I have learned that if one wants to change the world, one must change herself first. Not only does it matter for the sake of being consistent and avoiding being hypocritical, but movements are based on collections of individuals who were faced with a decision, and made the change in their own lives.

The greatest motivating factor for me, however, is the knowledge that all I do is witnessed by the Judge of all things. God commands social justice and the care of all He created and I believe Muslims too often separate these ideas from popular understandings of religiosity. Ritual is only a part of being a good believer; care for others, animals, and our earth are also essential factors in what would constitute a good human being and a good Muslim.

I believe that when God commands goodness and forbids evil, social responsibility is a part of His command and we are personally responsible for what is in our power to do, and every action, small or large, counts. Many may simply interpret this as the imperative to care for the poor, but there are so many references in the Quran and Ahadith (sayings of the Prophet) that forbid oppression and describe it, and those who perpetrate it, in the worst of terms. We who live in the wealthy nations are a part of systems that are directly or indirectly oppressing small nations and/or their citizens. Are we not responsible as Muslims to help those being oppressed? And will we not be questioned if we are in fact capable of making change for the better within those systems?

Not only do our actions in working for social justice matter in changing ourselves and our world, in helping us to be better human beings and Muslims, and in helping us to work against oppression, but we are also promised reward by the Most Merciful:

As for anyone – be it man or woman – who does righteous deeds, and is a believer withal – him shall We most certainly cause to live a good life and most certainly shall We grant unto such as these their reward in accordance with the best that they ever did.” (Quran 16:97)

God also motivates us to this good in the Quran by saying:

“Verily, [only] they who stand in reverent awe of their Sustainer, and who believe in their Sus­tainer’s messages, and who do not ascribe divinity to aught but their Sustainer, and who give whatever they [have to] give with their hearts trembling at the thought that unto their Sustainer they must return: it is they who vie with one another in doing good works, and it is they who outrun [all others] in attaining to them! And [withal] We do not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear: for with Us is a record that speaks the truth [about what men and women do and can do]; and none shall be wronged.” (Quran 23: 57-62)

The Journey of My Favourite Jeans

August 30, 2010 § 2 Comments

This is the story of my favourite jeans. I bought the jeans a while ago at a Mexx store, and fell in love with them because they fit me so well and matched with many of my wardrobe items. Tonight I looked at them and wondered about their journey before they got to me, who might have manufactured them and in which country. So I decided to look it up:

I first looked at the label and discovered that they’re made in China, like many many other products out there. Naomi Klein devotes a small section to factory conditions in China entitled “Not Low Enough: Squeezing Wages in China” in her work No Logo. She says:

“[E]veryone’s wages are high compared to China [i.e. other countries that have major manufacturing zones]. But what is truly remarkable about that is that the most egregious wage cheating goes on inside China itself.

“Labor groups agree that a living wage for an assembly-line worker in China would be approximately US87 cents an hour…Yet even with [the] massive savings in labor costs, those who manufacture for the most prominent and richest brands in the world are still refusing to pay workers in China the 87 cents that would cover their cost of living, stave off illness and even allow them to send a little money to their host families. A 1998 study of the brand-name manufacturing in the Chinese special economic zones found that Wal-Mart, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Esprit, Liz Claiborne, Kmart, Nike, Adidas, J.C. Penny and the Limited were only paying a fraction of that miserable 87 cents – some were paying as little as 13 cents an hour.” (212)

Yikes!

I looked up Mexx to see whether its manufacturing practices would be considered similar to these other brands Klein discusses, and found that Mexx is in fact a division of Liz Claiborne. Klein specifically outlines the working conditions for two Liz Claiborne garment factories in China. The figures are from 1998, but they at least give a general idea of the conditions of the sweatshops. The Shanghai Shirt 2d Factory in 1998 paid workers 25 cents per hour, with 66 hour work weeks (12 hours a day, 6 days a week). There was no union and workers were fined if they did not work overtime. The Shanghai Jiang District Silk Fashions factory paid 28 cents an hour, with 60-70 hour work weeks (11.5 hours a day, 6 days a week).

So my jeans may have come from a worker not even paid a dollar and hour for her labour? And how much did I pay??? My being cheated is one thing, but the real crime is how little of that money reaches the worker who actually made the product itself. As a result of this exercise, I don’t really feel much of that love I previously held for those jeans. And the sad truth is that all of my clothes probably have a similar story.

The Beginning of Change

August 24, 2010 § 2 Comments

In my daily life I have found it difficult to balance my everyday concerns with concerns over my spiritual state and the life hereafter, something that many Muslims struggle with of course. When I do, however, take the time to reflect on my soul and my relationship with God, I evaluate my state in relation to common checklist items that are often cited as the proper tools to help reach an ideal level of religiosity and connection with Allah: prayer, fasting, giving money to the poor, being respectful to my parents and elders, asking for forgiveness from God, etc. These are the things which my mind naturally turns to when I think of striving to improve myself, and on the days I have given particular attention to my prayer or to extra good deeds, I often feel happier with the knowledge that I’ve at least made this day a good one with notable good deeds that will inshaAllah being me reward from the Most Merciful.

But recently I have begun to feel agitated internally because I’m realizing these checklist items are not enough.  The items of course are of utmost importance, especially prayer, but I cannot be expected to reach higher levels of ihsan (goodness) if I have not evaluated every single aspect of my life, whether those aspects are overtly connected to religiosity or not. Actions cannot be evaluated in isolation of other actions, as many of the Prophet’s lessons have taught us (peace be upon him). So what have I left out? Well, I’m praying and extra sunnah prayers and donating some money to charity, I always try to serve my parents well and stay connected to my relatives, I fast, and I strive to remember Allah throughout the day. I seem to have much covered, or am at least conscious of the important things….right?

But after all of that, after I pray that prayer in the mosque, leave my change in the donation box, say ‘salaam’ to a community member…… I stroll to my Toyota sporting my Tommy Hilfiger Jeans, get in and drive to my middle class suburban neighbourhood that is close to that sprawling North American mall I like to visit to buy more stuff that I ‘need’.  Of course these objects I surround myself by are technically within the realm of the halal, and there’s no harm in enjoying the bounties God has bestowed upon me to a certain degree. I do try to keep in mind that as a North American, I live a very materialistic lifestyle. But materialism isn’t necessarily the source of my internal agitation and discomfort. I should say, rather, that it is not the only source. In the West, we live in extreme wealth and consume 80% of the world’s resources. After having lived abroad I have come to see that what I think middle class means isn’t middle class at all. In relative terms, I live like a queen and bask in luxuries beyond the imagination of the majority of the world’s population.  I have to always remind myself that I misuse the word ‘need’ when I should actually be using the word ‘want’, telling myself to be content with the fact that I have enough – too much, in fact.

But as I said, materialism is not the only source of my dilemma: The knowledge that the luxury I’m wrapped in was made possible by the injustice and exploitation of the poorest of the poor, and I that I live my life of North American comfort on the backs of my brothers and sisters across the globe, eats me up inside. How can I sleep comfortably in my bed at night when everything in my bedroom, from the bed sheets to the alarm clock, have probably been manufactured in sweatshops where workers have been paid as little as 87 cents an hour, possibly less? I have been fooling myself in thinking that the slave era is mostly over. Allah says in the Qur’an, “blame attaches but to those who oppress [other] people and behave outrageously on earth, offending against all right: for them there is grievous suffering in store!” (42:42). No, I’m not involved in the making and maintenance of those terrible sweatshop conditions, but my comfort and ease are a direct result of this exploitation as I benefit from the products these poor workers slave over. I own the products they slave over! Their hands have bled over my things, and I don’t even give it a second thought as long as I am still able to purchase cheap goods.

I cannot continue to feel that this is okay. As a Muslim, my duty is to struggle against oppression on earth. If my lifestyle is a cause of the oppression of thousands of individuals, then something within it must change, and I cannot keep thinking that the normal checklist items are the only measures of my levels of religiosity.  This blog is the beginning of that change and I hope that through it I can help bring others along with me on the journey to transform that internal agitation and discomfort with my extreme North American lifestyle into to real action.

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