Time for Business to Get Religion

Eboo Patel, Founder of IFYC, gives a talk at Starbucks.

Thank God for Texas barbecue I said to myself as I pulled into the parking lot. I was on my way to Baylor University to give a keynote address on interfaith cooperation and consult with senior administrators about the tensions between the school’s Baptist identity and its global aspirations.

It’s about a hundred miles from Dallas to Waco, and I had built up a mean hunger along the way. A friend had told me about a great barbecue joint about fifteen miles from campus. The succulent smell of smoked meat hit me right when I opened the car door. I could not have been more excited for lunch.

I started having second thoughts as soon as I walked inside. Fox News was blaring from a television, something about Donald Trump threatening to ban Muslims, and about a dozen white guys wearing overalls and work boots turned to stare at me, a brown guy dressed in a suit, a small silver hoop in each ear.

I smiled, did my best to act natural, and made my way over to the food counter. It all looked delicious, unfortunately, the items were not labeled very well. I couldn’t tell if the ribs were beef or pork, if the potato salad had bits of bacon, or if the collard greens had pieces of ham. I’m a Muslim, and while I don’t keep strictly halal, I emphatically do not eat pork.

Living in Chicago, I was accustomed to telling servers that I had dietary restrictions for religious reasons (I also don’t drink alcohol), but feeling a whole set of suspicious eyes on me, and listening to Fox News drone on about Muslim extremists, I decided that announcing my minority faith and asking what items met my dietary requirements was not the wisest course in that particular environment.

So I went item by item. “What do the mac and cheese have in it? What kind of ribs are those?” But now I was holding up the line. I could feel the people behind me get impatient. This was not a good situation.

And then something wonderful happened. The woman behind the counter, who looked like she could be the mother of any one of the white guys in overalls, looked at me and said, softly but warmly: “Here are the four things you can eat.”

She piled my plate high with sliced turkey, barbecued chicken, sweet potatoes, and mac and cheese.

“Thank you for understanding,” I told her.

“Everyone needs to eat,” she responded.

I don’t know if she knew I was Muslim, but she knew that I was something different, at least for that part of the world. And she knew that I wasn’t just being finicky, I was asking questions related to an important part of my identity, a part that felt more than a little out of place in that environment. What she offered was an act of hospitality, a kindness that I appreciated a great deal.

She also did something else: she sold me a plate of food. I got some great barbecue, her restaurant got $11.99, and she got a ten dollar tip. It was a successful business transaction, one that only happened because she was sensitive to my religious identity.

I’ve thought about that “barbecue fifteen miles outside of Waco” story a lot these past few months. I run an interfaith organization (IFYC), and our big idea is that the increasing religious diversity of American society has significant implications for all parts of our common life together. It can go well, as in the case of health professionals from a range of religious backgrounds working together to save lives in hospitals. Or it can go badly, as in the case of hate crimes against religious minorities and acts of faith-fueled violent extremism.

Most of my work over the past twenty years has been with colleges, governments, and nonprofit organizations. But that experience in the Texas barbecue joint story underscored for me another context in which awareness, knowledge, and skills relating to religious diversity are highly relevant – business.

More Americans encounter religious diversity at work than in any other environment. And colleges, which do an admirable job of educating their students about other identity issues, pay far less attention to religious diversity. In a recent survey done by the organization I lead, in partnership with professors from North Carolina State University and Ohio State University, nearly 75% of students said that they spent significant time engaging racial diversity in their college, but fewer than 30% said they took a class that dealt with religious diversity. This means that most college graduates are not aware of the issues around religious diversity that they are likely to encounter in the workplace. 

And it’s not just college graduates. As Boston University professor Stephen Prothero has been pointing out for years, a lack of religious literacy permeates American society. This impacts every sector of American life, from foodservice to retail.

Consider the story of Samantha Elhauf. A young woman who loves fashion, Ms. Elhauf sought a position at the Abercrombie & Fitch store in her home city of Tulsa. The hiring manager at the store gave her a high rating, but she had some misgivings. Ms. Elhauf wore a headscarf, and at that time Abercrombie’s stated ‘Look Policy’ barred headgear. The hiring manager at the store referred the situation to the regional manager, who instructed her to lower Ms. Elhauf’s score below the level required for making a hire.

Ms. Elhauf, backed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, took Abercrombie to court, claiming that the company discriminated against her based on her religion. Abercrombie maintained that Ms. Elhauf never specified that the headscarf was worn for religious reasons, so they could not be held liable for discrimination.

Seven Supreme Court Justices said that was not a legitimate excuse. They maintained that Abercrombie should have known that Elhauf was wearing the scarf for religious reasons. In effect, they were saying that not only was the reasonable accommodation of religious difference an effective requirement for operating a business, so was a basic working knowledge of religious diversity. In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia maintained that Title VII, the federal discrimination law at issue in the case, “does not demand mere neutrality concerning religious practices … Rather, it gives them favored treatment.” 

Abercrombie has since changed its ‘Look Policy’ to be more flexible. But that misses the point. The Supreme Court did not say that Abercrombie was required to let its employees wear baseball hats, the Court said that Abercrombie needed to be more knowledgeable about, and accommodating of, religion.

A little bit of positive and proactive engagement for religious diversity might not just have saved Abercrombie a world of trouble and unwanted attention, it might have also opened up a world of new opportunities. Consider the case of Martha Moore, a vice president at Nike. When she went to the beach and the pool, she often noticed that Muslim women did not go into the water. Those that did wore swimsuits that looked heavy and uncomfortable. As a designer, she viewed that as an opportunity. Why not figure out how to make swimwear for the hundreds of millions of Muslim women who want to go to the beach and the pool in attire that adheres to the modesty standards of their religion, and is comfortable, fashionable, and safe?

Moreover, because many religious traditions have standards of modesty when it comes to dressing, those items might also find an audience amongst women who are Buddhist, Hindu, Evangelical, and Mormon.

And why stop at swimwear? There are plenty of female Muslim athletes, like Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad. Traditional Islamic headscarves are not designed for sports. Imagine the difference that Nike could make not just in opening up new markets and selling more clothes, but in changing the perceptions that so many people had of Muslims. Better athletic gear for Muslim women would lead to more female Muslim athletes. 

In recent years, a great deal of attention has rightly been paid to various identity issues in the business world. Companies are recognizing that employees of different identities need different things. Perhaps more importantly, they are recognizing that diverse customers need different things.

Consider Fenty Beauty, the cosmetics line started by the pop star Rihanna when she was 29 years old. As a little girl in Barbados, Rihanna loved watching her mother put on makeup, and when she started wearing it herself she realized it could be, in her words, “a secret weapon." The problem was that most cosmetics were designed with white women in mind. But most women in the world are not white. And in that very important fact, Rihanna saw a massive opportunity. Fenty Beauty launched with forty different foundation shades, to match the huge array of diverse skin tones in the world, and revolved its brand around diversity and inclusivity. The business is currently valued at around $3 billion and it has helped Rihanna become one of the richest self-made women in the world. 

The increased awareness of diversity issues across all sectors of American society has given rise to a booming training and consulting industry within the business world, which has been valued at as much as $8 billion. Diversity consultants help companies assess how employees of different identities view the work environment, train managers to be more inclusive, set up Employee Resource Groups around a range of identities, and use buzz phrases like ‘the ability to bring your whole self to work’.

Like many organizations in the wake of the brutal videotaped murder of George Floyd, IFYC hired diversity consultants to work with our staff in the summer of 2020 on issues related specifically to race. As part of our due diligence process, we interviewed about a dozen different firms. And because we are a nonprofit organization that deals with religious diversity, we were curious about how religious identity figured into the work that they do.

The answer for most of the consultants we spoke to was not at all. They focused almost entirely on race, gender, sexuality, and, to a lesser extent, age. Some of the firms said that they helped companies and organizations deal with religious diversity issues if they were specifically asked, but that it was not an area where they specialized. Others said they did not like dealing with it even when requested. One firm said they would not deal with religion because it is ‘inherently exclusive’.

I’m a Muslim who has a Christmas tree in his house during the holiday season, so allow me to say that, at least from my very subjective point of view, dismissing all religious identity as exclusive is debatable. Furthermore, a significant number of the families I know are of mixed religion and attempt to maintain at least some of the practices of both traditions within their household. Again, religion as somehow always and inevitably stridently exclusive is very debatable. Regardless, whether or not an identity is exclusive says nothing about its relevance for your mission or business strategy. Imagine if Martha Moore at Nike had looked at those Muslim women staying out of the water at the beach and said, “Well, I’m not going to design for you because I’m pretty sure your identity is exclusive.”

The fact is that the area of the Venn diagram where religious practices overlap with business interests is huge. I’ve mentioned food and clothing thus far – obviously massive industries - but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Every religion has holidays where gift-giving is customary. Every religion has pilgrimages that have a profound impact on travel and hotels. Religious traditions have conceptions of money that impact everything from philanthropy to finance. And religious traditions mark life events – births, marriages, deaths, christenings, bar mitzvahs – in a variety of different ways.

All of these represent promising business opportunities, and also some pitfalls. I have a Jewish friend who was so angry at her local grocery store for featuring Matzah in a Hannukah display that she started shopping elsewhere. “It’s offensive,” she told me. “Matzah is for Passover, not Hannukah. If you don’t know even basic things about my religion, don’t do anything at all.”

The potential when it comes to businesses positively and proactively engaging religious diversity is limitless. The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world and the most religiously devout nation in the western hemisphere. There are already more Muslims in America than Episcopalians, and there were will soon be as many Muslims as Methodists.

As Rihanna showed when it comes to cosmetics and racial diversity, figuring out products and services for including previously excluded racial groups is not just good for society, it’s very good for business. But even Rihanna, for all of her forward-thinking about racial diversity and cosmetics, would have benefited from increased interfaith literacy. She was roundly criticized for using Islamic scripture (specifically, verses from the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) during a fashion show where women were dancing in lingerie. Rihanna apologized, characterizing the choice as “irresponsible” and “an honest yet careless mistake." But many Muslims were still offended, including those in the fashion industry. The popular beauty blogger Hodhen Liaden said, "Islam is not an aesthetic, religion is not an aesthetic," Hodhen tells Radio 1 Newsbeat. "Do you actually celebrate people like me or does it just look good for you?" 

So how do you take the first step?

“You don’t have to know everything when it comes to different religions,” I tell students, faculty, and administrators when I speak about religious diversity on campuses. “But you’ve got to know enough things to know when something religious is relevant, and to feel comfortable engaging with it positively, proactively, and appropriately.”

The ways that companies already engage in diversity work is not a bad place to start when it comes to religion. Have diverse religious speakers do educational talks for your staff and employees. Include religious diversity education in your standard training for employees and managers. Hire a consultant who deals with religious diversity to do surveys and focus groups with your employees to get a sense of how religious diversity already plays out in your company, and where the potential and pitfalls might be.

This isn’t the whole kit and kaboodle, it’s just a start. Think of it this way, Martha Moore wasn’t an expert on Islam, but she knew enough to figure out that standard bathing suits didn’t meet modesty requirements for Muslim women. From there, she could find experts and ask questions.

The people doing the hiring at that Abercrombie store in Tulsa didn’t have to know much more than Samantha Elhauf’s headscarf constituted religious attire, and made an exception in their ‘Look Policy’ to allow her to wear it. Other Abercrombie stores had done precisely that when it came to Jewish men wearing yarmulkas.

A little knowledge, enough to give you a radar screen for what might be going on and some comfort, can be the difference between engaging with a whole new customer base and engaging with lawyers in court.

Or, in my case, the difference between enjoying a pork-free lunch at a barbecue place fifteen miles from Waco, or walking out feeling both hungry and disrespected.

Learn more about IFYC's approach to engaging religious diversity at work.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.