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Selling North Carolina businesses on Muslim fundamentalism

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, March 7, 2005

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"I am a fundamentalist Muslim."

I thought this woman must have been joking. She was talking to a large group of North Carolina business leaders gathered in Cary to hear about the advantages of doing business in her country.

Her name is Rafidah Aziz, the Minister of International Trade and Industry of the Southeast Asian, Muslim majority, country of Malaysia.

Americans, deep down, are worried about doing business with Muslim countries like Malaysia.

Her remarks about being a fundamentalist Muslim were more surprising because she had just shown herself to be a "super salesperson" for her country and its hard working, well-educated, entrepreneurial people-ready to do business with North Carolinians. She "sold" the political stability of Malaysia, its open trading practices, its respect for western businesses, and its ability to open doors for businesses into other Muslim countries and to China.

Just like a North Carolina "good old boy" businessperson, she was laughing, joking, and then inviting her listeners to play a game of golf with her when they came to Malaysia. Stylishly dressed, smiling, joking with the men who worked for her, she was definitely not the prototypical Muslim woman that is in the minds of many westerners.

Why, then, I wondered, is she destroying the confidence she had earned from these North Carolinians by raising the fear that so many of us have of "Muslim fundamentalism"?

Why would she interrupt and threaten the success of her sales pitch by saying, "I am a fundamentalist Muslim"?

She had a reason.

She knows that Americans, deep down, are worried about doing business with Muslim countries like Malaysia. She knows that, no matter what we say, we have the words "Muslim" and "terrorism" filed away in the same parts of our brains. Like the good sales person that she is, she knows that a potential customer's unspoken but deep seeded worry can keep a sale from closing-unless that worry is addressed.

So Rafidah Aziz addressed our deep seeded worry about doing business with a Muslim country. And she did it head on.

She told us that the true teachings of Islam, "the fundamentals," do not approve of terrorism. The terrorists and extremists, she said, are deviants from the Muslim fundamentalism that grounds her religious beliefs, and those of the large majority of other Malaysian Muslims.

Her statement was powerful because it went right to the heart of my underlying reservations about doing business in Malaysia.

Even more powerful was the unspoken message that radiated from this confident, bright, attractive, business-like, open, smiling, modern woman: "I am the Muslim who should be your prototype, not the extremist terrorists, who are deviants. Let's do business!"

Rafidah Aziz's country is not perfect. There are Muslims in Malaysia who do not agree with her and her views about Islam, politics, the role of women, and opening up the country to the influence of western businesses. But, in last year's elections, her political party won an overwhelming victory over the party of the Islamic "hardliners" who would turn the country into a strict Islamic state.

There are lots of lessons for me from Rafidah Aziz's visit.

We know that "a picture is worth a thousand words." Her presentation and presence showed that a powerful person and her message could be worth a thousand pictures.

Because of her, from now on, when I think of a typical Muslim country, it won't just be Iran or Saudi Arabia. It will also be Malaysia.

And when I think of the typical Muslim woman, it won't just be a burka clad Afghan woman, it will be an enthusiastic, stylishly dressed, smiling, golf playing, modern woman.

Someone like Rafidah Aziz, standing tall in front of a group of North Carolinians and saying proudly, "I am a fundamentalist Muslim."


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways - available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409).

He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. North Carolina Bookwatch will be preempted by programming associated with Festival, the annual fundraising campaign, through the end of this month. It returns to the air on April 3 with guest Bill Thompson, author of "Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs."

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Our State Magazine
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Selling North Carolina businesses on Muslim fundamentalism
Rafidah Aziz

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