Presenting Islam at work – rise of the Network

It is increasingly common to see Muslims lacking confidence about their faith identity or association with the Muslim community, especially in professional working environments. This is leading Muslims to lead double lives or, in some cases, hiding any signs of their Islamic identity whether in their name, conversation or social practises in order to “fit in” amongst non-Muslim colleagues or peers. We have probably all seen the impact this has at university, work or in other professional environments – feeling ashamed to request time out to attend Friday prayers or offer salaam to greet another Muslim.

From my personal experience, one of the most effective forms of building confidence in the Muslim identity at work is through a professional Muslim network, which is recognised and supported by your Human Resources department. I have been involved in setting up such networks and have prepared a model template for setting up or invigorating a corporate Muslim Network. Through these networks, we have established multi-faith prayer facilities, halal catering in the canteen and at events, organised networking opportunities, prepared managers guides about Islam, set up lunch and learn sessions and even published specialist advice and toolkits for the Muslim community. On each occasion, the company has always benefited from a more engaged workforce and deep and meaningful insights into their customers.

But before I do that, lets talk through all the reasons racing through your mind about why this is a bad idea.

1. “I don’t do religion at work – professional and personal life should not mix!”

Our personality remains with us throughout our personal and professional lives and it contains our principles, ways of working and values. Most of those values – what we perceive to be good and important – are driven by our upbringing and faith. So I’d contest that our faith perspective is an inseparable part of our being which we take with us wherever we are.

It’s interesting that this argument is not applied consistently when there are conversations about holidays, weekend activities and the mandatory after-work socials and Xmas celebrations. We should not shy away from having perspectives and views, which are different from our colleagues on these matters and generally, you will find these differences are respected.

The media is filled with continuous commentary on the role faith plays in society. We probably all share opinions on this media and it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t challenge this narrative through good conduct and positive discussion at work. In fact, I’ve met many Directors and CEOs who are waiting on Muslim employees to clarify these misconceptions, especially as the political situation becomes increasingly discriminatory towards Muslims.

No doubt, we are all seeking the right balance of ambition and acceptance or engagement and retreat, and I would propose that there is no better time than today for Muslims to raise their voices are positive contributors to society and this economy.

2. “I feel very uncomfortable with the statements made by Muslim “community leaders” – some of their statements really make me cringe.”

Agreed. And what are you going to do about it?

It is said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. If you feel uncomfortable with the representation of Muslims today, work to improve it. Criticism of Muslims by Muslims is often perceived as a sign of disunity. It takes character and humility to work together to improve our representation.

It’s not easy to take the microphone or go live before the worlds stage and speak about Islam today. Recognise the courage and challenges which face the orator and either volunteer yourself or work with them to raise their game. We know that our Beloved Prophet taught us that “the believer is a mirror for the believer, and the believer is the brother of the believer. He safeguards his property for him and defends him from behind.”[1] We know that we should make excuses for one another and that we are all part of the same building. Ironically, at work, if a member of our team was underperforming or not representing the business properly, we wouldn’t hesitate to work with them to improve their presentation and support them. We should follow our own professional example and work to unite and strengthen our public voice as a Muslim community.

4. “In the politically charged climate today, I fear being labelled and falling in the trap of guilt by association OR

You don’t want to draw attention to Muslims, just be a good person and everything will be OK.”

I hate to break it to you, but many people have already labelled you as guilty just by the fact that you look different, and I don’t mean by your beard, dress code or name. Just your complexion is sufficient in this highly polarised environment. They may not say it, but its increasingly felt, and the populist anti-immigration nonsense, political disunity and rise of the far-right are evidence of this.

This means that the only way you can clear your name is by speaking out, even if it is just within your immediate circle of influence. In fact, you will probably find people will be more accepting of you as a person they know, than they will be of someone they hear of in the media or corridor conversation.

Today, the world is asking questions about Islam and Muslims. There has never been a better time for us to present Islam. Do seek advice and gather support from friends and colleagues.

And don’t worry about not finding support with colleagues for identifying as a Muslim. Surprisingly, I have found those who may not outwardly display their religion are the most vocal, passionate and articulate about being a Muslim today. The moment they see someone is willing to identify as a Muslim, they are proud to declare their faith heritage and are often the most driven to ensure Muslims are not discriminated against.

4. “I don’t have the time with my current workload. Maybe, I’ll get involved next year.”

Thomas Edison is quoted as saying that opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. If we want a better world, we have to sacrifice to make it happen. Reflecting back on my life, its the moments and opportunities which I never planned for, which have led to the most significant improvements in my personal and professional development.

There will never be enough time to do everything, but there’s always time to do the most important thing. In fact, when we are given a new project at work, we have to make time and adjust our workload accordingly. Why should this be any different? No-ones asking for you to dedicate your life and energies to this exclusively, but your contribution, however small, may make it possible for a collaborative, positive voice to emerge.

In fact, I have experienced that setting up a Muslim network has been a great opportunity for professional development through:

  • Networking across the organisation and with external partners including regular meetings with Board members;
  • Engaging with senior leaders and developing strong communications with Human Resources;
  • Contributing to Policy development, strategic planning and corporate consultation;
  • Leading on PR and Communications activities across owned and third party media channels;
  • Building a virtual team and coordinating events and plans which inspire others to participate and work together;
  • Attending and speaking at industry seminars;
  • Championing diversity across cultural, gender, race and ability preferences.

So, what now?

Having traversed the path of setting up a Muslim network in a few organisations, I thought it would be useful to share practises and documentation to make it easier for others to do the same.

The process I have followed has been a quite straightforward one and I would be more than happy to support those who would like further detail. At a high level, it has involved:

  1. Making contact with Muslims within your organisation and agreeing the overall aims of a Network;
  2. Preparing a proposal document which articulates the benefits a Muslim network offers the organisation. You can read, download or amend our most recent version here. Do share your plans with your Line Manager to keep them informed about your collective intention to set up a Muslim Network. I have always found that Managers and Directors are very pleased to see employees take an interest in developing the employee voice so rest assured of their support.
  3. Arranging a meeting with your Human Resources Diversity lead. A simple email outlining the purpose of the meeting and setting out 30 minutes is typically all that is required to present the proposal and discuss the preferred process to set up a network.
  4. Once you have received their feedback on the proposal, include any amends in your proposal and then email HR a copy and request formal approval from the Board.
  5. This may require further presentation and discussion which is perfectly normal. From my experience, I have found that companies are keen to support the development of diversity networks as this is perceived well for their brand, both from an employee inclusion and recruitment perspective.

Once you have received approval, you may wish to organise a launch event to raise awareness of the Network launch. Your corporate Public Relations and Communications teams will help raise awareness about this on the company intranet and via email. I have published the presentation from a recent network launch as a guide for what you may want to include.

If you have questions or would like to share your experience of setting up or dealing with your Muslim network, I’d love to hear from you so we can evolve this approach further.

[1] Bukhari, Al-Adab al-Mufrad (no. 239), Abu Dawud and others. Its chain of narration is hasan.

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