The time is right to engage economically with Islamic finance, writes Zain Ali, head of the Islamic studies research unit at the University of Auckland.
The recent debate on the burqa raises many questions related to multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity. While these questions are interesting in their own right, there is a fundamental issue that has been overlooked.
It is this: The Muslim world has much to offer, especially to a country such as New Zealand.
Sure, the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world dominates the headlines, but it would be a mistake to let the headlines dominate our thinking.
The reality is that by engaging with the Muslim world, we can create jobs and wealth for New Zealanders. This line of thought will strike many as counter-intuitive; after all, just think of Afghanistan and Iraq.
For many, the Muslim world is synonymous with intolerance, fundamentalism and violence. So the claim that New Zealand can benefit from engaging with it will strike many as absurd. But if we focus our attention on some fundamental economic truths about the Muslim world, a very different picture emerges.
Consider this. The Islamic finance market is one of the fastest-growing segments of the global financial services industry and was estimated be worth US$822 billion ($949 billion) in 2009.
The Johnson Report, commissioned by the Australian Government last year, notes that the greatest opportunity for Australia, in terms of accessing offshore capital pools to finance domestic investment needs as competitively as possible, would appear to be in the area of developing Sharia-compliant wholesale investment products.
The report also recommends the removal of regulatory barriers to the development of Islamic finance products in Australia and calls for an inquiry into whether Australian tax law needs to be amended to ensure Islamic financial products have parity of treatment with conventional financial products.
In June last year, Australian Assistant Treasurer Nick Sherry declared that "Islamic finance has great potential for creating jobs and wealth for Australians."
The question we need to focus on is whether New Zealand can also tap into this market; and whether Islamic finance can create jobs and wealth for New Zealanders, in the same way as it is for Australians.
The rugby field may represent the most intense arena for transtasman rivalry, but is it by no means the only arena.
The time is right to enter a new arena of rivalry, the arena of Islamic finance.
We need to know whether there exist regulatory barriers to the development of Islamic finance products in New Zealand, and whether New Zealand tax law needs to be amended to ensure that Islamic financial products have parity of treatment with conventional financial products.
The time is right to engage economically with the Muslim world and there are a number of useful examples where this has already happened.
For instance, Emirates sponsorship of Team New Zealand, the expansion of BurgerFuel into the Middle East, and Fonterra, which commands a 76 per cent share of the adult milk and an 80 per cent share for prenatal dairy products in Malaysia.
Economic success is within reach, and the way forward is summed up nicely by Deborah Hill Cone. She notes that, "instead of angsting about economic policy let's get a blank sheet of paper and work out our super-cool evil plan."
So what's the plan, I hear you ask?
Well, consider the statement by Josef Robert, the worldwide chief executive of BurgerFuel, that his plan is to "to take advantage of our non-American, pure New Zealand positioning".
This is a great plan as most people do not know much about New Zealand, and this is a good thing, since it means we can promote ourselves without having to worry about geo-political baggage. We are clean, green and well away from most geo-political hotspots.
The time is right to engage with the Muslim world, in order to foster positive perceptions about who we are and what we have to offer. We are a tolerant and open society, one that values the freedom of expression and religion.
The world, especially the Muslim world, needs to know this. Only then can we build successful business relationships. It is no use hiding our light under a bushel. After all, in business, as in life, perception is often reality.