In Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, a group of local business owners have set out to prove that religion doesn't have to get in the way of business.
"Religion isn't neutral, but business can be," said Lee Mozena, founder of Zenith Diversity, a Seattle-based firm that focuses on cross-cultural business development.
Together with Skip Rowland, Executive Director of the Urban Enterprise Center, Mozena co-founded Salam Biz group to increase comfort between mainstream and Muslim business communities for the goal of regional growth.
The group met for the second time on February 17 inside Istanbul Imports in Fremont. Surrounded by rugs, jewelry, clothing and plates of food, representatives from the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Community Capitol Development, American Family Insurance, Campfire USA and other small businesses networked, exchanged business cards and got to know each other.
Gencer Gokeri said it's important to make such connections.
"It's better to know your neighbors, know who you're serving more than anything else. You're not just making money," said Gokeri ,who owns and operates Istanbul Imports with his wife, Sureyya.
"Sometimes I have customers come in here, we sit down and talk for hours about everything but the business."
Gokeri was raised in Izmir, Turkey, and besides owning and operating Istanbul Imports since 1991, he is also the treasurer at a mosque in Northgate. He sees immense potential in the mainstream business community investing their time and energy in understanding the Muslim community.
One key difference is that Islam forbids dealing with ribah, Arabic for interest, Gokeri said. This can have a big impact on Muslims' economic decisions.
"There are about 120,000 Muslims in the greater Seattle area. Hundreds of them own businesses here. But imagine," he said, "only ten percent or twenty percent own homes."
Some banks and financial institutions have taken steps toward creating a ribah-free environment for Muslims. Community Capital Development offers a ribah-free business loan. Customers make a monthly payment that covers the principle and the loan service charges. These "haggling" fees are what financial institutions use to make a profit on a loan without interest. The point is that any fees above the principal of the loan are easily distinguishable from ribah.
"If ribah-free became the way," Gokeri said, "it would allow hundreds of Muslims to invest more, to do more banking. It would erupt."
Another potential obstacle to doing business is the process of greeting, an essential step in an early business relationship. A business meeting between Westerners often starts with a hand shake and direct look in the eye. Mozena sees this initial hurdle as an opportunity to learn and build trust.
"As in many cultures, Muslims are taught that modesty for both genders is a sign of respect. I don't assume a man is comfortable shaking my hand so I watch for his cue. I'm not offended if he nods instead, he's just given me some useful parameters about how to build a business relationship. And a man can assume a woman wearing a head scarf, (or hijab) will avoid or politely decline to shake hands. Get over it. And don't jump to the conclusion that she's downtrodden--some of the strongest women I know happen to wear a scarf."