From the beginning of the modern Islamic economy movement, many of its Western advocates and entrepreneurs have been at least partly driven by political zeal.
The movement's cheerleaders, various studies note, have been "young Muslims ... driving the halal economy [Islamic economy], particularly after the events of 9/11," who seek to "cater" to "a religious or ethical perspective of what we think is acceptable" when serving "the Muslim consumer." It was "tragedy and subsequent discrimination" that purportedly "motivated young Muslims to 'define themselves by their very overt, explicit Muslim identity.'"
While many of the countless Western Muslim technology startups, online dating services, "smart hijab" companies and others may be benign components of the new Islamic economy, a significant proportion appear deliberately to conflate business innovation with the advancement of Islam. The founders of the enormous fundraising platform LaunchGood are clear about their belief in the organization's role, with Chris Abdur Rahman Blauvelt, the CEO, considering LaunchGood one of the Islamic economy's leading institutions.
In interviews, he notes that fifty percent of Muslims around the world are under thirty, most with smart phones and access to the internet. "We're one community ... 1.8 billion Muslims" who are educated and with growing financial power. The state of the Islamic economy today, Blauvelt says, is "China in the 90s" and it'll be "huge ten years from now."
But Blauvelt appears to regard this economic opportunity ultimately as a means for spread and consolidation of Islamic ideas. He celebrates and promotes LaunchGood campaigns promising that the "global digital Islamic economy" will provide Islamic religious education "serving millions and potentially billions."
This effort relies, LaunchGood officials seem to believe, on hardline Islamist clerics and charities. The course promoted by Blauvelt, for instance, is led by Yasir Qadhi, a prominent American Salafi cleric who has never truly renounced his violent anti-Semitism or calls for the killing of homosexuals.
Qadhi is just one radical cleric among hundreds to benefit from LaunchGood initiatives. Campaigns are frequently set up, for instance, to benefit Mufti Ismail Menk, a Zimbabwean cleric and open advocate for an Islamic theocracy. Menk advocates stoning women to death for fornication. His views are so unapologetically horrifying that the governments of Singapore and Denmark have banned him from entering their countries.
Blauvelt himself venerates the singer and Islamic activist Yusuf Islam (previously known as Cat Stevens) describing him as his "hero." Decades ago, Yusuf Islam supported the efforts to kill the author Salman Rushdie, and has called for apostates and adulterous women to be stoned to death. He has never properly disavowed these views.
Charities with accounts on LaunchGood include, among hundreds of problematic examples, groups such as Baitulmaal, a radical aid charity with a history of links to the terrorist group Hamas and its proxies; as well as CAGE, a British organization widely condemned in Britain for its support of jihadists.
CAGE's head, Moazzam Begg, once "admitted that he was a jihadist recruiter, that he attended three al Qaeda terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan, and that he was armed and prepared to fight for the Taliban and al Qaeda against the U.S."
That LaunchGood works with such radical partners has not gone unnoticed. Chase Bank, a few years ago, reportedly withdrew its financial services from the group.
LaunchGood is even replete with multiple campaigns for Aafia Siddiqui, the convicted Al-Qaeda operative who attempted to murder Americans and, upon her arrest, was found to be planning a "mass casualty attack."
Notably, these are not just Islamists taking advantage of a platform. In fact, LaunchGood vets its campaigns and partners.
And yet, when a researcher for the Middle East Forum some months ago set up an account on LaunchGood to support "LGBT Muslims," the community was "rejected" with only the explanation: "Unable to support community page."
Would-be mass-murderers and known terror financiers may be acceptable charitable beneficiaries for LaunchGood. Homosexuals, however, seem to be beyond the pale.
Islamism is found throughout the Western Islamic economy. The Islamic Fintech Alliance, for instance, maintains a council whose members include Western Islamic economy success stories such as LaunchGood. The Alliance works with officials from the Qatari regime and describes its mission as working to: "broaden the reach of Shariah and social impact finance technology by supporting a network of innovators." It claims to have worked with Interpal, in spite of the fact this leading British Islamist charity is a designated terrorist organization under U.S. law.
Meanwhile, organizations such as the California-based Center for Global Muslim Life appear to regard many of the "fintech" and other Muslim for-profit startups as part of the same phenomenon that explains the renewed Islamic fervor promoted by modernist Salafi-linked organizations.
Foreign Islamist interest in the Islamic economy extends to the movement's cheerleaders in the Western world. For instance, significant numbers of Western Islamic economy advocates have visited Türkiye in recent years, with Western Muslim fundraising platform LaunchGood even teaming up with Islamic economy travel company HalalBooking and the regime-controlled Turkish Airlines to offer visits to Istanbul.
One new Islamic economy organization, Global Muslim Workation (GMW), has been "created in line with LaunchGood's vision to Build An Inspired Future" and brings Muslims together to "make new networks, collaborate, innovate and make ground-breaking change to the Islamic economy."
Headed by LaunchGood's Chris Abdur Rahman Blauvelt, GMW's inaugural conference took place in Istanbul and was jointly organized with Bilim ve Insan Vakfi, a regime-linked nonprofit reportedly headed by President Erdoğan's son, Bilal.
A Flawed Approach
Not every facet of the new Islamic economy industry serves to advance Islamist ideas. Some, certainly, simply illustrate the efforts of Muslim businessmen working to find some prosperity for themselves and their families.
Consequently, a tension between, on the one hand, ordinary entrepreneurs and, on the other, radicals with a plan, is played out internationally. The regime in Türkiye, for instance, competes with countries such as the United Arab Emirates for influence over the global Islamic economy – even if they define the term somewhat differently.
Western Islamic economy members have courted both. The Turkish regime-linked LaunchGood, for instance, was also an early winner of an Emirati sponsored "Islamic economy" award.
Notwithstanding, the Turkish approach has significant support – from Islamist movements in the West, to financial institutions and radical groups in South Asia and the far-East.
Across the globe, radicals are working to encourage, whether through nonprofit institutions, startups or financial firms, a parallel economic system that operates not in competition with the West, but as something separate and untainted – designed ultimately to replace non-Muslim economic ideas entirely.
The approach, however, carries some very noticeable flaws.
First, the Islamic economy, as envisioned by Islamists, is noticeably missing coherent underpinning ideas about the means by which an Islamic economy can actually function – beyond simplistic fears of usury and the production of products and services exclusively for Muslims.
Türkiye's economic crisis is, in part, evidence of this folly.
Second, the Islamic economy is held up as a means to strengthen and unite Muslims globally, something that Islamists, whether through violence or the ballot box, have otherwise thus far failed to do.
While radicals are doubtless keen to capitalize on new approaches, the embrace of economic success as a nefarious scheme is abstract and unconvincing enough to indicate, in general, that Islamists might be running out of ideas.
Third, for some Islamist-seeming advocates of the Islamic economy, it seems possible their real agenda is actually just personally self-serving, and Islam (and even Islamism) is just a marketing tool.
The recent splurge of YouTube advertisements from American Muslim "influencers" offering to teach pious Muslim men the secrets to building successful businesses and accumulating vast wealth, all for a small fee, is perhaps a good example of that.
In fact, much of the new Islamic economy seems to partake in Western free market trends far more closely than the undeveloped ideas of Islamist forefathers such as Sayyid Qutb, who, according to Alex Alexiev, had vague notions about wanting "to steer Islamic economics further in the direction of socialist, collectivist principles by urging the nationalization of natural resources and most infrastructure."
It is certainly difficult to imagine Qutb or South Asian Islamist thinker Abul Ala Mawdudi setting up venture capital firms or investing in Muslim dating services as a sinister means to a theocratic end.
Finally, an overly prosperous Muslim middle class in the West may not be easily won over, or remain loyal, to the Islamists who regard the Islamic economy as such a means to an end.
Islamism – especially in the West – has long relied on allegations of victimhood, poverty and discrimination to cement control over Muslim communities and find willing new adherents. Success and prosperity seem unlikely to generate a new generation of radical recruits.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.