Jewish Journal

‘How a Muslim billionaire thrives in Hindu India’

by Brad A. Greenberg

September 12, 2007 | 2:40 pm

BANGALORE, India—The world’s richest Muslim entrepreneur defies conventional wisdom about Islamic tycoons: He doesn’t hail from the Persian Gulf, he didn’t make his money in petroleum, and he definitely doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve.

A native of Mumbai, Azim Premji has tapped India’s abundant engineering talent to transform a family vegetable-oil firm, Wipro Ltd., into a technology and outsourcing giant. By serving Western manufacturers, airlines and utilities, the company has brought Mr. Premji a fortune of some $17 billion—believed to be greater than that of any other Muslim outside of Persian Gulf royalty.

Such success, Mr. Premji says in an interview, shows that globalization—a force Islamist activists decry as Western neocolonialism—is turning into “two-way traffic” that can bring tangible benefits to developing countries.

Mr. Premji’s rise is already inspiring some Indian Muslims to embrace the modern, globalized world. “He’s an icon. He shows that excellence has no caste and no creed, and that if one has excellence, one can make it to the top,” says Mohamed Javeed, principal of Bangalore’s predominantly Muslim Al-Ameen College. One of the students, Mohammed Nasseer, enthuses, “I’d love to become like Premji one day.”

A role model like Mr. Premji might seem to be what India’s Muslims need. Though the country’s economy is growing at 9% a year, the vast majority of India’s estimated 150 million Muslims—the largest Islamic population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan—remain socially marginalized, badly educated and mired in deep poverty. By and large, they’re left out of the social transformation that is propelling millions of their Hindu compatriots into prosperity, as barriers of caste disappear and India’s new corporate giants provide opportunities that never existed before.

This is from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. I was grabbed by the headline, “How a Muslim billionaire thrives in Hindu India.” To be honest, I didn’t realize there were any professionally successful Muslims in India. To begin with, Pakistan was created in 1947 because the Britons were tired of their colonial ways and the Hindus and Muslims couldn’t live together. (This was a process Britain tried repeating in Palestine.) The partition was incredibly bloody, and must Muslims who could cross into Pakistan did so.

That one of the many Muslims who remained could amass such wealth was surprising, certainly encouraging. Not surprising, though, was the response of Indian Islam’s devout.

“If you are a Muslim and want to be rich in India, you have to show you are very secular,” says Zafarul Islam Khan, secretary-general of the All-India Muslim Majlis e Mushawarat, an umbrella group.

A Muslim school a half-hour’s drive from Mr. Premji’s Bangalore home reveals the chasm between this globalist success story and the country’s Muslim masses. Students sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Masjid e Takwa madrassa spend their days memorizing the Quran in Arabic—a language that neither they nor their teacher understand.

The classes are taught in Urdu, a tongue that’s largely confined to Muslims and uses the Arabic script. There is no science in the curriculum. Neither is there English, the language in which Wipro conducts business and interviews job applicants, as it looks for Westernized staff who can deal with international customers.

The madrassa’s imam, Munir Ahmed, says that for his students, a future as self-employed shopkeepers or peddlers is preferable to seeking formal work at a large company. “A job is like being a slave,” Mr. Ahmed chuckles, adding that his graduates are in great demand as teachers in other madrassas. Schoolboys in the streets nearby, asked about Wipro, say they’ve never heard of it or of Mr. Premji.

This is obviously an issue that resonates with religious minorities wherever they live. Here in the States, there is a constant tension—some times healthy, some times less so—between Muslims remaining fastened to tradition and the acculturation necessary for upward mobility. German- and Yiddish-speaking Jews went through this a century or more ago, and, depending on who you talk to, they’re still suffering the ills of assimilation.

So the question is this: Is it wrong for someone to miscegenate the traditions of their religion with those of their host community? Are all those Muslims and Hindus and Jainists and Jews who have adjusted observance to prosper in this country making too big a sacrifice?

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