The Ah-ha Moment: The Connection of Religious Freedom and Business

This week we're asking our associated economics scholars to examine the relationship between religious freedom and economic development. Specifically, we ask if religious repression is linked to underdevelopment and poverty. Respondents also explore the opposite phenomenon, namely, if robust religious freedom leads to economic flourishing and prosperity.

By: Brian Grim

Over lunch in downtown Washington DC, a Turkish trade representative puzzled, “We almost never put religion and business in the same sentence, so, what’s the connection between religious freedom and business?” Fair question, given that I was introducing him to the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. His ah-ha moment came about halfway through our meal, but for a different reason than mine had come. 

We began by talking about different ways religious barriers inhibit financial cooperation between Muslim countries. For instance, one country’s sharia (Islamic law) board might consider a financial investment instrument acceptable while another country’s does not. 

We also discussed attempts in Europe to restrict Islamic halal meats because of the purported ill treatment of animals in the slaughtering process. Of course, such restrictions similarly impact kosher businesses supplying meat for Jewish communities. 

But, neither of these were his ah-ha moment. 

We then talked about Pakistan where businesses have accused rivals of blasphemy—a capital offense—to undercut the competition or extract revenge. The blasphemy law has also been used to ban websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia. And even questioning the blasphemy law is perilous, as two high-ranking government officials were recently assassinated for merely suggesting that they be overturned. 

But his ah-ha moment came when we moved on to Egypt, where ongoing religion-related violence is not only sapping the important tourist industry, but driving young entrepreneurs from the labor market. 

The loss of Egypt’s young entrepreneurs was his Ah-ha! 

He recalled how, until recently, it was illegal for Turkish women to wear headscarves in public jobs or even to attend public universities. While the bans on headscarves in Turkey have been lifted, ongoing employment discrimination persists against more religiously conservative women who don the headscarf. And the loss to the labor market is significant

By his estimates, as many as half of Turkish women today now don a headscarf but only 6% of them can find a job. “That’s a religious freedom and business problem,” he proclaimed. “How can Turkey hope to compete economically if half of women are essentially kept out of the labor market because of their religious dress,” he said, inviting me to Turkey to help them address the issue.

And this brings me to my ah-ha moment—ah-ha conversations like this—not only with Muslim business people, but with people of multiple faiths as well as with people in high levels of government and civil leaders.

But, these conversations are driven by the research I did for well over the past decade.

For instance, in my book with Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied (2011), we documented that religious freedom not only leads to less violence, but that it is also associated with a host of other positive socio-economic outcomes.

Brian J. Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and a leading expert on the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography.

This piece was originally authored on May 7, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

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