An eagle-eyed businessman spots a commercial opportunity amid the increasing segregation of Iraq's Sunnis and Shias—a customised Shia mobile phoneby Nibras Kazimi / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
My mobile phone, my sect
What do you get when you combine an unscrupulous Levantine merchant, a Singapore-based mobile phone manufacturer and sectarian tensions in Iraq? A business opportunity.
Ilkone Asia has been marketing its new i-800 handset as the “biggest Islamic-related product since the advent of prayer beads.” The phone features the full text of the Koran, as approved by the Sunni authorities at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, and a GPS compass that orients the faithful to Mecca. It punctually belts out the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times a day; one can also set the alarm to vibrate—a divine sensation nudging the worshipper awake for dawn ablutions.
Now a Lebanese-American businessman has convinced Ilkone that there’s a niche market waiting to be tapped: the Shia branch of Islam. He proposes customising the i-800 for the world’s Shias and market-testing the idea in Iraq; a country where the Muslim population is becoming so segregated that different consumer habits are developing. The sect-specific features for the “Shia mobile phone” are still being worked on but would include, in addition to an arrow pointing to Mecca, a second arrow pointing to the holy city of Najaf. The adhan would be sung in the Shia tradition, which contains more verses than the Sunni one, and the phone may come with Shia lamentations, usually recited against Sunni injustice, in MP3 format.
“All sorts of things about the calendar need to be modified,” says a source with first-hand knowledge of the deal. “The Shias have 12 imams, so that adds up to 12 birthdays and 11 deaths”—since the Mahdi is ostensibly in occultation and hence alive—”and Shia users will get pinged on every occasion they celebrate, which could end up in the hundreds.”
But the i-800 has a major handicap: it does not include Bluetooth technology. Many Iraqis have already turned their mobile phones into sectarian status symbols by disseminating anti-Sunni or anti-Shia propaganda—jokes, ditties, gruesome footage of the victims of sectarian strife—through Bluetooth connectivity. Sunni terrorists and Shia death squads have been able to figure out the sectarian identity of potential victims by perusing the audio and visual files on their phones. Maybe the Shia i-800 needs a hot-button taqiyya feature—the Shia practice of dissembling one’s faith to escape persecution—thus turning it into a “Sunni phone” in case of a run-in with al Qaeda.
Ilkone is negotiating pricing with Iraqi…