Oppression exists, but this Muslim success story sees a land of opportunity
Courtesy Nadia Jamal
AHMED Fahour has a cautionary tale for any worker climbing the corporate ladder: be kind to the cleaner. Or in his case, the cleaner’s son. As a young boy, after school Fahour would help his father cleaning at a branch of the National Australia Bank.
Now 40, Fahour has returned to the bank – as its chief executive for Australia and Asia, and an executive director of a company that paid him almost $7 million last year. He is seen as a role model, not just because of his business success but for how, as a Muslim, he copes with perceptions of his faith since the September 11 attacks.
Until now, he has had little to say about his religion; he does not hide it, but nor does he feel the need to discuss it much in public. He wants to be judged on his work.
Fahour’s parents are devout Muslims, but he is quick to point out that his father is just as passionate about Carlton Football Club. And Fahour himself is married to an Australian of English-Irish heritage, Dionnie.
He prays, but like many other working Muslims he does not think it is the end of the world if he cannot help but miss a session, even if his father does.
“So many values in Islam – honesty, trust and helping other people – are completely consistent with Australian values,” Fahour says.
“So if any Muslim thinks that their religion is under question by living here, and if there is a disconnect, then it’s not the country that has to change, it’s the individual. The Koran says that when you are in another
country, you have an obligation to observe the laws of that country.”
Fahour is the product of immigrant parents from Lebanon. He is close to both, but describes his mother as the secret to his success. When his father was involved in a serious car accident, his mother, who had eight children to raise, had to find a full-time job. She often calls on Allah to bless her son, and when Fahour says “be good to your mother”, he really means it. After the accident the family banded together.
“I hope that people can see that the system isn’t completely stacked against them,” Fahour says. “If you open your eyes and look around, there are so many opportunities.”
He does not see it as his role to lecture about Islam, preferring to leave it to the “experts”. However, he does believe that Muslim women have borne the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment. But if you over-analyse the situation, Fahour says, you are likely to end up unhappy and perhaps lonely.
“There may be some biases out there but there are also cases when there are no biases. Which way are you going to see the world? You need to take advantage of the glass that is half full. I say to people, ‘You can worry about the injustices committed to you and that can take up your whole day, a month or a year and you can end up a depressed person, or you can tackle it in a positive way’.
“Life is about these obstacles, and what makes you a better human being is how you deal with these challenges.”
For Fahour, diversity in the workforce is not complicated. It makes business sense.
“Companies are increasingly understanding that diversity of talent is a massive plus for their business and therefore the way I see it is that if people like [NAB bosses] John Stewart and Michael Chaney are presiding over the hiring of a guy like me, what does that say about them? That they care about this issue.”
Fahour confesses that he does not think too far ahead in terms of his next job. He does not have to, with his multi-million dollar pay packet. Still, he says that he does not take wealth for granted and believes he has an obligation to give to charity.
But does he see a friction between Islam and banking, given that a small but growing number of strict Muslims in Australia are opposed to dealings involving the payment or earning of interest? “The great majority of people deal with traditional banking and this is the way business is done here, so I don’t have an issue with that whatsoever,” Fahour says. “What I try to do is to find ways of catering for all different segments of the community.”
Fahour has lived in Sydney but finds Melbourne, where he grew up and is now based, “more harmonious”. In a previous job he lived in New York – and was riding the subway when the Twin Towers fell in 2001. Fahour understood the emotional cries of “them and us” that followed the attacks. They worried him a little: he got the message and placed American flags outside his home.
In the end, he got sick of the cold winters, missed his parents, brothers and sisters, and wanted his children (four under 12) to grow up in Australia – a place he believes offers a “less intense” existence.