The Qibla Cola path of resistance
London students are trying to fight the US hegemon through the drinks machine.
A sign by the till of the student shop in the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) reads ‘Coca Cola: this company is ethically out of order’.
The school’s union boycotted the drink at a crowded general meeting last year, citing Coca Cola’s trading practices in India (where the company allegedly sold drinks containing harmful pesticides and depleted ground water reserves in several Indian towns (1)) and Columbia (where the company has been accused of colluding with the government to threaten and kill trade union officials (2)).
Instead, the SOAS shop now stocks Qibla Cola, a drink that has benefited from media attention since its introduction in February 2003. According to its promotion, the Qibla Cola Company was ‘…formed to provide alternative consumer brands that combine delicious tasting flavours, quality and value, with a strong ethical dimension’, and is based on Islamic principles (3). This ‘strong ethical dimension’ means donating 10 per cent of profits to ‘good causes’, such as Muslim Aid, Islamic Relief, or BBC Children in Need – including local causes, such as a football team in Derby, where the company is based.
Qibla isn’t the first cola company to add a political or religious dimension to its sales pitch. Mecca Cola, with the slogan ‘Don’t drink stupid. Drink committed’, has recently filled column inches in Western European and North American newspapers. Its promise is similar but more specific: it claims that 10 per cent of profits from Mecca Cola go to Palestinian children’s charities, and another 10 per cent go to local charities. The company is the most explicit in its opposition to US imperialism and Zionism.
Muslim Up and Arab Cola are others. The oldest is Iranian Zam Zam cola, which was founded in the 1950s (4). Most of these companies – although not Zam Zam – claim to donate around 10 per cent of profits to charities and communities. They vary in the intensity of their politics, in their commercial sophistication and in their popularity, but all aim to combat American commercial hegemony and to give those opposed to US policies a Real Thing of their own.
Events in Israel-Palestine and Iraq are intensely debated at SOAS, so it is understandable that the school became involved. Saqib Mahmood, 20, of the SOAS Islamic Society, supported the sale of Qibla Cola, saying: ‘From a Muslim point of view I think it’s important to support your own kind.’ He comments that along London’s Edgware Road, a predominantly Arab area, many shopkeepers now only sell Qibla Cola and refuse to sell Coke. He continues: ‘It’s economic warfare. It’s just another front in the war.’
The assumption here is that consumers can now become soldiers in the war of their choice (the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the clash of civilisations, the intifada, the battle against American imperialism) from the safety of the shopping aisle – or comfortable college campus (Mecca Cola is especially popular in American universities (5)). Another assumption, perhaps, is the somewhat naive linking of Islamic faith with ethics and political radicalism.
SOAS student Lauren, 19, disagrees, saying of the decision to ban Coca-cola: ‘I think it’s a bit extreme; anyway, banning it won’t make a difference. It’s a bit pathetic actually.’ And of these companies’ allegiance to the Palestinian cause: ‘It’s twisted marketing. The customers will latch on to anything. It’s just marketing.’
This echoes a popular argument: that companies such as Qibla Cola are simply taking commercial advantage of anti-American and anti-Zionist sentiment in Europe (many of the companies, such as Qibla Cola and Mecca Cola, were founded in Western Europe), the Middle East and worldwide. It has become commercially viable to market a product as ‘anti-American’.
For example, Mecca Cola’s website states that ‘the Palestinian people are experiencing indifference and general complicity, these being the most wretched and the most contemptible acts of apartheid and Zionist fascism’. Its television adverts, broadcast in the Middle East, juxtapose the infamous images of US troops torturing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib with film of young Arab children, smiling, holding cans of Mecca Cola in one hand and Palestinian flags in the other. The message is that you should buy Mecca Cola to support Palestinians and Iraqis in their struggles against the oppressors. Further, to buy products like Mecca and Qibla is to participate in their struggles.
But is refusing Coke and drinking Qibla supporting the cause? If so, the cause has become very easy to support. As well as buying Youth from Coca-Cola and Victory from Nike, we can now buy Protest and Conscience from Qibla Cola.
Qibla Cola describes its fizzy lemon-lime drink Qibla 5 as representing ‘the choice of people who wish to rebuild their taste upon the correct foundation instead of the pillars of greed, selfishness, utilitarianism, justice and exploitation’ (6). And ‘shattering the myth that belief is blind’ comes Qibla Fantasy, its fizzy orange drink. ‘Despite an environment in which we have an opportunity to choose’, it says, ‘that choice is guided, directed and cajoled into accepting blind values, with unobtainable images. These restrictions must be replaced with conviction in your ideas, certainty in faith, and an assurance of decision’ (7).
Do these barely decipherable slogans represent a revolutionary new anti-capitalism? Or are they proof of the inevitable banality in product marketing, regardless of political and spiritual will, clumsy jingles scratched out to appeal to a target market?
Qibla Cola may be genuine in its political motivations, and donate a portion of its earnings to charities. But despite Coke’s attempt to sell images of youthful freedom, and Qibla’s to sell conscientiousness, morality and protest, the two companies only produce sweet drinks in cans. The buying and selling of cola will always be intrinsically banal. It is a mistake to conflate the consumption of a cola with any ideal, cause or struggle, be it youth and beauty or truth and duty.
It is unlikely that the ‘economic warfare’ of Qibla Cola will right any of the wrongs currently being committed in the Middle East and Israel/Palestine. The boycott of Coke in places like SOAS in order to ‘keep a clean conscience’ looks absurd in the face of real injustice.
‘Liberate your taste’, cries every can of Qibla Cola. But should we believe in bubbles?
Daniel Rathwell was a spiked intern, and is now a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
(1) Soft-drink giants accused over pesticides, Guardian, 5 February 2004
(2) Coca-Cola boycott launched after killings at Colombian plants, Guardian, 24 July 2003
(3) Qibla Cola press release
(4) After Iraq, Cola Wars Heat Up, Business Week, 17 April 2003
(5) Carbonated Copy, Columbia Political Review, February 2003
(6) Qibla Cola press release
(7) Qibla Cola press release
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