Deutsche Welle (Germany), Jan. 16, 2003
Mecca Cola, the Muslim world’s answer to Coca-Cola, is coming to Germany. With most Germans squarely against George W. Bush’s policies against Iraq, it could prove a hit here.
Dagmar Lohmann started her career as an actress. Then she became a mother. Approaching 40 when she returned to the working world, she abandoned the stage and instead became one of the biggest distributors of absinthe in Germany — a drink long associated with vice and decadence that became legal again a few years ago after nearly a century of prohibition.
Now in a classic sinner-to-saint conversion, Lohmann is about to become the German distributor of Mecca Cola, a beverage that is socially acceptable for Europe’s Muslims and has taken France by storm. Lohmann is hoping to repeat that success in Germany.
“There’s a huge market for Mecca Cola in Germany,” Lohmann told DW-WORLD. “Coca Cola has become a symbol of American politics, and I can imagine there are a lot of people out there who would like to try something else. People who buy this drink are making a political statement — and, of course, it is influenced by America’s Iraq policies.”
81 percent against Iraq war
Lohmann is predicting strong sales in Germany. Her firm, Lohmann Spirits, isn’t just setting its eyes on Turkish-run corner shops or places like Hamburg, Berlin and the Ruhr region which have a strong Muslim population, either. She believes the product will find broad resonance in a country where 81 percent of the population feels a U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein is currently unjustified.
And she may have a point there. In France, Mecca Cola has become a cult object — especially in small Muslim-run stores, where most bottles are sold. Since introducing Mecca Cola in November, its French-Tunisian creator, radio journalist Tawfik Mathlouthi, claims he has sold more than 2.2 million 1.5 liter bottles in France, Germany and Great Britain.
The drink’s red and white label, which appears to be a direct play off Coca Cola, calls on consumers to: “Don’t drink like an idiot anymore, drink with commitment.” In France, Mathlouthi has politicized the drink by donating 20 percent of all profits to charity and political causes, including Palestinian groups. On the company’s official Web site, Mathlouthi includes pictures of intifada fighters armed only with stones as they face off against Israeli troops with live ammunition and tanks.
Economics serving ideology and politics
“I had the idea to launch this new engaged beverage,” he told Deutsche Welle in November. “It’s a new concept — it’s economics serving ideology and politics. We want to help Arabs and Muslims to stop consuming American products and to have their own ones because our own purpose is to fight American policies (especially in the Middle East) and their blind support of the Zionist entity.”
The success of Coke alternatives like Zamzam Cola, which is produced in Iran and distributed in many Arab states including Saudia Arabia, inspired Mathlouthi to bring the trend to Europe. More than 12 million of the European Union’s 375 million residents are of Muslim faith. Close to five million live in France and 3.2 million in Germany.
Berlin entrepreneur Lohmann, though German herself, converted to Islam five years ago. She says she had grown disenchanted with the Protestant church, which she felt no longer offered the spiritual richness she was seeking. Many of her friends in Germany are Muslims and she felt they led lives with greater meaning and happiness and decided to become a member of the religion.
She says she will continue the company’s charitable traditions, which have courted controversy in Germany. She says 10 percent of proceeds will go to support projects to school Palestinian children living in refugee camps and an additional 10 percent to European charities.
The cola for open minds?
But Lohmann cautions that she isn’t just marketing the drink to Muslims in Germany — or any other niche for that matter. “We’re not orienting our project toward any group,” she says. “It’s for Christians, Muslims, the old and the young. Anyone who wants to buy our drink is welcome — we just want to make our product available to anyone who has an open mind.”
And asked whether she fears she will be pigeon-holed as a “fundamentalist,” by aligning herself with the product, she shrugs it off. “They used to call me the ‘Absinthe Lady.’ I think people will have the opposite reaction. People are asking more questions and probing deeper in the Muslim religion these days and maybe the media will do that, too.”
Nor does she see any contradiction in operating a company that will simultaneously be selling a drink that through its very name shuns Western culture, and an alcoholic beverage that is banned in the city the cola drink is named after.
“It’s not a contradiction,” she says. “Mecca Cola was founded in France. It’s not a Muslim drink. I just felt the need to sell it. I mean, by selling Absinthe, I helped break taboos.”
A distribution dispute
Lohmann hopes to get her product onto the shelves of Berlin grocery stores by mid-February, but some nagging issues need to be resolved before that. First, Mecca Cola requires government approval before it can be sold in Germany. And there’s a second problem: Though Lohmann says she has obtained a preliminary contract from Mathlouthi to distribute Mecca Cola, a 27-year-old Syrian in Hamburg, Mahmoud Hinnaui is also claiming to be Germany’s exclusive distributor.
Until the dispute is resolved in Paris, consumers in Germany may have to wait a bit before they can partake in this anti-globalization soft drink protest.
Ironically, the delay could be good for the Berlin entrepreneur. “If it comes to a war in Iraq, I think a lot of people will switch to Mecca Cola,” she predicts.
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