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The Hybridities of Hijabi Barbie: A CM Book Symposium on “Brand Islam”

In this Contending Modernities book symposium, scholars respond to Faegheh Shirazi’s book Brand Islam, which documents the rise of “halal” products aimed at segments of the large and global Muslim population. Scholars Neslihan Cevik, George Gonzalez, Slavica Jakelić, and Vincent Miller grapple with the commodification of Islam. Below, Atalia Omer presents a synthesis of Brand Islam and respondents’ essays.



How to interpret the meanings, functions, and hybridities that Hijabi Barbie, halal cosmetic, and Burkini merchandise inhabit in the cacophonous urban spaces of France, London, and Los Angeles? How does this question, along with a deeper engagement with the commodification of religion and pluralization of the sites of religious authority through the secular mechanisms of the market, touch upon the tensions, contestations, and varieties of modernities religious actors embody through daily practices? Contending Modernities (CM) chose to focus on Faegheh Shirazi’s Brand Islam: The Marketing and Commodification of Piety to highlight a few central conceptual issues that animate our research initiative. First, the book affords an opportunity to discuss modernity’s reliance on capitalist and neoliberal engines and logics and the construction of a certain kind of modern subjectivity coherent with these logics. Second, it illumines the phenomenon of expanding brand Islam, that is, the employment of a halal label, to a diverse scope of “secular” and “ordinary” activities such as makeup application and selecting attires for athletic activities. It also examines how such halalization currently contributes to and participates in novel modes of self-described piety in the midst of Islamophobia and sociocultural estrangement in non-majority contexts, or to creative innovation within the constraints of Muslim-majority settings.

Shirazi grounds her conceptual frames in the theories of reasoned action and planned behavior to explain halalization as an effective marketing strategy. Clearly, this theoretical framing already gestures to Shirazi’s reliance on a conception of the individual-qua-consumer—a modern subjectivity foregrounding an autonomous choice that could offer, Shirazi seems to suggest, emancipatory possibilities. “At a time when many Muslim citizens…are struggling to free themselves from conservative fundamentalism and the patriarchal stranglehold of mullahs, muftis, ayatollahs, and mulanas, one might ask whether the trend toward Islamic commodification is helpful,” Shirazi ponders. “Will it serve to minimize suffering, diminish discrimination particularly against women, or further basic human rights?” (207-9). She poses this question but does not respond directly. This quote points to two responses: the one embraces halalization of daily life through Islam branding as emancipatory. The other is concerned with the neoliberal assumptions folded into a celebration of emancipation through consumption.

One of our solicited respondents, Neslihan Cevik, makes a strong case for the emancipatory potentialities of neoliberalization of Islamic branding and consumption. For Cevik, marketization of Muslim products for everyday activities and consumption patterns represents more than “shrewd marketing.” Drawing on her empirical work in Turkey and experience developing a modest fashion line for young women, she claims the market also represents a site of hybridity she calls Muslimism. Muslimism, Cevik writes, “is a quest to formulate a lifestyle in which the individual believer can be incorporated into modern life while holding passionately onto religion.” Our shrewd reader will immediately surmise the many assumptions presupposed in this quote that suggest that Muslimism, as articulated by Cevik, seems to be embedded in a modernist discourse of subjectivity. Even while attempting to challenge unreconstructed secularist bifurcation of “religious” and “secular”, it nonetheless reinstates such bifurcation by positing the marketing and commodification of Muslim piety as a site where Muslim subjectivity can finally be modern. Nonetheless, Cevik views the kind of Muslimism generated through commodification of brand Islam as an emancipatory space where Muslim actors can participate in “generat[ing] a new Islamic political ethos that uses Islam to embrace modern political values; especially individual rights and pluralism.” Hence, the codification of piety described by Shirazi facilitates, Cevik argues (without explicitly referring to Shirazi’s thesis), the emergence of new Muslim subjectivities consistent, so it seems, with political liberalism. Let us not forget the Christian underpinnings and colonial histories of this tradition (Asad 2003, for instance).

The implication in Cevik’s account, therefore, is that somehow commodification and marketing of Islamic piety is emancipatory from tradition by producing a modern Muslim piety (and pious individuals) understood in terms of individual self-stylizing. Shirazi maintains a focus on the phenomenon of the marketing of Islamic piety rather than engaging in the kind of normative deliberation pursued by Cevik. Halal consumerism, Shirazi shows, cultivates the possibility of stylizing and marketing piety such that Muslim women and men can go through their daily and secular lives in a thoroughly “Muslim” way, from their choice of toothpaste, cosmetic products, and banking to their wardrobe, food, and vacations. The halalization of an entire spectrum of activities as a mechanism for enhancing a particular target market (from the perspective of business) but also for enabling, in some instances, Muslim women to enjoy more “normal” leisure as on public beaches and/or by wearing burkinis poses a question about whether the “secular” realms of activities are religionized or whether piety and religiosity are driven by market forces. A second respondent, Vincent Miller, likewise ponders the emancipatory aspects of the halalization of daily activities. In particular, he underscores the pluralization of religious authorities afforded through neoliberalization where religious expertise blends with business decisions, allowing for the emergence of “alternative experts” and with it “the expansion of personal choice.” The manufacturing of burkini and halal athletic wear for women and girls indeed entails that athleticism is a permissible sphere for Muslim actors. Hence, branding Islam tells an emancipatory narrative that pushes the boundaries of unreconstructed interpretations of secular modernity.

Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal. Barbie look-alike in West Java, Indonesia.

However, the emancipatory conclusion only represents one type of response to Shirazi’s work. The other response, as noted, worries about the operative forces of fetishism and commodification. The book certainly exposes a tension between profit and prophet which leads Miller to underscore that the “deregulation of religion” through the pluralization of religious authority also entails a “decidedly pro-consumption bias.” Likewise, George Gonzalez, in his response, ponders “does ‘brand Islam’ signal the religious deinstitutionalization of swaths of global Islam into taste groups, voluntary associations, and corporate cultures? Does an increase in everyday piety through ‘brand Islam’ simultaneously and necessarily weaken the authority of Islamic religious institutions?” Gonzalez’s analysis is deeply attuned to a critique of neoliberalism, offering a sobering reminder that Cevik’s self-stylizing individual (in its assumed middle to upper class and/or Mister [Muslim hipster] status) is a product of the neoliberal frame and cannot be understood outside of its discursive scope and epistemological assumptions. Gonzalez situates his discussion of Brand Islam within a broader scholarly engagement with the commodification of religion and piety, highlighting both gender and class in articulating where more research on branding religious tradition can be further enriching. Far from the emancipatory potentialities Cevik and Miller find in Islamic branding as a mechanism for individual Muslim piety and inclusion through redefining of modernity and pluralizing the sites of religious authority, Gonzalez views the trend of commodification of culture and religion as far from liberating, constituting a mode of imprisonment in the “iron cage” of capitalism (to recall Weber’s famous pronouncement).

A fourth respondent, Slavica Jakelić, ponders “the desire to sacralize all domains of life.” She is reminded of the familiar Weberian insight about the relations between religion and the emergence of modern capitalism and processes of secularization. Jakelić subsequently identifies paradoxical tensions in the supposed intensification of Muslim piety through capitalist mechanisms: “while Muslims as believers might focus on halal in the context of the global market as the realm that enables them to exert theological, cultural, and political agency and do so against Western modernity,” she writes, “the impulses that shape their theological orientations and religious acts related to halal seem quite aligned with some aspects of that modernity.” What Jakelić suggests here is that the commodification of piety studied by Shirazi is highly consistent with secular modernity or the secular condition even while enabling individual pious actors to assert their Muslim self-stylization as oppositional. The very focus of the market on individual consumers and their tastes and preferences validates this point. Shirazi’s account, however, dives deeply into the hermeneutical process present in this heightened level of brand Islam. Jakelić, therefore, echoes Gonzalez’s reservations about the emancipatory narrative, celebrating post-secular conceptions of Muslim modernity as embodied in branding processes.

The commercialization of halal finds Quranic authentication or, at the very least, Shirazi writes, does not subvert its authority, although the processes of certifying products (especially food) as halal as opposed to haram constitute sites of contestation between business motives and a multiplicity of Sharia-grounded religious authorities. Notably, Shirazi shows how an unfavorable fatwa, even if emerging from an unqualified or dubious source, can have severe ramifications for a product’s career in the market. Shirazi highlights that such fatwas influence patterns of consumerism and labeling of haram or halal. The latter point foregrounds another theme of CM noted in Miller’s engagement with the book, namely our focus on the dynamism of religious authorities in a secular age that does not spell the absence, diminishment, or declension of religion but rather its relocation and reimagining in relation to political, social, and cultural conceptions of citizenship. Clearly, both the market potential of halal and the participation of Muslim consumption in generating new modalities of piety that often project themselves as “traditional” force us to analyze, through a Weberian Verstehen methodology, the intersections of socioeconomic and political forces with religious meanings, traditions, and modes of interpretations.

Shriazi’s book offers a glimpse into the Quranic exegetical work that participates in the marketing and commodification of Muslim piety. She also offers resources to show why it works, especially by examining sociological and psychological factors informing halal consumerism and commodification. Especially in non-majority western contexts, where the colonial legacy is enduring and has been recalibrated through other means, anti-western sensibilities offer resources for supposedly reclaiming authentic Islamic identity through enactment and promotion of a halal lifestyle. The commodification of Islam afforded through the market logic of neoliberalism, therefore, becomes a primary mechanism for reclaiming tradition interpreted through a brand. On the other front, Shirazi suggests, the consolidation and growth of the halal market also plays into the rhetoric of Islamophobes who identify supposedly subversive (violent) intentions behind consumer choices. Yet, Shirazi concludes, “In the West, ironically, the more vitriolic and anti-halal the public discourse, the more attention the general public pays to all things halal” giving rise, for instance, to “haloodies” [or halal foodies] (212). The broadening acceptability and integration of halalization onto the landscape of multiculturalism goes beyond a simple market analysis recognizing that millions of Muslims constitute a “market” to be exploited and manipulated. It also illumines the elasticity and dynamism of the modern pluralistic secular sociopolitical frames, with their internal tensions and inconsistencies and yet various sites of hybridization, religious innovation, and multidimensional deepening of the discursive scope of the secular.


Photo Credit: Lu_Lu on Flickr.com


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