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 González, Slavica Jakelić, and Vincent Miller grapple with the commodification of Islam. George González reflects on the transformation of religion through the brand form.
President-elect Donald J. Trump is as well-known for his vocal and vitriolic Islamophobia as he is for his brand. Indeed, unabashed and aggressive Islamophobia has become a central feature of the Trump political brand. Positioned within the spaces of both tension and collusion between global commodity capitalism and contemporary Islamophobia, Faegheh Shirazi’s Brand Islam—The Marketing and Commodification of Piety emerges at an intriguing, politically dangerous, and culturally charged moment in time.
According to Shirazi, “the truth is that Islam is merging into commodity marketing, promoting capitalist consumerism by appealing to Islamist sentiments” (140). However, as Laurence Moore and other historians remind us, the religious application of marketing techniques is not itself new. In Western contexts, Christianity and industrial capitalism were intimately entangled from the beginning. Moreover, as Coleen McDannell and others have argued, religion is reproduced, materially, in tandem with the everyday world of objects and, as Brent Rodríguez Plate and others have emphasized, religion is inexorably and endemically linked to and mediated through the body. That is, certain historical and phenomenological aspects of religious commodity fetish are not entirely new.
For her part, Mara Einstein has argued that in our highly commercialized society, religions themselves, in order to rise above the cultural noise, must become active and eager participants in the branding discourse. Marketing gets consumers to do things with objects–with and to their bodies. As such, among other things, Shirazi’s excellent and arresting study of religious branding proves to be a usefully critical intervention into the domains of material and popular religion. Again, however, as Shirazi herself concedes, neither the religious remaking of mundane objects nor the marketization of religion are new. What is new, she writes, are the “surprisingly out-of-the box methods entrepreneurs and companies are using to convince devout Muslims to part with their money” (196).
Having established the burgeoning Islamophobia of the post 9/11 period and the deep histories of colonialism and postcolonial struggle as the broader context for the emergence of “brand Islam”, Shirazi weaves together six case studies (the halal food industry, halal animal slaughter, the marketing of Islamic toys, halal cosmetics, and Islamic fashion) in the service of her larger argument regarding the commodification of Islam. In addition to an admitted focus on Iran, within which the author maintains active personal networks and to which she has unique cultural and institutional access, the scope of analysis extends to the Malaysian, Indonesian, Turkish, American, and E.U. contexts as well.
Brand Islam is rife with well-chosen and well-documented examples of Islam’s multivalent relationship with global consumer markets. In addition to a discussion of well-known lightning rods like the burkini controversy in France, Shirazi touches on the less-documented contestation over the halal status of civet coffee by Islamic scholars (ulama) in Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, and the proliferation of administrative bodies charged with the certification of halal goods and services (and, at times, the transnational disagreements between them about what counts as halal (permitted) and haram (forbidden)). Along the way, Shirazi provides the reader with useful signposts in the form of summations of basic Islamic theological doctrine relevant to the dynamics she explores.
As Shirazi explains, the religious practice of halal recalls Allah’s dominion over all things. Historically, dietary restrictions and the prohibition against the consumption of alcohol have taken precedence although, in reality, halal can be extended into a plethora of everyday activities. At stake, according to Shirazi, are the following are tensions which remain of central interest to her analysis: 1) Just as markets in brand Islam expand through the category of halal, on the surface potentially Islamicizing global capitalism, so too does this imply, in turn and in equal measure, a structuring of Islamic piety by the coordinates and logic of consumer capitalism; 2) The desire for piety and a stance of solidarity with the worldwide ummah (Muslim community) can fuel Muslims’ increased existential investments in the commodity circuits of global capitalism; 3) One consequence of virulently Islamophobic societies is the proliferation of “brand Islam” within the coordinates of those very societies; 4) Brands can sell the mystique of halal as well as Islamophobia (sometimes the same brand will even play both sides of that dangerous game).
As the reader learns, both the Islamic world itself and multinational corporations recognized somewhat late that the religious category of halal could be extended into Islamic-compliant lifestyle products (124). That is, halal lends itself well to market segmentation and product differentiation. In my view, the crux of Shirazi’s study—one which could receive more exacting analytical attention—is precisely this phenomenon whereby an ancient religious category is being transformed (in real time) from the inside out through its mediation by the now ubiquitous brand form.
In actuality, brands are sets of metaphorical associations individuals have with products, services, persons, places, groups, and organizations. These associations are often ritualized through consumer practices. While a general discussion of the brand form itself could help further direct the reader, Shirazi does not provide one. Moreover, although the term “brand Islam” is foregrounded in the very title of Shirazi’s monograph, she does not offer a unifying definition of how she actually uses the term (and the term itself is listed in the index only twice). However, she does offer some guidance. Early on, Shirazi explains, “Islamic commodities I view as Brand Islam, working at the level of fetish, as Muslims consumers, perhaps especially Muslim middle-class consumers, attach mystical and religious significance to what might otherwise be considered inutile and mundane objects” (7). Later, she adds, “Brand Islam has morphed into an explosion of products and services, some useful and some superfluous, created by Muslim manufacturers and government-sponsored initiatives as well as by entrepreneurs solely interested in profit, not the Prophet’s teachings” (199).
While Shirazi admits that sentiments of piety (especially in the face of xenophobic violence and danger) can motivate the practices of the consumers of “brand Islam”, she is more dismissive of the manufacturers, government-sponsored agencies, and financiers who are indispensable to the explosion of the new halal culture industry. At several points in the text, Shirazi reduces motivation on the production side to profit-motive alone. However, as Daromir Rudnyckyj argues specifically within the Indonesian context, Islamic theology can be blended into the ideology of a specifically Muslim neoliberal entrepreneurship. Interesting ethnographic questions, therefore, lay beyond the horizons of Shirazi’s landmark study regarding the social processes whereby the profit-motive is ‘Islamicized’ by the entrepreneurial purveyors of “brand Islam” and whereby religious and economic valuations are squared (and transmuted) in tandem. This important sociological question also presents itself: 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?
Finally, all of the case studies Faegheh Shirazi includes speak to the gendered dynamics that underwrite its global development and to the ways in which women’s bodies stand as literal crossroads for the crisscrossing of historical forces. From the burkini controversy to the religiously imposed strictures against an Islamic fashion industry in Iran to the displaced patriarchy played out in controversies regarding the modesty and piety of girls’ dolls, the rise of “brand Islam” (and both religiously conservative and Islamophobic resistance to it) is being mapped onto the bodies and souls of Muslim women and girls (and their proxies like lingerie mannequins). In the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump (whose own personal history of violence against women became a major campaign issue) to the American presidency, Muslim women who veil have been especially vulnerable to the rising tides of hate crimes and bias attacks. Shirazi’s book might have us ponder whether in the Age of Trump, religious, political, racial, economic, and cultural conflicts might not continue to play themselves out at especially electric levels of intensity upon the commodified bodies of pious, upwardly mobile Muslims.
Brand Islam—The Marketing and Commodification of Piety is a groundbreaking book that will be of interest to scholars and students of contemporary Islam and across disciplines. It adds to our comprehension not only of contemporary Islam but also to our understanding of the conditions of post-secularity that are today characteristic of the relationship between religion and neoliberalism. Faegheh Shirazi has performed a great service to several fields by clearing such timely and fecund paths.
 None of this is to imply the either Shirazi or I put any stock in the existence of an a-historical, pristinely Islamic halal in the past. Rather, the point is that Shirazi has very usefully brought attention to a moment of observable and patent transformation and change.
George González is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Monmouth University. Most broadly, his research interests lay in the sociocultural legislation of Western metaphysics and the concrete and specific form of power that has attached to liberalism, as a historically specific kind of cosmology. He remains especially interested in approaching the study and criticism of postsecular, neoliberalism through the framework of religious social change. He was trained in ethnographic method by the philosophical anthropologist, Michael Jackson, and has special interests in the work ethnography can do at the intersections of religion, science and global capitalism and as a complement to critical theory. He is the author of Shape-Shifting Capital—Spiritual Management, Critical Theory, and the Ethnographic Project and articles on methodology in the study of religion, the conceptual relationships between ritualization and branding, and the ‘workplace spirituality’ movement in contemporary business management. He is currently working on a multi-site ethnography and historiography of the ritualization of consumer capitalism and is set to begin fieldwork with the famed radical performance troupe, Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in early 2017.
Photo Credit: Doni Ismanto, flickr.com. “Fashion Photoshoot For Batik Kiawah.”