Religion nowadays, more or less, has become a descriptor of identity. It’s a common denominator when finding community in new areas or discussing political issues. It sets the individual apart from other groups in society — and, in other cases, it alienates groups out of society. The Muslim community has been quite acquainted with this phenomenon, as it’s often attacked as the “mother lode of bad ideas” and equated with the barbaric acts made by the Islamic State. So, it makes sense that Islam needs a re-branding, but would commercialization be the right medium to make that happen? Well, it doesn’t matter. Because the next big thing for consumers is Islamic Branding.
With DKNY’s new Ramadan fashion line, halal products rising in popularity, and little white fourteen-year-old Zayn Malik diehards wishing “Ramadan Kareem,” Islam and Muslims are now at a new echelon of social standing: Islam is cool. Muslims are trendy. The rapidly increasing commercialization of Ramadan has brought the Western world more accepting of Islamic identity and culture. But, at what cost?
The faith-centric arguments against commercialization of Ramadan fear that the aggressive consumerism will hijack the true and pious purposes of the holy month as some would argue the industry has done to Christmas. Furthermore, the issue of cultural appropriation has come about among social justice activists. It further promotes the notion that when Muslims engage in their own traditions or wear their own traditional garments, it’s seen as an unacceptable testament filled with oppression. However, when it’s adopted and showcased by Westerners, it’s trendy and acceptable. it’s seen as, once again, another opportunity for Westerners to profit off of Muslim society.
The political consequences should also be noted. When it comes to selling Islamic and MENA-region artistry and craftsmanship, retail market history often proves that the manufacturers exploit their workers. So, with the commercialization of Ramadan becoming a popular method for Western companies to increase their profit margins, the livelihoods of workers in other poor and uneducated Muslim countries become at risk. Furthermore, if suspected unfair treatment of workers is met with opposition, it’ll encourage businesses to either shut down, outsource to different countries, or continue their manufacturing in the United States — essentially taking opportunities away from low-income workers in the region. And, given what we know the way these things play out, any form of commercialization at the expense of poor Muslims will give more fodder to anti-Western propaganda fueled to further promote and enact extremist agendas.
On the other hand, a rise of Islamophobia might be the unintended consequence for commercialization.
In the United States, nearly 62 percent of Americans have never met a Muslim in their lifetime. This means that for most Americans, the knowledge and information they receive about Muslims come primarily from the hypersexualized and sensationalized fear-mongering from Hollywood, cable news, and the next Jean Sasson novel.
In fact, most Americans find it hard to trust Muslim-Americans. According to a 2011 poll conducted by the Brookings Institute, nearly half of Americans are uncomfortable with a mosque being built in their neighborhood, Muslim men praying at an airport, and a Muslim woman wearing the burqa. The poll also found that 41 percent would disapprove of a Muslim being a teacher in their elementary school. And with the growing multi-million dollar industry designed to target these Americans with anti-Muslim rhetoric and propaganda, it’s no question that any sign of “Muslim infiltration” in Western society — whether they be in Walmart, social media, or in Hallmark cards — will be met with highly trained and equipped opposition protesters. In part of the growing alarmist state of paranoia when it comes to Muslims today and the big money donors that back it, the rapidly increasing commercialization of Ramadan could potentially provide anti-Islam polemicists with more ammunition for Islamophobia — which is something this nation can no longer afford.
Yet, on the other hand, it’s hard to ignore that the commercialization of Ramadan (and Islam) is acting as an independent agent to re-assimilate Muslims into society. Western companies are seeing that Muslims are a huge asset to the economy, in that their consumers can rake in billions in revenue during certain months of the year. It’ll show a different side of Islam — one where its usually monolithic and static label will be replaced with a plethora of colors entangled to meet the diverse beautiful individuals that make up Islam and its 1.6 billion followers. It has the potential to make Westerners more adoptive and welcoming of their Muslim counterparts’ traditions and cultures. It could even allow for more convenience for the Muslim community and bring a sense of unity among Western society.
This social good aspect of the commercialization of Ramadan should mandate other industries to meet the same standards. Will Islamic (re)branding continue into Hollywood, where it’ll feature Muslims as more than just billionaires, belly dancers, and bombers? Or, will it provide more ammunition for the Islamophobia industry made famous by Pamela Geller? And, more importantly, where’s the money flow and where does it eventually end up?
Only time will tell, but, until then, here’s hoping that Muslims receive the acceptance and support they deserve during this month of piety and reflection.