Social Trends Institute

Halal Markets as Sites of Cultural Hybridity: Moral Agency and Public Participation

For decades, markets saw religion, especially Islam, as something that required little or no attention. The turn of the Millennium proved this thinking wrong.

By Neslihan Cevik.

Today halal markets are worth around $4 trillion and within that the Islamic apparel industry by itself is projected to be worth $300 billion in the coming few years. Once overlooked, with these mouthwatering numbers the Islamic fashion industry has attracted even Western giants like DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, MANGO and Marks & Spencer.

Despite a viable total available market, stunning growth rate, and the mobilization of global fashion giants, a unicorn is yet to emerge in the Islamic apparel industry. The fact that it has not is not simply about hard-hitting competition or bad advertisement. It is about bad product/market fit—products that do not fully cater to the need or problems of consumers. In other words, most companies that operate within the Islamic clothing industry were quick to recognize the potential but have failed to understand what the actual need or problem is, what that problem means and what socio-political factors drive it.

The common crucial mistake companies, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, make, is that they reduce the growing Muslim interest in contemporary markets to a newfangled Islamic consumerism, which breathlessly awaits the next mundane product to be marketed as ‘Islamic’, be it a purse, an elevator that only carries halal goods, or china tableware.

This false start has led to the erroneous belief that entry to halal markets requires just a simple step: take an item, as mundane as it can be, market it as ‘Islamic’—as if Islamic is generically and mechanically defined— and voila! As such, not just companies but whole cities, such as the City of Torino in Italy, see halal markets as part of their smart economic growth strategy and presume that they can get a jumpstart in the race for halal markets by simply marketing a wide range of items as Islamic or halal.

Academic debates follow a similar path. They too view the Islamic presence in capitalist markets as an escapist Muslim consumerism, driven by market expansion, which has engulfed Islam and commodified Islamic symbols. The broader implication in terms of social theory, they maintain, is that modernization via consumerism loosens the symbolic boundaries of religion, blurring the distinction between the sacred and the consumable profane. In the context of Muslim immigrants in the West, more recent work emphasizes Islamophobia as the fuel for rising Muslim consumerism. As Muslims confront Islamophobia, markets step in to offer products that reinforce Islamic identity, provide psychological assurance, and connect individual Muslims coping with xenophobia to the broader global Umma.

No doubt the global expansion of markets, immigration, and the rise of Islamophobia have created a unique environment for shrewd marketing. However, my empirical work in Turkey on how Muslims engage modernity and my subsequent experience as a founder of a young modest wear start-up company point to a different story, one in which Muslim engagement of fashion, or markets more broadly, goes well beyond consumerism driven by clever marketing. Approaches that follow the consumerist path, including Brand Islam and the works of Turkish scholars such as Timur Kuran and Ozlem Sandikci , seem to center their reading of Islamic markets on the manufacturers’ interests and assessments while neglecting the historical origins of Muslim engagements with modernity as well as the agency and active participation of the pious in the rise and shaping of halal markets. Moreover, these approaches are still underpinned by an old assumption: the divide of religion versus modernity, where Muslim engagements of modernity result in the engulfment of Islam, in this case via consumerism and capitalism.

Yet the problem Islamic fashion solves goes well beyond an appetite for ostentatious consumerism. Rather, it is indicative of such broader shifts as the theological rise of the self and religious self-identity, the rejection of authoritarian religious communalism, and a redefinition of Umma, as well as increasing Muslim public female agency and visibility.

What I fundamentally found in my empirical work on the subject was that the rise of Islamic markets went well beyond consumerism, and that this rise was situated not against the backdrop of Islam versus Western-modernity divide, but, to the contrary, increasing Muslim engagements of modernity and the resulting hybridity.

A New Commentary: Stepping Out of False Divides

For decades, social theory on religion prescribed that religion’s interaction with modernity could take only two forms: religion would either reject modernity to preserve tradition, or, if and when it chose to engage modernity, it would have to modify tradition, ultimately turning into liberal religion.

In Turkey, since the 1980s, a new religious commentary emerged, Muslimism, which defied this dichotomous thinking. Neither a fundamentalist rejection of modernity nor liberal translation of religion, Muslimism embraces aspects of modern life while submitting that life back to a sacred, moral order, creating as such hybrid institutions, lifestyles and spaces, and practices. Muslimists are not after a top-down or bottom-up Islamization; they are neither state nor society-centered but individual-oriented. That is, Muslimism seeks to formulate a lifestyle in which the individual believer can be incorporated into modern life while holding passionately onto religion.

We can locate this new religious commentary, its practices, and institutions in “cultural sites of hybridity,” where Muslims articulate Islam with modern values, practices, and discourses, generating new amalgamations.

These sites first emerged in the markets in the form of Islamic vacations, restaurants, Islamic fashion companies, or business associations. Yet, going beyond the confines of a market orientation, these institutions have altered the boundaries that used to strictly separate religious and secular (Kemalist) lifestyles, spaces, and codes in Turkey. They showed that it was possible for Muslims to take part in modernity while preserving religious commitments. By the mid-1990s, the sites of hybridity spilled over other sectors of society becoming manifest in civil organizations and politics. These include, for example, human rights organizations, which refer both to the UN Human Rights Convention and Islamic theological sources to define human rights, and women’s organizations that claim both a pious and democrat identity. Muslimists have also generated a new Islamic political ethos that uses Islam to embrace modern political values; especially individual rights and pluralism.

Whether in markets or as articulated in a political ethos, the sites of hybridity are spaces where Islamist and secularist definitions of Islamic and modern identities are transcended and replaced with new definitions. Importantly, rather than secularizing Muslims, hybridity makes Islamic identity more salient. It introduces Islam into everyday life and public spaces in new forms making it possible for passionate religion to take part in modern life and institutions. As such, historically, the rise of Muslim markets has not been an independent development generated by shrewd marketing, but was part and parcel of this comprehensive Muslimist engagement of modernity. Additionally, Muslimists’ emphasis on individual choice and true piety (iman) rejects authoritarian religious communalism and conformity while opting for conscious moral agency and self-expression. In the case of the halal market, this orientation has furthered an interest in personalized Islamic attire and products.

Self-Styling, Moral Agency, and Hybridity 

My empirical work on Muslim engagement of modernity in Turkey involved interviews with pious women who witnessed the very first Islamic runways and the earliest attempts to combine contemporary fashion with tesettur (Islamic attire) around the late 1980s. Even then this curious mix was accused of, on the one hand, being impure—the pinnacle, indeed, of Islam’s corruption by Western modernity— and on the other hand, for being strictly moralistic. Emerging out of the “uniform era” where dress was regulated by the (male) authoritarian religious communities (cemaat), the proliferating tesettur designs opened up a new space to dress in accord to individual identity: age, marital status, likes and dislikes, body type, or personality. This also coincided with the rejection of patriarchal codes as women claimed their own moral agency and autonomy over their own bodies.

As such, what many reduce to consumerism is in fact rooted in a meaningful shift: the aversion to authoritarian religious communalism and attempts instead to nurture a religious community that recognizes and gives space to the self and individual agency to determine moral decisions and behavior. This shift importantly did not point to secularization of orthodoxy; it was filtered through theological notions of true piety and Tahqiq (what is it that I believe, and why?), which legitimized the self and expression of its uniqueness and agency.

There is more. The blend of fashion and tesettur has undermined the monotone divide of Islam and modernity, a divide that delineated how a Muslim female can (and should) live, what public spaces she can enter, and what activities she can take part in. Take swimming and sports. These activities have been dominated by secularist aesthetics and norms: ‘the normal way’ to swim is to uncover, or ‘to run the normal way’ you have to wear shorts. These norms are not just discursive but they determine product lines. For decades, designs were either appropriate to religion but not to sports activity, or vice versa. Consider a 7 year old who loves playing basketball. When she turns 13 and reaches puberty, and starts wearing tesettur, whether she will continue to play will not be based on ‘can I shoot a ball?’ but on ‘what am I gonna wear?’

The innovate pieces that emerged out of Islamic apparel industry undermine both the secularist standards that exclude religion and Islamist prescriptions that consider modern activity to be corrupt. Take the hasema, the first Islamic swimsuits. The first producer of hasema in Turkey, Mehmet Sahin, is known as “the man who made Muslim women swim”. This epithet clearly communicates the distance that used to exist between Muslim women and swimming as a cultural exercise. The hasema brought in a revolution: the company did not simply sell swimming gear; it sold the possibility of engaging in an activity —swimming— and a public space (e.g. the beach) once closed off to pious women.

Given the historical Islam versus modernity divide, for Muslim women, the question of “what am I going to wear?” then translates to:

Who can I be?

What activities can I engage in?

What spaces can I enter?

The hybrid, innovative products that emerged out of halal markets affirm these questions, and alter, as such, the boundaries that had strictly separated Islamic versus secular life spaces, practices, and cultural codes. Hence, rather than expanding one’s fashion choices, fashion in the Islamic context has originally been about expanding women’s life options and plans.

This is why the Islamic fashion market has come to be worth billions.

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