By Invitation

When religion becomes a commodity

The growth of religious marketplaces requires us to look at phenomena like ISIS through the lens of the marketplace, not theology

Living as we do at a time when identity-based politics has become the norm the world over, it is hardly a surprise that religious identity has likewise been commodified.

Since the 1970s, we have witnessed the rise of a form of identity politics where the attachment to, and promotion of, one's own ethno-cultural identity has become commonplace - from the promotion of "negritude" by Francophone African intellectual-activists such as Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas; to the "Asian values" debate of the 1980s-90s.

The global marketplace has been able to adapt itself to these new trends and developments with ease, and so by now it is hardly a novel thing to encounter expressions of Asian or African essentialism in commodified form: We talk about "Asian food", "Asian fashion", "Asian architecture" et cetera in a manner that somehow presupposes there is such a thing as an ostensibly-definable "Asia" to begin with. And having presented "Asia" as a "thing", it is just a simple logical step away to state that there are also "things" that are Asian, and can be marketed as such.

This poses a particularly tricky question that needs to be addressed: In an age of near-global commodification, how do we study cultural and ethnic difference, and how do we navigate the complicated map of plural multiculturalism?

The irony of multiculturalism today is that in many multicultural contexts, groups demand universal recognition of their particular identities, and seek to foreground the particular on universal terms. And so, community A - which may hold certain cultural practices to be unique and essential to it - demands that all other communities respect their values, though that same community may not be able to deal with, or accept, the values and norms of communities B, C and D.


It was just a matter of time before the same logic of commodified identity-politics moved on to the domain of religion and religious practice as well; and today, we see around us the unmistakable signs of a plurality of "religious markets" on offer. This has become a phenomenon that is truly global, and which cuts across the religious spectrum worldwide.

Religious behaviour and norms - which include dress, symbols, rites and rituals but not the essential core of the religious practice itself, namely faith - have all been rendered commodities in a world that is already saturated by over-determined identity-markers. On a daily basis, we see mundane examples of this: From the sale of "religious" symbols such as prayer beads to the phenomenon of "religious" TV channels, fashion items, holiday tours and so on, promoted by a class of "religious entrepreneurs" who combine the skills of preachers and businessmen together.

Some scholars have taken a dim view of these developments, reading them as signs of growing conservatism in society, particularly across Asia. While it is true that across the Asian continent, religiously-inspired politics is and has been on the rise since the 1980s, I would argue that the emergence of such "religious markets" is not new and does not necessarily lead us to some dystopian world of religious obscurantism in the future. But they do point to the manner and extent to which our societies have become susceptible to the charms of the market, and the logic of commodification.

After all, if ethnic identities could be so easily commodified - to the point where one can literally "self-exoticise" oneself and "buy" one's ethnic identity off the rack - then why shouldn't the same happen to religious identities? If a person can render himself or herself "Asian" by buying all things "Asian", then surely one can also become visibly Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist by buying the trappings of religious identity as well.

Making sense of these developments means having to take a step back from the contested terrain of identity-politics, and taking a wider look at the broader landscape of society as a whole. And this means analysing society as it is today, in an age of late industrial capitalism where the logic of commodification is, for all intents and purposes, hegemonic. But there are two hurdles that need to be overcome if we are to understand this phenomenon in an objective manner.


Firstly, we need to get over the hang-up that any expression of identity - be it ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious - is necessarily divisive. Identity politics may rest on the premise that each group/community is particular or different, but that does not necessarily suggest that all such claims are detrimental to the greater good of society.

But we also need to recognise that these claims are being made in the marketplace of ideas and the public domain where commodification is the norm. If that be the case, then the second hurdle to overcome is the tendency to see expressions of religious identity politics through the lens of religion or theology.

To put it somewhat bluntly, just because a product or totem is "sold" as a religious item does not make it so. What really happens is that it becomes a commodity. We can purchase symbols of religious identity, but what is really taking place is a commercial exchange where something is bought: One can buy a religious icon or religious text, but one never "buys" piety - for faith remains something that cannot be objectified and put in a can or shopping bag.

The commodification of religious identity is no different from the commodification of ethnic-linguistic-cultural identity, or any kind of commodification for that matter. To analyse such developments through the lens of religious studies or theology would be to give spiritual/religious value to something that has been rendered a commodity/product with a price; and that would validate only the claims of the "religious entrepreneurs" who say their products have a higher transcendental value, when they are simply goods that can be traded on the market like any other.

Thus the emergence of this market of 'religious products" (that may range from clothes to music to food to package tours deemed religious) ought to be studied through the lens of political economy instead, where we will see the emergence of new markets within markets, enclaves within enclaves and the creation of different communities that are busy with the task of identifying themselves and reproducing that identity again and again.

If this be the state of identity-politics today - and no nation or religious community seems to be immune to the lure of commodification - then it poses a challenge for states that wish to somehow retain the positive aspect of multiculturalism without going to the other extreme of having identity politics become divisively centrifugal.

I would argue that this is precisely why a humanities approach - using the tools of socio-economic analysis - is called for at this juncture, to give us a different way of understanding this unfolding phenomena without the trappings of paranoia or anxiety that so often accompany cursory observations of contemporary society.

When security analysts try to be theologians and explain the appeal of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria through the lens of religious studies, they miss the point that the propagandists for ISIS are really religious entrepreneurs themselves, who have created a more radical narrative that competes against other forms of mainstream Islam.

Understanding its appeal means looking beyond scripture and having to consider the socio-economic context that has made this radical and reactive narrative appealing to those who otherwise feel marginalised in wealthy societies.

But it takes off only when we see religious commodities as commodities, and religious markets as markets - mundane things in the world of the free market today.

Farish A. Noor is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'When religion becomes a commodity'. Print Edition | Subscribe