The spectre of neoliberal Islam

MAC were mocked by thousands of Muslim women on social media for their suhoor advert.

Asim Qureshi is the research director at advocacy group CAGE. You can follow him on Twitter @AsimCP.


Reflecting on a recent video by MAC Cosmetics targeted at Muslim women to “get ready for suhoor”, Asim Qureshi writes that this is one of many examples of the normalisation of “neoliberal Islam”.

It’s my post-qiyaam cup of tea, and I’ve logged into my social media to catch up with the world in the very short period before suhoor and fajr. The make-up brand MAC are advertising a video on how a Muslim woman can get her perfect suhoor make-up ready for her “suhoor party”. Initially, I was a little astonished at the idea of a suhoor party, as I had never heard of one. I was quickly informed by my friends that this is a tradition which has recently developed among Gulf Arabs.

The story hasn’t left my mind, but not because of the suhoor party or the “getting ready” at that time of the morning, it was more about the way in which a make-up company had capitalised on this…and literally I had the cliché enter my mind: is nothing sacred anymore?

Before I move on with my argument, I want you all to know, that I’m ready to own up to my own hypocrisy here as a consumer. I do consume and do not, by any stretch, lead the most ethical consumer life, but I hope I am slowly trying to change that about myself and pray Allah (swt) grants me the ability to do so.

What is neoliberalism?

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My concern here rests on the construction of Muslim identity as it slots into an idea of the West, but more specifically, neoliberal lifestyles. What is neoliberalism though, and why am I using it as a way to understand the emergence of this trend within Islam? Here, I will rely on Naomi Klein in her excellent book No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics:

“There is a lot of confusion around the word ‘neoliberalism’, and about who is a neoliberal. And understandabl”y so. So let’s break it down. Neoliberalism is an extreme form of capitalism that started to become dominant in the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but since the 1990s has been the reigning ideology of the world’s elites, regardless of partisan affiliation. Still, its strictest and most dogmatic adherents remain where the movement started: on the US Right.

“Neoliberalism is shorthand for an economic project that vilifies the public sphere and anything that’s not either the workings of the market or the decisions of individual consumers.”

Although Klein is writing of the distinction between the public and private space from the perspective of economics, I want to extend her argument about how Neoliberalism constructs Muslims who are not producing in the market and preaching consumerism. In many ways, the idea of Islam that I have, is one that actually rejects unbridled consumerism, a lifestyle that champions the aesthetic of neoliberalism the mark of success is reflected in an individual’s accumulation of wealth and material possessions – it champions the lie that somehow there will be a trickle-down effect from those who ‘make it’.

Muslims are not immune to this (il)logic from both the internal and external gaze. I wrote about this previously in deconstructing the cognitive dissonance around former Prime Minister David Cameron’s positions on the Muslim practise of the Shariah:

“According to Cameron, Shariah must not be permitted to take root in the UK and be practised by Muslims (BBC News 2008). This, however, stands in stark contrast to his position that the implementation of Islamic finance systems and loans according to the Shariah should be promoted and assisted. In October 2013, the former prime minister specifically laid out how he wanted to unveil plans for a £200 million Islamic bond that would be Shariah compliant (Watt 2013). This in itself is not completely surprising, considering that Muslims in the UK contribute around £31 billion to the UK economy, over £1 billion of which alone comes from the halal food industry (Mueen 2013).”

It would seem, some forms of Shariah are more equal than others – in other words, forms of Shariah that are wealth generating are more than welcome in the UK, and those that are not must be excluded, akin to Naomi Klein’s concerns about the way neoliberalism rejects and vilifies any narrative that subverts this goal.

Neoliberalism and Islamic ethics 

The purpose of writing this piece, is for us to perhaps reflect collectively on where we are and how we wish to proceed. We have already witnessed through incidents such as Grenfell, how an economic policy that is crafted by wealth generation for the rich can literally be a matter of life and death for the poor (from whatever background they hail). As Muslims, we must ask ourselves the most difficult of questions: if this is it, if western secular-liberal democracies that worship at the altar of neoliberalism represent the best of what human beings can be, is that enough for us?

I would suggest, that while much has been written about Islam’s free-market approach, and rightly so, that it is somehow always constructed without reference to any form of other-worldly consideration – Islamic economics are oftentimes (at least in my reading) linked to finding solutions that allow Muslims to live within pre-established systems, not seeking to effect wholesale change to problematic economic cultures. Hence why the notion of ‘Islamic finance’, always carries with it the idea of a best-fit, rather than a total solution. Now, this maybe needed in the short-term, but are we destined to forever play the politics of short-termism?

An ethic we should perhaps consider in resistance to unfettered Muslim neoliberalism might look something like this:

  1. Allah says seek the bounty of the world freely, as long as it is halal (and of course, tayyib).
  2. Recognise that anything you receive was not of your own making, but of Allah’s blessing you with rizq (provision) and finding contentment in that provision.
  3. In the long run, whether you are the buyer or the seller, it is important to remember that nothing in this world remains with you except for your deeds, so the more wealth you give away, the more you increase your chances of an other-worldly success.

I should acknowledge here, that we know that everything is relative to the personal circumstances of each individual. Nothing speaks of this more than the famous story of the two companions of the Prophet (saw), Abu Bakr (ra) and Umar (ra). Umar brought half of his material possessions to the Prophet, after he (saw) had made a call for the giving of charity. When Umar saw Abu Bakr arrive with only with a sparse contribution, he felt a sense of having finally beaten him in act of righteousness. When the Prophet asked Abu Bakr what he had brought, he explained that he had brought all his worldly possessions, and it was at this point that Umar exclaimed to himself that he would never achieve a position above Abu Bakr.

This story is important, because it reminds us that we have our own individual relationships with Allah that are dependent on our circumstances and the provision that Allah has given us. Thus, a middle-class professional who earns a decent salary and gives a regular small donation, might be considered stingy in the sight of Allah, compared to someone who is not so wealthy and gives a small proportion of his wealth at great personal sacrifice – our situation is solely determinative of our individual ethical positionalities.

In terms of this spectre of neoliberal Islam, if by having halal lifestyles, all we do is to reinforce our fitting in within the dominant culture of western cultural/political/social hegemony then perhaps we have collectively missed the point about what a connected life between this world and the next might look like?

By turning our most sacred moments of religion into pure opportunities for commodification, we perhaps tragically overlook the very point that is being made to us. For me, I hope for something more than just slotting into the world I see, and just like the blessing of the month of Ramadan, I want to be transformed, and be transformative.

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