Are religions similar to capitalist businesses?

A certain Orientalist thought process among some Muslims and some Non-Muslims seems to be rooted in the assumption that Islam essentially represents some kind of resistance to capitalism and colonialism. The narrative that Islam is an alternative to ‘Western’ ideas of capitalism, globalization, and neoliberal economics, is at times touted as evidence of Islam’s moral superiority – that Islam teaches you to be more concerned with the hereafter, while the duniya (the world of the living) gets you engrossed in worldly affairs. This strategy is often used to evangelize Islam by dawah givers (Muslim evangelists), and by more casual proselytizers, to the Kuffar (Non-Muslims, heathens, disbelievers – the plural of Kafir, an Otherizing term) – the idea being that Islam purely transcends mundane, man-made systems like capitalism.

Not quite.

In fact, religion, including Islam, is very much a business. A kind of business that sells certain products and services, symbolizing certain hopes and desires, and requires certain kinds of payments from customers. There are marketers and managers, and there are regular conferences and seminars in the business of religion, to keep it going. There is a myth of an “invisible hand” working things mysteriously in both religion (an unseen but selectively intervening deity) and in capitalism (the invisible hand of the market). And Islam, like capitalist enterprises, is obsessed with growth. Religion and capitalism are far more alike than they are different.

Religion – especially monotheism, wherein ‘one god’ is an overseer of all, and who must be placated, prayed to, and praised on a regular basis – is preoccupied with individual brownie points. The ultimate prize is to get to ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise’ (Jannah), and each person is ultimately in it for him/herself. Piety is the currency of religion… This sounds suspiciously like laissez faire capitalism. Religion also involves a kind of metaphysical greed: hoarding of religious belief and practice ‘resources’. According to religion, you must do certain things to avoid god’s ire, and certain things to gain god’s favour – not because there is something good about doing good things, or something bad about doing bad things, but because god is the ultimate prize-giver. Hence, piety has a transactional quality – and these transactions, and the religious currency they hold, are based on individualized actions.

The idea of the human ‘soul’ is also deeply individualistic. It is the ultimately privatized space – there is no communal space in this sense, if you believe your ‘soul’ is unique and separate from everyone and everything else. Religion and capitalism both trade in manufactured consent and manufactured desire. The clerical classes – imams, maulanas, rabbis, pastors, bishops, popes – are religion’s marketing managers. Since their careers and livelihoods depend on people’s continued belief, they reinforce the importance of religions (especially the one that employs them personally) at every turn. Just like with corporate conferences, team meetings, and motivational seminars designed to whip up corporate jingoism, believers need to be worked up into believing their brand is better, truer, and more beneficial than others, and serving as ‘brand ambassadors’ (who proselytize, do dawah) to others who are not yet buying their brand.

Religion and capitalism mirror each other in a myriad ways. According to German political economist Max Weber, capitalism as we know it is the product of Protestant Christian influence. It could be said that religion privatizes the very lives, and even deaths, of believers.

While Islam, Christianity, and Judaism include the concept of charity, the idea of ‘charity’ itself is rooted in an asymmetrical economic system where the wealthy dole out fractions of their property to those selectively deemed to be worthy, while ignoring the masses of ‘not-so-worthy’ people in need. In neoliberal economics, charity is often used as a point of argument against the need for socio-economic infrastructure that would provide a safety net for everyone. Religions that rely on charity, including Islam, perpetuate the unequal distribution of wealth.

Nowadays, Muslim countries are busy building golden clock towers and ostentatious skyscrapers to compete on the arena of global capitalism, while disregarding the rights of workers. There is nothing intrinsically anti-capitalist or anti-globalist about Islam. And in fact, Islamic/Muslim colonialism (often innocuously called ‘the spread of Islam‘) has a long history of trade and conquest, not completely unlike European colonialism.

Clearly, religion is not a force of resistance to capitalism, neoliberalism, or globalization. In fact, religion serves, colludes with, and thrives on, the systems set up for these very institutions. Christianity and Islam were both used by colonial missionaries to justify the ‘taming’ of colonized ‘savages’. Some interpretations of religions may be more conducive to anti-capitalist or anti-globalization rhetoric – but they compete for validity with many other interpretations. While individual believers may find solace in the idea that (their) religion exists outside the context of capitalism, a look at who benefits financially from religious institutions, how religions have been spread, and how monotheistic religions in particular privatize the sacred, shows that religions are part of the same individualizing narrative. Historically, religion has been used to control, tame, colonize, and exploit the masses, rather than to liberate them from systems of exploitation.


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