What a PR Blunder Can Tell Us About Modern Religious Perspectives

Whole Foods is often seen as a progressive food retailer for those who want their three squares with a side of healthy conscience. So when the chain backed off from its internet-based Ramadan promotion, which highlighted halal foods safe for Muslim consumption, many felt that Whole Foods was missing a whole lotta spine.

The Ramadan kerfuffle isn’t the chain’s first foray into religious-related product tie-ins. However, this one raised ire in some parts of the United States. The Atlantic and other news outlets suggest the grocer’s quick backpedal stems from an inflammatory blog post accusing the company of trying to modernize a religion that is stuck in “622.” Islam, the blogger says, doesn’t care a whit about things like free-range eggs or organic quinoa, it cares about jihad.

The result? Whole Foods pulled its Ramadan campaign. Or, if you go by their spin, are leaving it up to individual retailers to determine the best way to handle it.

But what about what this critic was saying? Is Islam, by necessity, an anti-modern throwback to the dark ages? Not necessarily. But the highlighting of fundamentalism can certainly make it appear that way. However, even the concept of fundamentalism is, ironically, a modern phenomenon.

I’ll give you the definition of fundamentalism I recently learned: Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon that emphasizes certain religious truths and these truths are applied with vigor and earnestness to 20th and 21st century reality (Chawla, 2011). Religious fundamentalism can be Islamic, or Christian (as is now being debated due to the Norway phenomenon), or whichever religion feels the need for re-entrenchment in the modern world. But while fundamentalism is often perceived as a  return to “authentic” religion, it is not. It requires that a religion cherry-pick its ideals. Not surprisingly, the “truths” emphasized are normally those most under threat by secularization. Thus, while fundamentalism is perceived as being stuck in the dark ages, it is actually a distinctly modern problem.

We all know about Islamic fundamentalism, but is that all there is to Islam? In a short answer: No, of course not. Within Islam, there are movements to reinterpret Islamic teachings with an emphasis on gender equality, human rights, as well as an openness towards  inter-faith dialogue. This is very akin to similar movements within Judaism and Christianity, where certain segments (for instance the Jewish Reform movement and some Christian Anglicans) seek a more progressive interpretation of scripture, either to appeal to a new class of individuals or adapt to modernity. (These two strategies are also probably related.)  In fact, a Pew Study suggests that 63% of American Muslims are left-leaning democrats. This is hardly the image of the conservative, fundamentalist Muslim that captures the American imagination. So why are Muslims perceived as being something so…different?

Some scholars, such as Grace Davie, believe a lot of it has to do with what we think religiosity looks like.

To wit, most of us in the predominantly-Christian west have largely shed our daily religious identity. Church attendance rates are on the decline, which suggests most of us don’t even go to a place of worship on a regular basis. If you ask a young Jew if they keep kosher or attend synagogue, you may be surprised to learn that they don’t. Just because you identify as a member of a religion, doesn’t necessarily mean you actively participate in said religion. This is related to two sociological theories of modernity: that of believing without belonging and Davie’s vicarious religion. The former suggests that people have faith, but don’t necessarily belong to an institution or identify with a specific religion; the latter means that people affiliate with a religion, but engage with the institutional structure of that religion (i.e. attend a mass) on a very limited basis.

Contrast this with Islam. (Yes, I will be generalizing here for the sake of making distinctions; my apologies in advance.) While there is certainly a fluidity in the way Islam is practiced, in many ways Islam requires more than a casual engagement. Unlike Christianity, where prayer is a nice thing to do, Islam makes it a fundamental feature to not just pray, but pray often. Like, five times a day often. As well, Muslims aren’t supposed to charge or earn interest on their money—this means banking, if done in accordance with Islamic law, is mostly an insular affair. There are strict dietary rules and bans against gambling and drinking. It’s similar to how a serious Jewish person will turn the lights off on Friday night and eat Kosher—the serious Muslim will find a way to incorporate Islam’s five pillars into their daily life.

We can see how this begins to add up to a religion that is much different than what we are used to. In the West, we see religion as a personal matter that is boxed up and put into a corner, if it is even engaged with at all. But for a Muslim, religion is inseparable from daily life. The way of life reflects the belief. For this reason, scholars believe that those of us in the West have a difficult time wrapping our heads around Islam. The modern Western view of religion is one that is personal and, for the most part, publicly non-existent. We simply can’t comprehend how a religion in this day and age can be so intimately bound up with, well, everything.

Do I believe this accounts for everything? Not entirely. I find it hard to accept that notions of “otherness” are simply to blame for religious tensions. Obviously, America has additional factors at play that also put strain on the issue (9/11, military engagements in the Middle East). I feel that the politicization of the New Christian Right also may explain how the seemingly innocuous can quickly become a flash-point of  Eastern-Western religious tensions. Through politicizing the “other” mere differences become dividing lines in a battle between “us and them” with interested participants picking up the call to arms. I mean, really, does anyone believe the blogger in question really shops at Whole Foods? Probably not. But in this case Whole Foods is as much an ideological battleground as Gettysburg or Basra.

Of course, by prompting Whole Foods to question their Ramadan promotion, the issue of religious tolerance for American Muslims was highlighted perhaps more than could have been done by a simple endcap display. We can thank the Streisand Effect for that. But instead of shying away from the debate (as Whole Foods says it was doing by preempting their promotion) this would be a great time for the company to explain why it chose to do a Ramadan promotion in the first place. Perhaps then we can understand, not just the difference between Islam and fundamentalism, but also religious tolerance and capitalism.

Photo by za3tooor.