work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Pokémon, Islam, Consumerism, Israel, and the Cult of the Individual (in no particular order)

07.20.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

Whenever I come across any work on consumerism and religion – and particularly consumerism and Islam – I check whether it confirms or otherwise my own more theoretical piece on religion and consumerism. I am currently putting together a research proposal under the working title “Shopping for Turkish/Muslim Spiritualities, Identities and Ethics in the UK”, so I come across quite some literature that gives me occasion to reflect…  So far I’ve been able to stick to my ideas about the transformative effect that consumer culture has on religiosity, but some there are some points emerging from my engagement with the growing literature on the diverse Islamic consumer cultures (a reflection on Simmel, the hijab and blue jeans will follow soon).

A couple of deficits in my approach have just been revealed to me by reading Mark Allen Peterson’s fascinating and insightful article ‘Imsukuhum Kulhum! Modernity and Morality in Egyptian Children’s Consumption’ in the latest issue of Journal of Consumer Culture. Writing on consumerism and Islam tend to gravitate towards the hijab debate – the best so far being on the Turkish case of a new tesettür fashion (e.g. Kılıçbay/Binark 2002; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Sandıkçı/Ger 2006). This literature is as important as is fashion in the order of consumer goods. Other fields are less researched than just registered to assert that Muslims – including Islamists – are not necessarily (and increasingly even: unlikely to be) anti-consumerists: They do not only imbue practices of veiling with a sense of fashion but also develop  eclectic tastes and preference patterns in which traditional Islamic music, Islamic pop and mainstream pop music are mixed (e.g. Saktanber 2002: 259f.) – and there is no problem whatsoever with modern consumer electronics, imported white goods etc. All these are cited to support the point that, as Sandıkçı and Ger (2002: 149) put it:

‘Today’s Islamist consumptionscape is characterized by pluralism and difference, and cannot be explained as either rejection of consumerism, capitalism and globalization or resistance to modernity. Struggle over identity between secularists and Islamists as well as among different groups of Islamists is strongly implicated in the domain of consumption and is constantly transformed as a result of various local and global dynamics and forces. Similar to their secular counterparts, different groups of Islamists, located in various habituses, seek to construct distinct identities for themselves by adopting or rejecting particular consumption practices.’

There are some notable exceptions – in particular Kenan Çayır’s (2002) illuminating paper on the transformation of the Islamist novel in the 1990s, for example, is a crucial contribution to an understanding of the impact of the romantic ethic of consumerism (Campbell 1987) on the expression of Muslim identity and spirituality (more on this below).

Peterson studies items that are less conducive to a consumerisation of Islamic identity but rather a focus of resistance against a perceived external threat: he looks at the impact of Pokémon to highlight central rifts within Egypt’s developing and contested consumer culture.  He opens with an account of a game scene in which a bunch of middle class private school children play a Pokémon-based game – but without using decks of cards. Instead they use smaller children to incorporate various characters and negotiate the outcomes of their battles.

‘In creating their game, the girls disembedded elements of Pokémon from their usual contexts of use, creatively transformed them, and pragmatically put them to work in a new context, toward an immediate, practical and very social goal. Meagan and her sister were American, Alicia was Canadian, the remaining girls were American, Egyptian and Korean. As a transnational commodity of truly global reach, Pokémon was part of the language through which girls could communicate across age and cultural boundaries. At the same time, because Pokémon is a global phenomenon, it is subject to the ebb and flow of transnational discourses that attempt to define it, comment on it and evaluate it. These discursive flows, like the commodities they describe, cross boundaries, and can be pragmatically employed to frame and assess Pokémon consumption and play in local and immediate contexts.’(Peterson 2010: 234f.)

This leads me to my first correction as in my paper  I stated:

consumerism certainly does not constitute a coherent cultural system in the sense in which one normally speaks of a ‘national’, ‘regional’ or ‘class’ culture. Take, for example, what could be seen as elements of a global Islamic culture: these would encompass forms of relating to each other as brothers, certain forms of greeting and reciprocating that greeting, certain standards of respect, certain patterns of the day and the year, etc. Although they do not forge Islam from Indonesia to Morocco, and from Bosnia to the USA into one homogeneous cultural system, they nevertheless provide ways for Muslims all over the world to relate to each other through established cultural forms. It would, in contrast, be most difficult to find patterns of meaningful behaviour, rituals etc. that have uncontested plausibility for all denizens of consumer society. (Varul 2008:243)

Looks like I’ve got to eat a few of my words here… Clearly there are now at least sub-cultures of consumption providing codes that can be activated to communicate and interact. I did, however, argue that consumerism is conducive to at least a liberal/tolerant attitude as it firmly commits its denizens to an ethos of choice – an ethos of choice that amounts to a quasi-religious respect for a person’s right to self-constitution and self-determination which finds its limit only in the commitment not to violate that right in others. [1] This is rooted as much in the Romantic genealogy of contemporary consumerism as in the structural romanticism of the money economy itself (as I argue here.)

This sentiment is prophetically captured in Émile Durkheim’s notion of the Cult of the Individual – the absolute collective commitment to individual freedom of expression, dignity and right to life. It is widely seen to anticipate the current dominance of Human Rights as discourse of legitimacy – but while this codified and internationally institutionalised version of the Cult of the Individual can be seen as a high-church version, arguably consumerism can be seen as its folk-religious variant. For both the self-expressing and free individual is the sacred:

‘Quiconque attente à une vie d’homme, à la liberté d’un homme, à l’honneur d’un homme, nous inspire un sentiment d’horreur, de tous points analogue à celui qu’éprouve le croyant qui voit profaner son idole. Une telle morale n’est donc pas simplement une discipline hygiénique ou une sage économie de l’existence ; c’est une religion dont l’homme est, à la fois, le fidèle et le Dieu.’ (Durkheim 1898: 8 )

Durkheim sees that such individualism is more than just the pleasure-seeking homo oeconomicus cut loose of all obligations but an obligation in itself. It does stipulate mutuality, cooperation, solidarity. At the most basic level, the sanctity conferred to one’s own individuality comes with an obligation to recognise that of the others. Above that there is a stipulation of universal solidarity:

En définitive, l’individualisme ainsi entendu, c’est la glorification, non du moi, mais de l’individu en général. Il a pour ressort, non l’égoïsme, mais la sympathie pour tout ce qui est homme, un pitié plus large pour toutes les douleurs, pour toutes les misères humaines, un plus ardent besoin de les combattre et de les adoucir, une plus grande soif de justice.’ (Durkheim 1898: 9)

It is this part I omit in my account of consumerism as quasi-religion. Durkheim rests this positive individualism on Enlightenment philosophy (mainly Kant and Rousseau) and its political expression in the various declarations of the rights of man (… just “man” back then…). Consumerism, in contrast, knows nothing of that enlightened rationalism – if at all it flows from an intellectual movement that took issue with Enlightenment rationalism: Romanticism.  Clearly Consumerism as contemporary folk-religious variant of the Cult of the Individual is not committed to superiority or inferiority of choices on the basis of a shared value-rational framework of reference. It is only committed to the sanctity of choice (and excludes certain choices because of their final character – anything leading to death, addiction, irreversible commitment).

But there nonetheless is evidence that consumer citizens are not only less intolerant than their ancestors, they are also more universally caring and sympathetic. The question whether all that sympathy actually does make the world a better place aside – the increased concern for distant others outside one’s own community is relatively new and beyond what universalistic religions such as Christianity could produce for a long time (after all: adherence to the religion of universal neighbourly  love did not prevent wars, colonisation and racist oppression – and often enough was used as justification for such violations).

It is not very plausible to assume philosophies and declarations that only relatively few are really familiar with behind changed popular attitudes. Natan Sznaider’s suggestion – based on Simmel, Goffman, and Adam Smith… – that the key is, as always, in everyday practices… and those practices now are commercial (Sznaider 2001: 15; 61). The ‘sympathy’ cited by Durkheim is rooted in practices of exchange that require  role-taking and perspective change – even more than that it is boosted in cultural practices of romantic consumption that require and refine the skills of the “autonomous imaginative hedonist” (Campbell 1987) to daydream oneself into alternative existences (also see my previous entries here and here). Another effect of the inculcation with the skills of the autonomous imaginative hedonist is an ability to operate in a globalised, cosmopolitan society, to cooperate outside the narrow confines of one’s culture of origin. So endorsing Pokémon and similar expressions of global consumer culture can be a quite utilitarian act.

‘Soraya represents one important strand of the Egyptian middle class, which embraces liberalization and who seek to prepare their children for social futures in an increasingly globalized world of work. For such parents, global children’s fashions like Pokémon and Harry Potter are not merely significant forms of social capital in the social field of the school, but have important long-term significance for the children’s continued social mobility as they move into university and work. Moreover, their choices for their children reflect the commitments to Westernized modernity they and their parents made – such as women’s professional labor and commitment to work in the private sector – and the important contributions these make to intergenerational social mobility.’ (Peterson 2010: 245)

Peterson here portrays Soraya’s attitude as expression of a cultural commitment to Westernization, to global consumer culture and liberal capitalism. But equally significant is the notion that Pokémon prepares ‘their children for social futures in an increasingly globalized world of work’ – as a game in which it is crucial to anticipate the opponent’s choices, as well as to have the ability to transpose oneself into fictitious (social) worlds does in fact prepare for a cosmopolitan setting in which self-assembled identities of choice not only co-exist but are actually able to cooperate productively. As Huizinga (1955) argues, play takes place in a sphere that is defined as separate,  inconsequential for social life outside it. It thus offers the opportunity of trying out courses of actions, interactions etc. without the risks that normally come with trying the untried in social relations.  Play is separate from “the real world” – but it prepares the player for it. Put in a Durkheimian frame: If you want organic solidarity to work – a solidarity that relies on people cooperating within a complex division of social labour in highly differentiated and “liquid” societies – then you need at a population that is trained in imaginative play. As Huizinga states, play is the source of culture – and different cultures flow from different forms of playing. Organic solidarity in a global, cosmopolitan civilisation requires people who are able to play out complex plots (be it in actual role play – with cards or computers – or “in their heads” using movies and novels as templates for daydreams).

As I’ve already brought in Sznaider and since he’s done work on a neighbouring country – looking at the situation in Israel he argues that commodification of identities (and what else is consumerism?) facilitates integration without homogenisation (… organic solidarity, then);

‘allows people to choose elements from various cultural traditions and blend them into a new identity. The same process also makes it easier for people to stray from their ‘‘original’’ identities — or in conventional terms, to integrate into society. Uncommodified ethnic identities are closed to outsiders, and raise the costs for straying outside their walls: one either is or isn’t. It’s a big decision. But the more it becomes accepted that identity can be adequately manifested through symbolic gestures, that one can throw out large parts of tradition and still be accepted as part of the group, the more people are free to experiment without risking being cut off from their roots. These new ethnic identities are not necessarily weaker than the old ones. But mix and match identities are by definitions easier to mix and match. They are wholes that can interpenetrate each other through the choices of individuals that belong more than one.’ (Sznaider 2000: 307f.)

And in the consumer society of 1990s Israel this contributed to a climate that was conducive to the Peace Process by making absolute dichotomies of collective identities both implausible and uncomfortable:

‘In today’s Israel, being an Israeli can mean that one reads Russian papers, goes to a Russian theater and listens to Russian rock music. But being an Israeli can mean equally that one takes one’s Jewish Oriental identity seriously and, paradoxically thanks to the influence of Western multiculturalism, rejects everything Western. And being an Israeli also means that non-Jewish Israelis, Palestinians with an Israeli passport, can claim cultural autonomy for themselves. These a just a few examples that demonstrate how ethnic one relations are becoming more plural through consumer goods—and how people are turning into ‘‘citizen shoppers.’’’ (Sznaider 2000: 307f.)

However, not everybody likes this sort of plethora of partly inherited, partly chosen identities that quite evidently involve quite a lot of imagination. The more existentially committed one is to the imagined community (Anderson 1991) of a nation, a religion, a movement – the less one is prepared to concede that it is an imagined community. But it is not just traditional commitment in itself – much more of a threat to consumer cosmopolitanism is the one inner contradiction that consumer capitalism cannot solve on its own terms: social inequality and the persistence of real existential questions that cannot be evaded.  In the case of Israel Sznaider highlights the tension between the non-negotiable Jewish character of Israel as a nation state and the thus problematic status of non-Jewish Israeli citizens and, of course, the yet unresolved issue the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian nation state whose inevitability is both a threat to and a consequence of the non-negotiability of the Jewish character of Israel. These issues render existential commitments to faith and ethnic groups much more plausible than they are in a fully established liberal consumer culture. While consumer culture can hold the balance with ethno-political and religious claims as such,  what tipped it is that consumer capitalism is not, of course, without its own inner contradictions. The central one is that while in cultural terms there is an inbuilt ethos of universality in consumerism – as cultural expression of a capitalist economy, there is inbuilt inequality of access and hence always the problem that parts of the population are excluded from the cosmopolitan world of consumption and thus have good reason to resent it. And it took little so that:

‘In 1996, a very slight majority of the Israeli electorate preferred the candidate of the Right over the continuation of the old government and the peace process. Voters that felt short-changed in the marketplace of Israeli life combined with non-Western and religious groups that disliked both the government and the social classes that underpinned it. They responded by flocking to ‘‘communitarian’’ parties which combined political organization with outreach in education, social services, welfare, and religious counseling. In short, the peace process increased consumption for people with money, and their desire for more consumption reinforced their support for the peace process. But increased consumption also increased the divisions in society, and made them increasing visible. And when the ‘‘have-nots’’ acted on their resentments, they opposed the whole Weltanschauung of the ruling parties of old: Westernization. The obvious result was a change in government, and a dramatic slow-down in the peace process.’ (Sznaider 2000: 308)

Going back to the Egypt (and narrowing the focus on Pokémon once again), even in the middle classes there are economic rifts deep enough to work against the integrating power of playful consumerism:

‘In the case of Pokémon, for example, there was a clear distinction between those who collected and played the card games or owned GameBoys, and those who collected and played tāzū, the colorful plastic disks given away inside bags of Lay’s potato chips. While everyone collected and played tāzū, only those of higher economic backgrounds could share interest in the cards. With imported Pokémon cards | running at a price of 20 Egyptian pounds or more per packet, card collectors clearly have parents either with higher incomes or with very different ideas about how to spend their limited money on their children, or both.’ (Peterson 2010: 240f.)

Petersen notes that the resentment against Pokémon did not only come from those whose resources were overstretched by their children’s insatiable hunger for cards and tokens, but also those for whom such wastefulness is morally objectionable in the face of widespread poverty. It is no surprises, then, that Islamist and other anti-cosmopolitan propaganda seized on the issue with relish:

‘While the mainstream Egyptian press, such as Al-Ahram, and the English language upper class magazines almost failed to notice Pokémon […] popular magazines published articles accusing Pokémon of being a threat to the morality and cultural purity of Egyptian children. Some claims were modest, such as the claim that children were buying chips for the tāzū, then throwing them away. Others were not. In rapid succession, it was put forward that Pokémon was Jewish, then Satanic, then poisonous. Pokémon’s Jewishness was mainly supported by the claim that one of the symbols on the cards, a stylized asterisk, has six points and therefore is ‘really’ a Star of David, and thus a symbol of international Zionism. Satanism and Judaism are often linked in such accounts, not directly but indexically, by | co-association.’ (Peterson 2010: 242f.)

Peterson gives an account of how one parent – a concerned Islamist doctor who devotes much time to charity – takes matters in her own hands:

‘In the spring of 2001, the entire fifth grade class at MLS was invited to the home of their classmate Yusuf for a “Pokémon party”. About half attended. For nearlly an hour, the children showed their various Pokémon paraphernalia. One girl showed her collection of some 200 Pokémon tāzū. One boy showed his collection of expensive imported game cartridges – yellow, red and blue.

When they were finished, Yusuf ’s mother Dr Reem gathered them in a circle and read two magazine articles aloud. The first described the fatwa against Pokémon issued by the Grand Mufti of Mecca on the grounds that the game taught children behaviors incompatible with Islam, specifically gambling and evolution. The second article asserted that Pokémon was part of a Zionist conspiracy. Pokémon’s colorful characters and fascinating story lines were designed by professional psychologists to seduce Arab youths into buying it, the author claimed. But every pound spent on Pokémon was ultimately used to buy guns to kill Palestinians. The children listened with growing shock, dismay and horror.6 When she had finished reading the children the articles, Dr Reem led them outside, where a bonfire had been prepared. Under the urging of Dr Reem and one or two other parents, the children consigned their Pokémon materials to the flames. After the immolation, food and drinks were brought out, and the children celebrated their liberation.’ (Peterson 2010: 246)

I would lie if I said that the described scene made me cringe the same way a book burning would make – but equally I can’t deny that (as much as I myself as a parent found the whole P’mon business deeply annoying and overly costly) it evoked similar feelings, albeit in lower intensity. It is, in short a minor outrage, a small sacrilege going vaguely into the direction of the cardinal sacrilege against the Cult of the Individual. As products and processes of the imagination, books and play are quite intimately related. In his 1990 essay “Is Nothing Sacred” Salman Rushdie writes:

‘Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary’ (Rushdie 1992: 429)

I do think we should call it: “sacred”. As one of the deepest and most meaningful forms of expression of individuality and its potential novels (which we normally mean when saying “book”) are, in fact, the most holy object we have today. That doesn’t mean the material object itself is imbued with such sanctity – which is why most people do not pick up fallen books ruefully to then kiss them. The horror of book burnings does not come from an immediate injury done by the violation of a material object, but through the display of intent that it conveys: the annihilation of plurality, dissent, imagination – and in the last consequence of those who dissent, who imagine. As the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine commented in his play Toleranzstück – indirectly referring to the burning of books by German nationalist students 1817 on the Wartburg:

“This was only an prelude. Where one burns books / In the end one well burn men as well.”

In the play this is said by one Hasan on occasion of the burning of the Qur’an by Christian knights after the reconquista of Granada- part of an Islamic civilisation that was, at least when compared to its Christian neighbours, a host to freedom of thought and expression.

It is safe to say that other consumer items are probably less holy than books – which makes Dr Reems burning of Pokémon material much less of a sacrilege. Still – given the symbolic function of the cards, tokens and comic books for childhood identities and networks of exchange – it is an attack on the Cult of the Individual and for those who are committed to it. As becomes clear from the antisemitic conspiracy theory conjured up to justify the burning of the Pokémons it is the cosmopolitan nature of the cultural practice that causes offence.

With Bryan Turner one could argue that a sharp reaction against a culture of play and imagination is only to be expected from an Islamist stance that is, even though it seeks its legitimacy in the Golden Age of Islam, the Age of the Prophet and the early Caliphs, thoroughly modernist in outlook – seeking salvation in homogeneity, unity, an ultimately rationalist ideology in which the secret “voices talking about everything in every possible way” must appear as symptoms of a threatening madness, spread by consumerism:

‘While Islam responded to modernization through the development of an ascetic ethic of hard work and discipline, contemporary Islam has responded to postmodernity through a fundamentalist politics of global community and through an anti-consumerist ethic of moral purity based upon classical Islamic doctrine. These processes involve an apparent paradox: the emergence of a global system of communication made a global Islam possible, while also exposing the everyday world of Islam to the complication of pluralistic consumption and the pluralization of life-worlds. While the Abrahamic faiths successfully survived modernization, there are profound problems for religious absolutism in the area of postmodernity. In epistemological terms postmodernism threatens to deconstruct all theological accounts of reality into mere fairy tales or mythical grand narratives which disguise the metaphoricality of their commentaries by claims to (a false) authorship. These threats of deconstruction emerge out of the pluralization of lifestyles and life-worlds making perspectivism into a concrete everyday reality. Postmodernization of culture is a significant issue at the level of consumption and everyday lifestyle […]’ (Turner, 1994: 92)

Durkheim saw the Cult of the Individual filling in the gap that an inevitably receding conscience collective opens up. The more differentiated and complex a society becomes through increasing division of tasks the less scope there is for universally committing tenets of belief, the similarity of consciousnesses that formed the assumed bedrock of earlier and simpler societies. Modernist ideologies – under which Turner subsumes Islamism alongside communism, nationalism etc. – come to terms with the felt absence of a unifying consicence collective by substituting it with imagined collective identities. In this sense Durkheim is anything but a “modernist”. Durkheim’s modernism already is a pluralist one; his emphasis is on the heterogeneity of modern societies, not on the goosestepping homogeneity anticipated in horror by Horkheimer and Adorno and celebrated by the likes of Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt. One can only read him, as some did, as a proto-fascist if he had mourned the loss of mechanical integration – that, however, he did not. What he did postulate was that uniform and obligatory manifestations of collective consciousness, “religion” in his terminology – which must include modernist ideologies of the sort Turner has in mind, are irreconcilable with the Cult of the Individual – so the meeting of the two is an agonic struggle to the death:

‘A mesure que toutes les autres croyances et toutes les autres pratiques prennent un caractère de moins en moins religieux, l’individu devient l’objet d’une sorte de religion. Nous avons pour la dignité de la personne un culte qui, comme tout culte fort, a déjà ses superstitions. C’est donc bien, si l’on veut, une foi commune ; mais d’abord, elle n’est possible que par la ruine des autres, et par conséquent ne saurait produire les mêmes effets que cette multitude de croyances éteintes. Il n’y a pas compensation. De plus, si elle est commune en tant qu’elle est partagée par la communauté, elle est individuelle  par son objet.’ (Durkheim 1930 : 147)

Generally speaking, secular cosmologies based on science cannot deliver compensation for what was lost in terms of transcendent meaning. But consumerism can make spaces and offer means for the exploration of transcendences and has done so from the beginning. Luckmann (1967) identified much of popular culture as substitute and compensation for religious meaning; there since have, under the title of “New Age”, emerged distinctly consumerist religious practices – there is no reason why traditional beliefs should not be able to transform themselves in ways that they can speak to the individual under the umbrella of commitment to Individualism through commodification. As I mentioned that there a great many empirical studies showing that what he portrays as a nigh impossibility actually is happening: the development of an Islamic consumer culture, postmodern Islamism. Sure: Islamist consumerism is by no means unchallenged – and the objections voiced seem to confirm Turner’s analysis – as in the Turkish case studied by Sandıkçı and Ger (2001: 148f.):

Some Islamists condemn these developments, arguing that they indicate the lack of a thorough internalization of Islam and, hence, the lack of true faith. For instance, observing that heavily made-up models who are famous for displaying sexy lingerie or swimsuits also display tesettür clothes, a female Islamist sociologist comments that Islamic fashion shows do not Islamicize fashion, but rather turn Islam into a show (Yeni Şafak 1999, p.8)[1] . According to a columnist writing in an Islamic newspaper, Vakit, the fashion shows are approved by Muslims “ who [have] submitted to the hegemony of capitalist relations of business” and “if you were to knock the consumerist practice of fashion shows over, the capitalist building would be destroyed.” (Özdür 1994, p.4)[2] In the 1980s, the Islamists sought to differentiate themselves from the secularists by adopting a uniform Islamic dressing style and making it increasingly visible in the public domain. At the core of the distinction was, and still is, the opposition between religious sensitivity and secularist immodesty. Now, however, the initially homogeneous Islamic identity appears to be fragmented, as various segments of the Islamists attempt to differentiate themselves from each other. Symbolically enough, the struggle for difference finds its loudest expression in the creative and eclectic world of fashion.’

So, religious fundamentalists agree with the deeply secularist Durkheim (as well as with their Durkheim-inspired Kemalist enemies). Both sides do not acknowledge the accomodating power of consumerism. And both postulate a concept of religion that is monolithic and non-liberal. For both religion cannot be at individual disposal. But what if we accept that there is religiosity that is not based on the uniformity of collective belief and practice, but rather on the formation of a many-voiced discourse that references a shared tradition without imposing it? While there are Muslims  (just as there are Christians, Hindus, followers of other beliefs… or secular ideologies) who want to burn down the house of secret thoughts and voices Rushdie describes (and the author with it), there is also an Islamist contribution to that house. And it is the engagement with the expressive means that consumer culture provides them with (and the freedom to use them guaranteed by the Cult of the Individual) that brings about this transformative turn. Kenan Çayır looks at the development of the Islamist novel as a genre in Turkey. In the 1980s – in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the upsurge of Islamist movements all around – agit-prop style “salvation novels” dominate the field – novels which normally described the protagonist’s conversion to the true path of Islam and their rejection of a sinful, westernised lifestyle. But the reflective effort of writing (and actually also: reading) novels exerts a fundamental transformation:

While the heroes of the salvation novels were devoid of personal content, the new novels represent characters in their daily lives and with individual problems. Through the search for their interiority, the characters of the new novels resist typification or general labels. The integrity of the individual in earlier narratives has disintegrated in the new novels. To put it differently, the epic wholeness of the Islamic subject disintegrated in the 1990s, since the unity of the governing ideology is undermined by the hero’s interiority. Rather than simply suggesting the emergence of new Islamic subjectivities in the new novels, it is more plausible to argue that a crucial tension developed between the internal and external Islamic subject and as a result the subjectivity of the individual became an object of experimentation and representation in the 1990s. In the novels, the epic characters tend to introspection and epic truth is subjected to re-evaluation.’ (Çayır 2006: 220)

Contrary to a commonly held misperception, consumer culture (whose ancestor and still lively core novels are) does not produce or even encourage one-dimensionality.It encourages increased interior complexity, while it also allows the preservation of variety of traditions and so:

‘New novels provide Islamic actors with a rhetorical means in negotiating both individual and collective identity rather than suggesting prescription for an Islamic community. They seem to be narratives of “culture in contact”, rather than “culture in conflict”. By re-interpreting the “rejected/distorted tradition”, by questioning their ideals by questioning their ideals, by questioning their inner conflicts between the homogeneity of faith and the heterogeneity of practice and by establishing horizontal relations and different experiences with the “other”, the characters of the new novels represent a potential hybrid Muslim identity.’ (Çayır 2006: 222)

The question is whether the Islamist critics of such hybridity do not have a point in saying that  faith is compromised by such hybridisation and Islam subjected to the Individualism. What Çayır’s observations show is that engaging in the romantic culture of consumption makes it impossible to maintain the imagination of a homogeneous and fully integrated identity of the type that modernist projects such as radical Islamism (and most of the other modern -isms)  try to create and uphold.

Despite his verdict earlier in the Division, later on Durkheim emphasises that religion (at least Christianity) is not fundamentally opposed to the basic tenets of Individualism, and that, in a way, the Cult of the Individual could be seen as a logical consequence of Christianity. The point of the Cult of the Individual is not to claim supremacy over religious faith, not the stipulation of atheism or agnosticism – if we assume that it has a “function” it is to enable social cohesion while preserving the legitimate option to believe (or not believe) without being ruled in by an official orthodoxy. That must not only suit Muslims living in non-Muslim societies, it also offers an opportunity to preserve and in fact revitalise the intellectual and cultural wealth of Islam against attempts to simplify and homogenise it. After all, as Akbar S. Ahmed (1992: 36) insists:

‘ … Islam is not really about bombs and book-burning. This is a media image, one which has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the Islamic injunctions for balance, compassion and tolerance are blotted out by it. The holy Quran has emphasized “You religion for you and mine for me” (1989: Surah 109: 6) and “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2: 256). For Muslims, God’s two most important and most cited titles are the Beneficent and the Merciful. This is not only forgotten by those who dislike Islam but, more importantly, it is forgotten by Muslims themselves.’ (Ahmed, 1992: 36)


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Sandıkçı, Özlem/Ger, Güler (2006): ‘Aesthetics, Ethics and Politics of the Turkish Headscarf’ in: Susanne Küchler/Daniel Miller (eds): Clothing as Material Culture, Oxford: Berg, pp.61-82

Sznaider, Natan (2001): The Compassionate Temperament. Care and Cruelty in Modern Society, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sznaider, Natan (2000): Consumerism as Civilizing Process: Israel and Judaism in the Second Age of Modernity, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol.14, pp.297-314.

Turner, Bryan S. (1994): Orientalism, Postmodernism & Globalism, London: Routledge.

Varul, Matthias Zick (2008): ‘After Heroism: Religion Vs Consumerism’, in: Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol.19, No.2, pp.237-

Varul, Matthias Zick (2010): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition and Labor Value’, in: Journal of Social Philosophy

[1] This is most succinctly formulated by J. S Mill in his essay on Liberty. Of course, such commitment cannot be kept in a fully meaningful way within a society running on an economic system in which inequality in income and wealth is rendered an inevitability. As I argued earlier: ‘The freedom of the less well off is a much smaller one than that of those with greater spending power. If such a negative concept of freedom implies that its only limit is the obligation of “not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights” [Mill 1910: 132], then in a society with hugely unequal property rights the freedom of the poor is squeezed into what little space is left by the liberties taken by the rich.’ (Varul 2010: 59)

[1]‘Herkes Tesettür Defilesinde’ Yeni Şafak, 3 July 1999, p.8.

[2] Özdür, Atilla (1994): “Birbirimize İslam Satacağız,” Vakit, November 11, p.4.

update 20th July 2010

BBC reports Saudi ban on P’mon March 2001:

It’s not only Muslims who object. Here is a Christian verdict authored by Berit Kjos of Kjos Ministries which by the looks of it is an Evangelical, pro-Israeli one – so this one has to do without the antisemitic conspiracy and goes over without this little detour to classing P’mon as outright satanic. And just in case you wonder:

Why would Satan influence a game like Pokemon?


It opens up players to the demonic realm, channeling (a power some of the pokemon characters have), and possession.

Commenting on the motto “gotta catch them all”

The last line, the Pokemon mantra, fuels the craving for more occult cards, games, toys, gadgets, and comic books. There’s no end to the supply, for where the Pokemon world ends, there beckons an ever-growing empire of new, more thrilling, occult, and violent products. Each can transport the child into a fantasy world that eventually seems far more normal and exciting than the real world. Here, evil looks good and good is dismissed as boring. Family, relationships, and responsibilities diminish in the wake of the social and media pressures to master the powers unleashed by the massive global entertainment industry.

Interestingly, “role playing” as such seems to be objectionable:

Psychologists have warned that role-playing can cause the participant to actually experience, emotionally, the role being played.

I always thought that was the point… and it is exactly how role playing equips us with the moral faculty of sympathy: putting us into someone else’s place, feeling their joy, anxiety, pain, suspicion etc. that is crucial to understand the moral consequences of our actions. It also makes it difficult to divide the world into Good and Evil – it places us firmly beyond the heroism of Schmittian friend/enemy approach to the social world….

update 5th August 2010

… imaginative hedonism as civilisational achievement – and survival skill… I’m (very) slowly edging my way forward through Arthur C. Clarke’s Collected Stories (all of them, from 1937 to 1999 – I’m just past 1942). Here’s an insight from the foreword (Clarke 2000: x):

By mapping possible futures, as well as a good many improbable ones, the science fiction writer does a great service to the community. He encourages in his readers flexibility of mind, readiness to accept and even welcome change – in one word, adaptability. Perhaps no attribute is more important in this age. The dinosaurs disappeared because they could not adapt to their changing environment. We shall disappear if we cannot adapt to an environment that now contains spaceships, computers – and thermonuclear weapons

Clarke, Arthur C (2000): The Collected Stories, London: Gollancz

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