Globalised Halal Markets and Middle-class Southeast Asia: The “Muslim Piety Economy”
Islamic revivalism in Southeast Asia has stimulated interest in halal products and Muslim material culture. In Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, governments have actively helped shape a Muslim piety economy around halal production, trade, regulation and consumption.
Since the 1980s, a global Islamic economy has emerged, giving rise to a specific Muslim ethic in consumption and spurring the globalisation of halal markets. According to The New York Times, diverse Muslim groups have re-constructed the very idea of “economy”, introducing new thinking and practices that integrate Muslim piety into economic life. Concomitantly, Islamic identities are being transformed through engagements with business and commerce.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Southeast Asia, where Islamic revivalism has stimulated interest in halal products and Muslim material culture more broadly. These developments have been fostered by steady economic growth and the emergence of a Muslim middle class, alongside urbanisation and global market integration, including mass consumption in shopping malls and online. Ethnicity is also an important factor in shaping economic activity that revolves around Muslim piety, with non-Muslim presence — namely, the sizable Chinese and Indian populations in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia — a defining feature of the region’s Muslim-majority countries. Muslim material culture, most prominently halal foods, are evoked in the interfaces between food cultures, reinforcing the ways in which halal food represents Muslim identity.
Muslim Southeast Asia plays a key role in global halal markets. The formation of these markets can be explored through a framework that links Muslim piety with economic activity and choice, with a specific focus on the rise of middle-class groups that have enjoyed upward social mobility and increased purchasing power. The Muslim middle class is a consequential phenomenon. It is important for us to recognise its growth and development, and to understand its relationship with Islamic revivalism, politics, philanthropy, consumer culture, social mobility and government-business interlinkages.
The growing Muslim middle class in Southeast Asia comprises not only shoppers and consumers but also policymakers, producers, managers, bureaucrats and scientists actively involved in giving form and substance to a Muslim piety economy.
In 2022, Al Jazeera reported that 1 in 3 Southeast Asian Muslims are more devout than their parents. Religious revivalism, together with Western-style consumerism, are shaping a regional Muslim consumer culture that is most noticeable among the large and growing middle class. The most central issue between religion and consumption is whether products and services are halal. These debates have become globalised, to the point of including smaller countries in the Global North such as Denmark.
Islamic values and political interests have come to influence the processes of production, trade, regulation, consumption, entrepreneurship and scientific knowledge. Focusing on Southeast Asia as a site of significant and diverse integration of Islam and the economy helps us sketch out the contours of a “Muslim piety economy”. Similarly, the sphere of economic activity that is not formally registered is often recognised as the informal economy, not just an informal sector. The breadth, diversity and interconnectedness of the economy revolving around Muslim piety — which can be formal or informal — extend beyond a mere sector or industry. These issues were explored at length in the 2019 volume Muslim Piety as Economy: Markets, Meaning and Morality in Southeast Asia, while an earlier book, Islam, Standards, and Technoscience: In Global Halal Zones, compared the roles of halal markets in Singapore and Malaysia and the ways in which these markets are globalising.
The Islamic economy attracts interest from governments, Muslim organisations, businesses and education. Again, the Southeast Asian region is playing a central role in these transformations. A central characteristic of the relationship between Islam and the economy in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia is how Islam and the economy are “nationalised” — that is, governments have actively helped shape a national Muslim piety economy around halal production, trade, regulation and consumption.
The proliferation of halal markets, not only in Southeast Asia but also globally, warrants a focus in different spheres, such as individual consumption, the marketplace, religious organisations and the state. These inquiries should proceed within the broader framework of contemporary Muslim material culture, addressing the ways in which these trends and transformations take place amid changing Muslim lifestyles in the multicultural societies of Southeast Asia and beyond. Within the region, the experiences of Muslim-majority Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, and countries with significant Muslim minorities such as Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines hold out important lessons on the intricate relationship between expanding markets and the Muslim middle class’ moral and religious concerns.
The halal concept is key to Muslim consumer culture regarding certification processes such as the laboratory testing of products sanctioned by Islamic law. Thus, science plays an important role in facilitating the branding and quality assurance of halal products, mainly in the detection of haram (unlawful or prohibited) constituents, which may be present in the products consumed. Science has also contributed to the discovery of safer and healthier alternatives to meat-derived food ingredients. Furthermore, proper systems for handling, packaging and labelling halal products have improved with the help of science. This point supports the argument that the growing Muslim middle class in Southeast Asia comprises not only shoppers and consumers but also policymakers, producers, managers, bureaucrats and scientists actively involved in giving form and substance to a Muslim piety economy.
The halal concept should be seen as a human value that shapes middle-class markets. It should draw attention to the immense potential for development and change among the middle classes of the Global South. This requires a perspective that goes beyond a simplistic focus on these groups as materialist consumers. The growth of well-educated and affluent middle-class groups across Southeast Asia has bolstered the emergence of the Muslim piety economy in the wider context of globalising halal markets. Future trends will be interesting and important to watch.
Johan Fischer is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Denmark.