Can any manufactured religious products ever truly be ethical?
When I am overwhelmed by the realities of the world, I often go to pray. I rest my head on my mat as I kneel down in prayer. As a Muslim American woman, I am often trying to reconcile jarring contradictions, requiring that I ask myself a series of questions: How do I consciously or unconsciously participate in an exploitative system? How can I ensure that I align to the values systems that guide my faith? How can I find ways to do better, be better, in pursuit of care? In prayer, I come face to face with these thoughts — and it’s hard to avoid the glaring contradictions of it all. Contradictions that begin with the mat.
Prayer rugs, like many consumer products, operate within a global manufacturing chain riddled with exploitative labor practices. This is not a new revelation, and I recognize that for many of us, the opportunity to fix the global supply chain is not within reach. We can, however, begin to contemplate our choices and educate both ourselves and one another to make more sustainable and kinder purchases.
Iman Masmoudi, the founder and president of the clothing brand Tuniq, wanted to create a carbon-negative, shared-profit manufacturing cooperative. This desire forced her to pose a fundamental question: Do holistically ethical companies even exist? “By which I mean, is it possible to create a moral business use?” asks Masmoudi. “Is it possible, from end to end, to not create any more harm in the world?”
As a Muslim American manufacturing products for Muslims around the globe, Masmoudi navigates two opposing worlds: one defined by religious ethical standards, and one defined by a consumerist economic system. How do ethical businesses meet demand without compromising on their integrity?
These two warring ideals come to a head in the commodification of religious products. Take, for example, Muslim prayer rugs. Every day, millions of Muslims across the world unfurl mats of various sizes, shapes, and origins to signify the start of prayer. In an essay for the Yale Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion, Minoo Moallem explains, “The prayer rug territorializes prayer by creating a material boundary between the sacred and the profane.” In other words, they are highly regarded spiritual objects.
With increased demand and global industrialization, however, prayer rugs have become mass-produced commodities. Often, the way they’re manufactured — by workers making poverty wages, with materials that harm the environment — goes against the religious principles they aim to embody. There is a prevalent oxymoron consecrated in the action of prayer being done on a mat that deviates from a belief system’s principles.
This, of course, is not limited to Muslim-specific products. This conflict spans disciplines. I can go on Amazon right now and buy Catholic prayer cards or Tibetan prayer beads or Jewish Havdalah candles in bulk, with just a few clicks and little care paid to the workers who created them.
“If there is trauma in the supply chain,” says Timo Rissanen, an associate professor at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney and the author of Zero Waste Fashion Design, “and if there’s trauma and abuse in the factory, that [trauma] gets transferred into the product.”
The trauma-laced supply chain is a well-documented reality. A survey conducted by the Workers Rights Consortium involving workers from 158 factories including Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Haiti, and Myanmar found that 20 percent of workers “reported experiencing hunger on a daily basis since the start of the pandemic”; 34 percent had gone hungry at least once a week. Modern consumerism relies on mass production models that allow items to be produced cheaply and quickly. A less standardized supply chain requires valued labor, material, and product, which indefinitely drive up prices.
Tara Cetinkaya is the co-founder of Modefa, the United States’ largest online Islamic apparel store. As the leader of a growing Islamic business, she often finds herself at the intersection of ethical principles and industry standards. “We’ve had some people come into the store and ask us why we can’t sell things for four or five dollars, and it’s because we’re not buying from China,” she said. “We’re not buying with slave labor. We’d rather use these ethical standards that support Muslim-owned companies and suppliers in Turkey.”
Cetinkaya is referring to recent reports coming out of China regarding the Uyghur region, a majority-Muslim area of China. The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region reported that 20 percent of cotton garments in the global apparel market involve labor from the Uyghur region. “The apparel industry is at the highest risk of using forced labor,” said Jewher Ilham, a Chinese Uyghur activist and member of the coalition. In other words, there is a possibility that a prayer rug made of cotton is produced by Muslim forced labor.
Muslims from China’s Uyghur province have been targeted by the Chinese government. “According to researchers, NGOs, and experts, it’s estimated that 1 to 1.8 million Uyghurs have been subject to forced labor,” said Ilham. This number could include Ilham’s father, Ilham Tohti, who was detained by the Chinese government in 2014. Jewhar has not been able to contact her father since his detainment.
In this way, it’s hard to separate the realities of the textile industry from the items. “The conditions in which something is made matters,” said Rissanen. “Part of the problem is that most of the time, we’re not daring to imagine anything beyond the way things are currently done.”
For business owners like Masmoudi, the answer is found in not reimagining but revaluing the systems that have always been there. “It’s about putting power back in the hands of the people.” Tuniq partners directly with local shepherds and traditional craftsmen throughout Tunisia in an effort to cultivate a symbiotic relationship between nature, community, and textile.
Wool is collected from local flocks of sheep during the spring and cleaned by a group of women in a village in the south of Tunisia, where it is then brushed, carded, and weaved by hand.
“From the beginning, we were guided by trying to create something beautiful out of what is often very ugly, which is the wider textile industry,” Masmoudi says. Workers set their wages and hours, she says, letting Masmoudi know directly how long a project will take and the labor’s intended value. Together, she hopes the community can create a product out of craft, intention, and care.
Brands like Tuniq reflect a higher standard of care, and care does not come cheap. A prayer rug on Tuniq’s website will cost around $93, while a prayer rug on Amazon can run for $10 with express shipping. But what Masmoudi is providing encourages consumers to begin grappling with the stories behind their products.
“We’ve turned all of humanity into commodities, and that’s how we’re treated and that’s how we treat ourselves” — but enough is enough, says Masmoudi. Alternative possibilities exist. The global manufacturing chain is broken. Recognizing this reality can be overwhelming, but the aims of entrepreneurs like Masmoudi are good-faith reminders of a different way of organizing, trading, and consuming. As consumers, it’s important to demand and implore new models of commerce that prioritize care in the supply chain, the laborers behind a product, the environment it is created from. So perhaps the next time you go out to purchase a prayer rug, or a candle or beads, take a moment to think about the story behind the product.
Omnia Saed is a freelance journalist and current MA student at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is a member of the Class of 2021 Vox Media Writers Workshop.