How German Muslims and Christians Criticize Capitalism

Christian Sperneac-Wolfer

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany.

Throughout its history, capitalism has been met with harsh religious resistance and objections. Today, both Islam and Christianity continue to criticize capitalist economies and societies for injustice, exploitation, and the concept of humanity. In such criticism of economy and society, actors refer to religious ideas to reinterpret their situation, ideas which are part of their religious and cultural repertoire. Such religious ideas, following philosopher Jürgen Habermas, include “sufficiently differentiated expressions of and sensitivity to squandered lives, social pathologies, failed existences, and deformed and distorted social relations.” (p. 110) But how do actors realize this critical potential of religious ideas? And how are certain interpretations intertwined with action? 

This essay aims to contribute to these questions by following four types of religious critiques of capitalism while drawing on data collected in the qualitative research project “Religious Anti-Capitalism?”. This essay and included date collection utilizes a comparative perspective with religious activists in the city of Galburg. In the project, a total of of 26 semi-structured interviews (13 Christian, 13 Muslim) were conducted and participant observation at demonstrations, prayers, or meetings. The author translated the data from German to English. These four critiques – the Eschatological Critique, the Idolatry Critique, the Social Critique, and the Moral Critique – all can be found in Islam and Christianity. Each includes a religious critique of capitalism and corresponding actions, and each challenges the current economy and society on a discursive level through alternative interpretations. Only the social and the moral critiques, however, result in action that aims to change this world. 

The Idolatry Critique of Capitalism

In the Idolatry Critique, activists interpret capitalism as the worship of a false God and condemn it as idolatry. This pattern comes with strong references to an existing God and is evident among a group of Christians demonstrating in front of a bank with banners reading “Capitalism kills” or, “This economy kills. Pope Francis.” In a flyer, the group communicates that capitalism only prevails because people worship false gods, “Mammon,” the god of money, and “Mars,” the god of war. During an interview, – all names including that of the city have been changed to protect the anonymity of the interviewees – Joachim, a group member, explains in more detail that belief in the true God is incompatible with the current economic system: “Christians cannot be capitalists, exploiters.” Here, as in the group’s analysis, Christianity and capitalism are direct contradictions. In light of these statements, the group’s practice can be understood as a protest that publicly opposes the message of the true God to the worship of false gods.

A Muslim environmentalist group pursues a similar critique and action. In its videos, the group advocates for the preservation of God’s creation. One of the group’s public videos gives a concise account of its vision: Amid images of destroyed forests and wastelands, a superimposed text reads that this is the destruction caused by pesticides and genetically modified seeds, while the Earth is being destroyed by humans. The text states Earth belongs to its creator Allah and that man must deal with it responsibly because he rules, not in his own right, but only as God’s steward. Thus, the group frames nature as God’s creation and from this derives the imperative to preserve it. Two segments of an interview with one of its founders, Abdel, demonstrate how the religious trope of God’s creation connects with a critique of capitalism: ““I think, as a religious human, an important reason why we have destroyed our environment […] is that we have forgotten God. Because with the negotiation of God, a creator who created all this that is around us, the sense of responsibility for everything was somehow lost.” 

Abdel interprets environmental destruction as apostasy from God. The void left is rapidly filled with new idols, because now: “Man has to pack into his lifetime as much as possible: have fun, consume very much, and experience everything.” Abdel denounces what can be called consumer capitalism, in which fun and excitement have displaced all other motives, including any thought of transcendence. His advocacy for the return to the true God and for spreading the knowledge of God the creator can be understood as an act of resistance against the false God of consumer capitalism. 

The Eschatological Critique of Capitalism

In this type of critique, the actors’ interpretation is based on their belief that the last days are yet to come and that the “Next World” is a source of rules that transcend capitalist, interest-based business models. A conversation with Ferhart, a halal banking activist, shows how such knowledge results in critical interpretations of interest. He is convinced that after his death he will stand before God and be held responsible for his conduct of life. According to Ferhart, the criterion is whether he has lived halal or haram in the Islamic sense. In a public talk given as an activist, he introduces halal as the Islamic ethics of good conduct of life, including advocating for peace and doing good in this world. By contrast, haram refers to “alcohol, dead animals, pigs, dogs, idols/statues” and “making mischief on earth, injustice, and charging interest,” all of which are strictly forbidden. Both categories are consequential in the afterlife, with haram conduct resulting in a failure to reach paradise, while halal conduct will ensure a happy afterlife. 

From this religious interpretation, Ferhart evaluates the finance economy as haram because it is interest-based. To gain revenue from interest will result in the loss of paradise. As an activist, Ferhart teaches Muslims about the proper, halal handling of money, but he also offers his services as a halal investment advisor. 

In this critique, a religious belief in the afterlife and knowledge of the relevant rules leads to a far-reaching critique of interest. Christians in Galburg share a similar interpretation. In a small protestant community, pastor Martin refers to Martin Luther and denounces interest-based capitalism as a “sin” and a “werewolf.” The term “sin” indicates that charging interest incurs guilt in a religious sense, which will have consequences in the afterlife. Martin urges his congregation to disinvest from secular banks and invest in Christian banks because of their different financial ethics.

The Social Critique of Capitalism 

In the eyes of other religious activists in Galburg, capitalism is persistently destroying the social unity nurtured and articulated by religion. In response, activists engage in constructing a new ‘we,’ which they learn through religious ideas. Compared to the previous types of critique, actions are much more directed toward a change in this world. 

Jürgenis a Christian fair trade activist for whom religion teaches an existing kinship. The activist explains: “If we pray ‘Our Father’ then I can’t pretend that certain people don’t concern me. […] For me, already the first two words are in contradiction to capitalism, which simply says, ‘I don’t care about anything’. With ‘Our Father’, I make all people my sisters and brothers, and I can’t be indifferent to how they are doing.” In this passage, the idea of God as the loving father translates into a world-spanning kinship defined by mutual responsibility. Such a connectedness not only contradicts capitalism as a self-centered economic endeavor but inspires action, as the following statement from the fair trade activist shows: “Based on my faith, the most important thing is that things are fairer and that producers disadvantaged in world trade, small farmers, can offer their products for a fair price, so that their children do not have to work as slaves.” Jürgentries to fulfill his responsibility as part of this ‘we’ through faith-based activism to change secular structures. 

Similarly, Djamila, a Muslim activist in a Muslim network for a just world, takes inspiration from the Islamic term Ummah, which she interprets as: “Alone, you are nothing. […] You always must think about others in order not to be selfish or egoistical.” From this conviction, she criticizes capitalism for its educational inequality.  Migrant and poor children face difficulties at school or university because  of the lack of financial resources perpetuated by such inequality. Following the concept of unity, Djamila supports financially disadvantaged Muslims in their development. Yet her activism has a meaning beyond that. She recalls how she once suggested at a meeting that the network should build a “city that is completely sustainable and where people of different religions live together.” This proposal indicates that the network is an anticipation of a new ‘we’ in the form of an exemplary city that is sustainable and interreligious. Djamila, like Jürgen, evaluates the world from a religiously grounded concept of unity and sees capitalism as a disintegrative force, that further entrenches the disadvantaged in poverty.

The Moral Critique of Capitalism

Activists also refer to religion as a source of moral values and measure capitalism against it. For instance, Susanne, a Christian chaplain, quickly got involved in protests when plans for the closure of an industrial plant in Galburg became public. Besides supportive conversations with workers, she writes public letters of solidarity, one of which I was shown during our interview. The letter describes the layoffs as a “slap in the face to workers as well as to all efforts to get good living-wage work” and as disregard of their work. While this assertion is not necessarily religious, the subsequent section highlights that she speaks from a “Christian-ethical point of view.” Based on “Christian social teaching” as a starting point for analysis, she calls on the company and city council to find a “socially acceptable solution” that will preserve jobs. In her public activism, the chaplain refers to a religious social doctrine as a set of moral principles which are contradicted by layoffs made in line with capitalist principles. Yet she neither calls for a return to God nor condemns capitalism. Instead, she asks for stable employment. 

For Yasmine, a Muslim woman, all monotheistic religions share a set of morality, because they are “designed to help the poor and the elderly,” are “very community-based,” and limit working hours. These religions obligate us to “take care of each other” by asking “Is there anyone who has problems?” This characterization depicts a set of moral principles embedded in monotheistic faiths, including charity, community-mindedness, and reciprocal care obligations. For Yasmine, the imperatives of globalized production regimes violate these norms, “If profit wasn’t the maximum priority and value, I wouldn’t produce my textiles in Bangladesh, but here in Germany.” But in Germany too she finds that “production is more important than people’s health.” For her, capitalism contradicts religiously grounded moral concepts. As an activist, she makes a commitment in this world by voicing such concepts in an attempt to make  a more moral world. 

Capitalism and the Four Religious Critiques of Capitalism

Religious ideas challenge capitalism through alternative interpretations that question its ideals and normality. The cases presented topics for discussion as diverse as production regimes, lifestyle orientations, the treatment of the environment, and layoffs. In each case, actors were deeply convinced of the validity of their own interpretations. 

In the empirical diversity among religious critiques of capitalism in Galburg, patterns of how actors use religion in their criticism emerge. Cross-denominational commonalities are in evidence because actors of different faith pursue a similar critique, as is diversity within each faith. Islam and Christianity both include different critiques. Thus, while these critiques are deeply rooted in their respective faiths, they are both equally transversal and faith-transcending. 

The patterns also show the connection between references to religion, critique of capitalism, and action. Here, it is striking that on the one hand the more clearly the critique of capitalism is oriented towards the transcendent content of religion (in terms of proclaiming God or knowledge of the last days), the more people of God take steps down this path by following a reminder of the rules that lead to paradise. On the other hand, a reference to religion as a source of alternative unity or morality comes with much less transcendence and more immanence and primarily aims at this world as object of religious thinking and criticism. This is also true for the actions of the social and moral critique, which both are directed at changing this world and addressing globalized work regimes or business ethics through fair-trade activism and public solidarity letters. While religious critiques contest capitalism on a discursive level, the critiques presented here indicate that only some interpretations result in actions aimed at changing the world. In other words, what matters are not only the actors’ ideas, but how they make use of their far-ranging religious and cultural repertoire. ♦

I would like to thank the team of the research project “Religious Anti-Capitalism? A Comparative Study of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Positions”, Ferdinand Sutterlüty, Claudia Willms, Alexander Kern, and Nils Kühl. All interviews, as well as the field research, were conducted by either Claudia Willms or the author individually, sometimes jointly.

Christian Sperneac-Wolfer is a research associate at the Institute for Social Research (IfS) in Frankfurt am Main. He is interested in how actors use their cultural repertoire in their interpretations and actions in the fields of religion or work.

Recommended Citation

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian. “How German Muslims and Christians Criticize Capitalism.” Canopy Forum, September 12, 2023.