In 2004, I saw a signboard in Karachi that was utterly ludicrous. The “Central Jail” sign on the main gate of city’s prison had a logo of a renowned fizzy drink next to it. “Wow! Even the gallows are getting sponsored”, I said to myself but never pondered much on what was to follow.
It wasn’t till many similar signboards went up that I realized that this was a symptom of a disease that was to afflict every sphere of the society across the whole of Pakistan. It was the beginning of untrammelled commercialization.
The trend had started with sponsored neon signs on cafés and grocery stores, which made business sense. However it slowly spread to hospitals, police stations, state institutions and also bizarrely to graveyards. More or less every sign became nestled between the emblems of products being sold by multinational corporations.
With the passage of time, billboards of epic proportions started dotting the cityscape. They occupied almost every public spot, pavement and roof of low rise buildings. Nonetheless one would have never envisaged this marketing contagion to infect what the country holds dearest, its religion.
Today urban Pakistan is a society where religious impetus is the biggest marketing vehicle used by most businesses. And it is sadly the holy month of Ramadan that offers a windfall in sales. There has been a transformation of culture that has seen the month of reflection turn into a month of consumption.
The cultural shift has moved people’s interest from spiritual cleansing and abstinence to shopping and eating to their hearts content. Pick up any newspaper in Ramadan and it’s full of adverts of numerous eateries. A gluttony galore is on the offer, with a race for numbers (most dishes in the buffet for the lowest price). But this sadly is not the most despicable of ironies. It is the tale of commercial concerns shaping our morality that is more repugnant. Pedalled by them are messages that re-iterate the question, what would make our Ramadan experience special? And sadly the answer provided has nothing to do with striving for piety or spirituality.
Cell phone packages are sold with hadith text bundles. Cooking oil commercials run the adhan (call to prayer) in the background. Posters of electronic gadgets feature Islamic symbols. The subliminal message sent by all these adverts is the same i.e. It is somehow virtuous to buy this product as opposed to one which hasn’t aligned its outlook with the blessed month.
Another opportunist example is that of a leading drinks company, asking consumers to purchase 1.75 litres of (diabetic hazard and cavity producing) sugary drink. It is claimed that for every bottle purchased a street light would be installed in the slums of Pakistan. Similarly a packaged milk seller, showing images of disparity vows to remove this unbalance only if their brand of milk is purchased.
One would argue that there is nothing wrong with this business model, after all these companies are following the footsteps of TOMs shoes, whose trade has benefited millions of impoverished souls across the world. Yet they fail to understand that the money thrown on the adverts is simply to gain empathic mileage and profit from Ramdan’s charity culture. The huge sum of cash for countless commercials would alone be several fold more than what would be eventually invested in the cause.
The greatest harvester of this boon is Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a televangelist who feels that this new consumerist paradigm is a win-win situation. His highly sponsored gameshow runs several hours a day in Ramadan in which the audience are showered with gifts.
Mr. Liaquat becomes the face of many products in Ramadan as he is the best in the trade to put an Islamic spin on any product. Here is one of his shenanigans from last year, “Just like prayers wash away the sins big or small, this detergent also washes away all the stains”
On his TV show, every now and then Mr Liaquat toys with the emotions of the audience (who are generally from a poor background), stripping them of their dignity for amusement and show ratings. He is sadly not the only one. Every major television network in Pakistan has followed suit in telecasting similar programs.
The spirit of Ramadan is to feel for the needy and the hungry. One has to wonder what message we give out when games that involve wasting food are being shown on national TV day in day out? Only yesterday an egg throwing competition was being aired. Is Ramadan today only about fun and games?
This new culture is a far cry from the culture a decade ago. Ramadan used to be a quiet affair. Most business would close by 3:00 pm to allow the employees a siesta in the comfort of their homes. The start of the month invigorated a sense of community and people generally looked after each other. Help was on offer at every corner. Cometh iftar (sunset), the streets were found deserted. Only a few gallant volunteers remained outside. Their task was to look out for commuters who were still to reach home. In case if iftar time had commenced they would offer passers-by dates and water. Only a select few foodstalls would be open. Dining out in Ramadan was not preferred.
Today Ramadan marks the start of 30 days of festivity that includes rewarding your body with special treats every day and shopping for Eid. A carnival atmosphere is on the streets, as many people dine out. 30 minutes after iftar, the city traffic swells up even more. There is a rush to the shopping centres and Cineplexs. While those who stay at home, remain glued to TV programs mentioned above.
Sadly this is not just the story of Pakistan; it is replicated across all of the Gulf States. Muslims in the east are blind to what they have walked into. The Muslims in the west are much more cautious of this rampant commercialization.
Although Islam is a relatively new phenomenon in the west but in many aspects it is much more maturely practiced. This is partly because people are Muslims by choice and partly because of the diverse nature of Islam they are exposed to in multicultural societies. And Muslims in the west have already witnessed how Christmas has changed over the years.
A wise man once said regarding fasting, “When you fast your body becomes your soul and when you eat your soul becomes your body”. It is sad to see that contrary to the message of Ramadan, today many Muslims gain weight instead of losing it. Let’s hope we wake up before the spirit of Ramadan is completely slaughtered on the altars of consumerism.