Ramzan has begun and everywhere you look, people seem to be gripped by religious fervor. From the moment the Ramzan moon is sighted to when the month finally comes to an end, visible displays of piety become de rigueur, with the outward appearance of religious observance eclipsing actual acts of introspection or ethical reevaluation. Beneath the month-long veneer of religiosity, society continues to adhere to the principles of greed, rampant consumerism, intolerance, and bigotry. To the extent that Ramzan carries with it a message of egalitarianism and humility, this is lost amidst throaty proclamations of individual piety, and the frothy denunciation of all those who deviate from the religious script that has come to inform the public observance of this month.

The contradictions of Ramzan in Pakistan are perhaps best exemplified by the advertising industry. Before Ramzan had even begun, the electronic media was inundated by advertisements seeking to capitalize on religious sentiment, as products ranging from soap to mobile phones attempted to demonstrate their close and intimate links with Islam, fasting, and tradition. If what is being shown on television is to be believed, the decisive factor determining an individual’s eternal salvation or damnation could be something as banal as their choice of cooking oil. Using flashily shot videos of mosques, dinner tables, and children wearing shalwar kameez, and invariably set to music invoking Pakistan’s Islamic heritage, the imagery and symbolism of these advertisements makes it clear that the consumption of particular products is an intrinsic part of the spirit of Ramzan. The message here is clear; buying a particular brand of ceiling fan might not be exactly the same as performing a religious ritual, but it comes pretty close.

The religious tropes cynically deployed in these advertisements are accompanied by other narratives that serve to reinforce extant societal norms in Pakistan. Invariably, scenes of domestic bliss and harmony are depicted as being ones in which traditional gender roles are entrenched and visibly apparent, with wives, mothers, and daughters frantically, perhaps even heroically, working to get Iftar ready in time for the hungry men of the family, usually returning from a day full of manly activities like working in an office, playing sports, or sitting around on a sofa. The figure of the daughter-in-law is one that is, not surprisingly, accorded particular significance to in these scenarios, with acceptability and, indeed, desirability being equated to the possession of some very specific attributes; the ability to cook, the wearing of a dupatta, and complete and total acquiescence to the wishes of the husband’s family. The juxtaposition of these themes with the more overt religious imagery used in Ramzan simply serves to strengthen the notion that Pakistan’s patriarchal norms are not simply products of its culture and history and are, in fact, justified by Islam as well.

The irony, of course, is that the corporations behind these massive advertising campaigns really could not care less about the spiritual nourishment of their customers The only altar that they worship at is that of Mammon, and the only thoughts that trouble these titans of industry are those related to the decidedly worldlier question of generating ever greater amounts of profit. Towards that end, Islam and Ramzan offer themselves as convenient selling points, idioms that resonate with millions of potential consumers just waiting to be exploited across Pakistan. For their part, Pakistan’s more affluent citizens are more than willing to oblige, with the elite and middle class spending exorbitant amounts on extravagant evening feasts and, inevitably, on the orgy of ostentatious, conspicuous consumption that is Eid.

In a recent statement, the CEO of the Al Huda Centre of Islamic Banking and Economics has claimed that the entire Islamic banking and finance industry essentially exists to serve the interests of a small but incredibly wealthy proportion of the global Islamic population, and has done little to help the vast majority of Muslim worldwide who live in poverty. This should not come as a surprise to anyone; like the mainstream banking industry, the entire raison d’être of Islamic finance is to provide the rich with lucrative ways to make more money. Platitudes about charity aside, religion has rarely, if ever, stood in the way of accumulating greater amounts of wealth, and it has often been the case that religious individuals railing against the ‘moral’ decay of society have little to say when it comes to questions of inequality, poverty, and deprivation. In this context, Ramzan in Pakistan is no different; even as companies manipulate religious sentiment without compunction in their quest to sell more products, unscrupulous traders in markets across Pakistan have artificially inflated the prices of certain essential foodstuffs, using Ramzan as an excuse to squeeze even more profit out of people faced with little choice but to comply with their extortion. In a way, for the rich and poor alike, Ramzan is virtually indistinguishable from any other month; the former use it as a pretext to make more money while remaining immune from the insecurities associated with poverty, while the latter continue to starve, fasting out of necessity rather than choice as they scrape pennies together for their next meal.

It should be self-evident that there is something wrong when excessive consumption and the accumulation of wealth by a small minority proceeds unchecked amidst the persistence of widespread poverty and want. The contradiction should be even more apparent during Ramzan, ostensibly a time when the experience of hardship is meant to inculcate a greater sense of empathy with the less fortunate in society. Instead, the opposite seems to be the case. Amidst all the fasting and praying, and all the television programmes with hosts who suddenly seem to have found religion, little, if anything, is said about becoming a better, more ethical society by improving the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized. During Ramzan, an individual daring to consume food in public is met with mass opprobrium, but no sensibilities seem to be offended when people are seen begging for food on the street. It is completely and totally unacceptable for music to be played, but it is alright if Friday sermons are used to incite sectarian hatred. An woman dressed ‘inappropriately’ can become a source of tremendous consternation, but honour killings and domestic abuse are fine. More than anything else, Ramzan in Pakistan is an exercise in collective hypocrisy.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk