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Retail Ramazan

Updated July 21, 2014


The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

LAMENTS over the commodification of Ramazan are somewhat more pervasive this year than at any point in the past. This, quite naturally, flows from the fact that Ramazan in 2014 is considerably more lucrative, and much better advertised, than any previous instalment.

From billboards touting overpriced iftar and sehri buffets, and consumer products piously peddled through television sets, right down to Amir Liaquat’s satisfied, almost victorious smile lining Karachi’s Sharea Faisal and Saddar, it appears we’ve achieved a commercial highpoint unparalleled in Pakistan’s history.

The discomfort at such crass commercialism, expressed mostly by the relatively affluent (who also happen to be the newly spiritual), takes the shape of an oft-repeated ailment — ie one concerning the contamination of religious practices, and the general degradation in society’s moral standards.

Here’s how this particular opinion is rhetorically (and superficially) expressed:

Rampant commercialism in Ramazan is completely in line with the nature and history of Pakistan’s economic growth.

‘Elaborate pre- and post-iftar television extravaganzas, and cooking oil adverts invoking religious idiom, represent a widening gap between real religion and religion as it’s practised today. Our religion teaches us simplicity and clearly there’s nothing of that sort on the television or in our marketplaces this month. The past, however, was actually a simpler time. Hard choices like the one between a 60-item desi iftar buffet versus a 40-item one featuring prawn tempuras didn’t exist. Even the country was in much better shape. Thus many of Pakistan’s countless ills can be put down to a broken spiritual-moral compass.’

Such heartfelt complaining, it goes without saying, is largely subjective impulse being placed upon objective reality. Yes, Ramazan in the public sphere has become a largely commercial enterprise. By wedding television actors and hosts with (mildly) presentable religious figures and consumer products, it’s become a great source of earning for media houses and corporations alike. And if this onward march towards greater profits is anything to go by, there’s little chance of a reversion to the ‘simplicity’ of the past.

However, to trace our existing state of affairs down to spiritual deviation is quite illogical. In truth, the answer lies squarely in the material transformations that have taken place in the country over the past two decades. Not only is this rampant commercialism completely in line with the nature and history of Pakistan’s economic and social growth, those complaining loudest today have played a key, if not the biggest, role in its current shape and form.

For the past decade and a half, certain segments of society — primarily the affluent and upwardly mobile — have benefited from cheap credit, a liberal trade policy, and a rapidly expanding retail and wholesale sector. While everything else about the rickety economy stagnates, nosedives, and looks generally uneasy, expenditure on consumer and food products — from televisions to cooking oil — continues to rise unabated in real terms. Last year alone, the sector was worth $45 billion, accounting for more than 30pc of total spending in the country.

And it’s not just the upper classes getting in on this retail action. For every top-market item, local capitalists and Chinese imports cater to middle class and lower-middle class consumers. This is as true for household appliances as it is for fast-food restaurants.

Simply put, there are now enough people out there who are willing to buy their way to a happier life. It doesn’t matter if the proportion of the haves hasn’t actually risen compared to the have-nots over this very time period; 30pc of the country’s population still lives below the poverty line. All that matters now is that the buyers’ economy has absolute numbers on its side, and that the private media sphere is more than willing to facilitate its journey towards consumerist nirvana.

In tandem, and as is the case with other aspects of life in an overly ritualistic society, piety has become coupled with our yardstick of measuring product quality. So Islamic banking is preferable over regularly named banking; a particular mobile phone company is superior to others because it promises to send some lucky winners for Haj; a packet of crisps is worth purchasing because a popular religious icon participated in its ad campaign.

All three are concrete examples of how consumerism and the modern economy ride religious sentiment quite successfully. The overarching message, therefore, is no longer about the ethical quantity of consumption, but rather about the pious quality of consumption. Ramazan circa 2014 should be seen as simply a magnified example of all the trends from the last decade and a half squeezed together in a 30-day window. There’s great demand for consumer products, lots of different media platforms to showcase them on, and religious imagery to sell them with.

What is particularly ironic then is that those exhibiting discomfort at this commercialism completely fail to see their role in the maintenance of this entire consumerist order. It’s the newly spiritualised urban middle and upper classes that most vocally express their dismay at crumbling standards of devoutness. They are ones who continue to indulge in faux nostalgia of simpler times, where iftar was a quiet affair, and the television only showed one, largely sober channel. And yet they do all of this while spending money left, right, and centre on anything they can buy or eat, and on anything which has been deemed as religiously appropriate.

There is no contradiction between what we’re witnessing right now and how Pakistan has evolved economically, socially, and even spiritually as a country over these past couple of decades. In fact, it’s only fitting that a country calling itself an Islamic republic has reached its pinnacle of consumerist modernity in what is deemed as the holiest of months.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2014