Forceful Observance of Ramadan and its Commercial Exploitation: Is it Serving Any Purpose?

By Raza Habib

Ramadan has arrived and all of us are witnessing bombardment of corporate advertisements which try to capitalize on the reverence of the month. In fact the most paradoxical nature of religion in our society is often witnessed through the way advertisements transform into “holy” form from their urban yuppie pre Ramadan look. Female models suddenly discover “chaddar” and their male counterparts are seen wearing religious caps while holding tasbeehs.

This month, particularly the way it is “celebrated” in our part of the land becomes more of a forceful imposition of religion by the state and petty commercial exploitation by the corporate sector rather than a month of self sacrifice. The spirit of Ramadan is to feel the pain of those who are less privileged and acting to help them rather than this strange forceful imposition of religion by the state and its commercial exploitation by the corporate.

I personally believe that Ramadan should not be imposed the way it is in Pakistan. Religion is a matter between God and individual and observation of Ramadan by same logic should be at the individual level not the way it is literally enforced. This forceful observation which bans public consumption of food coupled with exaltation of the religion through all the medium of communication merely ends up reinforcing rather hypocritical reverence of religion.

This reverence which is actually not built upon deep faith but on unquestionable acceptance of everything associated with religion has made it extremely difficult for the society to reform and reinterpret religion. I have previously also pointed out that misdirected glorification of religion merely makes the society completely impotent to challenge anything in the name of religion. Pakistan is not a radical society and yet due to this cultivation of reverence of religion, which is at its peak during Ramadan, it finds itself in a quagmire. This reverence has made clergy more powerful than they actually are. Pakistani society is thus unable to challenge or protest anything, if it is successfully imposed in the name of religion.

Black laws like Anti Blasphemy  and Hadood Ordinances despite not having implemented through the legislative process are firmly entrenched because no Party wants to  invoke wrath of the hardliners and be branded as anti Islamic. The general populace is also afraid to raise any voice despite knowing that these laws are in fact against the real spirit of the religion itself. Reverence and unquestionable attributes of the religion makes it impossible to even start a debate.

Of course glorification of religion is also thwarting the emergence of a pluralistic and tolerant society. For the past 63 years the state has used religion as an ideological tool to subdue the ethnic diversity in the country. It has assumed that forceful imposition and insistent glorification of religion would ensure that ethnic and linguistic identities won’t be able to gain momentum and seek more autonomy. Unfortunately this also has proven to be counterproductive and denial of autonomy has actually manifested in armed separatist movement in provinces like Baluchistan.

Glorification of religion by state and media has also cultivated this strong state of denial in the Muslim population where they find it impossible to believe that a Muslim can be behind any terrorist activity. A mindset has developed which assumes that due to belief  in Islam, Muslims are superior in virtue and therefore incapable of anything as hideous as suicide bombing. This state of denial has nurtured this conspiracy theory culture and has strengthened the terrorists as their hideous crimes, instead of being hated, are conveniently blamed on the foreign powers.

Every year this reverence and fear of religion is reinforced in Ramadan. Moreover, the corporate interests have made whipping up of religious reverence and fervor a routine practice in Ramadan which in turn has further strengthened clergy and the state’s ideological emphasis on religion.  Additionally since observation of Ramadan is forced by state and is backed its coercive power, the instruments of coercion such as police are further encouraged to abuse power at the grass root level.

As the time passes, we are getting even more stuck in this quagmire. Private sector has in fact joined state and is glorifying the role of religion. This glorification by the corporate which emanates out of petty commercial interests is merely compounding the problem and ensuring the status quo. Frankly due to these reasons the forceful observance and glorification of Ramadan is proving to be regressive.

16 Comments

Filed under Islam, Multinational Corporations, Pakistan

16 responses to “Forceful Observance of Ramadan and its Commercial Exploitation: Is it Serving Any Purpose?

  1. AA khalid

    I think this article summarises in many ways the conflation of the public sphere with the State.

    I agree the State should remain neutral and refrain from entering into religious affairs, I need the State to be objectively secular (soft secularism) to be a good adherent of a faith or be true to my own personal convictions and beliefs out of my own initiative, free will and moral autonomy.

    But in the public sphere, in terms of social institutions, forums, organizations and bo
    dies I do not think that in a religious society we can do much about this. The public sphere in terms of the media, the corporate sector will inevitably take on a religious flavour as society itself is religious. I am not saying this is a good thing, a bad thing but this is positivist and empirical assessement.

    The public sphere which is distinct and independent of the State will cater to the tastes, convictions and beliefs of its citizens. It will be shaped by the dominant cultural-religious traditions of a society. That is for better or worse the reality.

    I think conceptually and sociologically speaking, the term ”religion” as used in the article makes little sense. When we speak of religion do we talk of normative texts, doctrines, spirituality, the actions of the adherents, the historical tradition, the psychologicla mindset, I mean what are we talking about?

    Religious symbols and ritual will always remain present and visible in the public sphere whether the State itself is secular or not. Hence since these religious symbols and rituals are present in the public sphere we have to engage these phenomena rather than ignore them.

    I prefer to speak in terms of religiosities and religious behaviour of adherents in distinction from the religion as a set of doctrines and texts. Yes in Pakistan we have a type of religiosity prevailing which needs to be reformed.

    Many articles have been written on the subject in recent weeks in fact. Read (just google):

    ”Letters Concerning Toleration” (Parts I and II) – Daily Times

    And another by the present author himself I believe:
    ”How Reluctance to Debate Religion Has Resulted in a Total Quagmire” (PTH) (where I agreed with the central thesis of the article)

    The State should be de-confessionalised so to speak because this is needed.

    But beyond this in terms of the way our media, corporate advertisements, cultural reference and so on are shaped, this is an organic process which inevitable reflects the mindset and attitudes of a society. To reform this we need to go beyond state control and abandon this crass idea of an authoratarian secularism which is counter-productive to republican democracy which is a far more important ideal.

    If the media, corporate sector and son wish to capitalise on the current religiosity of the general public then there is little coercion we can exercise to prevent this happening. Yes the State should be de-confessionalised, and be secular but in the public sphere we can only debate, reason and be critical.

    A ”top down” secularism so to speak will not work, but a ”bottom up” secularism, borne out of civic debate, active engagement with the religious traditions and through the medium of public reason and discussion can bear fruit. (In the context of a religious society).

  2. Raza Raja

    @ A A Khalid

    Sir i am not suggesting that private sector is wilfully supporting state. You are right that commercial interests are solely commercial and would try to capitalize the existing trends.
    The society is religous particularly in Ramadan and therefore corporate would “adjust” accordingly during the month. To that I agree. The article actually tried to highlight the negative consequence of this behaviour as it reinforces the reverence of religion through media.
    Actually as the title suggests, the article has tried to tackle both state (which forcefully enforces observence) and the corporate interests which exploit the existing fervour and in process further strengthen it.
    The relationship between the two is not strictly wilfully supportive

  3. AA khalid

    ”The society is religous particularly in Ramadan and therefore corporate would “adjust” accordingly during the month. To that I agree. The article actually tried to highlight the negative consequence of this behaviour as it reinforces the reverence of religion through media.”

    I am completely agreed with your point about the State enforcing observance rather than allow its citizens to exercise their free will.

    But if some individuals wish to change their religiosity according to the time of year and to coincide with religious festivals and events that is their decision to do so.

    Can we establish a causal link between this event and the ”reverence of religion in the media”? I do not think so. I would not see the reverence of religion as a problem, since this is a vague description. We need to be more precise. I would see the media proliferating dogmatism, obscurantism and a religiosity which is very exclusive and is resistant to critical discussion and introspection, through columnists and social commentary as problematic.

    I think your point about critical discussion of religious issues does not have a causal link with religious adherence which is what Ramadhan is about. Ramadhan is primarily from the stand point of moral agency when Muslims wilfully undertake fasting. How does this foster a mentality of dogmatism?

    I have chosen to fast this Ramadhan out of my own choice but as till now it has not affected my way of thinking. This is a curious, dubious link which I think does not stick.

    However, your point (even though your analysis of its causes are mistaken in my opinion) about a obscurant and dogmatic atmosphere in discussion of religious issues, where there is little critical thought, rigorous debate and analysis is absolutely valid and astute.

    I think there are other causes for the current state of the religious discourse in Pakistan, hence I think your characterisation about the the phenomenon of Ramadhan (as seen in the public sphere)contributing to this impoverished, sterile and dogmatic discourse of religious discussion is mistaken.

  4. Raza Raja

    I am not suggesting a causal link between individuals choice of religousity in one month and what happens in media. My central point was that the atmosphere during ramadan due to over glorification of religion merely increases its reverence and therefore makes it even more difficult to debate.
    Of course the commercial aspect emerges because a thing is already in existence but in the process it strengthens it. Obviously whereas I can argue that state should not force people to observe, i can not argue in the same way that media should not glorify and exploit the religous fervour. Media and corporate by design are merely catching an existing fervour but in the process are further strenghening it. However I have merely pointed out its negative effects.
    You are right that two things are not the same and I am also not claiming that they are. But Ramadan features both these things and both have their negative effects, the article does not try to link these two but tries to analyse the effect of each

  5. AA khalid

    ”My central point was that the atmosphere during ramadan due to over glorification of religion merely increases its reverence and therefore makes it even more difficult to debate.”

    I think this is an empirical and frankly unstoppable phenomenon. Ramadhan is a month intended to be of spirituality hence any suggestion of introducing cold hard reason into religious discussion at this time is not advised. This happens in all religious festivals.

    The question is why is there not a critical discussion on religious affairs in the other 11 months of the year? Why? Ramadhan has nothing to do with this, there are other factors.

    The advent of Ramadhan in my view is so to speak the culmination of the general trend of religiosity in a society. If a society’s general religiosity is inclined towards pluralism, discussion and debate then the time of Ramadhan can be a time of being faithful but also being critical of our own conceptions of faith and its associative issues. And vice versa.

    I do not think ”Ramadhan” is an autonomous event independent of a society’s religious conceptions, it is rather a cumulation of them. Hence a confusion of cause and effect has arisen. Ramadhan is not a cause its an effect.

    The type of religiosity we see in Pakistan today is not because of religious festivals but has its roots in other factors.

  6. Tilsim

    @ Raza Raja

    I agree with you that the atmosphere gets markedly more reverential in Ramzan. However as far as it being more difficult to debate, I am not so sure.

    It’s actually during this time, that we see more religious discussion with our friends and family. Ramzan is about increasing one’s self discipline and being closer to God and away from worldly affairs. It is the perfect time to remind everyone that political Islam is about an excessive focus on worldly affairs. We need to rest back it’s spirituality and personal connection like we experience during Ramzan for the rest of the year. We should use this time to remind people to shed the power hungry authoritarian version of the religion that is espoused by Mullahs and extremists.

  7. Raza Raja

    I am not suggesting at all that Ramadan is the sole “cause” or even the intial cause. However, the way it is celebrated adds to the overall religous fervour and reverence.
    obviously lack of discourse has many many reasons. In no way i am suggesting that it is solely due to the way Ramadan is celebrated here.
    The central thrust was to point out the contribution of this way of celebration and observance to various variables and lack of discourse is just one of them.
    In social sciences, particularly of this type, it would be extremely diffcult to “isolate” the effect of Ramadan’s celebration on a complex variable such as lack of discourse.

  8. Raza Raja

    @Tilsim

    I agree with you that it SHOULD be like that. But mostly at our part it does not happen like that. Principally you are totally right that Ramadan should be observed in that spirit.

  9. NSA

    Came across this:

    “Q: There can be no religion without words.

    M: Recorded religions are mere heaps of verbiage. Religions show their true face in action, in silent action. To know what man believes, watch how he acts. For most of the people service of their bodies and their minds is their religion. They may have religious ideas, but they do not act on them. They play with them, they are often very fond of them, but they will not act on them.”

  10. BzM

    Yes, nothing sells more cheaply then religion. Most people that advocate this holier than thou attitude during The Holy Month change so quickly to what they were before when it is over. And far as Pakistan is concerned; it has done an egregious job with the institution of Religion [yes, Religion in Pakistan has become an institution although it seems to permeates all social and cultural interactions].

  11. Furst

    Is it Ramadan or Ramzan?

  12. @Furst

    Depends on whether you say Gazzafi or Gaddafi, muezzin or mueddhin.

    That original Arabic language letter and its sound translates as intermediate between ‘d’ and ‘z’.

  13. Bilal Ahmad

    As nation despite of negating moral teachings of religion, we love to pretend as religious as we can. It just shows our hypocrisy as a nation.

  14. Israr

    حی علی الصلوت
    Buy Dalada Go to heaven

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