Has religion become Pakistan’s hottest-selling commercial commodity?

June 19, 2016

As Ramazan approaches, a myriad of channels hop onto the game show bandwagon to sell religion for ratings

Has religion become Pakistan’s hottest-selling commercial commodity?

Though a month full of blessings, Ramazan unfortunately did not begin on a blissful note this year as more than a handful of Pakistanis unleashed the devil within them, enshrouding the country in disgust and despair, once again. Undignified behaviour by clerics and politicians alike, discrimination and abuse against non-Muslims as well as women, assault of a minor and murder made for only some of the news on national media within just the first 10 days of Ramazan, literally ripping the spirit and essence of the Holy month into shreds. However, while all of these instances sparked outrage on social media, leading to heated debates or perhaps what should be called online slacktivism, a chunk of the country’s audience was reveling in the live telecast of scenes no less harrowing.

Like every year, this year is also witnessing a slew of Ramazan-specific TV shows and televangelists flood our screens starting from 3pm and lasting till 9pm at night. These shows that are dubbed as a mix of entertainment and piety rely more on horseplay than on imparting knowledge that can help promote peace, good will and humanity. Although it was not long ago that musician-turned-preacher Junaid Jamshed defended the format, telling AFP "this is what Islam is. The essence of every religion is to make people happy and to help people", it’s extremely difficult to embrace the little glimpse of charity in the face of over-commercialized entertainment and buffoonery.

This year was no different. While gifts were handed, apologies were made for last year’s antics and the very first rozas of a group of kids were celebrated in front of the entire nation watching, farce and gimmickry took center stage. Whether it was a bunch of housewives shoving their faces in dripping, creamy dessert or clucking like mother hens, or a self-proclaimed religious icon pretending to be a puppy dancing to the tunes of a woman singing live or the once controversial park patroller turning the entire stage into a scene from Fear Factor, no opportunity was left to ridicule people on national television in return for a freebie. Often lurking in the background are a couple of religious scholars from various sects giving their two cents every now and then but by and large, giving into the mockery that is made out of religion and in the name of religion. Yet audiences continue to tune into these on a daily basis, making them a hit and paving way for a rat race on ratings. Apparently calls and messages by those watching the show keep coming round the clock and go up to thousands in numbers.

This isn’t, however, all that is wrong with Ramazan shows. With the onset of the month, one also witnesses a sudden spiritual makeover of celebrities that host the shows. Actors and musicians put their artistic skills on the backburner to embrace ‘piety’ via zardozi-worked, embossed sherwanis and mandatory beards; actresses who are usually vocal about "hijab as a symbol of oppression" suddenly find respect and solace in covering their heads with a dupatta; they go from ‘tutti fruity’ to tableegh, quite literally. This physical depiction of Islamic devotion signifies nothing but blatant hypocrisy towards not just our religion but one’s own beliefs. If ‘liberalism’ is what one is fighting for all year round then what’s the sudden need to succumb to the rat race for only an hour of screen time. These celebrities are most definitely not seen in the same attire either before or after the show.

In short, religion and religious teachings are used less to inform audiences of the significance of Ramazan or to simply highlight that charity is also an act of faith, and more to generate headlines, exploit needs and inculcate greed. Some effort is made to ensure that these transmissions come across as intellectual by formatting them as a game show, but the kind of questions that are asked, or the sporting tricks that are used, do nothing but add to the dumbing down of the audience. If you’ve failed to complete the absurdly simple task, a few tears, persistent requests and a spoonful of buttering that puffs up the celebrity’s already larger-than-life ego will definitely help you win that brand-sponsored motorbike. Other times you would either be asked to shut up or will be made a fool out of by the host for viewers at home to enjoy a few minutes of comic relief or shoved aside by one of his or her many chaperones.

In the plethora of shows that continue to violate media and social ethics using religion as a cover, a certain social media activist and actor has chosen a saner path by inviting not just scholars but socially responsible celebrities and philanthropists to discuss and debate cultural issues. His bold stance on certain religious topics, however, hasn’t kept controversy far away, as is always the case with him, but he perhaps offers a more balanced, mature and welcome format for Ramazan shows. Whether he, too, succumbs to the prevalent desire for ratings remains to be seen.

It is ironic that while on one end Muslims all over the world are desperately defending their religion and trying to put out a more positive image, on the other hand Pakistanis are busy lampooning religion in extravagant set-ups where microwave raffles and moronic stunts are combined with prayer. Is this the kind of public image we want as a nation? Are these the kind of shows we want as anecdotes for Pakistani culture and media abroad? These shows, rampant in hypocrisy and without an ounce of religious spirit reflected, are nothing but moneymaking machines for media conglomerates. Either the channel gurus must realize that there is no room for capitalism in religion or the audience needs to be more intelligent and speak up.
Otherwise the broadcasting marathon will continue year after year, only pushing the people, genuinely interested in learning, away from religion.


Has religion become Pakistan’s hottest-selling commercial commodity?