It’s a wonderful transformation; one to rival the great metamorphosis found in nature. Like a butterfly emerging gracefully out of its cocoon at the changing of the seasons, as Ramzan rolls around the Pakistani media personnel get a dramatic makeover – the dresses get traditional, the smiles get humbler and the accents get Arabic. For the holy month of Ramzan brings with it a spiritual, and thoroughly economic, bonanza; the Ramzan special, and no one wants to be left behind by the gravy (hummus?) train. Designed to provide solutions to religious questions and be a spiritual guide, the show too, has transformed into a all-encompassing entity; a cross between a concert, a talent show, a game show and other genres of family entertainment, spliced with a healthy dose of pseudo-science, home economy lectures and insult based humour, which is all washed over with the most blatant product placement. It spans many genres and taps many audiences. The show, which brings a huge jump in ratings and product sales, is so profitable that in race not to be left behind, media channels have even dropped the veneer of religion – now it only exists skin deep.

The purpose of this observation is not to criticise this ‘corruption’ of religion and argue for a more fundamental version; it is to illustrate a fact that the Pakistani government has long ignored; religion or more specifically, the job of catering to peoples religious needs, has become a rip roaring business. And by ignoring this fact we treat every religious enterprise as holy – untouchable, unquestionable. Of course, it is still subject to condemnation for not being the right kinds of holy, but religious enterprises usually escape standardised regulations and procedural checks, as the government is too timid to peer beyond the facade of religion.

A quick glance at the countless Ramzan shows on air will make it fairly obvious that, as opposed to genuine and researched spiritual guidance, the driving force behind these programmes is economic advancement, pure and simple. In one memorable transmission that I saw, the wall behind the religious experts was littered with products displaying loud brands, while bright beverages –still in their retail containers – sat in front of the guests. The contrast is vivid – one cleric was sitting right next to a pink shopping bag that said ‘Fabulous’ in capital letters. As the show started, the first caller prefaced his religious query by saying that he would really like to be given a new mobile, stressing that was a regular caller. Of course, it wasn’t that easy, first he had to answer a trivia question about Islam; which the presenter diligently read out in his best “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” voice. When the caller – as luck would have it – got the answer wrong, he asked if he could be given the phone anyway. To which the visibly bemused presenter said, “If we started giving phones out like that we would soon run out, we get countless calls for free stuff even after the show is long over”; unwittingly confessing the fact that should be obvious. Every component of the transmission, the channel, the brands, the cleric, the guests and the audience, everyone is motivated by economic incentive. Naked economic incentive. All the hallmarks are present; good looking men and women, the right innuendoes, the latest clothing trends, jingles, catchphrases, gimmicks and the occasional scandal that plays on the nations shock to rake in publicity - of which our (fake) doctor, Amir Liaqat, is a sublime master.

When at long last you see Quranic ayats sponsored by telecom companies, milk product boasting ‘special Ramzan compatibility, or restaurants using religion as a suffix to make sales – literally; advertising ‘(W)holy feasts’, you should realise that this business of the faith is real, and it is not restricted to television shows – that is only the tip of the iceberg, the most visible and the easily critiqued. The real religious economy is hidden from the public viewing, practiced by a sprawling international network of mosques, madrassas, seminaries, charity organisations, and aid givers – with the sporadic Youtube evangelist, saint and errant Pir thrown in. If the men and women in these Ramzan Shows are so obviously faking piety to make money why do we assume that clerics and preachers don’t? They make millions in terms of fees, sales of religious paraphernalia, donations, land grants and tax reliefs; and the fruits of these labours can be witnessed in posh Lahore and Karachi neighbourhoods, in the form of opulent mansions and powerful cars. Pockets stuffed to bursting with cash skimmed from the miseries of the poor and the fashions of the rich all disappear behind that green shroud, that lustrous beard, and the crumbling door.

For those in the know, this is common knowledge, but in large parts of the populace and in the corridors of government this fact is not recognised. True recognition of this fact would mean that religious enterprises would be subjected to the same checks and balances as other economic enterprises, and their transgressions should be treated with equal legal punishment. Yet the government continues to appraise such institutions with a separate ‘holy’ standard. For example, of the 492 mosques within the municipal limits of the Capital Development Authority (CDA), 233, or 47 per cent, are illegal; built on state land along seasonal nullahs, right of way of major roads, and land snatched from private and CDA owned properly. Yet the government’s crackdown on these land-grabbers is stunted by moral deliberations on whether it is ethical to demolish a mosque or not.

Organizations like Lashker-e-Jhangvi annually collects animal skins after Eid-ul-Aza from all over Punjab, yet this extortion is overlooked by the authorities since it all ostensibly goes to religious ‘charities’. Similarly, the National Action Plan (NAP), which was written in the aftermath of the terrible Peshawar Massacre, mandates that all seminaries must be monitored, their finances be made transparent and their syllabuses updated to match the modern world; yet the plans to do that have run in to a brick wall after a token confrontation by the seminary boards and their overarching organisation, the Wafaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia, Pakistan. They refuse reasonable demands, refuse to attend meetings with the government and threaten street agitation if action is taken against their wishes, while the government balks at the challenge; perhaps fearing a backlash, or perhaps simply buying into the religious outrage. Whatever the cause, the government is failing to complete important policy objectives because religious enterprises refuse to be treated like normal economic enterprises, and the government sees a justification for that when there is none. Such a hands-off approach allowed extremism to fester in our religious institutes in the past, and such a timid approach would undo the present counter-terrorist effort too. If the common soldier can risk his life fighting the Taliban in the tribal belt, the government can risk the favour of a handful of potential voters.

This is in no way to say that sincere religious institutes or personalities do not exist at all – they do, and they help countless people deal with their fears and anxieties on a daily basis. Nor does this piece advocate any censor or restriction on any sort of religious enterprises. Distasteful as these Ramzan shows may be, we cannot begrudge a business its novel marketing opportunities, just as we can’t dictate what audiences should derive entertainment from; a libertarian outlook demands this of us. This cannot be repeated enough. It only advocates that realisation that religious enterprises are hugely profitable, and often shamelessly exploitative business models; and being so must be treated accordingly. It is time to look beyond the immaculately pious guest celebrities and fashionably soft-spoken presenters, only then can we find the wolves disguised as holy cows.