It is that time of the year again. In the middle of June, with temperatures soaring and most parts of Pakistan feeling like the seventh circle of Hell, large swathes of the population will now forego food and drink for a month. Ramzan has begun and has brought with it the usual onslaught of empty religious rhetoric and cynical corporate opportunism. Across the length and breadth of the Land of the Pure, superficial religious fervour has already begun to serve as a cover for the continuation of business as usual, with the arrival of this holiest of months doing little to alter the country’s daily litany of oppression, violence, and injustice.

The sighting of the Ramzan moon every year (itself an event marked by utterly needless and unnecessary confusion and controversy) brings with it an instant transformation. Prayer mats are unfurled, solemn vows of abstinence are intoned, and the cities of Pakistan resound with pledges to be more humble, mindful, and charitable. At the crack of dawn, having stuffed themselves full of all manner of oily delights, millions will then fall into a quasi-drunken stupor; those who can will sleep till noon (or beyond) while those who cannot will grudgingly and reluctantly rouse themselves to halfheartedly undertake their daily responsibilities. Several listless hours later, in which very little work will have been attempted and even less will have been accomplished, the real fun begins. As soon as the first syllable leaves the muezzin’s mouth, famished hordes descend upon their evening repast, engaging in an obscene culinary orgy that often lasts for the better part of the night. Undoubtedly, many would cry tears of joy and sing songs of praise at this time if doing so would not detract from shoving another delectable deep-fried morsel down their throats.

The cycle continues for a month, ad nauseam (literally). Feasts in the morning, followed by a day spent constructively sleeping or pretending to work, capped off by another feast in the evening and some more sleeping. All of this is interspersed with the occasional bout of worship and the aural assaults launched by different corporations using Ramzan as a pretext to unleash a wave of advertising equating religiosity and spiritual salvation with the latest ceiling fans and cooking oils. It is ironic that a month ostensibly meant to be about hardship and restraint has, instead, come to symbolise nothing more than excessive, conspicuous consumption in both a material and spiritual sense. Expensive iftaris, sanctimonious references to Quran classes attended and mosques visited, and an unending stream of self-pity and perceived victimhood stemming from temporary privation, all indicate a desire to display just how much a person is doing to be closer to God. By extension, it is implied that those who do not do this, or go through the same experiences, are somehow unworthy.

This all might seem irritating but ultimately harmless except for the way in which it serves as a demonstration of a fallacy that has long shaped the public discourse in Pakistan, namely that perceived piety and religiosity are indicative of more general goodness and moral strength. That this belief is patently false is not difficult to demonstrate. After all, it is often those who claim to be acting in the name of religion, and indeed for religion, that have unleashed the routine violence that has become a sad fact of life in Pakistan. Even where there is no explicit violence, it is all too easy to encounter people preaching hate in the streets of this country, using their pulpits and their sermons to unleash yet more tirades against everything that deviates from their own parochial worldview. All the praying and fasting in the world does not seem to prevent these individuals from consistently and systematically attempting to further erode the rights and curtail the freedoms of those who are already disadvantaged in Pakistan – minorities, women, and any who do not conform to an increasingly narrow religious orthodoxy.

The problem does not, however, end there. While it is easy to target and castigate the usual suspects – sectarian organizations, vitriolic preachers, and their ilk – we would do well to reflect on the other forms of hypocrisy that define the Ramzan experience. Every year, it becomes increasingly clear that the manifest emphasis on consumption and consumerism, as well as the desire to score more religious points through acts of worship, both signify an almost selfish desire to gratify and sate individual needs with little regard for the welfare of the broader community. In the mad rush to pray and eat as much as possible, too many people start to believe that their own comfort, as well as their own salvation, trumps any broader concerns for society.

One of the best illustrations of this comes from the debate on the budget that has been proposed by the federal government. In a situation where the allocation for health is a paltry Rs. 20.88 billion (amounting to just Rs. 116 per person) and education is receiving just Rs. 71.5 billion (which is Rs. 397 per person), the most surprising thing is just how little protest there has been against this state of affairs. For all the lip-service that is paid to charity and giving in Ramzan, the fact remains that there is virtually no interest in taking the kinds of meaningful collective action that could improve the lives of the multitudes who continue to lead lives of poverty and deprivation in Pakistan. Charity is no replacement for effective, pro-poor public policy but, as attitudes in Ramzan amply show, there is greater appetite for the former because of the belief that it is a ‘pious’ act with a tangible reward in the hereafter.

People commenting on Ramzan often argue that Pakistan (and presumably other parts of the world) would be better off if the ‘spirit’ displayed in this month were to animate peoples’ actions throughout the year. However, in a context where conceptions of piety and goodness seem to be completely and totally divorced from notions of collective welfare, it is difficult to see why this would be the case. If religious practice and morality are to simply be about personal empowerment and success, devoid of any ethical concern for the community, or if they are to be employed as tools through which to subjugate and persecute the weak and the powerless, then serious questions need to be raised about the nature of religious practice and morality as they are understood in contemporary Pakistan.