September 1, 2009

Ramadan Commercialized

An OLD but great article that resonates with my Ramadan experience last year in U.A.E. and Oman. Is this not the inevitable by-product of the Emirates wholehearted embrace of global capitalism? What about countries like Iran and Syria? I would imagine this is primarily an urban phenomenon.

The new Ramadan: It's beginning to look a lot like...
By Hassan M. Fattah
Published: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The decorations are hanging, the cash registers are clanging and the air of holiday cheer is everywhere. For a holy month, Ramadan, circa 2005, is nothing like it used to be.

Once an ascetic month of fasting, prayer and reflection on God, Ramadan has gradually taken on the commercial trappings of Christmas and Hannukah, straight from the hanging lights that festoon windows to the Ramadan greeting cards and Ramadan sales and advertising campaigns that have become the backbone of commerce for the holy month.

Marketers and businesses have caught on to the potential of 1.3 billion people at home fasting or breaking their daily fasts and getting back to normal life - a captive audience eager for entertainment and celebration, and more than willing to feast when the sun goes down.

Here in Dubai, the region's uber-mall, commercialism has taken on a life of its own as almost everything has been dressed in the cloak of Ramadan, straight from the sale of consumer goods to the sales of cars.

Dubai malls are open till the early morning, and the nights rock away at dinner parties in desert tents.

"Ramadan is changing from a religious month to a cultural or social event," said Mohammed el-Kuwaiz, a Saudi management consultant based in Dubai.

"You're using faith to commercialize something else," he continued. "It doesn't feel right."

Sheik Ahmed Abdelaziz Haddad, grand mufti of Dubai's Islamic Affairs Department, puts it even more succinctly.

"The problem isn't that people are trading and doing business," he said. "It's that people have taken this month to be a month of shopping."

Ramadan, which occurs during the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, is considered the holiest month of the year, a time of fasting, family and reflection.

It is during this month, Muslims believe, that the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations of the Koran from the angel Gabriel.Since then,Muslims have been ordered to forgo food, water and other worldly pleasures during daytime for the entire month as a pillar of their faith, a sacrifice to show they have not forgotten God.

The fast begins at dawn and lasts until sundown, with special prayers in the evenings in an air of heightened spirituality and meditation.

But walk through many Arab cities this month, and the spirit may also move you to buy, buy and buy some more.

In Egypt, hotels and restaurants advertise Ramadan feasts while an advertising sweepstakes calls on people to read all 30 days of ads to win a prize.

In Beirut, worshipers hang colored lights that say "Ramadan Kareem," or blessed Ramadan. A Mercedes ad in a Dubai newspaper plays on the theme of the crescent, a common Islamic symbol: "Welcome Ramadan with a visit to Gargash Enterprises and you'll soon be feeling over the moon."

In Cairo, companies and political candidates campaigning for parliamentary elections next month gave out traditional Ramadan lanterns emblazoned with their names and company logos.

A shopping mall in Dubai even features a Ramadan display with an uncanny resemblance to a nativity scene, complete with moving camels, a village elder reading stories and a desert scene.

And a huge sign outside another mall touts its "Spend & Win" promotion: "Ramadan Kareem. Win Dhs. 1 million and enjoy shopping until 1 a.m." That's about $275,000 in the local currency, dirhams.

For advertisers, Ramadan is like a 30-day Super Bowl weekend, where television channels broadcast their best programming and competitors jostle for market share.

Some brands spend as much as half their advertising budget in this month alone. With those kinds of resources being brought to bear, it may be no wonder that many people are troubled by the creeping commercialism.

"It is supposed to be about spirituality, but it drives me crazy that it is all about food and banquets," said Naglaa Abdel Fattah, 30, a secretary in Cairo.

"I do not feel the spirit of Ramadan anymore. I call my friend and all she talks about is the 10 dishes her family is preparing for iftar," when the fast is broken. "This is extravagant."

On the second day of Ramadan, Haddad, the Dubai mufti, beseeched Muslims in a written note to take the month more seriously.

"A Muslim who is focused on the worldly trade will miss the benefits he could get in the hereafter," he said. "What we see happening today in the commercialism of Ramadan is caused by Muslim ignorance of what is required of them to benefit their souls.

"God defined this month to save them and to protect their souls."

But even he admitted he is facing an uphill battle.

A special program in Dubai called "Dubai, the city that cares" offers a different twist, donating half the proceeds of a million-dirham raffle to local and international charities. "It's not something bad to have increased shopping in Ramadan," said Mohammed Mahgoub, a commercial adviser for the campaign.

The more people buy, he says, the more they share. "If you buy a lot of food, you try to invite a lot of people, which is one of the aims of Ramadan, of people coming together."

Nada el Sawy contributed reporting from Dubai and Abeer Allam from Cairo.


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