Piety for profit
THE other day I somehow wandered into an Islamabad store which specialises in Islamic honey. I was curious: how might it be different from, say, Australian honey? Would honey with a religious flavour earn me spiritual points as well? Although the storekeepers handed me a glossy 20-page brochure in Urdu, which I read later, I found their answers quite unsatisfactory. Still, the range of their honeys did seem rather appetising.
I was about to open my wallet to buy some varieties when another product caught my eye: ' Islamic Nuts'. On the shelves were cans of various sizes, inscribed with Quranic verses. The listed contents included pecans and filberts. But hang on! How could pecans and filberts ever have grown in desert climes? No one in this large store knew either their Urdu or Arabic equivalents. Besides, I was aware that filberts are named after St Philbert, a French saint. It seemed so fishy that I left the store without buying anything.
But suppose I had indeed decided to buy honey and nuts. My choices for payment would have been two-fold. Apart from plain cash, I could have used my ordinary credit card. Else, my newer Sharia-compliant credit card. (To be honest, I really don't know why I have two. However, I do recall that the Sharia card salesperson visited me in my office two to three years ago. She was so persuasive and persistent that I surrendered to a second one from her bank.)
Today I use both pieces of plastic, sometimes randomly. What's the difference? With either I can purchase the same things or use an ATM. Plus, the Sharia-compliant one charges as much as the ordinary one. Most importantly, although the Sharia card refuses to call it interest, the annual rates charged by both banks are similar. After all, a bank is a bank. And banks exist to make profit, not dispense philanthropy.
The wilful use of Islam to sell products continues to reach astonishing new heights every year. When I heard of an ablution bottle that lets you 'Istinja like a Ninja', I first thought someone was pulling my leg. How utterly gross! But then it turned out that you can buy it from simplyislam.com in three colors - red, orange, and purple.
Business and commerce now freely use Islam as a brand name, a sit- uation that gets worse with the year. There are now Islamic potato chips, Islamic soaps, luxury prayer mats, and designer abayas with Swarovski crystals. Religious sensibilities are cleverly exploited - such as when a Geo TV anchor handed out abandoned babies to childless couples during Ramazan. The goal was clearly to increase viewership, ie feed crass commercialism and compulsive consumerism. Profit trumps decency and morality.
How have various religions judged commercialism and consumerism from ancient times to the present? In The Sin of Greed, theologian Sheila Harty makes an interesting comparative survey. She says that when religions define sin, they begin with offences against the sacred - idolatry or blasphemy. Next, they focus on offences against the commonweal - murder, adultery, theft, usury.
Harty notes that usury is the only business practice condemned by all religions, including Islam. The reason was a deeply moral one. Usury - charging interest on a loan - was once a killer. Lenders with plenty could easily extend loans to borrowers, usually those short of cash, until the next harvest. No loan meant that you might starve. Therefore the rich could thor- oughly exploit the poor.
But the 21st century is very different from the world of long ago. Survival is an issue today only for the very poor. On the other hand, the middle and upper classes live in a throwaway culture associated with greed, wastage and frivolous desires. Commercialisation, with advertising and marketing as its handmaidens, creates artificial wants. In this situation does usury still deserve to be called the greatest of sins? Or has it been overtaken by other sins so great that they now threaten life on this planet?
My friend John Avery, a professor of chemistry in Denmark, has a recent book on the new sins. He explicitly spells out how unbridled consumption imperils human civilisation and the world's environment - perhaps irreversibly. Economies are obsessed with achieving a "never-ending exponential growth on a finite planet", a result of American-style capitalism having invented a culture of desire that confuses the good life with goods. Goods require use of polluting resources such as fossil fuels and minerals. But, from a broader world perspective, this is unsustainable.
The rush to consume fuels the modern banking system. Every bank wants people to own more cars and more material goods. Its activities are shrouded in the technical language of finance - derivative products, equity swaps, adjustable mortgages, etc. No one, including top financial experts, can figure out how much usury occurs in such a complex system where everything is interconnected. Sharia-compliant banking has added to the confusion with its particular terminologies. But profit is the real god.
Inequality is built into the guts of this system; the veneer of morality is paper thin. If the owners and managers of the Islamic banks were genuinely moral people and concerned about sin, wouldn't they pay themselves less? The lowest paid bank employee in a Pakistani bank - whether a Shariacompliant one or otherwise - makes between 100-1,000 times less than his CEO, for whom a seven-digit monthly salary is perfectly normal.
To conclude: commercialised piety now rakes in profits, reducing religion and spirituality to business. It's time to get priorities right.