This weekend, like many millions of Muslims around the world, I will be making my preparations for the Islamic month of Ramadan. The month's ethos is one of spirituality, centring around 30 days of fasting from dawn to dusk, during which time eating and drinking is prohibited. Food does, however, remain important throughout the month, and iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day, is a time for thankfulness, togetherness and sharing.
The natural result is that preparations include shopping for food to stock up cupboards in anticipation of delicious meals shared with friends and family. And so it is evident that even while trying to navigate the frugality of Ramadan, that Muslims, too, are consumers - people who hand over money in exchange for goods that meet their needs. I'm an advocate of the needs of Muslim shoppers being given as much attention and care as any other consumer. After all, Muslims need to buy products - including food. And their specific needs and aspirations are just as important as those of any other consumer. And the money of Muslim shoppers is just as good as any other money.
When it comes specifically to Ramadan, the commercial world has been quick to make money out of a seemingly untapped commercial opportunity. Already, TV soaps, produced to last the exact 30 days of Ramadan, are extremely popular and lucrative. And Eid has become an increasingly commercialised celebration, starting to head towards the same kind of gift-oriented festival that Christmas has become. Even in Britain, one of the demographic segments that Tesco's "World Foods" product line specifically targets is Muslims. In catchment areas with a sizeable Muslim population their stores carry well-laden "Ramadan" aisles. Is this is a helpful service by Tesco, being sensitive to the needs of its Muslim consumers and finally recognising their commercial worth, or is Tesco, like many companies and traders round the world, guilty of the commercial exploitation of the month of spirituality?
Has Ramadan become the ultimate brand to be exploited? And will companies do anything to get a share of this lucrative market? Roy Michel Haddad is the chairman and chief executive of the Middle East and North Africa region for JWT, a global advertising agency. He is clear in his mind that Muslim consumers are just as varied in their needs and aspirations as any other consumer. They just happen to be Muslim. In fact, in his opinion, "There is no Muslim consumer, just a consumer who we have to respond to his wants, needs and desires." He adds that anyone who looks at Muslims as a commercial opportunity must be wary of assumptions that Muslims can be blanket grouped together.
In Haddad's mind, however, there is one clear exception where all the vast diversity of Muslim consumers becomes unified - Ramadan. In fact, he asks provocatively, "Does the Muslim consumer exist beyond Ramadan?" And it's true that Ramadan is exceptionally unifying throughout a diverse Muslim world. There is a cohesiveness of purpose, timing, and behaviour, which rarely exists at any other time. You might be cynical and argue that using Tesco as an example of a company that sees Ramadan as a commercial opportunity is not relevant because it is a brand that is not Muslim, and therefore doesn't understand the communal and devotional spirit of Ramadan. Your cynicism might lead you to state that while such big brands as Tesco couch their products in the cuddly marketing language of "meeting customer needs" and "being sensitive to cultures and aspirations", at the end of the day they are just interested in growing their bottom line.
But what about those companies around the Muslim world that appear to be acting in far more exploitative ways? Earlier in July, Al-Riyadh, the Arabic newspaper, reported that two trading companies in Saudi Arabia had amassed stockpiles of key food stuffs. According to Khaled Al-Homaidan, an economic consultant, the aim was to "hoard essential commodities [and, thus] create an artificial price rise in the Saudi market in the coming weeks prior to Ramadan."
In Karachi, the prices of sugar, pulses, red chilli, and ghee have climbed ahead of a meeting between the government and wholesalers to fix rates for the month of Ramadan. Despite the fact that Qatar has ordered fixed prices for the second year running during Ramadan across 156 food and non-food items, the Peninsula newspaper reports that people fear that retailers may increase the rates of other commodities to make profits. In addition, they are concerned that prices will rise gradually before Ramadan to ensure that the frozen price is already high.
In Bangladesh, the commerce minister has asked MPs to keep a watchful eye on profiteering during Ramadan by monitoring how goods are distributed from the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh to local dealers. But the risk is that this simply gives politicians the power to decide which dealers gain access to stocks, which, of course, is not without its dangers of corruption. In the UAE, the Ministry of Economy is warning that it is consumers themselves who must be vigilant against price manipulation and hoarding. This is despite the fact that it has warned suppliers they will face legal action if the price of basic food items is raised.
That shoppers need to exert their commercial power is a constant theme across countries where companies and brands seem to be taking a profit-oriented approach to Ramadan. According to Al-Homaidan, the customer can play a decisive role in combating greedy traders. "Consumers should be more selective and should boycott products whose prices have increased exorbitantly," he said, adding that they must increase their vigilance in order to protect their rights and be careful not to become victims of such exploitation.
And people power is important in upholding the spirit of Ramadan. When the Malaysian tourism minister announced "the first ever Ramadan Summer Festival featuring food, shopping and other fun-filled activities" to attract Middle Eastern tourists, the Consumers' Association of Penang was "outraged", adding that Ramadan "is not a tourist product but a sacred month of spiritual enrichment". They called on the tourism ministry "not to worship tourist dollars".
There is certainly a line to be drawn between companies and brands truly serving the needs of Muslim consumers, and those that are out to exploit them. And this is a line that Muslim consumers themselves must patrol. Defeating commercial exploitation is about using the weapons that hurt commercial entities the most - by hitting their bottom line, by holding them to public account and by threatening the reputations on which their brands are built.
Only if Muslim consumers truly believe in the spiritual values of Ramadan and work hard to uphold them for at least this one month of the year, will such abuse come to an end. Otherwise Ramadan will become victim to the very exploitation and material obsession that it sets out to eradicate. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love In A Headscarf, and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk