Ramadan: To fast or not to fast

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By Elif Kayi

Opinion. In the past week weeks EMAJ Magazine has tried to present various aspects of Ramadan: Personal experiences, economic and social trends, cultural specificities. EMAJ published i.e. the testimony of a young Egyptian who declared being revolted by the “consumption excesses” during the period of Ramadan nowadays. We also read about the difficulties for Muslims in Western countries to observe the fasting and find halal products.

These are important testimonies, especially for people who are not aware of the practice and lack of knowledge about it. At the end most people would agree with Ramadan being presented as an important religious prescription, as well as with the strong traditional and familial component linked with the fasting period. The right for a Muslim to practice his or her religious duties and observe the Ramadan does not seem to be put into question. But let us try and return the mirror and ask something that may sound provocative for some people: Should the personal decision of non-fasting also be considered as a right?

Now the question entails different layers: The right of a citizen, the right of the member of a religion, the right of an individual.

Let us start with the more obvious part, when it comes to imbrications between State and religion, with the example of Morocco. The article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code states that “any person known for his/her affiliation with Islam, who ostensibly breaks the fast in public during Ramadan is punishable by one to six months imprisonment and a fine.” The fine is about the equivalent of 100 euro. Well, some people would find this right or comment that this is no surprise: Morocco is indeed known as a “Muslim country”. Which can be considered as “correct” according to estimations showing that around 98% of the population is of Muslim confession (as all estimations, they can be disputed and I truly invite people who disagree with the figure to contradict them. These are the figures one usually finds in “official sources” presenting the country).

We can always argue about the meaning behind the expression “Muslim country”, but let us put this aside and assume there is a common understanding of the expression. Then if Morocco is considered as a “Muslim country”, fasting Ramadan could therefore be considered as part of the country’s tradition. But why does it have to be expressed in a national law?

The Moroccan Penal Code takes for granted that all people who are not officially affiliated to another religion but Islam are Muslims and must therefore observe the Ramadan. Here appears the first contradiction. Morocco is indeed signatory i.e. of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, in which the article 18 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. The article 6 of the Moroccan Constitution also guarantees the freedom of religion, e.g. of practicing or non-practicing it.

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In September 2009 a call was launched in Facebook to call upon people to break the fasting in the Moroccan city of Mohammedia, close to the capital of Rabat. The call was initiated by a group of activists called MALI, which in French means Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties and is an acronym for “And what about me?” in darija or Moroccan Arabic. In a press release, the journalist Zineb El Rhazoui explained: “Our objective is to say that we are Moroccans, we do not observe the fasting, but we have the right to exist. Every year non-fasters are arrested and publicly lynched whereas the Moroccan constitution guarantees the freedom of cult”. Around 70 persons answered positively to the call. At the end only a dozen finally took part to the “lunch”. Police officers were sent and violently repressed the “lunchers”. The daily Spanish newspaper El Mundo ironically headlined: “100 police officers against 10 sandwiches”.

This year the debate reappeared on the Internet. The blogger and activist Najib Chaouki created a Facebook group called “Moroccans for the right not to fast” and explained his motivation as follows: “Why are non-fasters forced to hide? We want to break the social hypocrisy in which we live”.

Some people criticize the activists as pursuing anti-religious targets, as being opposed to the “national moral and ethics”, etc. But the critics do not give a proper answer to the simple question: Why should they not be allowed to eat and drink in public during the period of Ramadan? Is the religious practice a social and legal norm or an individual practice based on personal faith?

Now in other countries some articles or blog posts reported on tensions during the period of Ramadan between non-fasters and the national security forces. The news blog Gloval Voices reported for instance about the situation in Egypt, writing that the Ministry of Interior had arrested Muslims who ate and drank in public during Ramadan for the first time this year. In a post called An unconstitutional raid on the civil rights of citizens arrests those who are not fasting in public for the first time in Egypt, the Egyptian blogger Hassan El Helali listed the arrests carried out by the Egyptian police: “In Aswan, police forces have arrested 155 Egyptians for committing a felony. In Hurghada (a tourist destination) the governor of the Red Sea issued a decree mandating shutting down all restaurants and coffee shops in the morning during Ramadan. Several Egyptians have also been taken into custody. In Dakahlia, seven young men were arrested for smoking in public and they were released after a 500 L.E. bail.” The government was reported to have denied the arrests. Let me mention here that the events reported in the post could not been verified, meaning there is a possibility they might be wrong. But the only fact that a discussion takes place about the issue – even if only on the Internet – points out a need to discuss it.

Senegal is a country where the Muslim population is estimated at around 95%. The non-fasting is called there the “wooru gale” and is reported as being relatively well tolerated. The French news portal Rue89 reported i.e. on the experiences of different non-fasters and mentioned the Senegalese humorist Sanex, who often present himself as a non-faster in his sketches and is very appreciated by the population:

But as the article noted, Ramadan is not a state issue in Senegal where not particular law or directive foresees its observance or non-observance. The pressure may come there from the familial, social or professional environment.

Indeed beyond the issue of state religion is also the question of social pressure of the surrounding, some groups or some people. In the English-speaking daily newspaper Hürriyet Daily News, Yusuf (who did not reveal his surname), who is presented as a young writer in Istanbul, is reported to be “upset at the social pressure and disapproval he experiences during the holy month”.

On August 13th it was the third day of Ramadan in France. Hamara Diarra, a 45-year-old family father and French citizen of Senegalese origin, was having his coffee after lunch at the terrace of a café in the city of Lyon. Three young men, whose identity was not revealed, came to him and told him he should not drink anything at that time of the day because of Ramadan. Diarra answered that he was living his faith the way he wanted and that it was nobody else’s business but his. The men beat him then so severely that he was left with the back of the skull broken and had to be trepanned.

Informed, the rector of the big mosque in Lyon, Kamel Kabtana, condemned the incident. This last news should certainly be regarded as a tragic incident without common occurrence in France. Despite of the objectivity or subjectivity contained in the stories reported above, they all underlined certain tensions between fasters and non-fasters in various countries, sometimes trivial and sometimes more serious.

At the core of these different situations is an essential point when coming to the issue of religion and public sphere: What is the place religion should or should not have in the public sphere when it comes to the right for each individual to decide whether to follow religious prescriptions or not. The issue becomes of course very difficult when having a so-called “State religion”, but not only since the social pressure of the environment can also lead someone to follow habits or prescriptions he or she would not like to follow. Of course the debate remains open as whether a person considering himself or herself as a Muslim and not following the prescriptions would still be considered as such.

The issue of fasting and non-fasting brings us to the more general issue of individual liberties and the personal understanding of religion. An issue that needs to be addressed in a sincere and quiet way.

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