Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Human rights: You will fast ... or else !...

Human rights: You will fast ... or else !...

Sunday 9 July 2017, by siawi3


You will fast ... or else ! ...

by: Brian Whitaker

Date: 17th June 2015

Decorations in the Old city of Jerusalem at night during Ramadan. Photo: Guillaume Paumier

Ramadan, which begins this week, is the Muslim holy month when adult believers fast from sunrise to sunset. Fasting is supposed to encourage self-control but fasting under the threat of arrest is more about obedience than self-control. Using the law to ensure that people fast (as numerous Arab countries do) undermines the moral purpose of Ramadan, just for the sake of keeping up appearances.

Gulf states tend to be the most strict in enforcing Ramadan. The typical penalty is a one-month jail sentence and/or a fine, and the law applies to everyone regardless of religion - on the grounds that seeing someone break their fast is offensive to Muslims even if the fast-breaker is not actually Muslim.

In Kuwait, where most of the population are foreigners and non-Muslims account for more than 20% of the total, restaurants and cafes must remain closed during daylight hours, though supermarkets can open.

In Dubai, members of the public are officially encouraged to look out for anyone eating, drinking or smoking - even in the relative privacy of their own car - and report them to the police. According to Dubai police, more than 20 people were arrested for fast-breaking between 2005 and 2009, including a European non-Muslim.

In Egypt, which has a large Christian minority and no law requiring people to fast, the authorities nevertheless embarked on a crackdown in 2009, reportedly arresting more than 150 people in Aswan province and ordering the closure of cafes and restaurants in the Red Sea tourist resort of Hurghada. In the Delta area, seven youths were arrested for smoking in the street (smoking is considered to be fast-breaking) and fined LE 500 ($90) each.

[(Arabs Without God:
Atheism and
Freedom of Belief
in the Middle East

Brian Whitaker, 2014)]

The wave of arrests seemed to be mainly the work of some especially religious-minded police officers but the authorities supported them on the grounds that public fast-breaking is a form of “incivility” covered by the Egyptian penal code. Clerics also backed the punishment of those who broke the fast in public. Sheikh Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Centre, said: “People are free not to fast, but privately; doing so in public is not a matter of personal freedom ... it reveals contempt for those who are fasting, for Ramadan and for the fasting as an obligatory religious duty.”

Arrests for Ramadan infringements are a regular occurrence in Algeria, too, though there has also been public debate about whether fasting should be a matter for the law or personal conscience. Six residents in the town of Biskra were arrested for eating and playing cards during the daylight hours of Ramadan in 2008. They were each fined 120,000 dinars ($1,770) though an appeals court judge later quashed the sentences, saying they violated constitutional provisions for freedom of belief.

In a separate case, three men convicted of smoking during Ramadan in Algeria had their three-year jail sentences reduced to two months on appeal. In 2011, a group of men working on a construction site were imprisoned for eating during Ramadan even though they insisted they were not Muslims.

Arrests usually occur when people break the fast in public but in a more unusual Algerian case police entered a house in Akbou following a tip-off and arrested young men who had been breaking the fast privately inside.

In Morocco in 2009, the Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles (known by its French acronym MALI) set out to challenge Article 222 of the penal code which says:

“A person known as belonging to the Muslim religion who ostensibly breaks the fast in a public place during the time of Ramadan, without grounds permitted by this religion, is punished by imprisonment of one to six months and a fine of 12 to 120 dirhams [$1.50-$15].”

The group, organised mainly through Facebook, decided to hold a picnic in a public place, citing the Moroccan constitution which guarantees religious freedom for all citizens, and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Morocco subscribes. The planned location for the picnic was a forest outside Mohammedia - chosen to minimise the risk of the action being seen as provocative. This was the first recorded protest against the country’s Ramadan law, and a Moroccan news website described what happened:

The meet-up was at the train station of Mohammedia, a few miles from Casablanca. Seventy people indicated their intention to attend but only a dozen made it through a cordon of security personnel ... “We were surprised by the heavy police presence that we encountered” said Ms Zineb Elghzaoui, journalist and a founder of MALI along with Ibtissam Lachgar, a psychologist.

More than a hundred officers, including riot and mounted police and military personnel had besieged the station and its environs.

“We had to show our backpacks and when they saw we had food, they [police] forced us to return to Casablanca on the next train,” explained Lachgar.

The security forces were also keeping back local youth groups who were attempting to confront the Ramadan fast-breaking protesters ...

“Our aim was to show that we are Moroccans, but that we do not fast, and that we have a right to exist,” said Ms Elghzaoui. “And although the Moroccan Constitution guarantees freedom of worship, each year there are arrests” for public fast breaking, she added.

Ms Elghzaoui spoke about the case of a citizen who was attacked and denounced in the city of Fez and handed to the police by civilian vigilantes last year for drinking in the street. He was free hours later, after his family showed he was a diabetic.

A more successful protest took place in Algeria in 2013 after security forces questioned three young people for breaking the fast. Angry residents of Tizi-Ouzou, a largely Berber area with a relatively secular outlook and a history of tense relations with the central government, organised a public fast-breaking lunch which was attended by some 300 people.

Bouaziz Ait Chebib, head of the local Kabylie Autonomy Movement, explained: “We called this gathering to denounce the inquisition and persecution of citizens who, because of their beliefs, refuse to observe the fast.”

Notice to readers: Technical upgrade underway. No new content is being added here till further notice.