Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Religion is Personal

In a post I wrote recently for Global Voices, I covered the efforts of the Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles, a new Moroccan activist group that recently made headlines for eating in public during Ramadan.  In effect, they broke the law; Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code stipulates that a Muslim who openly breaks the fast in public during Ramadan can be punished by one to six months’ imprisonment and a fine.  This is not the first time someone has been arrested – in past years, non-fasters have been arrested and made scapegoats by local police – but it is certainly the first time in recent history that a group has set out to protest the law.

A little legal background is in order – although Morocco is a Muslim country in many senses of the term, its legal system is only partly based in Shari’a, and many laws which would seem to be go unenforced.  For example, it is legal for alcohol to be sold in Morocco, but only to tourists and non-Muslim citizens of the country (e.g. Jews).  Nevertheless, in most cities, it’s quite easy for a Moroccan Muslim to purchase alcohol, except during Ramadan, where a foreign passport is required (and even then, the foreign passport must not be from a known Muslim country; I know of more than one situation where an Egyptian or Syrian friend was refused at the liquor store).

There is, of course, a great portion of Moroccan society that follows the guidelines of Islam closely and neither drinks nor breaks any other rules (whether outlined in the letter of the law or not).  Right off the bat, I’ll say this: they’re not my concern.

What concerns me is this: There is also a great portion of society that drinks, and does other things that are haram, but are condemning the protesters for disrespecting Islam.  This attitude brings to light something I noticed in Morocco: That Ramadan seems to make everyone an expert on Islam, and a great Muslim.  Many of those who might ignore religion throughout the year will at the very least fast (or give the illusion of fasting, even to their own families), often taking it further, lecturing their friends who don’t pray or chastising them for not making it to the mosque.  Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve witnessed this myself numerous times.  In August, I’d be clubbing in Marrakesh with Moroccan friends, drinking and dancing; as soon as Ramadan started, I was the black sheep.

To clarify, I’m not judging people for their level of piety, rather, I’m peeved at their hypocrisy.

Of course, the bigger problem is with the law.  Laws against publicly eating during Ramadan only apply to Morocco’s Muslims, however, there is no official determination on who is Muslim and who is not as, unlike in some countries, Morocco does not denote religion on its passports or identity cards.  As blogger Charlotte says:

In recognition of the fact that not all Moroccans are Muslims, the law officially applies only to those who abide by the tenets of Islam. But the issue is this: how does one determine, exactly, who is Muslim, and who is not? The Moroccan Carte Nationale (National Identity Card, affectionately called “la carte”) does not document a citizen’s religious affiliation, and as far as I know there is no other moment or way in which such affiliation is recorded. In the end, it is simply assumed (and every much expected) that all Moroccans are, in fact, Muslim.* And that is where the problem lies: without official documentation, religious affiliation is ultimately judged by appearance. If you look and behave as a Moroccan, you are expected to abide by Islamic proscriptions…

* According to official statistics, about 99% is, in fact, Muslim. Of course this includes all those whose affiliation with Islam is no more than cultural.

Most of the blog posts and comments I’ve seen from Moroccans and Moroccophiles on this subject support the legal action being taken against the protesters.  The comments on Global Voices, however, tended in the other direction, and tend to be closer to my own position on the matter, which is that religion is a personal matter and not an issue of the state.

One comment to that effect which caught my eye is from Rachid, who says:

I am hoping that people who fast are doing it because they want to honor their faith and no because restuarants are closed and people are not allowed to eat in public.

That is precisely the point.  No matter what Islamists might want, Morocco is, for all intents and purposes, a secular-leaning country.  Whatever the ideal might be (and I don’t believe theocracy is it), Morocco is what it is, and nothing is going to stop the tide of secularism.  And while there are certainly valid arguments against aspects of western influence, to me, this isn’t one of them.

Moreover, the protesters in this case are not, in fact, advocating for everyone to run outside and eat publicly during Ramadan.  To do so would be disrespectful and is something that even most tourists shy away from.  What they are advocating for is in fact a noble cause: an end to the hypocrisy, a change in the law, and a step forward for personal freedoms.



22 Comments

  1. Similar issues exist with many expatriate students. My neighbours had a party for frosh week a few years ago, which was attended by a Palestinian international student who had just arrived in Ottawa. After re-assuring his father (over the phone from Jordan) that he had said his prayers for the evening, he promptly chugged two beers in the same time, then lifted his shirt to show us his piercings. The kid has not been in Canada for 24 hours and already had both of his nipples pierced.

    It was not a week later this same person was recruiting for the Muslims Students’ Association. It would appear that there is a bit of a disconnect between the way that many Muslims act towards each other and the way that they act when the Ummah is not keeping a watchful eye. My sympathies go out to these people—torn between their personal desire to make their own decisions and the practical need to preserve their reputation in the community. I suppose that I am privileged to come from a background of lower-class alcoholics: it is much easier to look successful and sophisticated by comparison. ;)

  2. I dont think that the term “hypocrisy” would explain the situation, it is actually far from describing it. what you’re saying jillian, is that muslims either be muslims all through the year, or don’t. that they shouldn’t be preaching anyone what they themselves aren’t doing in the first place. which i think this argument somewhat falls into categorizing what is islam and what is a muslim. the problem in this argument is that it assumes that the holy text resembles or assimilates with muslim societies. there has alway been different sociological approaches to islam, which in fact, enriches the text itself. as the matter of fact, there is no islam without muslims. there is no text without realities to the text.

    so you cannot say that these muslims who choose not to party with you in ramadan are hypocrites, they are muslims-in their own way. i think we should respect their self-representation instead of judging them.

    In Syria and in Lebanon, you find people who drink and club and have sex but in Ramadan they refrain from doing all that, is that hypocritical? i think not. i think it’s very interesting to know how muslims, on the one hand, are simply not muslims in the classic understanding of the term, and on the other, how they feel that Ramadan is the only month in the year that enables them to “become” and “be” muslims. this becoming muslim is important to some, especially to those who may not “appear” as muslims but still feel as such. Ramadan is a reassuring month, it is a month that makes muslims feel safe towards their islamic identity. this is all develop in a process of self-representation, that even though they club, drink and have sex, we remain muslims.

    that said, i have a problem with this law, i think while the moroccon society enriches islam, this law essentializes both islam and muslims. since i am not aware how the government controls the people in morocco, i dont think i can understand this law.

    i have two questions though, does every single alcohol shop demands an identity documentation? or is it like syria in internet cafes, everybody knows you need to submit your identification but nobody really asks you to?

    another question, are those who initiated this campaign moroccons and living in morocco at the moment?

    • Hi Razan,

      Actually, you don’t seem to get what I’m saying at all. I’m not suggesting they be Muslims all year; I’m not even talking about their status as Muslims!

      Rather, I’m saying that this is hypocrisy in regard to the LAW – those same people who break the law to drink want the law to be enforced in this particular occasion. In other words, they don’t want the law to apply to them, but they think it should apply to these other people. I’m also not calling anyone a hypocrite for choosing “not to party with me” during Ramadan (in fact, I’m not even saying I partied during Ramadan)…I’m saying that all of a sudden, those same people who would drink with me during the year would pretend they had never done so.

      Yes, every alcohol shop demands identification during Ramadan, in fact, most are closed entirely – it’s only the large (foreign) supermarkets that sell it at all, and then, it is only for the purpose of selling it to Muslims. During the rest of the year, identification is not required (and rarely asked for, as there is no actual drinking age, since alcohol is technically illegal).

      And yes, those who initiated the campaign are Moroccans living in Morocco – mostly women, in fact. And yes, they’re facing punishment.

    • Razan,

      I call hypocrisy, remembering god a month a year? I mean come on, my own mom would kick my ass if I only called her one month a year and ignored her the rest. I don’t get how you can take up one aspect of religion and ignore the rest, if that’s not hypocrisy I don’t know what is.

      You said:
      In Syria and in Lebanon, you find people who drink and club and have sex but in Ramadan they refrain from doing all that, is that hypocritical?
      I say, hell yeah!

      Someone I knew once said that she doesn’t want to go to Hajj at a young age because Hajj abolishes all your sins and she didn’t feel like giving away clubbing and drinking for the time being so she wanted to save it so she can live her life to the max and thin discard all her sins with one trip to Mecca at an older age. Wow, she was so smart she found a loophole in the system.

      All this has nothing to do with identity or sociology or anyother fancy terms one would like to use to justify it. It all comes down to this: wanting to have your own choices while trying to fit in with the majority. It’s about fearing the watchful eyes of society, not God.

  3. I am talking about this paragraph in your post, Jillian:

    “What concerns me is this: There is also a great portion of society that drinks, and does other things that are haram, but are condemning the protesters for disrespecting Islam. This attitude brings to light something I noticed in Morocco: That Ramadan seems to make everyone an expert on Islam, and a great Muslim. Many of those who might ignore religion throughout the year will at the very least fast (or give the illusion of fasting, even to their own families), often taking it further, lecturing their friends who don’t pray or chastising them for not making it to the mosque. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve witnessed this myself numerous times. In August, I’d be clubbing in Marrakesh with Moroccan friends, drinking and dancing; as soon as Ramadan started, I was the black sheep.

    To clarify, I’m not judging people for their level of piety, rather, I’m peeved at their hypocrisy.”

    I see that you’re calling those who’re opposing the campaign as hypocrites because they themselves practice what the campaign is calling for, this i fully agree with you. nevertheless, what i disagree with you is your comparison between the opponents of the campaign and the society’s reflections to ramadan. i think there both have different positions and motives and that what my previous comment addressed.

  4. But Razan, if you’re referring to this paragraph:

    “This attitude brings to light something I noticed in Morocco: That Ramadan seems to make everyone an expert on Islam, and a great Muslim. Many of those who might ignore religion throughout the year will at the very least fast (or give the illusion of fasting, even to their own families), often taking it further, lecturing their friends who don’t pray or chastising them for not making it to the mosque. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve witnessed this myself numerous times. In August, I’d be clubbing in Marrakesh with Moroccan friends, drinking and dancing; as soon as Ramadan started, I was the black sheep.”

    That is an observation, not a judgement. I don’t disagree that there are different positions and motives at play here.

  5. Anas, apart than my disagreement with you, you’ve just offered another reading to why they’re hypocrites. which in itself, is a sociological reading ;-)

  6. This thing in Morocco drives me insane. That law itself is bogus. I mean, if you follow the islamic teaching, you should know that it is permitted to sick persons and women on their period to not fast. So that article 222 opposes this fact.

    It’ll be long before people will learn and understand. By that very distant time the ideologies would have changed and then the laws will follow.

    • I tend to agree with you, Jillian, in almost everything you’ve written about in the past, but I find myself a bit uncomfortable about this particular post.Though I am a supporter of individual freedoms I see Mali’s action as counterproductive for two reasons:
      1. The professional and social identity of the perpetrators: led by a Le Journal journalist, a magazine that’s perceived as elitist by virtue of its readership, leadership and language. It is a magazine that is more or less in line with the social and intellectual agenda of Telquel which is in itself perceived as a fundamentally leftist medium that lacks any credibility at the grassroots level (I can elaborate on this one if need be)

      2. The approach of the group that was, to say the least, confrontational, spectacular and self-serving. Change, Jillian, doesn’t happen overnight. Morocco, for better of worse, is a conservative society, a very conservative one (3rd in the World by a recent poll). If one wants to induce change the worst thing one can do is to try to force it on a society that’s already polarized. If one wants to induce change that change needs to be perceived as indigenously induced; in other words, having tens of foreigners covering that spectacular show doesn’t do your cause any good, unless one likes to be in the spotlight which takes us to the third point of “self-servitude” …

      Peace

  7. Jillian

    Love your zealful comments and enjoy reading your blog. However your statement “religion is a personal matter and not an issue of the state” may apply to the US but in Islam the state and religion are one and the same. In a truly Muslim country Quranic and state laws go hand in hand. The laws are for the society as a whole not for individuals. The Quran even specifies the punishments for each transgression.

    • Irfan,

      Morocco is not a “truly Muslim country,” nor does it purport to be. Plenty of its laws are unrelated to Shari’a. It allows for the import AND production of alcohol, for one.

      Second, I am aware of the laws Islam dictates and I disagree with their implementation in this day and age. Beyond that, there is not a single Muslim country in the world that could be considered “truly Muslim,” properly implementing Quranic laws, is there?

      Finally, respectfully, I don’t support theocracy in any fashion – not Israel, not Saudi Arabia, not Iran. Regardless of what religion might dictate, I believe in the full separation of religion and state.

  8. This story sparked a discussion in my own household, I am of Moroccan origins and my wife is Asian American. The fact that anyone disagrees with something, doesn’t give that person or group the right to challenge the laws for the majority of the society.
    As you mentioned in the blog, Morocco is a country of contrasts, and although the laws might not appear adequate, it actually is for the core of the society. I knew people that didn’t fast and that was fine, even for the middle class.
    What these people did in my opinion is not an expression of freedom of speech, but rather a failed attempt to break their way through the media by provocation.
    I believe that anyone has the right to challenge anything, but in that case you have to assume full responsibility and be aware of others’ reaction.

    • Talal,

      Having further assessed the situation, I’m not sure the group went about their actions in the right way, either. I still support their end goal, but I have to think more on this. Thank you for your comment.

  9. @ConflictAnalyst,

    You know, regarding the first point: I was unaware of that fact when I wrote this post. The fact that it was the act of a journalist concerns me as well. But know that, while I support the individual freedom this group is fighting for, I actually never stated that I think they chose an effective method: and for the record, I don’t.

    • Talal

      Groups and person SHOULD challenge laws they find unjust. In the United States and South Africa there were unjust laws on segregation. Only when groups and individuals stood up did they manage to abolish them.

      Jillian, i fully agree your personal viewpoint. I also realize that there is no true Muslim state. However when all else fails even moderate Muslim states like Morocco use religion and the Koranic laws as an excuse. Anyone who challenges these Islamic laws can then be termed an infidel.

  10. In Pakistan there is a blasphemy law which basically says that if you insult the prophet Mohammad or the quran you would face consequences. This law has been used as an excuse to kill non Muslims and confiscate their property.

    Since its inception no government has had the guts to abolish the law. Whenever they have tried the religious groups call the government un-Islamic and manage to uphold this infamous law.

    • Irfan, Jillian
      I am simply stating that there are other ways to handle this situation, this group should probably have prepared its actions through a true grassroots movement.
      I think they could have started with taking signatures to push for a review of the law or at least start the conversation.
      I want to stress that this law is not really applied. Only provocateurs might see this law applied because the government is put in a bad spot. Damned if they react, and damned if they don’t…
      Lastly, I want to say that this group should expect the others’ reaction, whether its good or bad. It is their choice…

  11. Well, to be pragmatic, in a cultural situation where public observance is to say the least “relaxed” – Ramadan is culturally that last and highly sensitive symbolic cultural anchor point for the Muslim population.

    I should note, btw, that I believe Charlotte is wrong re religion, as I seem to recall at the Muqataa for birth registry one does something, but memory is vague so I may be wrong.

    All cultures have their hypocrisies and as Ramadan goes the Moroccan approach has its share – although to my experience not really more so than an Egypt, Jordan or Syria re the Muslim communities. Different but not subjectively grossly more hypocritical. The quiet acceptance of non-fasting, non-praying, etc so long as one does not make a big deal of it is the current sociological accomodation. Some hypocrisies are necessary, in this instance I’d call the Moroccan one relative to religious practice a necessary point in sociological change. Cultures and societies do not magically transform themselves, whatever activists might desire against some theoretical ideals.

    As such, I agree in most respects with Conflict Analyst.

    I’d also note that I think Charlotte’s “cultural Muslim” is a bit precious as the concept remains quite controversial among observant Xian and Jewish communities – and quite alien to the MENA experience. For someone who purports to be undertaking sociological and anthropological research, she is quite tone deaf.

    In any case, the action was spectacularly poorly thought through, and extremely counter productive and self-indulgent. I agree with CA’s tie back to Le Journal and Tel Quel, and add that there is no small degree of class snobbery in much of that fringe of society – the observant, culturally conservative (if in application ‘flexible’) ordinary Mohammed rightly and accurately feels that this portion of the Francophone elite (not all of it, but without doubt the Tel Quel portion) do in fact look down on them, and snub their values at every turn. That is not at all healthy, in particular given the oligarchic tendencies in the economy. Mind you, these are the kind of people I do business with all the time – while I can understand where these Mali folks came from, this was rather too “special” to be a good idea, or even to genuinely advance the cause of religious freedom. Rather, it adds fuel to the fire and gives cause to the Islamists who claim the secularised can’t even be bothered to give the ordinary folks basic beliefs a tiny fiddle of respect. That is dangerous for real change.

  12. This cognition brings to loose something I detected in Marruecos: That Fast seems to head everyone an skilled on Monotheism, and a enthusiastic Islamist. Many of those who power treat religion throughout the assemblage testament at the really small speedy (or release the deceit of fasting, level to their own families), often action it far, lecturing their friends who don’t pray or chastising them for not making it to the musjid. Lest you conceive I’m exaggerating, I’ve witnessed this myself numerous times. In Honourable, I’d be clubbing in City with African friends, drunkenness and dance; as presently as Fasting started, I was the coloured, not a assessment. I don’t disagree that there are antithetic positions and motives at act here.
    —————————-
    ruthallen

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