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.