Throughout Islamic history, there have been individuals, mostly thinkers and poets, who challenged the basic tenets of Islam and broke prohibitions; few got away with it; others did not.
Today’s Arab world is influenced by its millions of internet users. Because of this, there are probably more taboo breakers than in the past. Though the number cannot be quantified accurately, it is still not high. Of this minority, few of them are thinkers and most are youths actively seeking to push for greater religious, social and political freedoms, but at considerable cost as we will see.
One such taboo that is now being challenged is eating in public during Ramadan. The majority, however, do not view this as an act of freedom seeking, rather it is considered a challenge to one of the pillars of Islam, hence to society in its entirety.
The paradox is that in Arab societies--a strange amalgam of pieties and social hypocrisy--the appearance of religiosity, rather than religiosity per se, is mandatory.
If the non-religious attitude--not fasting--was not conspicuous, it would be tolerated under the social hypocrisy rule.
This year’s Ramadan has seen a number of publicised incidents of people eating in public in several Arab countries. This is an offence punishable by prison in some of these countries.
In Egypt, 25 people were briefly arrested by police for publicly eating in Ramadan. A traffic police patrol, that was roaming the streets of a suburb of Cairo, saw the offenders not just eating but reportedly brandishing food and drinks at passers-by, according to the daily Al-Shourouk.
They were detained as “a measure of respect for the religious ritual and to stop them hurting the feelings of fasting Muslims”, as the paper put it. But they were later released by local prosecutors because there is no law in Egypt (unlike many other Arab countries) that explicitly prohibits eating publicly during Ramadan.
Two similar incidents in Tunisia reportedly led to the dismissal of four policemen for assaulting youths who were eating in public. In the first incident, a plainclothes policeman was caught on camera kicking a young woman outside a restaurant in the resort town of Monastir. In the second incident in the town of Dahia El Moursi, near the Tunisian capital, similar assaults by three policemen reportedly cost them their jobs.
A Tunisian interior ministry spokesman described the incidents as “individual violations”, stressing that Tunisian authorities do not hound people who don’t observe Ramadan.
The Tunisian constitution establishes freedom of belief as a fundamental right. Nevertheless, the debate between liberals and conservatives over the role of religion in the Muslim-majority country remains heated.
The incidents and the official response to them reflect this debate.
Breaking the Ramadan fast in public is an offence in Morocco punishable by one to six months in prison. Insistent on the right not to fast, a group of Moroccans continued with its annual “Maysayminch” campaign, [we are not fasting], launched on Facebook in 2010.
The aim of the campaign is not to offend Muslims but to open a debate on the personal freedom of a minority that does not believe in fasting, its founders argue.
They are actively seeking to abolish article 222 in Morocco’s criminal code that criminalises eating in public during Ramadan.
Separately, five young Moroccans were arrested in Marrakesh for drinking lemon juice and smoking in public. They will stand trial on charges of “eating during Ramadan without a religious justification—illness or travelling--and possession and consumption of drugs (i.e. smoking)”, according to Moroccan media.
Neighbouring Algeria, too, has its own non-fasting group. In an invitation for members of the public to join it, “El Mak” called for a collective public display of eating in Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou—both in the Kabylie region of northern Algeria. The region, populated by non-Arab Berber, has been at the forefront of secularism in Algeria.
El Mak took the fight a step further, calling on its supporters to stand up to the police if they prevent them from eating during the day.
El Mak is led by the Paris-based singer Ferhat Mehenni, also leader of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie.
His followers on Facebook posted pictures of groups eating in public in Ighzer Amokrane in Bejaia.
Similar acts performed by the same group in the past two years have drawn ire from Algerian clerics, some of whom urged authorities to act against “anyone who dares violate religiously sacrosanct traditions”, according to the news website Algeria Times.
In Jordan, eating in public during Ramadan is a criminal offence and punishable by up to one month in prison or a fine of up to 15 Jordanian dinars (US$21).
The Jordanian Secularism Front called in a recent statement for scrapping this law, saying it contradicts article 7/1 of the Jordanian constitution, which guarantees personal freedom.
A further reason advanced by the front is that in “the scorching sun of the summer, fasting can become a health hazard for some people”.
The law also has a negative effect on the “ailing” economy, discouraging foreign tourists from coming to a country that bans eating and drinking in its hot deserts”, the front said.
The Jordanian Secularism Front: "A man was questioned [by police] for not fasting although he had a medical report saying he is excused from fasting. How many Jordanians with diabetes could be harmed by Ramadan fasting?"
On Facebook and Twitter, Arabs actively pursuing the right to freedom of conscience and religion connect with like-minded people. This exposure on social media draws the indignation of pious Muslims, who, as a matter of course, do not tolerate non-religious attitudes and beliefs.
But this discourse also serves to expose these Muslims to diverse and divergent perspectives—a slow process of change is hopefully set in motion.