By Khaled Diab
The ban on eating and drinking in public in some Muslim countries is wrong. Piety cannot and must not be imposed by law.
Tuesday 28 July 2015
Ramadan is a unique month. It is time of stark contrasts. Fasting and austerity during the day. Feasting and revelry once the sun goes down. It is paradoxically characterised both by enhanced spirituality, as many faithful withdraw from the world to worship and spiritually cleanse themselves, and greater materialism, as the average family's consumption sky-rockets.
The holy month is marked by greater forgiveness and charity, but also heightened levels of impatience and anger, especially in the form of the “fasting furious” during rush hour. One unedifying aspect of Ramadan is when piety stops becoming a personal quest and becomes a question of public interest and even legislation.
This was recently illustrated in Morocco, where five people were arrested for eating and drinking in public, which is prohibited in the kingdom by law and carries a sentence of up to six months in prison.
Of course, Morocco is not alone. A number of Arab and Muslim countries have similar regulations in place, especially in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has gone a step further and threatened to deport any non-Muslims found eating and drinking in public.
Even in countries that do not ban eating and drinking, overzealous individual officers can sometimes take the law into their own hands.
Although it was once unheard of in my native Egypt, where there is a vibrant parallel non-fasting culture, recent years have seen a number of incidents in which Egyptians were detained by police for breaking the fast in public. Controversy surrounding the alleged arrest of 25 people prompted Egypt's interior ministry to reiterate that eating in public is legal during Ramadan.
And it is important that it stays this way. In fact, Egypt needs to go further, and lift the ridiculous ban it has on alcohol sales during Ramadan.
Some pious people will object. I've debated this issue with numerous conservatives. Some argue that it is about not putting temptation in the way of the faster. But, surely, a Muslim who can't handle fasting around others who are eating doesn't possess the spiritual stamina to fast.
Besides, the Moroccan arrests took place in a beach resort, which implies that the fasting locals could endure tourists in beachwear sipping cocktails on the beach, but thirsty locals are suddenly intolerable.
Another justification is that in a Muslim country people must respect Islamic values and rituals. “These people were arrested for not showing Ramadan the respect it deserves,” one interlocutor argued.
Well, those chanting “This is a Muslim country” should not mind at all that China is forcing Muslims to eat in public this year – after all, Ramadan conflicts with the country's ostensibly communist ideology. Of course, this is an enormous violation of the rights of Chinese Muslims – but so is forcing people not to eat in public.
This highlights how this kind of coercive imposition of ideology is not just an Islamic ailment. In Israel, for example, it has surprised me how the country must go into forced lockdown on Yom Kippur and, every Shabbat, public transport comes to a grinding halt and traffic is banned from ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods.
Moreover, showing respect is a personal choice, not a legislative issue. Coercion results in the kind of “respect” people show to thugs and bullies. Respect is a two-way street. Just as liberals like me don't force pious Muslims to drink alcohol, why do the pious believe it is their right to compel us to fast, or at least to pretend to do so in public?
Such pressure for citizens to exhibit public piety is counterproductive, as it promotes a spirit of hypocrisy – something which has undermined numerous Arab and Muslim societies. Do what you want in private but lie in public, is the implicit, underlying message.
More fundamentally, such coercion is a violation of the principle of religious freedom. And even if you exempt non-Muslims from this, this raises the problematic issue of dividing between citizens, which can raise tensions and fuel sectarianism. In addition, such exemptions still infringe on the rights of non-practicing Muslims not to practise their religion.
Beyond this, the road to hell is paved with pious intentions. If this logic works in Ramadan, why stop there? Shouldn't the pious then have the right to impose their values on the rest of us all year round?
And this is happening before our eyes. Despite its reputation for tolerance, Morocco is becoming increasingly draconian. A telling example of this are the two women currently standing trial for “public indecency” for wearing miniskirts, who face the prospect of spending two years behind bars.
Luckily, tolerant Moroccans have not taken this lying down, and have come up with creative ways to protest, including a campaign to bare legs in solidarity and more than 27,000 have signed a petition telling the minister of justice that “wearing a skirt is not a crime”.
Such initiatives are not a campaign to spread “debauchery” and “immorality”, but seek to protect the freedom of everyone, even the pious. What the self-righteous pious don't realise is that there are always those who are more pious and radical.
By showing intolerance towards those less pious than them, they open the door to the more extreme doing the same to them. Today, they fashion a self-righteous moral case against the length of a skirt. Tomorrow, others might persecute them for wearing the wrong length of beard or a “revealing” type of hijab.
The only way to guarantee that others tolerate you is to tolerate others, without exception.
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This article first appeared in Haaretz on 17 July 2015.