Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wukal Ramadan - Eating Ramadan

A curious story has been traveling the internet and Moroccan newspapers for the past three days. I am certainly not the first to report on this story and don’t want to bore you with what by now is pretty old news – but I do want to briefly highlight this incident, because it constitutes an interesting perspective on the meaning of Ramadan in Morocco.

This past Sunday, a group of young protesters that calls itself MALI (Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles – the alternative movement for individual liberties) gathered at the train station in Mohammedia (between Rabat and Casablanca) for a public picnic in broad Ramadan daylight. Their intent was to protest against the Moroccan law that forbids Muslims from eating in public during this month of fasting – because, they say, not all Moroccans are Muslims. According to the latest news, it seems that this group will be persecuted for their violation of said law.

They are right, of course, and in making this point they highlight a sticky issue that complicates the enforcement of a number of Moroccan laws. The Moroccan legal code includes a number of ordinances that are inspired by and based on religious proscriptions. An example is this particular ordinance against eating in public during Ramadan; another is the prohibition against the purchase of alcohol. 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 – in the same way that a European attempting to enter a mosque will be subjected to extreme testing in order to prove his or her Muslim identity.**

This particular incident points out that this kind of legal arrangement doesn’t work. You cannot enforce a law that applies only to a select group of people, if you have nothing but appearance to go on in distinguishing this group from any other. Appearance is always an imperfect measure, and even more so in the case of religion. Headscarves and burkas aside, religion cannot be read on someone’s body; it is not a biological trait.

This group is not the first to call attention to the problems involved with such legal arrangements. I remember a brief article in TelQuel a few months ago, in which the author called attention to the flawed logic behind the enforcement of the prohibition against buying alcohol. Just like this group of protesters, this writer remonstrated that you cannot and should not judge religion by appearance.

Yet in practice, the laws on alcohol do not lead to that much daily conflict, and most Moroccans have little trouble purchasing their alcohol. The infraction of drinking ranks much lower on the scale of gravity than does the ingestion of food during Ramadan. I’ve written before about the incredible cultural weight of fasting during this month. More so than any other pillar of Islam, participation in Ramadan is essential to the reinforcement of Moroccan identity. I suggested in that piece, and still think, that Ramadan embodies the essence of what Moroccans consider to be the hallmark of their culture: hospitality, openness, community-orientation, solidarity – and religion, of course. The result is that eating during Ramadan, unlike the drinking of alcohol, is much more than a religious infraction. Fasting is not just about God, but about the community – about cultural belonging.

It is this cultural weight, I think, that explains the gravity of this particular incident. These protesters did much more than violate a religious law – they flouted one of the pillars of national identity. A few reactions to the various blog posts that reported on this incident seem to read these actions as just that. They denounce this incident as detrimental to the country, or as a betrayal of the laws and of society. According to one commenter, what MALI did was “défier la loi, défier la société” (defying the law, defying society); Jillian C. York quotes another who writes that these protesters “should put this energy and effort into CONSTRUCTIVE actions, making our country better instead of Stupid events like these. Go out and DO something good for your country instead of finding everything wrong with it.”

How to evaluate this incident? Yes, these protesters violated a law, but does this law make sense? We may disagree with the application of this law, but who are we to judge? Should religious proscriptions be enforced by national law, or could one argue that religion becomes much more than a personal choice when it’s been woven so tightly into the fabric of cultural practice and social organization? And then, was MALI’s action the most effective way to claim religious and cultural freedom, or was it mostly an unproductive form of provocation?

What do you think?

* 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.
** simply donning a headscarf will not work, I’ve ascertained from people who have tried this. You will, at the very least, have to recite something from the Qur’an.


Jillian said...


Nice assessment - as to the visiting mosques thing, I find it's actually quite easy if you wear a headscarf and go with a Moroccan...I've done it multiple times (and I don't feel the least bit guilty, since the Qur'an says nothing about non-Muslims and mosques!) If it didn't work for European tourists, that's because they were tourists in some obvious sense. A djellaba will help.

I plan to blog about this whole thing later, too. It's very interesting that it's such a big deal in comparison to alcohol or to manner of dress. It seems that everyone suddenly becomes very pious during the month of Ramadan, only to lose their religion the other 11 months of the hijra.

Incidentally, I've been doing a very, very informal "study" of Moroccan friends who've left the country to see if they continue fasting. It breaks down somewhat like this: Those who were completely confident in their independence and level of faith continue to do whatever they did in Morocco. Those who fasted for purely societal reasons tend to either stop after the first year or two or go home during Ramadan. It all seems very correlated to who they hang out with in their new country, though.

yahia said...

They stop because indeed fasting in Morocco has become social phenomenon and habit than a practice of faith.

As for the group that's been arrested, I can't answer the concluding question, but I think it's one of the possible ways to trigger change in Morocco. You either use progressiveness or aggressiveness.

There's a lot of work to do in Morocco and this ramadan thing is one of the problems. I wrote an article on my website about it and how it's deeply problematic only to picture a pessimistic view of society during this month.

AbMoul said...

Although i'm opposed to the inforcement of this law (which is generally the case as for alcohol) i find the way to express opposition too provocative and spectacular. In principle, i'm opposed to mixing private and public spheres as well as to bringing social issues on the political agenda. On this particular question, it was for the least unwise, or more, irresponsible to alienate an overwhealming majority against this action and hence jeoperdize public support for other struggles for more fondamental rights. Pedagogy and incrimentalitty are musts for any social change entreprise. By their action, those ''militants'' gave the political power another leverage to assess and reinforce its controle over society.

The Lounsbury said...

Re religious identity, I do believe you are mistaken, as I seem to recall something in the birth registration process that captures for Ministry of Interior, but that is on memory so perhaps I am misrecalling.

Otherwise, I believe the "cultural Muslim" concept to be rather special and of - at best - discussable utility within MENA. (Nevermind how controversial it is among groups like observant Jews...)

Finally, extreme testing to enter a Mosque? Come now, the ability to recite say the Fatiha is not terribly extreme. Showing one's masculine equipment, that would be extreme. In any case, while I find the Moroccan tradition of no Muslims in Mosques, ex the Big One, to be misplaced, it's their tradition. Given the bad behaviour of the unwashed masses type tourists elsewhere (whether in cathedrals or mosques in other countries), I am not without some sympathy for a basic test as it were, as memorising one short bit of the Quran is hardly an "extreme" measure of testing.

Charlotte said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Jillian - that's a really interesting observation, about your friends who've left Morocco; it adds a new perspective on the relationship between religion and culture. By the way - I loved your religion is personal post!

Yahia - you have a good point, progressiveness and aggressiveness are two different ways to spur change, and this whole episode certainly does have Morocco talking & thinking about this whole issue.

AbMoul - your point is a good one, too, and I'm inclined to agree that too much aggressive push for change at the wrong time can backfire on those pressing for change...

Lounsbury - thanks for your input. I'm curious now about the registration of religious identity in Moroccan population records! And as for 'extreme testing': no, reciting the fatiha is not in and of itself 'extreme'. But considering the fact that no Moroccan-looking person would be asked to undergo such a test before entering a mosque, it becomes 'extreme' in comparison when a european is asked to do so. In any case, my discussion in this post was not an evaluation or questioning of the value of this particular law (which by the way is not a tradition that dates back that far - it was actually implemented by the French, as yet another way to leave 'authentic Moroccan' culture in tact); I'm simply suggesting that the way in which this 'tradition' is enforced (by using appearance as an indicator of religious identity) is a bit flawed...

Ali said...

This whole thing was a misunderstanding of the Moroccan penal code. Article 222 forbids any person living in Morocco (no matter what his religion or nationality are) to eat in public during Ramadan.

This law was first applied by General Lyautey during the French occupation, its purpose was to protect French citizens to be attacked by the Moroccan population. Thus, this manifestation was meaningless because the law doesn't forbid to break the fast, it's only there to not hurt the feelings of Muslims in Morocco and to protect those whom are not fasting.