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.