Minority in Maghreb claims right not to fast despite ambient conformism

Sunday 26/06/2016
Algerian demonstrators drinking water during Ramadan in city of Tizi Ouzou

TUNIS - Maghreb societies share belief in the Sunni Malikite strain of Islam in which Ramadan figures prominently. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey indicated that 93% of Muslim respondents around the world say they fast during Rama­dan.
In Tunisia and Morocco, the percentages are higher — 98% and 96%, respectively.
Even if opinion polls on reli­gious issues in the Muslim world are deemed unreliable by some experts, the percentages of people observing the fast in Ramadan in predominantly Muslim nations, including the Maghreb, are high, even on hot, summer days.
Muslims, with the exception of those who are sick or travelling, are required to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
In Maghreb countries, including Tunisia, where the constitution enshrines “freedom of religious conscience”, authorities try to ac­commodate non-observance of the Ramadan fast with the overall trend of compliance with the re­quirements of the faith.
“It was decided that cafés and shops inside residential and work­ing-class neighbourhoods are not allowed to open during the days of Ramadan,” said the Tunisian Interior Ministry in a statement on the first day of the holy month this year. “As for touristic coffee shops, these are authorised to open on the condition to cover outside view of the premises.”
Dozens of cafés and small res­taurants remained open in Tunis and other towns. Patrons were con­cealed behind newspaper-covered windows in businesses satirically described as “newspaper cafés”.
Despite the clarity of the funda­mental law on matters of religious freedom and pluralism, such moves have given leeway to fundamental­ist Islamists and other conserva­tives trying to push back.
Protesters burned tyres and closed a main road in Tozeur in south-western Tunisia in a dem­onstration against the opening of a restaurant for tourists at a time when such visitors are rare in the country’s south. That was as vio­lent as resistance to non-obser­vance of fasting got this Ramadan in Tunisia.
Overall, the country seemed to be at ease with its religious iden­tity during the holy month. Fear of hard-line Salafists seems to have subsided, compared to previous years.
There were attempts by ultracon­servative activist Adel Almi to take pictures of non-fasting patrons sit­ting at a café in the affluent Marsa district of Tunis to shame those who do not fast. Almi ended up having a peaceful discussion with the café owner before delivering a self-serving piece to the camera.
In Algeria, activists in the Berber-speaking Kabylia region continued a practice that started in 2013 when about 300 men gathered in Tizi Ouzou to openly eat sandwiches and drink water during Ramadan. While many Algerians do not fast during Ramadan, the action in Ka­bylia was deliberately public and relatively large.
The move was abetted by mili­tants of the Kabylia’s Autonomy Movement to underline differences with other regions of Algeria. It was helped by the large Christian mi­nority in Kabylia and feelings that a central government dominated by pro-Arab nationalists has margin­alised Berber language and culture.
In Morocco, six young people began a dissident movement in Ramadan in September 2009 by announcing they would eat sand­wiches at a forest in Mohammedia between Casablanca and Rabat. Po­lice later arrested them and seized the sandwiches as evidence.
Almost all political groups, even the secularist USFP socialist party, denounced the move as “staining the image of Islam”.
The six-person group, known as the Alternative Movement for Indi­vidual Freedoms, claimed this year that it has the support of 600 peo­ple — another indication it is a small minority opposing a Moroccan law that jails for up to six months any Muslim who eats or drinks in public during Ramadan fasting hours.
“The logic of modernity and globalisation makes respect of di­versity and pluralism in societies a necessity. Can we see our society accept differences of opinion, re­ligion and thought in the future?” asked Moroccan sociology re­searcher Abdallah Abdallah.
“Our society is still a minor. It has not reached the required maturity culturally and legally.”