Muslims the world over are celebrating Ramadan – a holy month dominated by fasting by day and celebrations by night. But what happens to those in some countries that do not fast?
In the Palestinian-administered territories administered by the Palestinian Authority (an officially secular organization), anyone caught eating and drinking in public can face a month in prison or be fined, according to a 2011 law. This year, police have arrested at least four people for breaking the fast in public under the charge of “paying no respect to the feelings of those fasting.”
The law traditionally was not enforced for Christians living in Christian areas, but according to a Palestinian Authority official, that is changing. Prosecutor Alaa Tamimi stated anyone breaking the law will face arrest, despite the fact that the Palestinian state’s declaration of independence states that freedom of religion and expression is to be respected.
After a police raid ordered by the administrative governor on a restaurant serving food to students from the German Jordanian University, Twitter users took to the social media site accusing Jordanian authorities of acting like the Islamic State. Three years ago on Facebook, a campaign was launched under the slogan, “Just like you are entitled to fast, respect my right to live a normal life.”
Media personalities joined in the protest, starting the “Secular Movement in Jordan” group and demanding the “non-criminalization of people who eat during Ramadan.”
The Jordanian constitution states “Islam is the religion of the state,” but the civil and criminal codes are not based on sharia law. Even so, the penal code stipulates that the sanctity of Ramadan may not be violated, including violating the fast. The law applies to tourist sites as well as to non-Muslims. Violation is punishable by a month in prison or a fine.
Even though Tunisia’s constitution guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and there are no laws on the books against those who don’t observe Ramadan, at least four men were arrested and sentenced to one month in jail for eating in public during Ramadan. Another man was sentenced for smoking in public.
Human rights activists from a group called Mouch Bessif (Not Against Our Will) recently protested in the capital against the illegal arrests, chanting slogans and holding posters in Arabic, English and French saying, “Why does it bother you if you fast and I eat?”
Even those who observe the fast joined the protest. “I fast but I came to join this protest and call with these people for respect for the freedom of belief and conscience. Whoever wants to fast can fast, but whoever doesn’t want to shouldn’t have to,” said one the demonstrator.
The constitution of the United Arab Emirates guarantees freedom of religion, however, it declares Islam the state religion and defines all citizens as Muslims. As per this definition of “freedom of religion,” eating in public during Ramadan is punishable by criminal action. Theoretically, police say they first warn non-Muslims caught violating law in case they are unaware.
Egypt officially guarantees “absolute” freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites. However, Islam is the official state religion, with rulings based on sharia law. While there is no law in Egypt’s penal code against violating Ramadan in public, many have been arrested over the years – including Coptic Christians and tourists — for eating, drinking or smoking in public during the fast hours.
Rights groups have demanded that police officers end the arrests and have accused them of pandering to Islamists.
“The big problem is that those policemen are violating the law by such arrests instead of enforcing it, which could eventually lead to the collapse of the rule of law,” wrote columnist Mohammed Hamdi.
Clerics have spoken out in favor of the arrests. “We believe in the freedom of worship and rituals, and that no one should be forced to practice them. However, going public by not fasting is a sin, therefore, they should be punished,” said Sheikh Salem Abdel in the name of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.