When eating becomes a crime

There was a time, back in the 1960s, when Habib Bourguiba – the first president of Tunisia – could appear on TV sipping tea during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

When the Marxists ruled in southern Yemen, state TV would pointedly broadcast cookery programmes at times when Muslims were supposed to be fasting. Newspapers frequently grumbled about government employees turning up late for work during Ramadan, tired from having stayed up the night before, doing little work when they arrived, leaving for home early, and sometimes pretending to be sick and not turning up for work at all.

Absenteeism apart, much has changed since then. This week, the Saudi interior ministry warned that non-Muslim expatriates who eat or drink in public during Ramadan risk termination of employment and deportation, since such behaviour "could hurt the feelings of Muslims".

Rules like this are basically about keeping up appearances, and they entirely miss the point of Ramadan. Using the law to ensure that people fast (as numerous Arab countries do) undermines its moral purpose. Fasting is supposed to encourage self-control but fasting under the threat of arrest is more about obedience than self-control. 

By the same token, believers should not be upset or offended by the sight of non-Muslims eating and drinking. They should feel proud that they are able to watch others eat and drink while resisting the temptation to do so themselves.

Gulf states tend to be the most strict in enforcing Ramadan. The typical penalty is a one-month jail sentence and/or a fine, and the law applies to everyone regardless of religion – on the grounds that seeing someone break their fast is offensive to Muslims even if the fast-breaker is not actually Muslim. 

In Kuwait, restaurants and cafes must remain closed during daylight hours, though supermarkets can open. 

In Dubai, members of the public are officially encouraged to look out for anyone eating, drinking or smoking – even in the relative privacy of their own car – and report them to the police. According to Dubai police, 27 people were arrested for fast-breaking between 2005 and 2009, including a European non-Muslim. 

In Egypt, which has a large Christian minority and no law requiring people to fast, the authorities nevertheless embarked on a crackdown in 2009, reportedly arresting more than 150 people in Aswan province and ordering the closure of cafes and restaurants in the Red Sea tourist resort of Hurghada. In the Delta area, seven youths were arrested for smoking in the street (smoking is considered to be fast-breaking) and fined LE 500 ($90) each. 

The wave of arrests seemed to be mainly the work of some especially religious-minded police officers but the authorities supported them on the grounds that public fast-breaking is a form of “incivility” covered by the Egyptian penal code. 

Egyptian clerics also backed the punishment of those who broke the fast in public. Sheikh Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Centre, said: “People are free not to fast, but privately; doing so in public is not a matter of personal freedom … it reveals contempt for those who are fasting, for Ramadan and for the fasting as an obligatory religious duty.” 

Arrests for Ramadan infringements are a regular occurrence in Algeria, too, though there has also been public debate about whether fasting should be a matter for the law or personal conscience. Six residents in the town of Biskra were arrested for eating and playing cards during the daylight hours of Ramadan in 2008. They were each fined 120,000 dinars ($1,770) though an appeals court judge later quashed the sentences, saying they violated constitutional provisions for freedom of belief. 

In a separate case, three men convicted of smoking during Ramadan in Algeria had their three-year jail sentences reduced to two months on appeal. In 2011, a group of men working on a construction site were imprisoned for eating during Ramadan even though they insisted they were not Muslims. 

Arrests usually occur when people break the fast in public but in a more unusual Algerian case police entered a house in Akbou following a tip-off and arrested young men who had been breaking the fast privately inside. 

In 2009, Morocco witnessed its first protest against compulsory fasting. Or rather, an attempted protest. The plan was to hold a picnic in a forest outside Mohammedia but security forces prevented it.

A more successful protest took place in Algeria in 2013 after security forces questioned three young people for breaking the fast. Angry residents of Tizi-Ouzou, a largely Berber area with a relatively secular outlook and a history of tense relations with the central government, organised a public lunch which was attended by some 300 people. Bouaziz Ait Chebib, head of the local Kabylie Autonomy Movement, explained: “We called this gathering to denounce the inquisition and persecution of citizens who, because of their beliefs, refuse to observe the fast.” 

Although Ramadan is usually described as the month of fasting, it would be equally accurate to call it a month of night-time feasting. Ramadan has become "the most un-Islamic month in the calendar", according to Bahraini blogger Mahmood al-Yousif: "Gluttony is the rule and piousness is only the facade people wear."