Connect to share and comment

Where a picnic is against the law

Moroccan protests against the Ramadan fast provoke arrests and angry threats.

Muslim Moroccans pray near Hassan II Tower in Rabat during the holy month of Ramadan, Oct. 5, 2007. Moroccans who planned a public picnic this year in protest of laws against eating during Ramadan were arrested by police. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — Death threats, police interrogations and a media firestorm aren’t typical upshots of a decision to enjoy an afternoon picnic.

But that’s just what happened after a circle of Moroccan activists tried meeting for an outdoor lunch during Ramadan last month.

The activists planned the meal to protest a national law that punishes those who break the Islamic holy month’s mandatory daytime fast. Their stated aim was to spur debate on religious freedom.

The resulting brouhaha has observers debating the sway fundamentalists hold in a country that  has a 98 percent Muslim majority and which, despite travel advertisements that make its society appear modern and secular, is actually quite traditional.

“Moroccan society is particularly hard on people who don’t observe Ramadan,” said Zineb El Rhazoui, 27, a Casablanca journalist who helped organize the protest. “If people see you eating in the street, they attack you. This needs to be stopped.”

Billing themselves as the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberty, the group came together in a manner befitting one of the Arab world’s more web-savvy countries — on Facebook. The French acronym for the group’s name, MALI, is also fitting. In Moroccan Arabic "mali" translates roughly to “what do you blame me for?” or “what’s wrong with me?”

If you ask Moroccan authorities, the answer seems to be: plenty.

The picnickers planned to meet on Sept. 13 halfway between Casablanca and the capital city of Rabat — a compromise between residents of the country’s financial and administrative hubs.

But as the handful of snack-toting youths descended onto a train platform near the appointed spot, they were immediately accosted by a crowd of police officers and several journalists who, it seems, also kept tabs on Facebook.

As cameras whirred, witnesses said scores of uniformed and plainclothes cops detained the activists before even one sandwich was munched. Ibtissam Lachgar, 34, a psychiatrist who attended the protest from Rabat recalled, “It was 100 police officers against 10 sandwiches, truly.”

The following day, the state-controlled wire service, MAP, announced that police had “thwarted” an illegal attempt to break the Ramadan fast, pledging that the “promoters of this demonstration, for trying to incite a violation of the fast in public, will be prosecuted under existing law.”

Partisan newspapers ran photos of the protesters alongside denunciations from conservative politicians. The protesters, interrogated by authorities over the course of several days and dubbed “de-jeuners” or “fast-breakers” in the press, said they received emailed death threats from Islamists.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/morocco/091020/where-picnic-against-the-law