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Where a picnic is against the law

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

“I got dozens and dozens of threats and insults, people saying unbelievable things,” El Rhazoui said. “I’m going to be careful, but I refuse to let these people scare me.”

One message, from a sender named Tarik, said El Rhazoui deserved to be put to death before the eyes of the whole Muslim world. Another, named Houcine, suggested that since El Rhazoui was willing to break her fast in public, perhaps she would consent to sex with the sender in public, too. “Bitch,” the message said, “write me back.”

The activist who administrated MALI’s Facebook group, Omar Radi, said some of the threats he received became quite specific. “‘We’re going to cut off your head,’ things like that,” he recalled.

Morocco’s premier liberal news weekly, TelQuel, published an editorial calling the fierce reaction a sign Morocco has lost its culture of tolerance. “In one generation our country has radically transformed,” it said. “It’s scary.”

But even some critics of the crackdown said observers shouldn’t read too much into a backlash they say stems less from theological fervor than a cultural insistence on keeping the fast.

“Ramadan is something unique here,” Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, which has called on the government to repeal the fasting law. “The reaction to the protest was more cultural than religious.”

Whether the picnickers will face prosecution remains to be seen, said their lawyer, Abderrahim Jamai. He said authorities initially intimated the protesters would be slapped with Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which forbids Muslims from eating between sunrise and sunset during the holy month.

But the fact picnickers were intercepted pre- rather than post-nosh may help explain why none of them have been formally charged with a crime, Jamai said.

“They had a debate and they expressed ideas,” he said. “But they didn’t complete the act.”