Where a picnic is against the law

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.

“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.”