Ramadan in Algeria: The Hefty Sin Tax

A pupil walking in Zaouia Ait Koufi in Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers, during the holy month of Ramadan, 8 August 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Louafi larbi)

By: Mourad Traboulsi

Published Sunday, August 19, 2012

Algiers - Over the past few years, there has been an increase in Algeria in the number of trials for people who break their fast during Ramadan. In some cases, non-Muslims have been arrested. The government, the police, the justice system, the media and all state institutions are involved in the business of imposing fasting.

The press and the forces of political Islam have come up with a new phrase that has been used widely lately – “violating the sanctity of Ramadan” – perhaps to make the act sound shocking and to invigorate those people casting the stamp of criminality on those who do not fast.

The police arrest those they catch red-handed. They are then interrogated at a police station where they are reminded that they are in a Muslim country and people should not be provoked when it comes to their faith.

Judges have given years-long prison sentences to people who are not committed to fasting during Ramadan and so are deemed guilty.

Last year, men working at a construction site in Ain al-Hammam in the Kabylie region in northern Algeria were arrested. They said they are not Muslim but they were imprisoned anyway because they ate in public.

Now many people who are caught breaking the fast in Ramadan declare that it is their right to do so because they are not Muslim.

Opinions differ on whether punishment should be exacted on those who break the fast in Ramadan. Supporters feel that Algeria is a Muslim country where people’s beliefs should be respected. Besides, the constitution stipulates in article two that “Islam is the religion of the state.” As such, state institutions have the right to protect the religion and its pillars. The oath of the president which he repeats when he is inaugurated every five years begins with respecting the Muslim faith and glorifying it before expressing commitment to any other issue.

Supporters justify bringing punishment on people who do not fast in Ramadan by saying that this month is especially sacred. Fasting is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam and it connects the third and fifth pillars because the practices of prayer, glorification of God and the Muslim declaration of faith increase during Ramadan and at the end of the month zakat or alms are given.

The authorities’ monitoring of people during Ramadan and punishing of those who are proven to have broken the fast is the only thing that Algerian Islamists thank their police force and their judges for and the only time they consider the government their guardian. In everything else, they mostly oppose them.

On the other hand, there are people who believe that commitment to fasting in Ramadan is a personal matter, like other matters having to do with religion. And the month’s sanctity does not justify violating people’s freedom to worship or not. After all, it is known in Islam that God says: “'Every deed of the son of Adam is for him except fasting; it is for Me.” As such it is offensive to have the police force be the agent of God’s sovereignty.

Besides, those who bring down punishment did not bother to investigate whether such punishment is religiously allowed. There are people who mock this practice arguing that following this logic, the authorities should interrupt work and school everytime the adhan or Islamic call for prayer is recited to make certain that people are praying; monitor bank and postal accounts to ensure that every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to carries out the pilgrimage; and make people prove they are Muslim by repeating the two declarations of belief - that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His messenger - in public.

A year ago, the suburbs of the city of Akbou in the Kabylie region witnesses a curious incident. A person snitched to the police about a group of young men who were breaking the fast inside a home. The police broke into the house and arrested them. It was a precedent that caused such an uproar in the region that some people suggested engaging in “a collective violation of the sanctity of Ramadan” so that the authorities would stop going after people who do not fast.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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