The rules of Ramadan

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Ramadan began last week. Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset during the Islamic holy month. And most Muslims take the obligation seriously. But a few young activists in the north African country of Morocco say they should be free not to fast. From Rabat, Ursula Lindsey has their story.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp, and this is The World. Ramadan began last week. The Islamic Holy Month commemorates the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. The fast is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and most Muslims take the obligation seriously. But a few young activists in the North African country of Morocco say they should be free not to fast. From Rabat, Ursula Lindsey has their story.

URSULA LINDSEY: Najib Chaouki is a young Moroccan blogger and activist. He's also the public face of an unusual movement in the Muslim world. He defends the right to break the fast in public. Chaouki acknowledges that's an unpopular position.

CHAOUKI: FRENCH SPEAKING

TRANSLATOR: The problem is that people think that public space belongs to the majority. The majority of Moroccans today are practicing Muslims. But public space isn't just for them. It's for all Moroccans.

LINDSEY: Morocco criminalizes breaking the fast in public. Violators risk a fine and a jail sentence. Ten activists tried to organize a picnic during Ramadan last year to protest the law. They were arrested before they could take their first bite. This year, Chaouki has become a kind of spokesman for those Moroccans who don't fast. He's created a Facebook group to discuss the right not to fast. And he's given interviews in the Arab media. His campaign has won notice across the Arab world. It has even been imitated. An Algerian human rights group has called on authorities to protect fast-breakers and to allow cafes to stay open during the days of Ramadan. Chaouki comes from an observant Muslim family. His outspokenness on this issue has cost him family and friends. He's been attacked in the press. He's received threats online. And he's been insulted in the street. Mustapha Khalfi is the editor of Morocco's main Islamist newspaper. He says Muslims support the law on public fasting for good reason.

MUSTAPHA KHALFI: We need to make a difference between private sphere and public sphere. The private sphere, it's your right, do what you like. But in the public sphere, you should respect the law. The law is criminalizing eating publicly, in front of the people who are fasting during Ramadan. And this will create a provocation, like harming the religious feeling.

LINDSEY: The Moroccan authorities say the law protects the public order and the fast-breakers themselves. There have been incidents of angry crowds setting upon individuals who drink or eat in public during Ramadan. Khadija Ryadi heads the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, which opposes the law.

KHADIJA RYADI: FRENCH SPEAKING

LINDSEY: She says the law contradicts the International Human Rights Conventions Morocco has signed, and its commitment to freedom of religion. And she rejects the argument that Moroccans couldn't adapt to people publicly breaking the fast during Ramadan.

RYADI: FRENCH SPEAKING

TRANSLATOR: We can't say that people aren't ready as a pretext to never change. It's true that people don't accept eating on the street during Ramadan, because most people today are intolerant in matters of religion. That's what they've learned at school; that's what they've heard on TV. There's no other discourse, no other culture.

LINDSEY: Some of the activists are pushing a broader goal. They want to challenge the Islamization of Moroccan public life. Najib Chaouki decries what he calls the "social hypocrisy" in his country.

CHAOUKI: FRENCH SPEAKING

TRANSLATOR: In Morocco you don't even have the right to discuss so-called taboos. So to debate something that people think is sacred, I think that's not bad. We've managed to have a public debate on this law, last year and this year. Something is moving.

LINDSEY: But Mustapha Khalfi, the newspaper editor, says that movement is destined to fail.

KHALFI: The Islamic identity within the Moroccan society ? it's so, so deep. I don't think this kind of marginal phenomenon will push the society to change their views.

LINDSEY: Chaouki and his supporters admit there's little likelihood the law, or people's attitudes, will change soon. At the end of our conversation, Chaouki suggests we grab a coffee?at home. For the World, Ursula Lindsey, Rabat, Morocco.