This piece might be uncomfortable for some people. Over the years, we have grown accustomed to celebrating the holy month of Ramadan as one of the most festive occasions of the year. Undoubtedly, the religious value of the month in the Islamic faith and its spiritual purposes are unquestionable. In Egyptian society in particular, Ramadan creates a sense of solidarity and mutual cooperation that transcends many of our daily negativities and hostilities.
It is very difficult to think of Ramadan in Egypt as a mere religious ritual because the cultural and historical significance of the month are as powerful and influential as its religious importance.
However, between the festivities of the tradition and the piety associated with the rituals, some things are lost and others are gravely threatened; and for so many reasons, we prefer to either overlook or intentionally ignore talking about the un-merry aspects of the holy month.
I am not about to go into the details of the various contradictions of the month and what they signify. The corporate media sponsored piety, the minimalist approach covered in banquet-oriented social occasions, the 30-day extreme ethical transformation of immoral individuals, and the millions spent on the entertainment industry are all yearly contradictions that we notice and cope with as manifestations of life’s necessary irony.
These contradictions are human imperfections and shortcomings, their occurrence can never be generalised and their meaning should not be over interpreted. However, what is worth interpretation is how the peaking sense of solidarity associated with Ramadan creates a sense of hostility towards those who choose to not participate in both the ritual and the tradition. What we choose to ignore discussing every year when Ramadan comes is the struggle between conformity and individuality, between the reign of the majority and the right of the minority, and between the coercion of moral and social conventions and the free play of individual choice.
It is understandable for individuals to defend their choices, and the intensity of that defence peaks when a strong sense of community and popular support backs those choices. However, what is not understandable is when the state decides to participate in that popular support with all the infringement on personal freedoms that this participation entails.
On the first day of Ramadan, Dar Al-Iftaa, Egypt’s official source of religious edicts or “fatwa” issued a statement saying that “open violation of the fast is a chaotic act and an assault on the sanctity of Islam”. Now, it is true that such statements are not legally binding, but it is also true that random arrests take place every year on the account of public violation of the fast. I do not intend to discuss the “fatwa” at length because this is not the fundamental debate that should occupy our minds at the moment. The real question that needs attention is how the line that separates what is religious from what is civic is easily crossed, and how this crossing goes unnoticed in the name of popular support and the sanctity of popular tradition and cultural ritual.
The problem is not with Ramadan or even the whole body of Islamic ritual, the problem is with the aggression that faces any public display of diversity or difference, or any unconventional yet peaceful expression of individual freedoms. Replacing civic law with cultural tradition or religious teachings is the core issue here. The main idea is in stigmatising difference in whichever form it comes. Calling public eating and drinking chaotic is no different than calling those who play heavy metal music Satanists, or imprisoning novelists who decide to use a different approach in their writing, or incriminating those who dare to voice out different political visions. It all boils down to one and the same thing: the inability of society to assimilate difference and the participation of state institutions in cracking down on diversity.
Individual choices do not threaten collective or majoritarian ones, and the sanctity of religion is violated when it is taken out of its spiritual realm and forced into areas that transform it into a power discourse rather than a pious pattern of life. Restricting individual freedoms in the name of presupposed notions of morality, piety, security, or righteousness will only further suppress and restrain any potential for real development of this society.