Freedom of Religion

How Ramadan is Like Yom Kippur

07.24.12 8:15 PM ET

The Saudi Ministry of the Interior issued a statement yesterday asking non-Muslim residents to refrain from eating and drinking in public, in order to respect the month-long holiday of Ramadan, during which observant Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Those who eat publicly may face deportation.

Totally absurd, right?

Only—not really. Well, the deportation part is a little much; a fine would be a tad more proportional to the offense. But the ban on eating in public during Ramadan in order to respect the majority religion of the state is neither absurd nor an offense to liberal values. Just like Israel’s religion-neutral ban on various “Offenses Against Religious Sentiment and Tradition,” which is interpreted to include driving during Yom Kippur and on publicly selling leavened bread during Passover, are not an infringement upon the liberal democratic state—nor to they reflect intolerance of minority religions.

The public space is inherently different from private space, in which one may eat and drink on Ramadan and eat or sell bread on Passover freely. Public space is shared, and as with all sharing, it is more important to be respectful than to be right (or exercise a right). The temperature in Riyadh right now is 108˚, and most people are not drinking anything during some of the longest days of the year. It is disrespectful—not to Allah or to Islam, but to those who are fasting—to drink in front of their faces. On Yom Kippur, many Israelis fast and ask for divine forgiveness; it is respectful to keep the day quiet and facilitate introspection—even outside the synagogue.

This respect is important even where there is separation of Church and state. In a pro-choice protest in San Francisco a while back, protesters held up a sign that read: “If Mary had had an abortion, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” It is their right to do that, and it should be their right. But it’s not particularly respectful to do so in the public space that they share with a whole lot of people who believe in the divinity of Jesus. Was there no other way to make their point?

There are some restrictions on public behavior that infringe on rights in ways that are unacceptable: for example, banning women from driving and employing religious police to enforce modest dress and behavior for women (other things Saudi Arabia does) are not acceptable. It doesn’t matter how offended anyone is by women driving or wearing nail polish, because these restrict basic elements of liberty such as mobility and control over one’s body. But not driving on a national holiday or eating outside are mild, temporary restrictions on behavior that facilitate respectful sharing of public space.

That these laws usually mandate respect of majority religion and not minority religions is not only natural but also right. I’m a Jew living in the United States—experiencing the public practice of the majority religion comes with the territory of being a religious minority. And that’s fine; there can be a Christmas tree in my town square during Christmas. 

So to the critics of Saudi Arabia’s ban on food and water, I say Ramadan Kareem.