Prior to the arrival of the Muslim holy month of fasting ie Ramzan in June 2014, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) officially urged non-Muslims to respect the feelings of Muslims. A statement issued by the interior ministry of KSA said, “Non-Muslim expatriates should respect the feelings of Muslims by not eating, drinking or smoking in public places such as streets and workplaces. They should not think that they are exempted from this because they are followers of other faiths.”
Saudi Arabia has set many shameful records as far as violation of human rights are concerned but the above mentioned statement of the interior ministry was particularly ridiculous. What has a non-Muslim got to do with Ramzan? Just like a non-Muslim should recognise the right of a Muslim to fast during Ramzan from dawn to dusk without consuming even a drop of water, the government of Saudi Arabia should have also recognised the right of non-Muslims to carry on with their routine lives in the month of Ramzan. Non Muslims cannot be made to go hungry or thirsty during a month considered as holy by Muslims.
Why should a Muslim get offended if he sees a non-Muslim consume food at a public place? The non-Muslim is obviously not thrusting anything inside the Muslim’s mouth to break his fast. Therefore, it was preposterous of the Saudi Arabian government to suggest that the religious feelings of Saudi’s Muslims will be hurt if they come across a non-fasting non-Muslim. Saudi Arabian authorities should have acted with some wisdom and refrained from bullying non-Muslim expatriates in this manner. But sanity is something one shouldn’t expect from the Saudis as they don’t recognise the religious rights of non-Muslims and prevent them from doing something as basic as building their places of worship.
Let’s now move from so-called Islamic state of KSA in west Asia towards east Asia wherein the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is situated. China happens to be ruled by an atheistic, communist regime. In June 2015, Chinese authorities banned civil servant, students and teachers from fasting during Ramzan in the Muslim majority province of Xinjiang. This decision of the Chinese government was as mindless as the one taken by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The state of China has a particular ideology which does not consider religion as something of very high value but that doesn’t mean that people with certain religious beliefs would be victimised and students prevented from going to mosques and attending religious activities.
By fasting during Ramzan the community of Uighur Muslims would not have indulged in any secessionist activity. In fact by bulldozing their religious freedom, the Chinese officials ended up marginalising those people who held theistic beliefs. Unfortunately, our country India is also moving in the direction of KSA and PRC. The decision of the BJP-led Mira Bhayander Municipal Corporation (MBMC) in Mumbai to ban the slaughter and sale of meat during the Jain fasting period of Paryushan goes against the spirit of religious pluralism.
Some might argue that the ban which is set to expire on September 27 is only for a short period and that non-vegetarians can easily refrain consuming meat during this timeframe. But the question which should be asked is: How are non-vegetarians offending Jains by consuming non-vegetarian food during Paryushan? They are not forcing Jains to consume meat alongside them.
We need to realise that to respect each other’s beliefs we don’t need to start following or observing each other’s religious traditions and practices. An atheist does not have to attend a religious procession to make the world believe in the fact that he stands by religious freedom. He or she can choose to stay at home and yet recognise the right of theists to participate in a religious ritual. Similar attitude has to be maintained as far as the relationship between different religious communities is concerned. If someone does not consume beef or pork because of religious sensitivities then he/she should surely abstain from it but he/she cannot make others abstain from consuming such food items on the account of his/her religious beliefs.
If there is any sort of compulsion pertaining to food consumption then it definitely amounts to food fascism. The government has no right to tell the people what they are supposed to eat and when or where they are allowed to eat. The sooner countries like Saudi Arabia, China and India realise it; the better it would be for religious plurality and freedom. The state cannot police any person’s diet merely to further its own political designs or to protect a certain group’s religious feelings. Toleration and respect towards a religious community’s traditions is essential but replication of their rituals is not.
(This article was originally published in DailyO.)