- Associated Press - Friday, August 10, 2012

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Alongside hundreds of millions of Muslims observing the sunrise-to-sundown fast of Ramadan, a minority in the community goes underground each year during the holy month, sneaking sandwiches and cigarettes when no one is looking.

They include Muslims ambivalent about their faith or outright atheists, nicotine addicts too hooked to quit for 15 hours straight or those who simply don’t want to deal with a day of being hungry.

The Ramadan dodgers indulge in secret — mostly to avoid offending those who are fasting or to avoid embarrassment. Community pressure is powerful. Many say they don’t break the rules openly because they fear the disapproval of wives, neighbors and colleagues, or want to set a good example for their children.

“I tried to fast, but it’s pointless. I need to smoke,” said Ahmed, a 28-year-old electrician, puffing on a cigarette at midday in the privacy of a windowless office in an industrial park in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

He said he didn’t want his fiancee or his mother to know he wasn’t fasting. “I’m saving myself a headache,” he said, laughing.

In some places, authorities enforce adherence.

Saudi Arabia threatens to expel even non-Muslim expatriates seen violating Ramadan. In Muslim-majority Malaysia, officials randomly inspect restaurants and parks and nab hundreds of Muslims every year among those eating or drinking. Usually it means a fine amounting to around $300, but repeat offenders in some states can get a year in prison.

Still, the potential chiding from friends and family generally is reason enough to lay low.

In Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, marketing executive Amri said he eats in his car while heading to or from work and hides a water bottle in a work bag for secret sips at the office. He’s an atheist but in the eyes of the law and society, he’s Muslim.

“I’m sure some of my colleagues also don’t always fast, but it’s something that nobody wants to admit. Half of it is the fear of being caught by (the authorities), half of it is the fear that people will look at you negatively,” he said.

Ahmed, Amri and others who acknowledged violating Ramadan spoke with The Associated Press on condition that their full names not be used, another sign of the taboo’s power.

During Ramadan, healthy Muslims must abstain from food, drink and cigarettes during daylight hours. The elderly, the very young, the sick as well as menstruating and nursing women are not required to fast.

Ramadan is typically a joyous time. Families gather for meals at night and sit together to watch the season’s best soap operas. People pray more. There’s a spirit of warmth, a break from routine. For the observant, fasting is a reminder of the deprivations of the poor. It also brings a sense of community, so even many who don’t consider themselves religious or slide on daily prayers throughout the year join in.

But it’s not for everyone.

“I don’t believe in fasting,” said a 59-year-old Palestinian-American supermarket owner from Los Angeles. Raised near Jerusalem in a devout Muslim family, he let go of his faith after moving to the U.S. decades ago.

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