Ramadan Night’s All Right for Fighting

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 1 2001 12:24 PM

Ramadan Night’s All Right for Fighting

But the U.S. might want to stop bombing anyway.

Four years ago during Ramadan, I was playing guitar in a train station in Morocco when a man named Mohammed came up and introduced himself. He said that his brother was a musician; he took me to tea; we chatted about American rock 'n' roll. Then he invited me home for a family Ramadan feast.

I knew to always watch my back in Morocco, but a savvy American friend had also told me to feel safe if someone mentioned Ramadan. In Islam, Ramadan represents the time when the prophet Mohammed first started receiving the revelations of the Quran, and fasting from sunup to sundown during this holy month represents one of the five "pillars" of Muslim life. From what I’d heard, even the thieves and the thugs respected the sacred tradition.

Well, not the fellow I met. We took a cab to his house, and I quickly realized something was amiss when he directed the driver to zip around in disorienting circles. My suspicion was, shall we say, confirmed when we arrived at his house and he locked me in a tiny dirt bathroom.

Eventually, Mohammed pulled me out, introduced me to his brother, and demanded that I sell his drugs in the United States for $10,000. He seemed confused when I told him that I couldn’t do that, and, in retaliation I think, he made me eat a fish head. He took the $60 in my wallet and futilely searched my backpack for more. Finding nothing much besides dirty clothes, he spent the rest of the night smoking pot and arguing in Arabic with his brother. When morning finally came, Mohammed stuffed a sheepskin rug into my pack, insisting that he wanted to square everything up for the $60. Then his brother drove me back to town.

My kidnapping bolsters Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s argument in favor of continuing to blast Afghanistan through Ramadan, which starts around Nov. 17. Rumsfeld recently said, "There is nothing in that religion that suggests that conflicts have to stop during Ramadan."

He’s right. Recent Islamic history is crowded with Ramadan wars. Egypt and Syria invaded Israel on the 10th day of Ramadan in 1973—a day that also happened to be Yom Kippur. Iran and Iraq torched each other repeatedly during the eight Ramadans of their war, and the Taliban and Northern Alliance have clashed during Ramadan, too. The prophet Mohammed himself led a Ramadan raid against the Meccans during the Battle of Badr in 624.

According to the many Islamic scholars I consulted, the Quran discourages violence during Ramadan but allows exceptions for self-defense and just causes. In Chapter 2, verse 217, Allah explains to Mohammed what he should tell people when they ask about Ramadan fighting: "Say: 'Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members.' Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter."

There’s clearly more than enough room there for a Muslim terrorist to justify violence against infidels. (In fact, Osama Bin Laden and his followers might consider Ramadan an especially good time for more terrorism. Ramadan traditionally magnifies all good deeds in Islam. According to the ahadith—traditions of the prophet recorded by early followers—"whoever discharges an obligatory deed in [Ramadan] shall receive the reward of performing 70 obligations at any other time." If a terrorist is crazy enough to consider mass murder of Americans a good deed, well, mass murder during Ramadan may be 70 times better.)

Theologically speaking, though, the Quran may justify American warfare, too. Its basic message is that righteous warfare is never prohibited. Even if the text is read more literally as justifying only warfare against those who "prevent access to the path of Allah," Rumsfeld could respond that America is indeed trying to defend true Islam—particularly the moderate religion practiced by the many Muslims killed in the World Trade Center attack. American officials seem to have decided that continuing to fight is the right course. Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week that the United States would keep bombing during Ramadan, though perhaps at a slower pace.

But even if Rumsfeld is correct that there’s no strict theological prohibition against Ramadan bombing, that doesn’t mean the country should fight during the holy month. Politically speaking, Ramadan is a uniquely inopportune time for this country to pummel Afghanistan—particularly given the rising instability in moderate Muslim countries that the United States desperately needs to remain stable, such as Indonesia and nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Ramadan is organized around fasting, and this self-denial is in large part intended to create empathy with suffering Muslims everywhere. So approximately a billion people across the world are soon going to be thinking about their daily hunger and Muslim suffering exactly when winter hits and CNN and Al Jazeera start to broadcast reports of freezing, starving Afghan children dying near roads and villages demolished by American bombs. According to the U.N.’s World Food Program, about 7 and a half million Afghans face starvation this winter. Does the United States really want to exacerbate that famine while the people it wants to win over fast every day?

The United States may have a better option than bombing. Instead of doing what the Quran permits, we could do what it actually encourages.

According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Islamic scholar at UCLA: "Say I have a neighbor, and I extend a hand of kindness at the beginning of Ramadan. If he says ‘go to hell,’ Ramadan does not obligate me to turn the other cheek. What it requires is that I have made a good-faith effort at finding a moral way to resolve the conflict." The Quran also very specifically supports nonviolent resolutions during the month: "Know that God is with those who restrain themselves" (9:36).

Thus, Ramadan gives an opportunity for reconciliation, and when the holy month begins with the new moon, the United States should offer some sort of plausible resolution. It should temporarily lay down its arms, make a concerted effort to help refugees, and perhaps even publicly present hard evidence of Bin Laden’s guilt. If the Bush administration wants to make one more concerted try at peace, this is the moment for it.

Such an effort will be fruitless if Mullah Omar really does intend to fight to the last man. But even if the Taliban don’t surprise the United States by turning over Bin Laden—the way my Moroccan kidnapper surprised me with his offer of a rug—at least the United States will make some progress at retaining moderate Muslim support. And that’s probably the best outcome from Ramadan we can hope for.

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