Thursday, November 20, 2003

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month devoted to contemplation, prayer and fasting, has become a synonym for violence this year, with unprecedented suicide bombings of targets friendly to the West, around the Islamic world.

Attacks in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey alone have left more than 100 people dead and injured hundreds more since Ramadan began Oct. 27, including yesterday’s bombing in Istanbul. Ramadan will end with the new moon Monday.

The Koran does not promote violence during Ramadan, but Muslim militants see it as an opportunity for jihad, or holy war.

“Radicals see jihad not principally as an act of violence or an assertion of power … but as a spiritual act, a holy cleansing of the world’s impurities,” says Robert Spencer, author of “Onward Muslim Soldiers” and “Islam Unveiled.”

“In this view, if there is ever a time to fight Satan in all his various manifestations on Earth — including Americans and Israelis — it is Ramadan.”

The United States was criticized in 2001 by Muslim leaders for continuing its bombing campaign in Afghanistan during Ramadan. They said any bombings during the holy month could lead to major unrest in other Muslim countries. In the end, Bush administration officials decided the United States could not afford a pause in the campaign.

The 28-day holy month is seen as a time when all good deeds are rewarded 10 times over; a time when the dead are guaranteed access to heaven and the gates of hell are closed, according to the Hadith, a book of sayings by Muhammad.

Some believe that if they commit jihad during Ramadan, they will gain a greater reward in heaven. If martyred, so much the better.

“The militants are using the violence to underscore their point of being part of a higher cause,” says Dr. Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine.

The “Yom Kippur War” of October 1973, when Syria and Egypt attacked Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, occurred during Ramadan.

“There is a tradition of sanctity being violated throughout history,” he says. “From a military point of view, war was to be used because the opponent would be less vigilant. So Ramadan has a long history of violence.”

However, the radicals are not scoring points with their co-religionists, he says, and “to have this happen during Ramadan is a serious provocation to the tranquillity of the average Muslim.”

This year’s Ramadan has left a bloody trail of death in Islamic countries worldwide.

First, suicide bombers attacked four Iraqi police stations early Oct. 27, followed by an ambulance full of explosives at the local Red Cross in Baghdad, leaving 42 persons dead and at least 200 injured.

On Nov. 8, three explosions rocked a residential compound in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killing at least 18 persons and wounding more than 400.

On Nov. 15, suicide bombings near two synagogues in Istanbul resulted in 25 deaths and more than 300 injuries.

And yesterday, 27 persons were killed in Istanbul in two separate bombings at Britain’s consulate and at London-based bank HSBC. Among the dead was Britain’s consul general, Roger Short.

Ramadan is a time of Islamic fervor. Hezbollah’s satellite television channel Al-Manar is broadcasting this month a 30-part anti-Semitic Syrian-produced series titled “Al-Shatat” (“Diaspora”) on the “criminal history of Zionism,” according to the Syria Times. Described by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the show depicts gruesome frames of Jews torturing and killing Muslims.

“In the mind of any Muslim, if there are any armies attacking Islamic countries at the time of Ramadan, it’s their duty to fight,” says Samuel Shahid, director of the Islamics department at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. “They look at these foreign powers in Iraq and Afghanistan as their enemies.”

Says Paul Marshall, senior fellow for the Center for Religious Freedom: “Terrorist groups regard jihad as a sixth pillar of Islam. If that is a holy duty, it would fit in well with Ramadan. In many situations, Christians [in Muslim-majority countries] enjoy Ramadan as it’s usually celebrated, with lots of food and talk. But if theirs is a community under threat, it’s a bad situation.”

Shaul Bakhash, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a specialist on Iran, does not connect Ramadan with violence, “unless you could argue religious sentiment runs higher during this period and thus people are more frequently in mosques and listening to the sermons,” he says. “But I haven’t heard of preachers calling for more strikes.”

Osman Bakar, a specialist in Islam of Southeast Asia who teaches at Georgetown University, says there is no justification in Islamic tradition for Ramadan violence.

“The great majority of Muslims are observing Ramadan peacefully,” he says. “If the radicals are choosing Ramadan so they can get popular support, they’re failing.”

This is the factor that has made this Ramadan different, Mr. Spencer says. “Traditional Islamic theology forbids attacks by believers on fellow believers, so radical Muslim groups classify moderate Muslims — who aren’t joining them in jihad — as unbelievers.

“So they see these bombings as spiritual, as fulfilling the commandments of Allah. And the peace they envision is the worldwide peace from sharia [Islamic] law. But you’ve got to wage war to get there.”

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