ON NOVEMBER 16 begins the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and some Muslims and Islamophiles at home and abroad are suggesting that its arrival ought to mark a pause in the U.S.-led coalition's war on terror: Finish what needs doing in Afghanistan by then, they say, or risk offending Muslims worldwide.
It would indeed be a fine thing if we could get Osama bin Laden, roll up his al Qaeda network in its entirety, and otherwise successfully complete the prosecution of the war on terror by November 16. Given that this does not seem terribly likely, however, we are left with the question of what, if anything, to do differently come Ramadan.
In the movie version of "The Man Who Would Be King," intrepid adventurers Sean Connery and Michael Caine gaze in astonishment as two armies poised for battle on the plains of Kafiristan (now the eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan) suddenly stop and prostrate themselves before a procession of orange-clad monks crossing the battlefield between them. It's a great scene in a great movie. It is also purest make-believe. With regard to the actual recent and historical practice of Islamic countries themselves and Muslims generally, the arrival of Ramadan has not entailed a religious necessity to lay down arms.
The Prophet Muhammad fought during Ramadan to reclaim Mecca in 624. Anwar Sadat's Egypt launched war on Israel in 1973 during Ramadan. Iran and Iraq, during their brutal eight-year war in the 1980s, fought through the corresponding eight holy months. In 1981, Saddam Hussein's Iraq offered a cease-fire for Ramadan, but the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran rejected it; both the offer and the rebuff likely had far more to do with the pursuit of military advantage than religious sentiment. In 1995, militant Algerian groups rebelling against the government called for stepped-up attacks during Ramadan; 1,500 people had been killed during the holy month the previous year. In Afghanistan itself during the period of Soviet occupation, resistance forces continued to press their attacks through the holy months.
There is, in fact, no formal Islamic prohibition on fighting during Ramadan. And out of deference to the rigors of armed combat, the requirement of day-long fasting has long been waived for warriors.
The cold calculations of war have not generally been respectful of religious holidays. The attack Sadat launched was, of course, on the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur. During the Kosovo war two years ago, pressure mounted for a halt in the U.S.-led bombing operations on Orthodox Easter Sunday. The pope himself weighed in. Yet the bombs fell as scheduled--as indeed Nazi bombs fell on Belgrade on Easter 1941 and Allied bombs on Easter 1944.
Despite the bloody historical record, the Bush administration is under pressure to do things differently this time. University of Richmond law professor Azizah al-Hibri, who has met with Bush, told USA Today, "We need to keep in mind the sensitivities of the Muslim world. If [Bush] fights during Ramadan, that will give bin Laden one more tool to argue to the Muslim world that the United States is disrespectful of their religion. The president has gone to great lengths to say this is not a war on Islam, but a war on terrorism." An anonymous Malaysian official worried to Agence France-Presse that attacks during Ramadan would inflame emotions there, and an unnamed Pakistani official told the Financial Times, "If American military operations continue into Ramadan and there are no signs of a new political arrangement in place in Afghanistan, many Muslims who are already protesting against the Americans would protest more." It is quite clear that the Bush administration wants to keep Islamic countries on board the anti-terror coalition and will go to considerable lengths to achieve that end.
Will U.S. deference to Muslim sensibilities lead to an extraordinary Ramadan cease-fire? It shouldn't. In the first place, you don't need an advanced degree from the Army War College to see the danger of giving your enemy a month not just to fast but also to regroup, move freely, rebuild disrupted communications, and plot new violence against you. As for the supposed Muslim backlash, that's a genuine concern, but one must ask: Aren't Muslims who are going to be inflamed by the United States bombing already rather inflamed? How many of the currently uninflamed will wake up November 16 and find themselves for the first time inflamed?
More than that, though, there is a sense in which stopping for Ramadan would send exactly the wrong message to the Islamic world. This is a war on terrorism, not on Islam. The targets are the terror networks and their supporters, and they need to be attacked whenever they present themselves. To refrain from doing so during Ramadan would, in effect, Islamicize the conflict, granting terrorists special treatment solely out of deference to their professed Islamic faith. This would only legitimize their claim to be speaking for Islam.
If we don't run into bin Laden until November 16, he should still expect exactly the same treatment he would have received November 15.
Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
October 29, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 7