The pointlessness of the Ramadan debate

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published November 12, 2001

The ongoing political debate as to whether or not we should continue our bombing campaign in Afghanistan during Ramadan seems to me to be useless, if not dangerous. Those who are anti-war and enter into this debate can be pulled into an undesirable position. What this public discussion seems to be achieving is one major thing: Quelling anti-war voices. When we engage in debating bombing during Ramadan, we are implicitly supporting the larger concept of the bombing itself.

Paul Wong
A northern alliance fighter covers his ears near a firing mortar near the Quruq village in northern Afghanistan yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Surely, it is not inconsistent to argue against the war while pointing out the cultural insensitivity of our government"s inability to grasp the emotional weight of the month of Ramadan on the Arab and Muslim world. But in arguing the latter point, one must make sure not to get caught in the trap of advocating for a pause in the bombing during Ramadan rather than an end to the war altogether. Those of us who are against the bombing must make sure not to lose our paramount message and unintentionally create the impression that if bombing was halted during Ramadan only to continue after, that we would somehow be satisfied.

Although it does not seem that the Bush team will halt "America"s New War" during Ramadan, imagine if they did. From a political standpoint, it would be crippling for the anti-war movement. How could anyone who was anti-war attack the war effort after such a display of America"s compassion and cultural understanding? It is precisely for this reason that getting caught up in such a debate can be so dangerous.

Would those of us who are anti-war be content with a bombing pause only? Of course not. The debate is not whether or not to stop bombing during Ramadan, but rather the debate is the same as it has been all along: Why should we be bombing at all? What are we achieving? And more importantly, what are we creating? These are the questions we have been asking, and these are the questions we must continue to ask, whether it"s Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, whatever.

In an international arena, however, such a debate only hurts our image. It makes the American people appear as insensitive to Muslim holy times, which I don"t believe the majority are (I have found that the vast majority of my fellow Americans that I have talked to have become more interested in broadening their learning about Islamic and Arab cultures and traditions). It also allows the dictatorial regimes throughout the Arab and Muslim world that are supporting our bombing campaign to strengthen their hold on their peoples. Leaders in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the like will surely use the issue to gain support among their populations, who are largely against the war in Afghanistan, all the while continuing to provide quiet support to America. And for those similarly corrupt dictators in the nations that are against the campaign, such as in Iraq, they will only be able to fortify their already choke-like holds on their citizens.

It is also interesting to note how Ramadan has been constructed in major media circles during this whole debate. On Oct. 23, as this debate was getting underway, CNN ran a headline entitled "Ramadan looms large in Afghan strikes." I have never heard of a religious holiday "looming." But according to some at CNN, Ramadan "looms." There are other recent CNN headlines that have contained "looming" prospects, like "Japan jobs vanish as recession looms" (Sept. 28), or "N. Ireland assembly deadline looms" (Sept. 21), or "Kabul aid workers trial looms" (Sept. 3). So deadlines "loom," recessions "loom," and trials "loom." "Loom," if you have not figured it out yet, has a somewhat ominous connotation. To loom is to be mysterious. Only discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety are to follow "looming" events. According to a thesaurus, some of the synonyms of "looming" are "impending," "imminent," "hanging over somebody," and "threatening." The connection is quite dangerous. If Ramadan is "looming" or "threatening," then what kind of people could celebrate such a holiday?

The same CNN article proclaims "the importance of the fasting month of Ramadan on the psyche of the Muslim cannot be underestimated. One of the five pillars of Islam, the pressure on all Muslims to remain faithful to Islam is never more obvious than at this time." Pressure? It gets better. Rahul Bedi, an analyst from Jane"s Information Group, a consulting firm specializing in defense-related matters, stated in the article that the issue will be used by bin Laden in an attempt to create support among Muslims. That is most certainly sure to happen.

But he goes on to call Ramadan a "fault line," stating "if the U.S. was to wage war during Ramadan, it could be seen as being completely insensitive to Arabs worldwide." This may be the largest problem of all. If well-paid analysts like Bedi and our U.S. government officials refuse to acknowledge what they have already done to offend Arab and Muslim sensibilities worldwide, then some ephemeral talk about being sensitive during Ramadan means nothing at all.

Amer G. Zahr can be reached via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.