Ramadan raises conflicting loyalties


FALLS CHURCH, Va. - The pre-holiday bustle is already starting at places like the Halal Meat Market that sell fresh dates, the sweet fruit that Muslims traditionally eat to break the daily sunup-to-sundown fasts required during the holy month of Ramadan.

But this year, Ramadan, which by the lunar calendar begins Nov. 17, will dawn under the cloud of war. With the United States vowing to continue air and ground strikes in Afghanistan if necessary even through the onset of Ramadan, American Muslims find themselves caught more than ever between the secular and the sacred, their country and their religion.

"Obviously, we would want the fighting to stop for Ramadan," said Sheik Anwar Al-Awlaki, imam of Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, where 3,000 worshipers gather on a typical Friday for prayer services. "But many in the community are against the war anyway.

"With American Muslims, there's this feeling of being torn between our nation and our solidarity with Muslims around the world," said Al-Awlaki, whose mosque is one of the largest in the country. "There's this dynamic going on." The lanky, 30-year-old father of three and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University finds himself increasingly thrust into the role of spokesman for a younger, American-born generation of Muslims.

A native of New Mexico who received his Islamic education in Yemen, his parents' birthplace, Al-Awlaki bridges the two worlds as easily as he shifts from lecturing on the lives of the prophets to tapping phone numbers into his Palm Pilot.

He and other Muslims say they support action against terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but are troubled by the toll the war is taking on Afghanistan and its people, already among the world's most embattled and impoverished.

Such concerns find almost no willing audience these days, with Americans largely unified in support of the war against bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and the Taliban government of Afghanistan that shelters it.

Fueling anti-U.S. fire

For reasons practical and psychological, sentiment exists for wrapping up the fighting before Ramadan. For one thing, the holiday coincides this year with the approach of winter, a harsh season in Afghanistan that can make the country even more impenetrable than it is during the best of times.

For another, continuing the bombing during Ramadan could, in some parts of the Muslim world, discredit the United States' long-stated position that this is not a war against them or their religion.

"If you already view the U.S. war as outrageous, as the big bully bombing a poor Muslim country, this is one more offense to lay on the pile: 'See, they have no respect for Ramadan,'" said Charles Kimball, chairman of Wake Forest University's religion department and a scholar of Islam.

Still, he said, the United States' opponents can't play the religion card with a clear conscience.

"This would pose problems for the bin Laden network. Islam is absolutely clear on the prohibition against suicide and the taking of innocent lives, even in a time of war," Kimball said. "Obviously, if the suicide bombers [of the Sept. 11 attacks] were able to get past that, they've already proven they're able to negotiate their religion's restrictions."

Nonetheless, U.S. allies such as Pakistan worry that continued bombings during Ramadan would rouse the already seething Islamic militants in their country into further agitation against their governments' support of the war.

Though the United States has exhibited sensitivity to previous Muslim concerns - it changed the name of the military mission from "Infinite Justice" to "Enduring Freedom" after learning that in Islam only God can carry out the former - officials have indicated that they are unwilling to take a monthlong break in the campaign because of Ramadan.

At least once in the past, the United States has noted sensitivities over Ramadan to justify the timing of a military engagement. President Bill Clinton said he initiated the bombing of Iraq on Dec. 16, 1998, to make sure the campaign started before Ramadan did. The bombing was halted Dec. 19, the first full day of Ramadan.

Critics have said Clinton's timing was more a case of political distraction than religious respect - the strikes were ordered in retaliation for Saddam Hussein's long-running defiance of U.N. weapons sanctions, but they also coincided with impeachment proceedings against Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

This time around, there is no similar domestic distraction, and U.S. officials have signaled that the war will continue.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week that though the United States is "sensitive" to Ramadan, the holiday will not play a decisive role in the conduct of the military campaign in coming weeks.

Conflict on holy days

Earlier in the week, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld noted that Muslim nations have not been "inhibited" in conducting wars during Islamic holy days.

Most notably, Egypt and Syria launched an attack against Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, the 10th day of Ramadan and the holiest day of the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur. Today, Israel and the West refer to that conflict as the Yom Kippur War. Arabs call it Harb Ramadan, the Ramadan War.

Iran and Iraq battled each other for eight years without breaking for Ramadan, and Afghanistan's long-running civil war has continued through the holy days.

"Often, they would take a cease-fire at the beginning of Ramadan, but then something would happen and the fighting would resume," said Larry Goodson, an international studies professor at Bentley College in Massachusetts who has lived and worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.

The history of Ramadan warring goes as far back as the beginnings of Islam. On the 17th day of Ramadan in 624, the prophet Muhammad fought and defeated a much larger force of Meccans in the Battle of Badr, considered the first great Islamic war.

"Even the prophet went to war during Ramadan," said Amin Aziz, a computer engineer originally from Pakistan who lives in Vienna, Va. "Ramadan is Ramadan. You don't stop your daily activities; you just carry on."

Aziz, shopping at the halal market in Falls Church recently, was part of a steady stream dropping in at the well-stocked store, with its stacks of pita, rows of exotic spices and cases of meats butchered according to halal law, the Muslim equivalent of kosher. Although fasting is the most dominant feature of Ramadan, grocery shopping intensifies because friends and family members generally gather for festive meals at night to break the daytime fasts.

Still, the holiday is a reflective time, when Muslims say extra prayers, read the Quran and make charitable donations to those less well off than they are.

"It's a time to think of the poor. Fasting is required to think of the people who are hungry and not as fortunate," said Matteen Chida, who owns the market.

This year, that decidedly includes Afghans, who are viewed by many here as innocent victims of the U.S. attacks.

"The thing is, the Afghan people are not involved with the tragedy [of Sept. 11]," said Chida, a Muslim from India. "They are already starving, and the war is adding to that. Going after terrorists is fine, but there has to be a way to get the culprit without adding further tragedy."

Like others, Chida is not willing to concede that bin Laden is that culprit.

"The Taliban, probably they feel he is not the one responsible. That is why they haven't turned him in," Chida said. "It doesn't seem a person living in a cave could do that."

Support and backlash

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims here have experienced backlash and support. The Dar Al-Hijrah mosque hired security guards to patrol the grounds in the wake of the attacks but also received messages of support from neighbors.

Muslims don't stand out here as much as they might in a community where they are the sole or dominant ethnic group. In Falls Church, a suburb of 10,400 less than 10 miles from Washington, Muslims are one band of a rainbow of diversity: There are far more Vietnamese restaurants and businesses than Arabic ones, and one Baptist church offers Sunday services in English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Arabic.

The number of Muslims living here is unknown - Arabs are generally counted as white in the census - but about 12 percent of the students at the local high school, J.E.B. Stuart, are Muslim. The school was featured in last month's National Geographic for its student body, which represents 70 countries of origin.

Al-Awlaki, the imam at the mosque, has been questioned by federal investigators because one of the hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi, reportedly attended a mosque in San Diego that Al-Awlaki previously led. He said he did not know Alhazmi or the five hijackers believed to have had ties to Northern Virginia and about whom he was also questioned.

Al-Awlaki said mosques don't have memberships in the same way that churches might. Attendance is fluid, with some Muslims coming to pray once a day or once a week or irregularly. But, as is true of other religions, holidays draw the crowds, and Al-Awlaki is busy lining up speakers and preparing for the meals that the mosque will have to break the fasts of Ramadan.

The recent events, while casting a pall over the holiday, have also had the same effect on mosques as on other places of worship: They have drawn new adherents.

"We used to get maybe one new person a week showing up, but recently we got four people in one day," Al-Awlaki said. "The tragedy has just sparked an interest in people to search for religion."

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