US Faces Calls To End Afghan Conflict By Ramadan

October 22, 2001 - 7:10 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Leaders of southeast Asian Muslim nations have warned the United States that if its campaign in Afghanistan continues into the fast month of Ramadan - starting in mid-November - it could unleash greater anger in the Islamic world.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, has expressed the view the war against the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorist network in Afghanistan could go on into next spring or summer, or beyond.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai over the weekend, told a U.S. television network it would be in the interests of the anti-terror coalition to see the conflict in Afghanistan settled before the onset of winter, which would make military operations more difficult.

But the "deadline" which governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and other Muslim countries want Washington to take into account is little more than three weeks away.

Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesia's foreign minister, relayed to Powell in Shanghai Jakarta's view that carrying on the military strikes during Ramadan would be a mistake.

"Emotionally it would be, I think, explosive if military actions are still being done in Afghanistan" during Ramadan, he told a press conference.

"For countries with large Muslim populations like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, prolonged military conflict in Afghanistan will have an effect of destabilizing these countries," he warned.

At the APEC summit, leaders of 21 Pacific Rim countries gave President Bush's campaign against terror strong backing, decrying the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, but neither supporting nor criticizing the retaliatory actions in Afghanistan against those believed responsible, and their protectors.

APEC members Indonesia and Malaysia backed the document, but oppose the bombardment of a fellow Islamic country. Both countries are home to militant groups.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has been the scene of almost daily demonstrations against the U.S. since the strikes against Afghanistan began, most recently on Sunday, when 5,000 protestors calling for holy war demonstrated in the city of Solo.

Secular president Megawati Sukarnoputri has only held that post for three months, and she faces pressure from religious and political leaders to be more critical of the U.S. stand.

In neighboring Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has also had to contend with Muslim unhappiness, although with 20 years in office and control over three-quarters of the country's parliament, his position is far more secure.

But Mahathir, too, warned this weekend about the approach of Ramadan, saying opposition to the military strikes would intensify during the fast month. Pakistan military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, many of whose compatriots sympathize with the Taliban, has also urged the U.S. to complete the operation as quickly as possible.

Although the U.S. and its allies have taken pains to stress that the campaign against terror is not aimed at Islam, prime Sept. 11 attacks suspect Osama bin Laden has insisted as strongly that it is indeed a Western onslaught against Islam.

Intensification of sentiment

Ramadan starts on or around November 15 - depending on when the crescent moon is spotted - and it ends 29 or 30 days later. During the month, Muslims do not eat, drink or have sex during daylight hours.

The month, one expert explained Monday, serves as an "intensifier" of Muslim sensibilities.

For moderate Muslims, this is an opportunity to strive to be "better Muslims," perhaps to make up for not trying hard enough or for failing at other times of the year, said Prof. Clive Kessler of the Australia's University of New South Wales.

In some such societies, the abstinence of the daylight hours makes way for "partying all night in quite a boisterous and almost hedonistic way."

But a "significant, growing minority" of Muslims interpret their religion in more fundamentalist light, he said by phone from Sydney.

"If your view of Islam is that the most important thing for a Muslim to do is to act energetically, in a principled way in defense of the community of Islam or to forward its objectives by strenuous methods that might include militancy ... then Ramadan is a time of the year when you'd feel that obligation even more intensely."

The month itself isn't a problem, Kessler explained. The bottom line is the adherent's interpretation of Islam.

"If someone has a particularly militant or violent orientation, just as Ramadan would intensify the benign inclination of benign people, it could certainly focus and galvanize the militant intensions of people with a violent objective, [for those with a] notion of vengeance or resentment against the West and non-Muslims."

Pious Muslims not only fast all day but spend the evenings in prayer or repetitive recitation of the complete Koran. "For people who are pious in that way, this can produce some sort of religiously transformed state of consciousness," Kessler said. "They consider themselves capable of acts of great virtue or daring or bravery."

'Night of power'

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, marks the month during which Muslims believe Allah revealed the Koran to the prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. The 25th night, known as the "night of power," could be seen by militants as a key time to strike, said Kessler.

"Somebody with that mentality might have it in mind to pull off a big stunt on that night. Also, [the anniversaries of] a number of important battles waged by the prophet which occurred during the month may seem appropriate for those with that outlook."

While countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are urging an end to the strikes by the time Ramadan begins, Muslims themselves have not generally stopped waging war during the fast month.

In Muslim countries where violent conflicts have been raging, Ramadan has often seen the worst excesses perpetrated. In Algeria, for instance, Islamic militants fighting government forces have traditionally stepped up their attacks during Ramadan. During the month in 1997-98, some 1,200 people were massacred.

Iran and Iraq fought through Ramadan during their long and bloody 1980-1988 war.

In a recent background briefing on Afghanistan, a senior defense official pointed out that Egypt had attacked Israel during Ramadan in 1973 The surprise military strike, on October 6, also came on Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur.