Ramadan raises conflicting loyalties

U.S. Muslims feel pull of nation, solidarity

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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

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