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Commentary: The Ramadan mantra

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent   |   Oct. 31, 2001 at 6:27 PM   |   Comments

LONDON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- The Sanskrit word, mantra, translates into "instrument of thought." It is a magic phrase Hindus pray over and over again.

Almost immediately after the start of the Anglo-American air raids against Taliban positions in Afghanistan, Western pundits -- always eager to embrace exotic terminology - prayed a new mantra, this time pertaining to Islam, an entirely different religion.

The new mantra runs thus: "Let's have a cease-fire during Ramadan, let's have a cease-fire during Ramadan." It didn't take leaders of Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia long to chime in: Yes, do stop the bombing during Islam's holy month of fasting, which begins Nov. 17.

This baffles Muslim scholar Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, a key figure in the London-based Iraqi National Congress, which opposes the regime of Saddam Hussein. "There is nothing in the Koran that says that a war should be stopped for Ramadan," he told United Press International Wednesday.

"There are some months when combat is forbidden," he allowed, "but Ramadan is not one of them."

Mohammed Mohammed Ali, a Shiite cleric belonging to the INC's Leadership Council said that during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 the fighting never stopped during the holy month, which is one of the five pillars of Islam -- along with the belief in one God, five prayers a day, charity and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In 1981, writes Italian journalist Mimmo Candito in the Turin newspaper La Stampa, Saddam offered Iran's Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini such a truce. But Khomeini contemptuously refused, and the war between two Muslim countries -- a war proscribed by the Koran -- pressed on.

In fact, stopping hostilities for Ramadan is a new concept, to wit the Yom Kippur War Egypt had launched against Israel in October 1973. Arabs call it Harb Ramadan (Ramadan War) because it occurred during that time of the year.

This followed a tradition going all the way back to the days of the prophet Mohammed, who in 624 A.D. did not allow Ramadan to stop him from fighting in the tribal conflicts for the control of Mecca, Candito reminded his readers. In 1100, the great Muslim warrior Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, attacked and defeated the Crusaders during the holy month.

Perhaps Western pundits have thought up the Ramadan truce mantra because calling a cease-fire on holy days is actually a Christian tradition. In "All Quiet on the Western Front," Erich Maria Remarque relates how British and German soldiers facing each other in World War I emerged from their trenches at Christmas, exchanged cigarettes and drinks and sang carols together, only to resume their ferocious combat at the end of the holiday.

This correspondent remembers gratefully the Christmas cease-fires in World War II, when I was spared the obligatory descent into his family's coal cellar where I spent most nights during the rest of the year seeking shelter from Allied bombs. No blockbusters dropped from the sky because Americans, British, and Germans alike celebrated the anniversary of Christ's birth.

During the war in Vietnam, too, combatants on both sides enjoyed a brief respite from fighting at Tet, the nation's highest holiday, which corresponds to the Chinese New Year. But this blissful arrangement ended in January of 1968, when the communists unilaterally broke the truce.

This writer recalls this historical episode well: Curfew was lifted in Saigon. Half a million civilians welcomed the New Year with firecrackers. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, blasts of a different nature resounded through the streets of every major South Vietnamese city.

The Viet Cong had launched a surprise attack that would eventually lead to the U.S. withdrawal and the communist victory.

This event became known as the Tet Offensive. Remembering it was possibly one reason why Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf replied with a decisive "no" when Saddam Hussein proposed a Ramadan cease-fire during the Gulf War in 1991.

Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, who does not see the current conflict in Afghanistan as a "culture war" between the West and Islam but rather as a fight against terrorism, nevertheless sees merit in at least a partial cease-fire during this coming Ramadan.

"Perhaps the Americans and British should stop the air raids at least in the last 10 days of the month," he suggested. "They are our holiest because it was during those days that (the archangel) Gabriel handed down the Koran to the prophet.

"They are followed by three days when we rejoice and make merry," he continued. "It would be a good idea to call a truce for these days, too -- make it two weeks altogether."

But what if the Taliban abused such an arrangement? What if they took advantage of it by improving their own military position?

"In that case," the sheikh said, "the Allies would be well within their rights to defend themselves."

A U.S.-based Muslim leader suggested a different arrangement. In a telephone interview, Sayyid Sayeed, secretary-general of the Indianapolis-based Islamic Society of North America, bemoaned the growing anti-Americanism that has resulted from the military campaign in Afghanistan.

"If we discontinued the air raids during Ramadan, we would gain much respect from Muslim nations," he said.

But then he gave the Ramadan truce mantra an interesting twist: "These countries, such as Egypt, should be asked to get involved in the supervision of a cease-fire."

"This would be a powerful gesture," Sayeed added.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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