How Religious Extremism Taints Holy Months
Ramadan is often thought to simply be the process of fasting during the day and feasting after sunset and repeating this for a month. However, it is so much more than that. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in both religious extremism and religious intolerance, which has tainted Ramadan’s message of optimism and purification. If leaders want to create an aura of peace in this very important time for 25% of the global population, then they must realize the true meaning of Ramadan and how it has been perverted by a distinct minority as opposed to the vast majority.
Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. Its etymology lies in the word ramad, which means that which is intensely heated by the sun. Thus, Ramadan’s name implies a time in which past sins and bad habits are burned away in order to being Muslims closer to God. During the holy month, Muslims are encouraged to give zakat (charity), read the Quran, and visit mosques to renew their sense of spirituality. However, with added religious zeal, religious extremists have given a terrible new meaning to Ramadan.
Within multiple variants of Islam, it is widely believed that Allah increases the reward for those who commit good deeds during the month of Ramadan. Terrorist leaders have taken this interpretation and twisted it to create a fervor amongst their networks across the Middle East and globe. To their followers, they promise that the more infidels they kill during the holy month, the higher their chances of gaining entry into Paradise. In particular, terrorists seek to kill those who don’t share their faith and even those whose beliefs are seemingly inconsistent with the Islamic faith-those with capitalist inclinations, for example. Though there is significant reason to doubt that the spikes in terrorist attacks coincide with Ramadan, a spokesperson for the Islamic State (IS) has made it clear that jihadists should, “make it, with God’s permission, a month of pain for infidels everywhere.” With tools such as social media and WhatsApp, the potential for large, coordinated terrorist attacks has never been greater.
During Ramadan in 2017, terrorist attacks were launched around the world including in Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, London, Melbourne, and Paris. IS claimed responsibility for the multiple attacks in Baghdad as well as the one in Melbourne, while the attacks in Kabul and London were traced back to a Taliban-affiliated group and a radical Islamist group called al-Muhjiroun respectively. Ramadan in 2018 was no different with IS launching attacks in Afghanistan, France, and Belgium, while several other groups sowed chaos in already turbulent areas of the world. For instance, Al-Qaeda has consistently exploited the civil war in Yemen to gain a greater influence in the region. The use of multiple bomb and gun attacks on security forces and government officials alike has been done in service of this goal. However, some prominent world leaders have instead stated that some of these vast terrorist networks have been defeated, and other priorities should be focused on as a result. Doing so risks placing more at risk of jihadists during the busiest time of year for Muslims.
The rhetoric extolling the defeat of terrorist organizations was most evident in the United States. Last December, President Trump said that the U.S. has defeated the IS in a triumphant announcement to the world. In hindsight, his claims were grossly out of proportion given that the IS claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in Manbij (Syria) that killed four U.S. troops. This in and of itself suggests that the Islamic State is far from being defeated and could continue to launch devastating attacks for years to come. However, as a consequence of their denial, leaders have instead sought to connect the Islamic faith to terrorist attacks rather than recognizing their own failures when claiming to have defeated some of these networks.
Again, the rhetoric used in the United States is a prime example of this. U.S. President Donald Trump has wasted no time connecting Ramadan, and therefore the Islamic faith, to the surge in terrorist-related violence in order to harden his national security credentials and cater to an increasingly Islamophobic base. This is confirmed, in part, by numerous studies that show a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes since Trump became President. Moreover, FBI crime statistics show that the number of religion-biased incidents has steadily increased over the past few years with Muslims and Jews being the primary targets of these attacks. This rhetoric combined with the propensity of terrorist leaders to use Ramadan as a time to increase religious fervor amongst their followers has made the holy month an anxious time for Muslims.
Even in attacks on Muslims around the world, sympathy remains fleeting. In the aftermath of Christchurch, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, was able to bring the world – with a few notable exceptions – together in support of the broader Muslim community. However, this sympathy collapsed in the aftermath of the church bombings in Sri Lanka, which left over 300 dead and over 500 injured. A Muslim extremist group called National Thowheed Jamaath was assigned blame for the attack. It is no coincidence that shortly after the attacks, Sri Lanka witnessed the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter church bombings with mobs attacking mosques and targeting the homes of Muslims during the month of Ramadan. The reluctance of leaders to condemn these attacks has allowed for a carte blanche for the attackers to continue and increase the Islamophobic atmosphere that has gripped many countries around the globe.
In order to combat the growing Islamophobia while simultaneously working to reduce the anxieties of the Muslim peoples, the international community must recognize that the fight with extremism must continue, whether it takes place at home or abroad. However, it should be reiterated that the actions of a few should not be taken as representative of a greater whole. The world is home to 1.8 billion Muslims and many share little with the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, or other terrorist groups. Understanding this fundamental truth is crucial if states want them to assimilate and become members of the broader global society. The month of Ramadan represents a time where we too can seek to make good for our past ills by looking to support our fellow human beings, regardless of their faith.