Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ramadan and the ‘clash of civilisations’

Tensions between the Muslim world and the West are more rooted in geopolitical causes than they are in any supposed “clash of civilisations”

US war on Afghanistan

US President Donald Trump announced on 4 May that he would be travelling to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican later in May in order to discuss with representatives of three of the world’s most prominent religions the fight against intolerance, terrorism and Iran.

“Our task is not to dictate to others how to live, but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East,” Trump said. A senior White House official said that Trump would use the trip to stress that Israel was not the cause of problems in the Middle East, adding that it is now “painfully obvious to everyone” that the violence today has been brought about by “Salafist jihadists” and “also by Iran”.

The timing of Trump’s religious visits is perhaps sensitive, given that they were very close to the month of Ramadan. Trump’s message against the Islamic State (IS) group and Iran has received a warm reception in the places where he travelled. But one has to wonder if Trump’s behaviour and his statements in themselves could become a propaganda or recruitment tool for IS, as they could show that Trump’s policies and statements are directed against not just Islamist militancy, but also against Muslims in general and even the religion of Islam.

After all, this is the man who famously said “I think Islam hates us” and who has called for banning Muslims from entering the United States. As president, he has also accused the US government of favouring Muslim refugees over Christians. “If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian it was almost impossible,” he said recently, although a US Pew Research Center report shows that the United States admitted almost equal numbers of Muslim and Christian refugees in 2016 at almost 38,000 refugees from each religion.

Trump’s statements reflect the fact that Muslims around the world have been suffering from rejection and discrimination because of two events that have had a major impact on the trajectory of global politics. The first was the rise of IS in 2014, which tarnished the image of Islam. For example, a poll conducted in February 2015 by LifeWay, a non-profit Christian research group based in Nashville in the US, showed that 27 per cent of those polled thought IS reflected the true nature of Islam.

According to Abdallah Schleifer, director of the Centre for American Studies at the Future University in Egypt and professor emeritus of journalism at the American University in Cairo, said that “in no way can I discount the suffering that many American Muslims have had to endure since [the 11 September attacks] and now IS, particularly as an American Muslim expatriate enjoying the safety of life in Egypt… Most Americans are not serious readers, and likely have not read anything of value about Islam… What they do read are headline stories about terrorist attacks staged by IS and other [similar] groups… The fact that IS and company have killed and continue to kill far, far more Muslims than non-Muslims is not a perpetual headline, so American Muslims must make that point over and over again… American Muslims must point out that evil, extremist, violence-prone groups have emerged at different times and places in all the major religions.”


The second event was the election of Trump as president of the United States in 2016. The US Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a research group, conducted a poll among American Muslims in January 2017, recently releasing the results in a report entitled “American Muslim Poll 2017: Muslims At A Crossroads”. According to the report, 38 per cent of American Muslims are likely to express fear for their personal safety or that of their family from white supremacist groups as a result of the 2016 elections, compared to 27 per cent of American Jews, 16 per cent of people not affiliated with a faith, 11 per cent of Protestants, and eight per cent of Roman Catholics.

Even before Trump’s victory, the US Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a community group, released a report in October 2016 entitled “American Muslim Voters and the 2016 Elections” that surveyed the opinions of American Muslims about the 2016 presidential elections. The report said that “85 per cent of respondents believe that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US has increased (in 2015). Moreover, 30 per cent of respondents say they have experienced discrimination or profiling (in 2015).”

Perhaps what marked 2016 the most was the candidacy of Trump in the US and his anti-minority statements.

CLASH OF CIVILISATIONS: In the light of this discrimination against Muslims, it is unfortunate that when someone mentions the word “Islam” in the context of international relations, the first thing that comes into many people’s minds is the idea of the “clash of civilisations”.

The clash of civilisations is a theory that says that a “clash” between different identities, whether these are religious, ethnic, national or cultural, may cause violence. This theory was first expounded by Samuel Huntington, a former professor of political science at Harvard University in the US. Huntington gave special attention to the clash between Islam and other civilisations, quoting a famous Indian Muslim author who said that the West’s next confrontation would be with Islam.

Apart from the clash between Islam and the West, Huntington also discussed the conflict between India (which is Hindu) and Pakistan (which is Muslim), the conflict between Muslims and Jews in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Muslims and Buddhists in Burma, and Muslims and Catholics in the Philippines, among other places. Because of these clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims in several places around the world, Huntington wrote that “Islam has bloody borders”.

The significance of religion, or “civilisation,” has greater significance if a violent clash should occur between Muslims and people of other faiths during the holiest of Hijri months, the month of Ramadan. Muslims give special significance to Ramadan, as it was the month during which they believe the Holy Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohamed. Leaders around the world usually express greetings to the Muslim world and to their own Muslim constituencies during the month of Ramadan.

Nevertheless, the month of Ramadan is not necessarily a month of peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. Numerous battles throughout history were fought between Muslims and non-Muslims during the month of Ramadan. The Battle of Badr, which was the first battle between a Muslim army (led by the Prophet Mohamed himself) and non-Muslims, occurred in the month of Ramadan in the second Hijri year, for example. The Muslim army, led by the Prophet Mohamed, entered the holy city of Mecca in the month of Ramadan in the eighth Hijri year.

Other battles have occurred between Muslims and non-Muslims during the month of Ramadan. They include, but are not limited to, the Islamic conquest of Rhodes (53 Hijri), the successful landing of Muslims on the coast of Spain (91 Hijri), the victory of the Muslims, led by Tarik Ibn Zayed, against the then king of Spain (92 Hijri), the victory of Saladin against the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin in Palestine (583 Hijri), and the Mamluke victory, led by Seifeddin Qutuz, against the Mongols in the battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine (658 Hijri).

The month of Ramadan has also witnessed battles between Muslims and non-Muslims in more recent times. The October 1973 War between Egypt and Israel (in Israel, the Yom Kippur War) is a notable example. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Afghan mujahideen, supported by the American CIA, continued to fight against the Soviet forces during the month of Ramadan. During the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 until 1988, both countries continued fighting during the month of Ramadan.

The clash of civilisations has been cited as one source of tension between Muslims and the ultimate symbol and protector of Western civilisation, the US. But the tension between Washington and the Muslim world is more rooted in geopolitical causes, like the global competition for oil resources in the Middle East and Washington’s support for Israel. Direct American military intervention in the Middle East was seen in the 1991 Gulf War, code-named Operation Desert Storm, to liberate Kuwait (and its oil fields) from the Iraqi occupation, and in the subsequent deployment of 30,000 American soldiers in the Gulf region to protect it from aggression from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The month of Ramadan was not directly related to these events in the Gulf, but it did feature in one event that happened shortly before it in 1998: Operation Desert Fox.

11 September attacks

What was the story of this operation? And how was the month of Ramadan involved in it even though it finished before the month started?

After the 1991 Gulf War, Washington was pressing Saddam to give up his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which included nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and biological weapons. Weapons inspectors from the United Nations entered Iraq, and despite resistance from the Iraqi government they were able to make a survey of the Iraqi WMDs and get rid of many of them. In late 1998, the UN inspectors issued a report about the progress of their inspections. The report was mostly positive, but then US president Bill Clinton focused on some negative aspects of the report and used them as a basis to start a military operation against Iraq, with help from Britain led by then prime minister Tony Blair. (Clinton and Blair also accused Saddam of kicking the UN inspectors out of Iraq, when in fact he did not do so).

On 16 December 1998, the United States and Great Britain started air raids against targets in Iraq. The military operation was codenamed Operation Desert Fox and lasted for four days until 19 December. Naturally, the raids caused widespread condemnation among the Arab and Muslim public, in addition to speculation in the US that Clinton had started this military operation to distract attention from the infamous Monica Lewinski affair that was happening in the US at the time. Dozens of Iraqi civilians were killed in the air raids.

Ramadan was due to start on 20 December that year, and Clinton said that he had deliberately finished the military operations before the month of Ramadan started in order to avoid any tension with the Muslim world during the holy month. However, a photograph taken by the Associated Press of offensive graffiti inscribed by an American sailor on a laser-guided missile waiting to be loaded onto a fighter jet on board the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise caused embarrassment to the US government. The graffiti read, “Here’s a Ramadan present from Chad Rickenberg.”

The American defence department said that it was distressed by the ‘‘thoughtless graffiti’’ which did not reflect American views, and department spokesman Kenneth Bacon said that “religious intolerance is anathema to… all Americans who cherish the right to worship freely… We are grateful for our good relations with Arab and Islamic peoples, and we appreciate the important contributions of Muslim Americans.” However, he did not mention any kind of investigation into who was responsible for the graffiti, or any disciplinary action. The Pentagon also did not say whether the missile had been fired.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations was outraged by the graffiti and sent a letter to Clinton saying that “the sailor’s bigoted sentiment would seem to fly in the face of your statements that the bombing campaign was not directed at Islam.”

NEXT LEVEL: The clash of civilisations between the Muslim world and the West, especially in relation to Ramadan, moved onto a different level with the 11 September 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The attacks were thought to highlight the clash between Islam (supposedly represented by Al-Qaeda) and Western civilisation (represented by the United States). They also raised the question of whether mainstream moderate Islam would allow such attacks against Western civilians or not. Perhaps most importantly, the attacks raised the question of why Arabs and Muslims “hated” America. Was it because of US policies towards the Muslim world?

Then US president George W Bush declared war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime that was hosting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan on the following day. On 7 October, the US launched a military operation against Afghanistan codenamed Operation Enduring Freedom.

Ramadan was due to start on 17 November that year, and Muslims around the world were offended that the US was waging air strikes against the Taliban during Ramadan. Several Islamic countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, called for the US to cease its military attacks against the Taliban during the month of Ramadan. In reply, then US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld told the US news channel CNN’s interviewer Wolf Blitzer on 28 October that “the Taliban fought through Ramadan year after year. There was a Middle East war during Ramadan. There is nothing in that religion that suggests that conflicts have to stop during Ramadan.”

Moreover, Bush wanted to stress that the war was against terrorism, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and not against the religion of Islam itself. He was so keen on stressing this point that he hosted an Iftar meal in the White House on 19 November for the representatives of 53 Muslim countries in order to dismiss accusations that the US was waging a religious war in Afghanistan. Speaking at the start of the meal, Bush embraced Ramadan as a time for nations to celebrate together and to promote global peace and understanding. At the same time, however, he defended the decision not to suspend the US military operations during Ramadan.

“The terrorists [Al-Qaeda and the Taliban] have no home in any faith,” Bush said. “Evil has no holy days.” He kept the tradition of hosting an annual Iftar meal during the eight years of his two-term presidency (2001 to 2009).

Interestingly, the tradition of hosting an Iftar meal at the White House was not started by Bush, however. It goes back to as early as president Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809). On 9 December 1805, Jefferson wanted to hold a reception at the White House for a Tunisian diplomat who had come to Washington. Initially, Jefferson wanted to host a lunch at 3:30pm, but after finding out that it was the month of Ramadan, he changed the time to sunset to allow the diplomat to continue fasting. This was the first Iftar meal ever held at the White House. President Clinton (1993-2001) later reinstated this tradition.

As we have seen, the clash of civilisations could be considered as a source of tension between Islam and western civilisation, and these tensions can be more salient during the month of Ramadan. Similarly, the clash of civilisations can also be a source of tension between Islam and Far Eastern civilisation and, again, these tensions can become more salient during the month of Ramadan. Perhaps the tension between Islam and the Far East is most prominent in the largest of the Far Eastern powers, China, especially in the Muslim-inhibited Xinjiang region.

The Xinjiang province is a region in the far west of China inhabited by the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group. Similar to the plight of residents of the Tibet region of China, the Uighur Muslims are suffering from discrimination and human rights abuses and are demanding more autonomy from the government in Beijing. However, the latter has rejected these demands. To further weaken the Uighur Muslims, the government in Beijing has been encouraging the Han Chinese, the main ethnic group in China, to immigrate to Xinjiang to dilute the percentage of Muslims. As a result, the Han Chinese now represent 40 per cent of the population in Xinjiang and the Uighurs are 45 per cent of Xinjiang’s population. The Han in Xinjiang are often given better jobs and privileges than the original Uighur inhabitants.

Violent tensions are not unusual in Xinjiang. In July 2009, for example, the Uighur Muslims started riots in Xinjiang to call for more rights and better conditions. The riots started with a dispute between Han and Uighur workers at a factory and then escalated. The riots ended when the government arrested hundreds of Uighur Muslims. The tensions between the Uighur Muslims and the government in Beijing become more salient during the month of Ramadan, as the government in Beijing usually bans the Muslims in Xinjiang from fasting, saying that fasting would threaten national unity in China. But many of the Uighur Muslims resist these pressures and continue to fast in Ramadan.

Al-Azhar in Egypt has condemned such measures by the Chinese government against the Uighurs, but the Chinese authorities deny that they prevent the Uighurs from fasting in Ramadan.

CONCLUSIONS: Islam plays a prominent role in international relations. This role is mostly a role of diplomatic engagement between different cultures and different nations. But in certain instances the religion of Islam has been pushed into clashes between the Muslim world and other nations, clashes which in fact have their root causes in geopolitical and strategic factors instead of purely religious or cultural ones.

(Former CIA analyst Graham Fuller argues in his book A World without Islam that even if Islam did not exist, there would still be tension between the Arab world and the West for political and strategic reasons, for example.)

The month of Ramadan is one of the basic features of Islam and plays a role in the interactions between Islam and the rest of the world, whether these are peaceful or violent. During periods of peace, Ramadan plays a role in improving peaceful interactions between civilisations. If there is tension between Muslims and non-Muslims during the month of Ramadan, then the timing could play a role in exacerbating these tensions.

The issue is not with Ramadan. The issue is that Muslims around the world are asking for freedom from oppression.

The writer is a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the UK. He is an assistant professor of political science at Future University in Egypt.

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