John Esposito: War during Ramadan?
John Esposito is a professor at Georgetown University and the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Esposito is a specialist in Islam, political Islam, and the impact of Islamic movements. He is a consultant to the Department of State, corporations, universities, and the worldwide media. He joined the CNN.com chat room from Washington D.C.
CNN: Can you tell us about Ramadan and its significance?
JOHN ESPOSITO: Ramadan is one of the five pillars or essential practices of Islam. It is a month-long fast that occurs annually. Muslims from dawn to dusk do not eat food or drink. It is also an important time for believers to reflect on the meaning of their religion and its role in their lives. So, it combines both a period of fasting with religious reflection, and also the doing of good works.
CNN: What sorts of traditions are practiced during Ramadan?
ESPOSITO: At the end of the fast each day, when you have what's called the breaking of the fast, a meal is taken, which in fact is called breakfast. It's a time for families to come together and it's often a time when special foods are actually made, special sweets for this period, and it also becomes a time for families to eat together with other members of the family or friends, and to visit in the evening.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have the Taliban said whether they are going to stop the fighting on Ramadan?
ESPOSITO: I think that the way the issue is actually put, as far as I know, is will the United States and the coalition stop the bombing? I haven't seen many putting it the other way, particularly since you'd have to say that the Taliban are responding to the daily bombings, as well as now to the movement of the Northern Alliance within Afghanistan itself. So if you asked the Taliban if they would stop fighting, they'd say that that's not the right question. They see themselves as defending themselves against those who are fighting against them.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: If the U.S. were to stop operations during Ramadan, wouldn't it confirm suspicions that we're fighting against Islam?
ESPOSITO: I don't think that necessarily would be the issue. I think rather that the issue is for some whether or not the continued bombing during Ramadan will not leave the U.S. open to being accused of being insensitive to Muslim beliefs. And in fact, that becomes an issue, because the vast majority of people being bombed, whether the Taliban or the civilians, are Muslims. The broader issue is how Muslims in many parts of the world will respond to continued bombing during Ramadan. For many Muslims, it's the continued bombing itself that has become an issue, let alone if the bombing were to continue into the month of Ramadan.
CNN: Is there a precedent for violence or military operations during Ramadan?
ESPOSITO: Yes. In fact, there have been times in Muslim history when warfare has been carried out. The 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war is popularly referred to as the Ramadan War. It was launched by Egypt's president Anwar Sadat, who fought it as a jihad, and the war was very much cast in sort of religious symbols and religious language. That would be a major example.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: According to Islamic community officials, the Taliban aren't true Muslims so, why should we care if it's Ramadan or not, in Afghanistan?
ESPOSITO: Because we're bombing many civilians in Afghanistan, we're bombing many people, not just the Taliban. What that means is that there's obviously a high risk that many Muslims may be killed. Another reason why this may be an issue is that many feel that bombing during Ramadan will in fact inflame and feed extremist reactions in the Muslim world, as well as broader based reactions against the bombing. We have certainly seen that a number of countries considered our allies, their leaders, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, have expressed very strong reservations.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: If that is the case, are there any advantages to the U.S. to discontinue during this holiday and would not this give the Taliban a chance to regroup?
ESPOSITO: Realistically, I don't think that there's that much significant regrouping that can take place. One of the things to consider is that we were told from the beginning that the Taliban doesn't have a significant air force or significant military power. We have in fact now been bombing for weeks, and maintain that we've hit many of their sites. So, I don't see it as an issue. I think the only possible significant issue that could arise would be if the United States felt that it knew where Osama bin Laden was, and that it was closing in on him.
CNN: How do you think Islamic renewal affects Muslims' viewpoints about U.S. strikes during Ramadan in Afghanistan?
ESPOSITO: I think that the situation is a little bit broader than even Islamic renewal. Yes, it's important if by that we mean that in many Muslim societies, Islam has become an even more visible part of people's every day beliefs and lives. Then there are a number of things that happen. For many Muslims, because it's a sacred month, they will not want to see this fighting taking place in particular, because despite the coalition, the leaders, at least the military leaders, are primarily the U.S. and Britain. Also, those who identify with their fellow believers in Afghanistan -- not with the Taliban, but with the Muslim people -- are already increasingly concerned that this bombing is not only taking lives, but will devastate the country irreparably. I think it's also important to note that [High Commissioner for Human Rights] Mary Robinson of the United Nations herself came out a few weeks ago against the continued bombing, because of the massive impact that it will have on Afghans, especially as the winter approaches.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: If the U.S. were attacked on Christmas, would Christians around the world make this a holy war?
ESPOSITO: I think that today we've become a very secular nation, so we probably wouldn't frame it in that language. But one should recall that during the Vietnam War, it was a practice that every Christmas there would be an attempt to stop the warfare. I think there would be a sensitivity, and I think clearly that for many Christians in the U.S., if the U.S. were attacked on Christmas, it would make the attack doubly offensive. Just as if Israel were attacked during one of its holy days, it would make the attack that much more objectionable.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?
ESPOSITO: I think it's important for people who don't know much about Islam or Muslims to realize that there is a tremendous diversity within the Muslim community, whether in America or overseas. And, that with regards to September 11, an overwhelming number of Muslims came out against that attack on humanitarian grounds, as well as religious grounds. But it's also important to remember that Ramadan is a very special and holy month for many Muslims, and that for many Muslims, when they see Afghanistan continuing to be bombed, their concern is not with the Taliban, but with the people of Afghanistan. Muslims and non-Muslims can relate to the potentially devastating economic impact, masses of people becoming refugees, facing starvation. These issues concern many people.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today
ESPOSITO: I've enjoyed this very much, and I hope to be in contact with you again soon.
John Esposito joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Monday, October 29, 2001.
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