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Ramadan looms large in Afghan strikes

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October 22, 2001 Posted: 2:40 PM EDT (1840 GMT)
Anti-U.S. sentiment has been stirred up during prayers in mosques, such as this one in Peshawar, Pakistan
Anti-U.S. sentiment has been stirred up during prayers in mosques, such as this one in Peshawar, Pakistan  

By CNN's Craig Francis

(CNN) -- The onset of the bitter Central Asian winter has been identified as the defining deadline facing the United States' military action in Afghanistan.

But the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan about two weeks earlier could force their hand even sooner.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that any decision on whether to continue the campaign during the Ramadan would be based on military, not diplomatic, reasons.

"It is a very important religious period, and we will take that into account," he said speaking two weeks into the U.S.-led strikes.

Pillars of Islam 
Islam: Key facts 
Islam: A religion of many faces, misconceptions 

"We will have to see where the mission is at that point, and what needs to be done, and I will yield to my colleagues in the Pentagon as to what we will do as we approach the season of Ramadan." The holy month is expected to begin on November 17.

The exact date Ramadan begins often depends on clerics in a particular nation. Tradition holds it starts with the sighting of the new moon in the ninth month of the Muslim year, as prescribed in Islam's holy text, the Koran.

According to Islamic tradition it was during Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar, that the Archangel Gabriel revealed the 144 chapters or surahs of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed.

An estimated 1 billion people are followers of Islam worldwide, with an estimated 5 million to 6 million in the United States.

Although battles have been waged during Ramadan through the ages, the United States will be aware that any fighting on Muslim soil during this period could strain relations with the Islamic countries who have given at least tacit backing to the strikes against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

Five pillars of Islam

The importance of the fasting month of Ramadan on the psyche of the Muslim cannot be underestimated.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the pressure on all Muslims to remain faithful to Islam is never more obvious than at this time.

Military action against a Muslim nation by a Western power could test the almost universal government support the U.S. war on terrorism has engendered.

Speaking at the APEC summit in Shanghai, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said the situation could become extremely volatile.

He warned of "explosions across the Muslim world if the U.S. military campaign continues into the holy period of Ramadan."

Pakistan, battling internally with its own militant Muslim factions, has also urged the United States to cease hostilities during Ramadan.

"One would hope and wish that this campaign comes to an end before the month of Ramadan and one would hope for restraint during the month of Ramadan because this would certainly have some negative effects in the Muslim world," said Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Hearts and minds

History shows that Muslims have fought both foreign invaders and enemies from within their own faith during Ramadan.

From Sallah eddine al-Ayoubi's defeat of the Crusaders in the 1100s, through to the Syrian-Egyptian armies launching their 1973 liberation war against Israel, many battles have been waged during Ramadan.

In strife-torn Algeria, violence has often intensified during Ramadan when most Muslims renew their faith through fasting and prayer -- the logic of the violent minority using the occasion to prove their faith through violence and murder.

But in an age where diplomacy and public image can determine the allegiance of entire populations, Western forces have shown a reluctance to engage in conflict with Muslim countries during Ramadan to avoid inciting Islamic sensitivities.

As recently as 1998, the West has based military decisions in the Middle East on the timing of Ramadan, which starts about 10 days earlier each year.

In response to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's breach of UN obligations, the United States' and Britain's sensitivity to the holy month of Ramadan prompted it to launch four days of fierce air attacks on Baghdad ahead of the fasting month.


If allied forces were to be fighting in Afghanistan during Ramadan, it would only add strength to Osama Bin Laden's claim to be struggling against the imperial forces of "Crusaders and Jews," Rahul Bedi, a military analyst with Jane's Information Group told CNN.

"If the U.S. was to wage war during Ramadan, it could be seen as being completely insensitive to Arabs worldwide," Bedi said.

• - Ramadan Information Center

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Updated September 21, 2002

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