The first order of business this Monday is to wish our Muslim friends a “Ramadan Mubarak” (blessed Ramadan). This year the holiday, with its 30 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset, comes during the long summer days and a hot summer at that. (It moves 11 days earlier each year.) So if you are observing Ramadan, have a good, spiritually uplifting fast. And if you are not Muslim and wondering what it’s all about, here is an FAQ and here is a nice guide for etiquette when your coworkers are fasting.
This year Ramadan coincides with important developments for “Islamist” politics in the greater Middle East. (More Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia but the Arabian Peninsula is the religion’s birthplace.) Islamist political activism varies greatly but has in common a desire for society and law to more closely follow Islamic principles. Goals range from reforms that allow display of Islamic clothing and symbols (e.g. head scarves) in secular societies, at one end of the spectrum, to the merger of all Islamic countries in a new Caliphate under Shariah law at the other end. Tactics also vary greatly, with armed violent rebellions and terrorism getting a lot of attention but most Islamist parties committed to nonviolent political participation. Over the decades, in authoritarian countries the mosque has provided the only meeting place not controlled by the government, so Islamist groups often become the main political opposition.
In Turkey, a strictly secular state for most of the last hundred years — backed up by a military that repeatedly used coups against Islamist politicians — the current government is led by a very popular prime minister who came up through Islamist politics and has been at odds with the military. He won elections in June in a landslide, and on Friday the top four military officers resigned together, seemingly taking the military out of politics and giving civilians full control of the country at last.
In Syria, the city of Hama has been a center of Islamist politics. A rebellion there decades ago was put down violently by the secular government, with tens of thousands killed. It is now the center of the opposition to Syria’s government, and the government forces had withdrawn rather than repeat the massacre there. On Sunday, they entered Hama and several other cities with tanks, and killed more than fifty peaceful protesters, enraging the population. They withdrew overnight and attacked again today, killing more. Al Jazeera video shows an attack on another Syrian city:
In Egypt, young democracy activists have suspended their sit-in at Tahrir Square as the fasting month begins. They were overshadowed a few days ago by the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which turned out huge crowds to the square in the Brotherhood’s first major street protest since the fall of President Mubarak. Elections are coming this Fall, and the Brotherhood may do well. It’s core support is thought to be about 20 percent of the population. However, the movement has had splits, with its youth wing splitting off to form a new party, since the success of the revolution.
In Afghanistan, Taliban fighters who usually go to Pakistan during Ramadan may stay in the country this year to continue fighting (they are trying to regain ground lost to the NATO surge over the last year). It’s unclear whether this will happen, though.
In Libya, the rebel ranks include both secular and Islamist elements. The assassination of the rebel military commander by other rebels, still clouded in mystery, indicates growing splits in the ranks.
It’s worth remembering that most Muslims starting Ramadan today are not connected to Islamist politics, and most who back Islamist politics have nothing to do with violent uprisings or violent suppression of peaceful uprisings. To those peacefully protesting in the Arab world, and to those worldwide trying to keep up with rising food prices — a big cause of this year’s political unrest — the holiday is a chance to renew spirituality and perhaps put politics in perspective. Ramadan Mubarak!