Moon sighting in cyberspace

A Web site lets Pakistani computer users track the new moon for end of

In previous years, Muslims here would climb their rooftops to witness the new moon signaling the end of Ramadan. This year, the Internet gave moon-watchers a hand in calculating the precise start of the three-day festival of Eid al-Fitr, ending a month of fasting.

During much of the past week, for those of Pakistan's estimated 150,000 computer users with access to the Web site, one of the favorite sites has been www.moonsighting.com. But for many Pakistanis, it represents yet another example of Western values invading daily life.

Yasin Lakhani, a prominent Pakistani stockbroker, notes: "This is an example of how the Web site is changing the society in Pakistan. Science has taken over tradition, and it shows that the old system is changing."

For years, sighting the new moon has been driven by religious tradition which required at least four adult Muslims to have viewed the moon, before the central Ruet-I-hilal (moon sighting) committee, mainly consisting of religious clergy, would announce publicly that Eid could be celebrated.

However, times have changed. The moonsighting Web site uses scientific evidence gathered from observatories to not only predict when the birth of the new moon could take place, but also when it would appear in different parts of the world.

But how far can science change some of the most well established traditions?

Women still paint their hands and feet with henna as they venture out to the bazaars during the last few days of Ramadan. The multi-colored glass bangles sold for the holiday can cost the equivalent of a day's wages for a common laborer.

In a country whose population of 140 million is 95 percent Muslim - and overwhelmingly poor- Web-aided lunar prediction makes little impact.

"Most people can not even afford meat during an average day. For Pakistan's poor, what joy can come from using computer," says waiter Tariq Khan.

"This joy is only for the rich. Most people in Pakistan are poor, and we have no love for the West" he says, in a striking reminder of anti-Western sentiment.

A senior government official said it could be seen as another "western tool which is only to be suspected and perhaps even eventually hated."

In the past two years, Pakistan has seen a growing tide of anti Western sentiment, especially since the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in East Africa. US officials believe the bombings were masterminded by Saudi tycoon Osama bin Laden, who lives in exile in Afghanistan.

Support for Mr. Bin Laden is rising in Pakistan, where he is seen by many as the one hope for the downtrodden. Even ahead of the Eid festival, sidewalk vendors hawked posters of Osama in some of Pakistan's poorest areas.

In areas like Pakistan's North West Frontier province, many villagers celebrated Eid on Saturday, a day ahead of the rest of the country. They did so because they followed the tradition that Eid must be celebrated all over the Islamic world on the same day as Saudi Arabia, the Muslim holy land.

According to one of the province's businessman, Anis Ali Bangash, confirming the birth of the moon through the use of scientific methods is an alien concept. "Many of our people are so locked in tradition that it would be years before they could understand exactly what a common computer is."

Mr Lakhani, the stockbroker, however believes that this year's experience has marked the beginning of an important change.

He notes that the religious clerics on the moon-sighting committee had consulted meteorologist for the specific date.

"Even the clergy are becoming sensitive to science - it's not just the Web site," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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