Ramadan during the Arab Spring: A chance for renewal

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan began this week -- at a time of upheaval for Arab Muslim societies. What can Islam offer during this holiday to those seeking freedom?

Revolutions and wars don’t usually stop for religious holidays, but for Muslims caught up in the Arab Spring or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this year’s Ramadan may prove to be an exception.

The Islamic holy month began this week, marking a time for Muslims to fast during the day; offer special prayers; purify themselves; and reach out to family, friends, and the poor with evening feasts.

The event, which marks the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, is an opportunity to take a measure of the region’s recent upheavals and to test whether Islamic teachings offer any lessons on the role of nonviolence and democracy in the societies of the Middle East.

Most of all, it may be a time to remember the thousands of people killed so far in protests for democracy, freedom, and dignity during the Arab Spring.

This year’s Ramadan also comes just months after the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and subsequent reports of that group’s decline. And it will end – in a final burst of religious celebration – just before America marks the 10th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and with protests or fighting still going on in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Muslims face a difficult challenge of faith this year. While the revolts were largely driven by secular groups, especially youth, seeking basic rights, they have also unleashed hard-core Islamic groups onto the scene. And during Ramadan, many more Muslims will attend services at mosques than usual, bringing more people together and possibly shifting the politics within each country. Islam will be much more on the Arab public’s mind in coming weeks.

In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad appears worried that evening mosque attendance during Ramadan will erupt in more protests. “Every day will be Friday [the normal day to attend mosque],” stated one protester.

On Sunday, the regime launched a vicious attack on the country’s most rebellious city, Hama, in hopes of sending a signal for the coming month. Dozens of people were killed, causing the international community to ask for even more sanctions on Syria.

In Libya, NATO is waiting to see if Muammar Qaddafi’s forces continue fighting the rebels despite Islam’s call for no violence during Ramadan. The regime in Tripoli indicates it will keep on fighting.

Egyptian reformers decided to halt their daily protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during Ramadan, but not so in Yemen, where protesters have yet to oust that country’s dictator. As in Syria, activists hope to use the daily mosque attendance to rally the people.

In Arab countries with no big protests or war, autocrats are worried that food inflation caused by the heavy feasting during Ramadan might ignite protests. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the regime is trying to roll back meat and dairy prices.

In Egypt, where elections are scheduled, Ramadan has unleashed a giving of food to the poor by politicians seeking votes. Islam and a nascent democracy find common ground in newly liberated Egypt.

Ramadan’s message of self-restraint and good deeds may rub off on these various transitions in Muslim countries. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan might take a break.

For largely Muslim countries with minority religions, such as Christianity, Ramadan is also a time to come together in unity.

The freedom that many Arabs seek is first found in each person’s heart, and this year’s Ramadan – a time to find blessings – can act as a time to find that inner freedom.

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