BY VALI NASR | JULY/AUGUST 2010
Mid-August marks the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when hundreds of millions of Muslims will fast from dawn to dusk; for the faithful, that also means no daytime arguing, cursing, or sex. But it’s not all about pious asceticism. Ramadan is a world-moving force in its own right — an unpredictable time of rampant consumerism, surprising conflict, and political skulduggery.
1. RAMADAN IS A TYRANT’S BEST FRIEND. Secular dictators have long used the holiday to shore up their sagging religious legitimacy. Turkmenbashi, the late neo-Stalinist ruler of Turkmenistan, pardoned 8,145 prisoners during Ramadan in 2005; autocrats from Damascus to Algiers have followed the same playbook. Saddam Hussein, who cynically tried to style himself an Islamist during his regime’s latter years, twice made Ramadan cease-fire offers to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. And in 2008, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya during Ramadan, Muammar al-Qaddafi refused to shake her hand, citing Muslim strictures against touching women while fasting — all the while surrounded by his cohort of amazonian female bodyguards. It highlighted, once again, how the Islamic holy month has always been a mix of the sacred and the profane.
2. AFTER OIL, RAMADAN IS SAUDI ARABIA’S BIGGEST EXPORT. Until the 1970s, the strict observance of Ramadan remained a voluntary affair across much of the Muslim world, an expression of cultural solidarity as much as personal piety. Then came the oil shock of 1973. Petrodollars flowed into Persian Gulf coffers, gilding the desert kingdoms, which supported conservative Islamic clerics and built mosques and seminaries around the world. Guest workers brought home strict attitudes about women, education, and religious practices to the remote mountains of northern Pakistan and the flood plains of Bangladesh. Today, in Aceh, Indonesia, failure to observe Ramadan is punishable by flogging; in 2009, Egypt’s Interior Ministry began enforcing edicts that made daytime eating during the holy month a misdemeanor offense.
3. RAMADAN IS BIG BUSINESS. Although not quite the global consumer behemoth that is Christmas, Ramadan comes in a respectable second. Yes, productivity in the Muslim world plummets during the fast, and government business grinds to a halt. But malls in Istanbul are thronged, and it’s one of the busiest times of year for luxury-car dealers in Riyadh. Fast-food chains offer nighttime Ramadan “meal deals,” and Egyptians purchase nearly twice as much food as normal. With captive audiences at home for iftar, the nightly breaking of the fast, TV programmers roll out the year’s biggest shows: 25 to 30 percent of Arab TV ad revenue comes during Ramadan. Even Australia feels the economic bounce: In the lead-up to Ramadan, exports of sheep (a holiday indulgence) spike up to 77 percent.
4. RAMADAN IS A TIME OF PEACE, BUT IT’S ALSO MARKED BY WAR. Religious contemplation has not always been synonymous with pacifism. The Prophet Mohammed waged the Battle of Badr, the very first Muslim war against Meccan “infidels,” during Ramadan in 624. The 1973 conflict that Israelis call the Yom Kippur War is known to Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians — who launched their surprise attack while fasting — as the Ramadan War. More recently, in Iraq, the month of Ramadan has seen dramatic upticks in sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. troops, reaching a high of more than 1,400 incidents in 2007. But Ramadan has also complicated military maneuvers: During the battle of Tora Bora, some of the Afghan fighters closing in on Osama bin Laden insisted on going home at dusk to break the fast.
5. GLOBALIZATION HAS CHANGED RAMADAN. For the roughly 45 million Muslims now living in the West, strict religious observance can be a lonely affair. Work does not slow for Ramadan, and those fasting must go through the day with co-workers eating and drinking all around. Online guides have sprung up to offer advice on how to manage the resulting feelings of isolation, and influential clerics have made special allowances for Muslims living outside the Middle East. Rulings dating back to the 1970s, for instance, allow Muslims living above 64 degrees latitude (where the sun never sets in the summer months) to start and end the day’s fast when it occurs in Mecca or the next major city to the south with a regular sunrise and sunset.