Bush administration’s decision to continue its present attacks on Afghanistan during the holy month of Ramadan will have a significant impact on two fundamental components in the war on terrorism – propaganda and alliance building.
The administration wishes to convey in the clearest of terms that this is a war against terrorism and not against Islam. President Bush promised to repeat this statement every day if he had to. If President Bush continues to bomb Afghanistan even when its citizens are turning towards God and trying to immerse in prayers and fasting, he will only confirm the global stereotype of the US as a callous and arrogant superpower eager. War in Ramadan will undermine US attempts to win the battle for Muslim public opinion.
In the Muslim world, satellite images of the US bombing Afghans who have had no food or water the entire day, will raise tempers and animosity towards the US. The war may increase support for and popularity of the Taliban and Bin Laden and win them many volunteers. It will be difficult for moderate Muslims and Muslim governments to convince Muslims that the American war is not a war against Islam. Muslims watch on Al Jazeera and other networks as Israel in Palestine and the US in Afghanistan kill innocent Muslims in tandem. Bin Laden’s statement that this is a new crusade against Islam will have a truer ring to it.
Mosques everywhere see a manifold increase in attendance during the month of Ramadan. Muslims try to not only increase their spirituality but also make many resolutions to recommit themselves to live by Islamic values in Ramadan. The religious fervor is very strong and Muslims by and large are able to sustain this high level of spiritual and ritual activity for the entire month of Ramadan.
Imams in most mosques in Pakistan and the Arab world are not overly eager to cooperate with America. The Imams will strike back from the pulpits and will whip up an anti-American wave and they will have the undivided attention of more than usual number of Muslims in Ramadan. American bombs on Afghanistan and the rhetoric from the pulpits will combine to convince millions of Muslims that this is indeed a war on Islam. The pressure will build and Muslim regimes will be forced to deal with it, either by resorting to repression at home or by actively distancing themselves and even opposing the US campaign in Afghanistan.
If the Bush administration loses the propaganda war and further alienates the Muslim population, it will be the end of the so-called global alliance against terror.
Vulnerable Muslim nations such as Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be most affected by the growing anger in the Muslim World. Pakistan has risked internal stability by supporting and assisting US attacks on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. There is a limit to how much pressure Musharraf can handle. He has repeatedly called for a “short and targeted” attack, basically opposing sustained and indiscriminate bombings. It is time that Washington began paying attention to his vulnerabilities that essentially signify the vulnerabilities of most Muslim regimes.
Many Muslim leaders such as Musharraf of Pakistan and Al Kharazi, the foreign minister of Iran, and senior ministers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all warned the US to end its bombing campaign before Ramadan. Their message is clear. I hope Washington is decoding their statements correctly.
What leaders of the Muslim countries are really doing is setting a deadline for ending the military campaign against Afghanistan. For many it has achieved very little, excepting hurting Afghan civilians and eroding the sympathy that Muslims had for the US after Sept. 11th. Americans must realize that if the casualties of innocent Afghans reach six thousand then at least in the eyes of Muslims, Bush will be just as evil as Bin Laden and the claim by militants that the US is a terrorist state will resonate. Muslim nations now working with the US will bail out of the coalition before that happens.
Does that mean the US should give up its war on terrorism? Certainly not. What it means is that the US becomes more sensitive to the public opinion in the Muslim world and values the lives of innocent Muslims as much as it values the lives of innocent Americans.
The best way to negotiate the month of Ramadan is to cease air attacks, let the Afghan population have some reprieve. It should shift its emphasis to use of more special ops, covert ground operations, and more targeted and less visible attacks on Bin Laden’s human and material assets.
Prayers and abstinence can do more good than bombs and missiles. Bush would do well to dedicate this month of Ramadan to a global appreciation of Islam and invite all peace loving people of the world to join Muslims in spiritual development, prayer and contemplation. This is eminently necessary after the blow that humanity took on Sept. 11th.