For Muslims all over the world, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, is a sacred time for introspection, religious devotion and fasting. Yet U.S.-led coalition members have repeatedly rebuffed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s request that they halt bombing during the holy month of Ramadan, set to begin on Nov. 17.
Historically, warring Muslim nations have not ceased fighting for Ramadan. For example, the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war is commonly referred to in Arab nations as the “Ramadan War.” However, the United States must be careful not to forget that as a non-Muslim country, its actions will be judged on a different set of criteria. This “war” already risks devolving into a religious struggle, despite the best efforts of Muslim leaders. Osama bin Laden has already couched the conflict in religious terms, castigating Pakistan for their efforts to aid to the United States and lambasting Arab leaders who work with the United Nations as sell-outs. Also, in the eyes of many Muslims, the war in Afghanistan is complicated by a decade of bloodshed from the Palestinian territories to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya that has convinced them that they are locked in a death-grip with the Judeo-Christian world.
As international support for the American campaign erodes, the United States needs to consider its long-term interests. The Bush administration seems intent on alienating the very nations whose continued support is unquestionably vital to the success of this mission. Musharraf has specifically warned of “negative fallout” in the Muslim world were the United States to bomb through Ramadan; the leaders of a number of predominantly Muslim countries considered part of the coalition such as Kuwait, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have expressed strong reservations.
Right now, Pakistan lets America use its airspace and remote military bases in the western desert and is indispensable for providing intelligence information. However, cries of “Death to Musharraf!” are already echoing in the streets of Islamabad. The U.S. must take into account the consequences of its actions on the long-term security and stability of the region. In the case of Pakistan, the present U.S. position may accomplish more than alienation—it may destabilize the nation politically, jeopardizing Musharraf’s authority. Were bombing to continue through Ramadan, fundamentalists could capitalize on the public indignation, driving moderate Pakistanis into the fold of Islamic radicals.
Similarly, many scholars have suggested that one of the United States’ staunchest regional Muslim allies, Saudi Arabia, may also be heading towards an Islamic revolution à la Iran in 1979, stemming from the steady decline of support for the more cooperative government from the relatively conservative population.
In response to questions about the Bush administration’s plans to continue bombing through Ramadan, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was quoted by the BBC last week as saying, “Our task is certainly to be sensitive to the views of the region, but also to [make the world] see that we aggressively deal with the terrorist networks that exist.” American officials repeat that interrupting the military offensive even for a few days during Ramadan does not make military sense. But hasn’t the United States already made its military point?
Week after week of imprecision bombing has created streams of Afghan refugees trying to enter Pakistan by illegally crossing the barren Khyber Mountains. According to the U.N. refugee agency, since Sept. 11, more than 100,000 such refugees have entered Pakistan. Yet after the seemingly haphazard destruction of power plants, military targets, medical clinics and civilian villages, Rumsfeld asserts that the Taliban still poses a threat. This “threat” is the justification given for the continuation of the Bush administration’s textbook-style policy for the first phase of their “America Strikes Back” campaign. But unfortunately for policy-makers, Afghanistan does not exist in a vacuum.
Doubtless, reverberations of the upheavals that rock Kabul will also be felt in Islamabad, Baghdad, Riyadh, Cairo and Tehran. The Bush administration needs to take these reverberations into account and move beyond retaliation to develop a more global strategy instead of petulantly pursuing their present series of reactionary policies in an attempt to boost lagging American confidence. Already, the U.S.-led coalition is shaky at best. Exisººting tensions between Pakistan and India have jeopardized the stability of the coalition, with India threatened by the recent warming of U.S.-Pakistani relations. With such antagonistic neighbors both possessing a nuclear arsenal, the Bush administration must do everything in its power to preserve the alliance and prevent regional disintegration.
In the past, the United States’ most effective alliances have been among ideologically similar nations. Perhaps even more importantly, in the past, each member of the alliance has fought together for essentially the same reasons. However, we are living in a non-traditional age—an age of non-traditional international relations, non-traditional warfare and non-traditional alliances. Let’s prove that this non-traditional alliance can work. Let’s prove that the world is not fracturing along religious lines. Let’s respect the religious beliefs of our allies. Let’s not bomb during Ramadan.
Emma R. F. Nothmann ’04, a Crimson editor, is a social anthropology concentrator in Lowell House.