August 11, 2010 marked the beginning of Ramadan for Muslims throughout the world. It also marked the nine year anniversary of the Global War on Islamic Extremism. It is becoming apparent that this war is now as much about ideology as it is about military engagement. As a result, it seems everybody, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, has an interpretation of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. The press coverage surrounding this year’s Ramadan highlights the politicization of an entire religion immersed in an ongoing battle for hearts and minds as competing fields of narrative continue prolonging the contemporary clash of civilizations. No less than the future of makeup and identity in the world is at stake. However, while people of power attempt to utilize a month-long holiday practiced by over a billion people in the world to preserve domination, and thereby adulterate the holy month, a reflection on the intention, essence, and tenets of Ramadan offers a potential counter to an increasingly authoritarian world.
The War on Terror, as expressed by politicians, press and pundit today, is to represent a clash of culture between Islam and Secularism. The notion that indigenous Muslims would embrace the “liberation” of lands invaded as part of this clash has now passed by as myth, yet today a bifurcation of the Muslim village leads many to internalize the ideological war as geographic in terms of Eastern versus Western, or more typically in ways coincident to the rhetoric associated with imperialisms of the past, where the subjects of invasion that embrace the domination of the invader are acknowledged positively and any who oppose are branded barbarian and backwards.
It is in this manner that the process of globalization has become neo-imperialism with the term ‘rule of law’ as slang for secularization; meaning in reality financier and corporate occupation in developing territories. Where there is resistance to that ‘rule of law’, then there is the opportunity to smash with the contemporary ‘iron fist’, a set of nations and transnational institutions, led by the military might of the United States that will destroy any province that even harbors those expressing defiance to its system, first by embargo then by occupation. This was true of Iraq and Afghanistan, and is true of Iran and other countries like it today. In its clash with this system, Ramadan itself, has become a representative exemplary expression of this filed of conflict as well, a parcel of the ideological confrontation, and an indicator of how easy it is to become an unknowing participant in the folly of empire.
Take the lands under military occupation: In Afghanistan ISAF forces explain that on the first day of Ramadan the Taliban had attacked a mosque. "It is sad that these insurgents have total disregard for their own brothers and holy places during this especially sacred time of the year," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Edwards, Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar commander. Elsewhere, 300 Afghans inaugurated the holy month by shouting ‘Death to America’ in the streets after three civilians were killed in yet another ‘Coalition’ attack that obviously has the best interests of Afghans in mind.
On the other primary front of perpetual war, Iraqis kicked off their Ramadan in much the same manner. As recent attacks have spiked and government failure continues, the U.S. prepares for a false draw down of combat troops (50,000 troops and over 100,000 private contractors will remain on 14 permanent military bases), and prepares to claim a false victory. On the eve of Ramadan, military spokesman Lieutenant General Robert W. Cone attempted to perform the same sort of ideological manipulation. Describing attacks in Basra that killed many civilians, he explained, "Traditionally we've seen an increase in attacks in the early part and just preceding Ramadan," predicting that insurgents will pick up their efforts of wanton violence in a supposed month of spirituality. In both Iraq and Afghanistan the new democratic regimes, imposed at gunpoint by the iron fist, will share the honor of congratulations from western diplomats for the holy month, but the rhetoric of these proceedings will include statements honoring the spiritual principles of passivity and acceptance into global norms that promote and protect injustice.
Away from the frontiers of empire, President Obama released a press statement congratulating Muslims and reminding that, "the world we want to build - and the changes that we want to make - must begin in our own hearts, and our own communities,” this a far cry from the Ramadan presentation from Obama in 2009 when, with approval ratings high and just off from speeches in Ankara and Cairo, the President gave a video speech, widely publicized, to usher in what was to represent a continued break from Bush policy. The annual Zogby Arab Public Opinion Poll released only a few days ago explains the rationale for Obama’s choice to largely remain silent. Last year 51 percent of those polled expressed optimism that Obama would bring change; this year’s results produced a dismal 16 percent expressing hope, while a majority of 63 percent were discouraged. Everywhere the rulers of the world extended their hand to Muslims on the first day of Ramadan, seeking to garner political points in their recognition. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, joined the act exclaiming to Muslims living under Israeli occupation that, “I ask for your support both in prayers and in any other joint effort to really create a peaceful and harmonious coexistence,” this as Ambassador Michael Oren and several prominent Rabbis refused an invitation from Barack Obama to celebrate Eid al Fitr, the holiday held at the end of Ramadan, at the White House, many prominent Muslim leaders will attend. Everywhere the general sentiment is that there is an invitation to Muslims for peace and prosperity, that is if they are able to overlook reality altogether and accept domination.
It should therefore be little wonder that many Muslims citing these realities and seeing through the rhetorical manipulation and politicization of their culture denounce the West as the source of all trouble. However, a real analysis of what Ramadan represents in lands largely unaffected by direct occupation reveals a perhaps even greater hypocrisy of rhetoric. Looking at domestic realities leads to a realization that the practice of Ramadan has itself become politicized and that the commoditization of the spiritual practices associated with the month have rendered its actual intention practically null and void. It is this component of an ideological struggle that shows the source of defeat and occupation stems from internal adulterations as much as it does from extraneous impositions.
In Saudi Arabia, the spiritual center of Islam, the House of Saud unveiled the world’s largest clock in Mecca to initiate the holy month. It took tens of millions, 90 million pieces of colored glass mosaic to cover the clock's tower and two million digital lights to illuminate its crown. While the House of Saud, or oil wealth of the nation, foots the bill of course, a group of German engineers designed it. A day after its unveiling, King Abdullah restricted the issuance of religious verdicts (fatawa) to senior clerics thereby making it all the more easy for the state to control ideological interpretations of Islam and further suppressing dissident speech against the oppressive state. Still, the dominant story was Saudi efforts to ‘steal time’ and consume during Ramadan.
This set of realities represents an apt metaphor for the shortcomings of Ramadan as practiced today. A month devoted to abstinence, simplicity, contemplation, and sacrifice perhaps should not be inaugurated with such proliferate display and repression as the substance and vigor of a deep intellectual tradition, another representation of the intended Ramadan spirit, is further suppressed and a holy month is utilized as a political screen. Perhaps because it is Ramadan, there is very little denunciation of any of these decisions.
Saudi Arabia is part of the greater Arab Gulf territories, and perhaps paradoxically, spending and consumption increases drastically during the month. Hotel chains this year are preparing to offer special, deluxe tents for people to socialize under through the night and the people tune in by day to watch their favorite religious leaders speak about piety, sandwiched in between advertising that vies for the attention of viewers that increase consumption three fold. In fact, Ramadan is the month of highest consumption throughout the Muslim world. In the Gulf region generally, Ramadan has become synonymous with shopping at the array of malls and metroplexes that have come to burst up amidst the revenue generated by oil proceeds. Companies target consumers during Ramadan no different than marketing increases during holidays in the West; think of it is Super Bowl Sunday for thirty days. In this way, the bifurcation of Muslims is made easy. Muslims commenting and attempting to alter these hypocrisies must be the allies of extremists, the complacent and complicit follower is acknowledged as a courageous, modern reformer.
In Egypt, spending during the month likewise gives way to an exponential increase in consumption levels and, in turn, to rampant inflation. In a country, subject to poverty and riots due to food prices the rest of the year, the government in Egypt explains that this rise in demand is good for the economy and that they have announced measures that will prevent rampant inflation. John Salevurakis, economics professor at the American University in Cairo argues that, “Given the reality that those price increases have not corrected due to the global crisis, it seems counterproductive to assert that rising demand for food products might be remotely good for an economy.” He admits that it appears somewhat contradictory that a month dedicated to fasting actually results in higher levels of consumption but explains Egyptian circumstances away declaring, “This is not a unique phenomenon, of course, and is quite common elsewhere in the world.” Egyptian sociologist Said Sadek explains that, "We have 30 days of Christmas Eve full of banquets and food," and adds in commenting on the state of the people that, "They are semi-drugged by media, by food, banquets that are being held because religion advises that it is better that people eat together." Or is it because a compliant set of religious leaders help a statist elite turn a month of piety, moderation and charity into one of excess and burdensome extravagance?
Indeed this condition persists elsewhere. In Bangladesh edible oil prices skyrocket as consumption increases many fold. In Indonesia the government decided to crack down on pornography, but only during Ramadan. “Some 80 percent of porn sites had been blocked by the government”, said Communication and Information Technology Minister Tifatul Sembiring. In Turkey banks have started Ramadan campaigns that promote low-interest rates for the holidays, interest happens to forbidden altogether in Islamic finance. In all Muslim countries the holy month of Ramadan is adulterated as people race to outdo each other in gestures of avarice, and the poor take out loans to satisfy Ramadan norms.
In Gaza, thanks to a combination of the efforts of the flotilla wave and the utter failure of the Israeli siege, there is an abundance of food and supplies. Hamas, struggling to pay its bills with the economic embargo will usher in the month by selling some of its government cars, cars are one item that the Israeli blockade prevents Gazans from owning and so are rare commodities. Even in Gaza, where there are the day to day realizations of life under occupation, the practice of Ramadan has become synonymous with consumption.
In Pakistan, the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire due to torrential flooding while President Zardari was traveling around Europe criticizing the incapacity of the West to win in the struggle for hearts and minds. In his absence, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would increase food aid and flood assistance as long as the United States flag remained strategically posted on all offerings. This comes alongside her contribution to Obama’s rhetorical campaign to mold Islam to U.S. likings. In a speech that unveiled Obama’s new National Security Strategy last month in front of the Brookings Institute, Clinton explained that, “we are at a race between the forces of integration and disintegration and we see that everyday,” so, “we are no less powerful but we need to apply our power in different ways, we are shifting from moving direct application of power to a more sophisticated and difficult use of indirect power, influence, smart power.” This smart power encompasses the objective of transforming opposition of U.S. interests intelligently into strategic assets and while most would believe it is something new, it is merely an attempt to return the U.S. to a situation similar to that which prevailed prior to the War on Terror, where occupation didn’t require expensive physical presence, but where institutions and financiers could control the country through a loyal elite all too willing to do their bidding.
Pakistan is perhaps the best example of the failure of this approach in the contemporary world. Recent polling suggests Pakistanis prefer Al-Qaeda to Barack Obama, nevertheless the ideological war wages on. Promoting an interpretation of Ramadan, its merits and meanings, in a way coincident to the broader struggle in the world represents a component of such “smart power,” and many of the world’s Muslims are all to quick to adhere directly to that call. “I urge the countrymen to make full use of the holy month in seeking forgiveness for their sins and in submitting to the will of Allah and also to help generously the people who have been devastated by floods and acts of militancy,” President Zardari stated as he made sure to blame militants for natural disaster and neglected to acknowledge that the Pakistani military had spent the last year destroying Swat Valley and Waziristan, regions largely affected by the flooding, on command from U.S. dictate.
Ramadan may be lost in essence but not in practice, one poll from Jordan shows that 96 percent report that they will fast in Ramadan and that nearly all of those fasting will finish reading the Quran. The ideological war to define the religion is internal as well and the internal battleground seems to be content mutating a month of piety into one of pleasure and indulgence, coincident of course to the desires of the powers without. This is applicable to other tenants of the religion as well and confirms a continuation of culture clash as policy spillover from the Bush era. It also highlight the importance that Muslims engage in the necessary endeavor of offering an ideological counter to this politicization, a call to make Ramadan representative of everything that breaks away from what has become normal: life dedicated to competition and consumption, the hedonist pursuit of pleasure, and individualism over community concern.
The rhetoric employed in the post-Bush, Obama era has actually done little to create any actual difference in either the practical or ideological realm. In essence, the Islamic religion continues to be politicized and, in turn, the cultural practice of Islam employed to divide, conquer and deploy ancient colonialist tactics. Shortly after 9-11, amidst an academic class that was contributing to the polarizing paradigm of black and white, Columbia University professor Mahmoud Mamadani began a critique of the political language then that went by largely unrecognized. His book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror alongside several pontificating critiques and elaborations in other academic articles described what he referenced as ‘culture talk,’ rhetoric devised to allow the West to steer clear from any discussion that would place the blame of terrorism on its own foreign policy. In his book he explained,
“Culture Talk assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and it then explains politics as a consequence of that essence. Culture Talk after 9/11, for example, qualified and explained the practice of "terrorism" as "Islamic." "Islamic terrorism" is thus offered as both description and explanation of the events of 9/11. It is no longer the market, (capitalism) nor the state, (democracy) but culture (modernity) that is said to be the dividing line between those in favor of a peaceful, civic existence and those inclined to terror.”
Thus the essence of Ramadan fits into this framework. When practiced in such hypocritical way, ‘culture talk’ quite craftily brandishes Muslims as backwards. This creates another component of the dividing line that continues to be cast globally as today Muslims across the world continue to be split into two very simplistic camps: good, modern Muslims that adopt to democratic values and ignore the reality that neither the market nor the state adhere to them whether in the East or West while bad, fundamentalist Muslims misunderstand altogether the benign nature of Western dictate, their call for sovereignty is reconfigured to imply barbaric efforts to impose premodernity, and in ways not altogether different from colonialist practices of the past.
The mechanisms associated with the process of sifting one camp from the other are evident in the narratives addressed previously with regard to Ramadan. Good Muslims, adopt the view of the elite, that Ramadan is a lax holiday, a cultural display with no deeper meaning than abstinence during the day in order to celebrate at night. Bad Muslims step away from these celebratory deviations and contradictions and some go so far as to call to the principles associated with the onset of the tradition, thus becoming labeled as ‘fundamentalists’. Today there is little speech associated with democratizing the Middle East; instead the rhetoric seeks to preserve the authoritarian structures existent there for decades, and ‘culture talk’ continues to reign supreme.
Vali Nasr, author of the recent publication Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It will Mean for Our World explains in an article in Foreign Policy that Ramadan is, “not all about pious asceticism. Ramadan is a world-moving force in its own right -- an unpredictable rampant consumerism, surprising conflict, and political skullduggery.” This assessment of what Ramadan has become is essentially correct and thereby Muslims miss the point. Ramadan need not be understood in terms of simple worldly versus other worldly dimensions that allow its most vehement critics and indigenous enemies to point to this apparent contradiction. Were Ramadan to be understood and embodied, in a way coincident with its spiritual intentions, the proper practice of it could create a very tangible ‘world moving force’ with the potential to alter the disastrous circumstances, poles of power, and general norms across the globe. A world where GDP growth was not a measure of absolute success and where there was more meaning to life than the acquisition of transitory material gain.
Ramadan and the concepts and practices associated with it actually present an opportunity, not only for Muslims, but for people worldwide to understand the root cause of imbalance and conflict in the world. In a reality of radically different circumstances between developed and developing, rich and poor, have and have-nots, the principles of sacrifice, charity, prayer, and simplicity in living represent a departure from an understanding of human nature and purpose that has plagued the age of secularism, a solution that taps at the root of suffering in the world and attacks the philosophical assumption of human nature that mar the secular age.
On the first day of the month of Ramadan in the majority of Muslim countries, Michelle Obama wrapped up an exotic six day trip to Spain that will cost U.S. taxpayers at least $400,000. Meanwhile, her husband, President in Chief cut $11.6 billion from the federal food stamp program that same day. This occurring simultaneous to the Federal Reserve’s admittance that the trillions of taxpayer dollars it spent bailing out the banks over the past year and a half are not fixing the holes in the economy, that "the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed," and thus that up to an additional $200 billion of taxpayer money would now be used to buy securitized debt that was built on an American system that helped create a society with 70% of GDP representative of domestic consumption, and a situation where Americans, less than five percent of global population were consuming forty percent of global resources.
Today the American consumer is bankrupt and more than 30 million Americans are on food stamps. Still, one wonders in awe as the government spent all of 2009-10 bailing out the elite and has now started calling for budget restraints with regard to the poor. For anyone that is familiar with the structural adjustment policies and mechanisms of looting that accompany financial globalization, it is apparent that American consumers have become expendable. For anyone living in the developing world, it also becomes apparent that the megaprojects easily recognized in every city, represent a transition where patterns will be reproduced as demand is stimulated in foreign lands after the death of the western consumer. In the Muslim world the month of Ramadan has potential to become a corporate dream, a month of celebration and consumption, a month long Christmas of materialism and greed.
Financiers and corporations across the globe certainly see a potential in the month of Ramadan, the potential to commoditize it and turn it into a holiday where spending extravagantly becomes the essence of the days. One need only look at Christmas in the west to comprehend a similitude, and to see the direction the Islamic holy month is heading; a day, held to be the birth of Christ, a man who commanded the one who wanted to get into heaven to sell everything he owned and walk a path of piety has been transformed into the biggest expression of materialism on the planet.
These concepts represent globalization, as presently practiced, in its proper light as neo-imperialism, a system that prioritizes the interest of global elite over everyday man, a system that knows it is bound to encounter and spur violent reactions to its conquest and deceit, a system that therefore must take the sacred and manipulate it according to its own needs, a system that holds no loyalty to any nation state, collective of people, no adherence to moral law, a system that is everywhere and effects everyone, a system that is winning the war.
So then what is there to cover but the rhetoric of politicians, and the increased consumption and lavish spending that occurs during the month of self restraint? This contemporary ‘culture war’ has become much more nuanced, but is not all that different from the justifications for imperialism of old. There are still good and bad Muslims, the good Muslims are those that are just like “us”, those that spend and celebrate life with little or no critical thought about the reality around them, the bad Muslims are those that refuse to allow the holy tradition to be adulterated in such demeanor, the isolated violent reaction against the appalling conditions is to prove that all Bad Muslims are the same, if today they are shunning corporatism and occupation tomorrow they will be blowing themselves up in the marketplace.
This Ramadan presents an opportunity to counter these trends. Westerners so too are suffering, and are slowly themselves becoming the victim of imperialist globalization, as demand curves rise in developing countries and the machine of globalist corporatism wreaks its havoc abroad, the behavior recorded of Muslims in Ramadan lets them know Muslims are open for exploitation. A month like Ramadan, which includes abstaining from food, drink and sex with marital partners from sun up to sundown, recommends contemplation, delving into the literary majesty of the Holy Quran and contemplating its many verses that command awareness and action in a very real struggle between truth and falsehood, could pose a system of principled opposition to the ideological mutation that is the world order of the day. Unfortunately, Muslims are unable to see that the corporate logos are contemporary idols, that the educated consumer would trace all the world’s brand names back to the same elite cartels, that delving into rampant consumerism during a month of abstinence defies and rejects the essence of the message of Islam, and thereby allows the argument of bipolarity, West versus East, good Muslim versus bad Muslim to deter attention from a set of norms and culture of barbarism that today dominates the globe. When reactionary Muslims contemplate ‘Death to America’ do they include in that abstract conglomerate the millions of poor and oppressed Americans suffering at the hands of this system as well? Do they realize that the fall of America leaves behind the authoritarian regimes that dominate what were once the lands of Islam? Do they realize that many preserve the outward practice of fasting Ramadan while rejecting the reality that in a world where consumption is God, they have adopted the idolatry of the day?
The essence of the month of Ramadan is giving, self sacrifice, gratitude, and drawing closer to the God of all Abrahamic traditions, were any to attain that realization and make headway into a call of transformation in self and society, they would be branded ‘Bad Muslims,’ unwilling participants in the process of religion as opiate of the mass. Ramadan is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but were Muslims able to recognize that external and internal threats have merged, then responsibility for plight and disorder would be shared and personalized. Action, seeking to recognize Ramadan for the essence of revolutionary alteration it represents, could be used to empower and embolden a conscious movement against the direction toward Armageddon the world seems to be heading. Personal and communal actions dedicated to erasing internal hypocrisies and contradictions could lead to release from external domination. Let us allow this Ramadan to be a month of simplicity and abstinence for humans everywhere and a means of getting back to understanding the basics of human existence. Let us mobilize around Ramadan’s true principles and call others to do the same, let us mount victory in the battle for hearts and minds, let us thereby free others that are oppressed and work towards building a better world for all. Ramadan Kareem!