Ramadan In A Warzone: Is This Time Of Reflection Enough To Stop Conflict?

Ramadan is a time of quiet reflection for Muslims around the world. But what is it like for those who find themselves trapped in the middle of violent conflicts? Host Michel Martin finds out.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to start the program today talking about Ramadan. That is the Islamic holy month, and it has now begun around the world. This is the time of year when observant Muslims abstain from food and water during daylight hours. It is a time meant for self-reflection and atonement. But at this moment, many of the headlines about Muslims around the world are about conflict and war, from Iraq and Syria to Kenya and Nigeria. And that might cause many to wonder, how is that possible during this holy period?

So we've called two of our regular contributors who often comment on matters of significance in the Muslim world. Asra Nomani is back with us. She is a journalist who has worked in Pakistan. She's author of the book "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle For The Soul Of Islam." Asra, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

ASRA NOMANI: Thanks.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Arsalan Iftikhar. He is the founder of themuslimguy.com. He's an adjunct professor at DePaul University and a regular contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. He's joining us from Aspen Public Radio in Aspen, Colorado, where he's participating in the Aspen Ideas Festival. Arsalan, welcome back to you, as well. Thanks for joining us.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Thanks, Michel. Anytime.

MARTIN: Asra, when you were reporting from the Middle East, did attitudes about change - about conflict change during this holy period?

NOMANI: Well, there was this ordinary observance that happened. I was in Pakistan right after bombs had dropped in Afghanistan in 2001. And I was sitting in Karachi, and you could literally hear the fighter jets and the bombers go across the skies to Afghanistan. And what I noticed was that people would continue with their ordinary lives. But there would be this sadness, also, that was within their thinking and their conversations because there was war and conflict all around them.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you wrote last year that, quote, "leaders around the world, religious or otherwise, must leverage Ramadan to find peaceful political situations for these internal, violent quagmires plaguing the Muslim world." Have you any evidence of that ever happening? Do you have any sense that that does influence the thinking of the people who are direct participants in these conflicts?

IFTIKHAR: Well, Michel, it should because the prophet Mohammed, who is the prophet of Islam, had categorically forbidden any sort of fighting during the month of Ramadan and other months during the year. And, you know, as I called for last year in a Time magazine website article - you know, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had also called for a cease-fire, particularly in Syria, at the time because of the demolition of Homs to allow for humanitarian aid - for relief organizations to get in so that refugees could have access to the corridors to Turkey.

I mean, it's not a time - you know, you're not going to end a war in a 30-day period. But if you have a 30-day cooling off period in any armed conflict in the world, as an international human rights lawyer, you know, you can create temporary humanitarian quarters. You can get food and, you know, medical resources to people who actually need it. And, you know, I think it gives both sides on any side of a conflict the opportunity to think about really what's going on.

MARTIN: Asra, I wanted to ask you about this because I know neither of you is an Islamic scholar, per se, but you've done a lot of study into the history, you know, of the faith, as well. Is it your sense that part of the purpose of Ramadan, in addition to the spiritual purpose, is to provide that kind of cooling off period? But the question is, do we have any historical sense of whether that actually occurred?

NOMANI: You know, when I think about this month, I always think about how it is that the concept with which we're born in Islam - that the idea is that the breath of God enters into you in your mother's womb. And it's - nafs al-ruh is the concept. And there's - and what we're talking about right here is the jihad of bodies - right? - of war, of people who are at conflict with each other. But really, the deeper purpose in Ramadan is to have a jihad bil nafs, a struggle of the soul. And that's what I think is this moment and this opportunity.

Historically, there's always been this call for cease-fires. And this - there's this calming that happens within Muslim communities. And that's what - I think we're in that moment of struggle. Right now, this, you know, new force through Iraq has asked all Muslims to claim allegiance to it. I, as a Muslim, would never claim allegiance to this new organization. And this is a struggle within our community for our soul and what direction we're going to go. And as Arsalan is saying, you know, we have to take this pause and really try to reflect on what we can do to bring healing to our communities.

MARTIN: Arsalan, what about that? Do you feel...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, you know, there's a - it's a very good question, Michel. There's a very famous saying of the prophet Mohammed, where he says that whoever does not give up evil actions during the month of Ramadan, then God is not in need of them to give up food or drink during the month of Ramadan. You know, Ramadan is not just a - you know, a fasting exercise, where you're abstaining from food and water for 30 days from dawn until dusk. It is a spiritual cleansing exercise, and it is as much internal as it is external.

And as the prophet Mohammed said in the saying that, you know, anyone who doesn't give up evil actions during Ramadan, God is not in need of them giving up food and drink. And so I think that sort of hints at the duality of, you know, the practical aspects of Ramadan, where people do - 1.7 billion people do fast, but it's also an important time for those 1.7 billion Muslims to also self-reflect within ourselves.

You know, in 2013, we mentioned that Ban Ki-moon called for a cease-fire. Two days ago, now, the Arab League and the OIC - the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is the largest umbrella organization of 57 Muslim-majority nations on Earth - have called for a cease-fire this year in places like Syria and Iraq and Nigeria, as well. And so, you know, we hope that this spiritual aspect will also result in some sort of political realities that'll make it easier for war-torn people on the ground.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about observing Ramadan in areas of conflict. My guests are Arsalan Iftikhar, the founder of themuslimguy.com. He's a regular contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. Also joining us, journalist Asra Nomani, who has been a regular contributor on a number of our programs and segments. So, you know, Asra, you've trained - you've been participating in training over - at times, over the years, members of the U.S. military in issues of cultural sensitivity. What have you taught them about Ramadan?

NOMANI: Well, I've taught them, you know, definitely don't try to have important conversations with people the middle of the day. Try to wait til the sun has set and, you know, knock on doors or sit down and then try to have meaningful, you know, interviews or conversations. Irritability goes up. You know, all of these aspects that are just clinical of the body.

But I also tell them that, you know, it's a moment when you can actually try to reach people in the soft of their heart because, as Arsalan is saying, you know, we all know that there is this higher calling during this month and that there is this effort to try to be the better person - you know, to try to be the better person within yourself. And though there are all of these political initiatives that are being done by some Muslim leaders, you know, I think even they have their own conflicts. And we don't know, in some of them, you know, what is sincere and what isn't. And, you know, who's pulling what strings where. And ultimately, the challenge - both on the ordinary people and the leadership - is to try to appeal to the higher self in everyone.

MARTIN: Arsalan, clearly, I'm not asking you to speak for these people, but the insurgents who are currently operating in Iraq and Syria - their stated intention is to create kind of an Islamic-led - a caliphate, I mean, in the entire region. And they're calling upon Muslims to swear allegiance to them. How do you - how do they - recognizing, once again, you don't speak for them - but how do they reconcile that with the call during this period of - to lay down arms, to be peaceful and to abstain from kind of the needs of the world, at least sort of during daylight hours? How do they square something like that?

IFTIKHAR: I don't know because they're maniacs. And, you know, when you're dealing with people who are, you know, operating outside the full of logic and reason, you know - if anything, I think, you know, if they continue any sort of armed conflict, especially in Iraq with Isis, you know, during the month of Ramadan, I think they're going to lose a lot of credibility from people who might have decided to support them. And so I think that that's something that is very important to keep in mind, also - is the fact that, you know, this is not just something where you're dealing with state actors and civilians. In many cases, you are dealing with non-state actors against other fellow non-state actors. And again, here, if you're going to claim to have some sort of Islamic or Muslim platform to your political ideology, it would behoove you to, you know, follow the teachings of Islam, not kill innocent civilians anywhere at any time and, you know, especially during the month of Ramadan.

MARTIN: Asra, to that end, both of you - you and Arsalan are both, you know, activists, as well as kind of writers and thinkers. I wanted to ask, is there any opportunity for activism here in support of more peaceful solutions in these areas or peaceful kind of negotiations or end to conflict in these areas? Is there any evidence of that? Did you ever see that when you were working in Pakistan - that this does offer an opportunity, on the part of people, to claim the peaceful - to advance peaceful causes?

NOMANI: Right. I think that, you know, the sad truth is that while there is a lot of activism and calls for peaceful solutions within our community, I don't believe that we have significant leadership that does provide, you know, the kind of inspiration for a resolution to the struggle within Islam for the peaceful alternative to prevail. You know, I disagree, in that I think that the folks that are - you know, this Iraq state that's, you know, being called Isis or whatever, you know, iteration they're going to have - they have a rationale. They have an Islamic ideology that they are behind.

And ultimately, it is up to us to try to challenge that Islamic interpretation that they put forward. They think that they're doing the right thing. They do have a rationale to their approach. And we, I'm afraid, don't have enough of a concerted response to it. I think among leaders, among community members, there's folks that are doing a lot of work, including Arsalan. But at the end of the day, you know, we still haven't won that battle.

MARTIN: Arsalan, a final thought from you. We only have about 40 seconds, so...

IFTIKHAR: You know, it's really interesting, you know, being here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. And people learning that it's Ramadan - they feel really bad that all this, you know, great food, you know, we Muslims aren't allowed to eat - what's really interesting for me - very quickly - is the fact that here, at least, in the United States, there's been a lot of interfaith outreach, where we have people from the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu traditions who will fast in solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters here. And similarly, you know, Muslims like myself will go to Passover Seders and, you know, do other - and share in other religious events, also. And I think that's the sort of interfaith humanization that we need to see here in the United States, and hopefully, that'll translate itself abroad, as well.

MARTIN: That was Arsalan Iftikhar. He's founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. He's an adjunct professor at DePaul University, with us, as he mentioned, from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Here in Washington, D.C., journalist and author Asra Nomani - her book is called "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle For The Soul Of Islam." Thank you to you both. Ramadan mubarak to you both.

NOMANI: Oh, thank you, Michel.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel.

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