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Attacks During Ramadan May Be Costly

Religion: Muslim world's fragile goodwill toward America could be lost entirely if the military campaign continues in the holy month, observers say.


CAIRO — It's the time of day Samir Mahdi and his friends get together, sipping sugared hot tea from tiny glasses, puffing on water pipes burning sweet, flavored tobacco and contemplating the state of the world. On a recent afternoon, the talk among the waiter, taxi driver, laborer and cook turned to the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.

The four men, proudly Muslim and mainstream moderate, still view the United States as a victim. They reflect the widespread, if grudging, acceptance in many circles in Egypt that the Sept. 11 attacks were reason enough for the airstrikes.

But as civilian casualties in Afghanistan grow, the U.S. is on the verge of losing whatever fragile goodwill exists across the Muslim world. The final transformation--from victim to aggressor--could come in mid-November if American forces continue the attacks into the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"We are sad that civilians are being killed," said Mahdi, 32, as he served tea in the storefront on Ismail Mohammed Street, a busy shopping district here on the Nile island of Zamalek. But the waiter added: "If it turns out really that the Taliban is responsible for what they did, they deserve to be hit."

However, Mahdi said he and others will change their minds if the U.S. attacks continue during Ramadan. "I would feel monstrous and I would strongly protest and condemn it," he said. "Muslims all over the world, no matter how far apart, their hearts are with each other."

Analysts, clerics, diplomats and political leaders in the Middle East have said they hope the past weeks force the U.S. to reassess its relationship with the Muslim world, in particular the Arab world, and to examine the roots of the deep distrust that many here feel.

Many Muslims believe that continuing the attacks on Afghanistan during Ramadan would not only show gross insensitivity toward their religion but would confirm their commonly held view that the U.S. is unwilling to differentiate between moderate Muslims and terrorists.

"We are talking about the perception of the people," said Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst here with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "We are talking about the perception that the U.S. and the West treat all Arabs and Muslims as terrorists."

Ramadan, which will begin around Nov. 17 with the sighting of the new moon, marks the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad nearly 1,500 years ago. Its observance is one of Islam's five pillars, or essential religious requirements. The others are giving alms, ritual praying five times a day, making a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime if one is physically able, and professing that there is one God and that Muhammad is his prophet. Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to sunset during Ramadan.

During the celebration, families and friends gather at sundown to break the fast with a festive meal, known in Arabic as iftar. In Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, young and old alike toss firecrackers. In Egypt, the streets are often lined with colorful decorations, and the wealthy donate food so the poor also may enjoy an iftar. Ramadan becomes the central focus of life in the Muslim world as people cope with the fast during the day and stay up late to eat and celebrate.

Even before Oct. 7, when the first bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, Muslim allies of the West asked for assurances that the campaign would be completed before--or halted during--Ramadan.

Muslims have fought Muslims during the holy month--for example, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Muslims also have staged offensives, including the 1973 invasion of Israel by Egypt and Syria on the 10th day of Ramadan, which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. And Palestinians did not slow the pace of their intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation last year during Ramadan and have announced no plans to do so this year.

"The Palestinians believe it is a holy day and those days are better than other days to sacrifice for Palestinian issues, for their land, for their holy places," said Osama Hamdan, the Lebanon-based representative of the militant group Hamas. "So I believe the intifada will be more effective through the period of Ramadan."

The prophet Muhammad himself waged war during the holy time, when, in 624, on the 10th day of Ramadan, he began preparations for the Battle of Badr, the first victory in the campaign that ended with his triumphant entry into Mecca.

But the idea of the West carrying on attacks during the holy month carries echoes of battles between Christians and Muslims going back many centuries to the European invasion of the Middle East, known as the Crusades.

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