Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ramadan in Iraq: Improving Security Sparks Revival of Traditions

On September 1st, the setting sun marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a celebration which occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The origins of Ramadan trace back to the 7th Century, known to Muslims as the year Ramadan 610. At this time, Muslims believe Muhammad received the initial verses of the Koran from the angel Gabriel, a messenger sent by Allah. Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims observe the tradition of fasting, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. From sunrise to sunset all those who are healthy abstain from eating, drinking (water included), sex and smoking. Daily fasting allows for self reflection and mastery over desires. Abstention from food also reminds Muslims of the suffering of others less fortunate.

The traditions of Ramadan are meant to unite families and neighborhoods in a spirit of charity, peace and hospitality. However, in Iraq, insecurity makes observing the holy month more difficult. In February 2006, the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra catapulted the region into severe sectarian conflict. 9 P.M. curfews and fear of more bloodshed kept most Iraqis from the games, feasts and gatherings that, in past Ramadans, stretched into the early hours of dawn. In an article published by the Washington Post in 2006, an Iraqi grocery clerk pessimistically asserts that “All of our traditions will soon vanish, and we will only hear about them in history books.” In the same article a young Iraqi girl speaks of the fears that taint the Ramadan celebrations:

Last year we were not afraid. But this year we are afraid. There are a lot of car bombs. I want security to come back and no terrorists.

Considering the unremitting conflict that plagued Iraq following the bombing in Samarra, hope for the revival of a peaceful Ramadan became an illusion for even the most optimistic Iraqi.

Over the past year, however, a quelling of violence revives the hope that was fading amidst constant bloodshed. On August 31st, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki praised the resilience of the Iraqi people stating:

Ramadan comes at a time when the Iraqis have earned the result of their patience and victory on terrorists, criminals and outlaws (…) There is progress in security and peace.

Security has indeed improved. Last month a total of 430 Iraqi civilians, police officers and soldiers were killed nationwide as compared to the 1,860 deaths during the same period a year earlier. The recent handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces in the province of Anbar, formally a stronghold for Sunni insurgency and the birthplace of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is more good news for Iraqis longing for a calm Ramadan. Feeling secure, people are returning to the streets in the evening after breaking the fast. In interviews with residents in Baghdad and throughout the country, the Los Angeles Times reports "Iraqi Muslims Pray for Peaceful Ramadan":

Muqdad Hammed, 23, who never thought of going out during Ramadan last year. Now he looks forward to the nights after breaking the fast. "We hang around in alleyways as late as 1 a.m. playing the traditional games," he said. Among those games is mahaibis, in which one person on a team conceals a ring in his hand and the other team must guess who has it.

In Baghdad's eastern neighborhood of Shaab, Ali Mohammed, 24, said that despite high food prices, he wants to take his family out to celebrate in parks and restaurants. “There will be no bloody explosions and killing. I’m optimistic that Ramadan will be full of prosperity and peace for all,” Mohammed said.

Despite improvements in security, violent attacks continue to be a danger in less secure areas. On September 6th a car bomb exploded near shops and cafes in the northwestern city of Tal Afar. The blast killed six people and wounded an estimated 50 others as reported by the New York Times. Late August also saw a string of fatal attacks by suicide bombers targeting mosques and police stations. The recent increase of attacks mimic similar surges that occurred during Ramadan in the past. In 2003 and 2006, Ramadan prompted anti-Iraqi insurgents to launch offensives that killed more than 350 Iraqi Security Forces personnel and nearly 200 coalition service members.

Security, however, is not the most pressing issue distressing many Iraqis this month. Lack of electricity and other essential services undermine the attempts of Iraqis to rebuild their lives and observe Ramadan. The extreme heat during blackouts makes fasting more difficult. The loss of loved ones becomes amplified as well during the month of Ramadan. A time of celebration is also a time of mourning when many Iraqis are forced to recall bitter memories of family and friends lost or displaced due to the violence in Iraq. One Iraqi man, whose son died two months ago from a gunshot wound, laments:

Ramadan for us has always been a period of love and strength. The family was always together. But today, it means suffering and pain.”

Despite the challenges that still face Iraq; during this holy month of Ramadan, citizens can celebrate not only the Islamic traditions that unify them as Muslims but also the successes that unite them as Iraqis.

Photo Caption: "A baker prepares kunafa, a traditional Middle Eastern dessert pastry, in Baghdad’s Karada district. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and feast at night (Ahmad al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images, 9/3/08)."

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