The spokesman for Islamic State (IS) said in late May that jihadis should “make it, with God’s permission, a month of pain for infidels everywhere”. Another extremist distributed a manual for using poisons, adding, in poor English: “Don’t forget Ramadan is close, the month of victories.”
A bloody month it has been, with terrorist attacks killing and wounding hundreds of people in Orlando, Florida; Istanbul; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and now Baghdad, where a bomb killed more than 140 people early on Sunday in a shopping area full of families who had just broken their Ramadan fasts.
For the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, violence is completely dissonant with the holy month, which in addition to fasting is a time for spiritual renewal, prayer and visits with friends and family.
It is widely believed that the rewards earned for noble acts are greater during Ramadan, which culminates in the Eid holiday this week. Jihadis have perverted this belief to serve their own ends, said analysts.
In short: If one believes it is good to kill those who are considered infidels, all the better to do so during Ramadan.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Al Qaeda, its various affiliates, and now IS use Ramadan as a watershed, as a marker to inspire and motivate their followers and supporters worldwide,” said Prof Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics who has written books on jihad.
While not all of them may have been carried out with Ramadan in mind, the month has seen a stunning array of attacks.
Trail of terror during Ramadan
A gunman opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando, killing 49.
A suicide attack on an army post in Jordan killed seven soldiers.
Suicide bombers killed dozens of civilians in Mukalla, Yemen, and in a Christian village in Lebanon, on the same day.
The next day, attackers struck Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, killing at least 41.
In the occupied West Bank, Palestinian assailants killed two Israeli civilians over two days, stabbing a 13-year-old girl while she was asleep in her home in a Jewish settlement and gunning down a man on the road.
On Friday, gunmen stormed a restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter, letting some Muslims escape but killing at least 22, most of them foreigners.
And on Sunday, a bombing took at least 143 lives in Baghdad.
IS has claimed responsibility for many of the attacks and is the prime suspect in others. A large share of the victims have been Muslims, belying the IS’ claim to be the defender of their faith.
“We were happy and preparing to break the last day of the fasting month very soon and to celebrate Eid, but our feelings have been stained with blood,” said shopkeeper Hadi Jumaili, who was hit with flying glass in the attack in Baghdad.
Many large attacks occurred during Ramadan last year, too, hitting a Tunisian beach resort, a Shia mosque in Kuwait, a Kurdish town in northern Syria and African Union troops in Somalia.
But terrorism researchers caution that attacks happen year-round and that there is little systematic evidence that they become more common during Ramadan. And it is almost impossible to tell what role the month plays in the thinking of individual attackers.
What is clearer is that the manipulation of the goals of Ramadan are another way in which jihadis have interpreted the religion in a way most Muslims deplore. Another example is the jihadis’ wide use of takfir, or the branding of others as infidels who deserve death. The IS has used this concept to justify the killing of other Muslims, be they Shias or fellow Sunnis whom the group deems to be insufficiently devout.
Such views course through the jihadis’ Ramadan propaganda.
In an audio message released before the month began, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed Adnani urged the group’s followers to launch attacks in the West during Ramadan in retaliation for strikes by a American-led coalition in the group’s central territories in Syria and Iraq.
“Know that in the heart of the lands of the Crusaders there is no protection for that blood, and there is no presence of so-called civilians,” he said.
Jihadis should act, he said, “so that perhaps you will gain the great reward for martyrdom in Ramadan”.
Other propagandists reached back into Islamic history to compare the modern jihadi struggle with the Battle of Badr, a famous Ramadan victory mentioned in the Quran in which the Prophet Muhammad and his forces routed their enemies in Mecca. Some drew links between those forces and Omar Mateen, the Orlando gunman.
“In Islamic history, Ramadan is a reminder to Muslims of who they are, separating the faithful from the non-faithful,” said Prof Gerges.
“But what IS and Al Qaeda have done to great effect is to focus on the war spirit and offensive spirit rather than on the moral spirit.”
The recent spate of attacks could be less about Ramadan than about the IS’ desire to project strength as it loses territory. In Iraq, it recently lost control of Ramadi and was pushed out of Fallujah last month — a humiliating Ramadan defeat.
Since those losses undermine the jihadis’ claim to have a powerful state with its own territory, high-profile attacks abroad serve as “force multipliers, because they divert attention from what is happening in Iraq and Syria”, said Prof Gerges.
The jihadis’ focus on violence during the holy month stirs revulsion among most Muslims, who see it as a time of intensified spirituality and increased religious activity, said Prof Jonathan Brown, professor of Islamic civilisation at Georgetown University.
This often means more time spent in prayer, at the mosque or reading the Quran, in addition to the dawn-to-dusk fast that is among the requirements of observant Muslims. Even many secular Muslims fast or pursue good works throughout Ramadan.
“If you do your fast well and it is received, there is a huge reward you get in the afterlife,” said Prof Brown.
Underlying much Ramadan activity is a sense that the rewards for good deeds are greater during the holy month, even for acts as small as smiling at someone, said Prof Brown.
Muslims are to give contributions to charity equal to the cost of one meal at the end of the month, and many also give their required alms for the year during Ramadan, making it an active time to think about the poor. Many Muslim communities also hold Ramadan fundraising drives for charitable causes.
There is also a belief that the devils who normally tempt people to sin are “chained up”, during Ramadan, making it easier for Muslims to be good, as they have to face only their own temptations.
“This is a time to improve yourself and not to swear, not to have arguments, and you have a leg up now,” said Prof Brown. “That means that people who carry out these attacks only have themselves to blame. They can’t blame the devil.” THE NEW YORK TIMES
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