‘And so, the contention is, Ramadan is "the month of Jihad”. Yet, there can be no moral equivalence between a battle fought in self-defence, such as those waged by the Prophet during Ramadan, and brutal militant attacks that maim and murder innocent men, women, and children. Just because some of the most important battles of Islamic history occurred during Ramadan, it does not mean that murder could ever be justified. Ever.’ – Hesham A. Hassaballah (2013)
It began in 624 C.E., on the 17th Ramadan. The great Battle of Badr was to mark the beginning of the first conflict in Muslim history fought during the holy month of Ramadan. This historical event is regularly exploited within terrorists’ rhetoric for recruiting militants and justifying violence. Of the dozens of historic conflicts ensuing since that year, remembered in contemporary history are the Ramadan War of 1973 (also known as the Yom Kippur War or the fourth Arab-Israeli War); the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975 and continued through seventeen months of Ramadan; Operation Ramadan, the first battle in the Iran-Iraq war fought in 1982, one of the largest land battles since World War II; the first Palestinian intifada, which began in 1987 and was waged over 6 Ramadans; and the 2003-2007 Iraq war.
Today, terrorists worldwide allude to these conflicts non-contextually to wage their own versions of jihad. In the Middle East and North Africa, countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and – most notably – Iraq, have regularly suffered from these extreme narratives.
It was on the third of Ramadan in 2004, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a world renowned terrorist known for advocating suicide attacks and hostage executions, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Ladin, leading to the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In his pledge, he reportedly stated that ‘with the appearance of Ramadan, the month of the gift of victories, Muslims are compelled to join forces and be a stick in the eye of Islam’s enemies’. It was his affiliate that called a surge of terrorist activity in Ramadan their ‘blessed foray of violence’. This year, mid-way through the holy month, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) carried out one of the most alarming prison breaks in recent history. As the world watched Iraq crumbling amidst sectarian violence, 500 militants broke out of Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
In 2006, just two weeks before Ramadan, Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video tape threatening Algerians who were still reeling from a civil war. ‘The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) has joined the Al Qaeda organization… may this be a bone in the throat of American and French crusaders, and their allies, and sow fear in the hearts of French traitors and sons of apostates’. GSPC has existed in Algeria since the 1990s. Since its transformation into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Algeria has experienced a spike in terrorist activity during Ramadan.
The month of Muharram, like Ramadan, too has borne the brunt of such activity and rhetoric, with Shias being targeted in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. In 2012, in a streak of bombings on the eve of Muharram, 17 people were killed across Iraq. But seldom has a country witnessed the threat of Muharram violence that Pakistan has.
Last year, an arrested TTP militant in Karachi, Akhtar Mehsud confessed during interrogation that four suicide bombers had been trained and selected to carry out attacks during Muharram processions in the city. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies worked intensively to ward off security threats during the month of commemoration, successfully foiling several attempts as was revealed by suspects arrested from various cities in Punjab between 2010 and 2013.
The prevailing threat stems from violently sectarian rhetoric embossed with Islamic history. On December 28 2009, Pakistan’s largest procession of Shias was targeted in Karachi, killing 43 and causing the city to erupt in clashes amongst rioters. TTP claimed responsibility, notifying the use of a suicide bomber. The attack came a day after suicide attacks killed 15 near Pir Alam Shah Bukhari’s tomb in Muzaffarabad.
Last November, a remote-controlled bombing in Dera Ismail Khan during Muharram took eight lives. TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan was quick to justify that the group ‘carried out the attack against the Shia community’. Other than TTP, responsible for inciting violence during Muharram are Lahskar-e-Jhangvi and its mother-ship Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.
‘The holy month of jihad’, has suffered its share of violence in Pakistan as well, hazed by sectarian tones. In 2010, multiple blasts targeted a Shia procession in Lahore killing 30. They were followed shortly by a suicide attack on Shias in Quetta which killed more than 50 people. This year, the deadliest attack targeting Shias during Ramadan took place in Parachinar, taking over 56 lives. Media channels, perhaps too distressingly involved in comic Ramadan transmissions, failed to provide adequate coverage to such an atrocity.
Apart from sectarian attacks during Ramadan, Pakistan has witnessed a surge of other TTP and LEJ-led attacks including those on police recruits in Mingora that killed 16 (2009); the attack on a mosque in Khyber agency which claimed 50 lives (2011); a rage of attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA in the beginning of Ramadan in 2012; a mosque attack in Kohat on the first day of Ramadan and the Sukkur attacks on ISI headquarters (2013). Every TTP and LeJ-led rhetoric during Ramadan in Pakistan has been dressed in the kafan of jihad.
Adding to these holy months of martyrdom is the factor of Islamic charities, several of which collect funds for jihad, attracting zakat during Ramadan, such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Last year, the government prohibited collection of zakat and donations by banned groups and/or outfits, but given that several of these are unregistered, tracing and controlling financing through illicit charitable donations remains a serious problem in Pakistan.
If external jihad was not enough, the Pakistani Taliban seems to have become caretakers of the practice of internal jihad as well. TTP-South Waziristan’s Mullah Nazir recently banned men and women from wearing tight or see-through clothing in Ramadan – a move that bears no religious or historic significance, and one TTP fails to explain the ‘Islamic’ nature of. The Ramadan ‘code of conduct’ issued by TTP has further warned one month of imprisonment for not fasting in South Waziristan.
Attacks during Rabbi-al-Awwal, the third month of the calendar, have hit several cities in the country as well. While citizens – Sunni, Shia, Ahmedis and Christians alike – celebrate the birth of the Prophet, aggressive disapproval is made known by certain Deobandi, Wahabi and Salafi groups in Pakistan who strongly oppose these celebrations and see fit to attack rejoicing participants. It takes but a mention of Nishtar Park to remind Karachiites of the 56 citizens killed during an attack carried out in 2006 by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operatives on Barelvi Sunnis responsible for organizing the ceremony.
What triggers escalation of violence during sacred times is a subject of much contention. Ron E. Hessner wrote that ‘sacred dates in the religious calendar provide meaning to the faithful by evoking history, social structure or religious precepts and, ultimately, by hinting at the underlying order of the cosmos’. Instigators of violence during sacred months seem to benefit from the so-called ‘auspicious’ timing of attacks, almost in an attempt to justify them, vindicating initiators from guilt and shame.
Undertaking an offensive during a religious period has dual characteristics: motivation for the terrorist group and vulnerability of the target. Religious periods act as force multipliers, motivating militants to act with greater ferocity and fervour on holy days that resonate with their cause (such as the motivation to instigate violence against Shias during Muharram). Hessner’s findings on the Iraq conflict between 2003 and 2009, for example, illustrate that in Ramadan the average number of terrorist attacks increased by 7.2%, with sectarian attacks alone rising by 8.3%. Zarqawi’s quote below represents the rhetoric employed for this motivation.
‘Sunnis, wake up, pay attention and prepare to confront the poisons of the Shiite snakes, who are afflicting you with all agonies since the invasion of Iraq until our day. Forget about those advocating the end of sectarianism and calling for national unity.’ – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (2006), former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (2006)
Vulnerability of the group being attacked is the second characteristic influencing the rise of conflict during a religious period. Attacking Shia processions during Muharram or Friday mosque-goers during Ramadan are known as ‘surprise attacks’, meant to weaken the ‘enemy’ further by endangering its mobilisation on days most significant to the practitioners. Vulnerability encourages motivation. Motivation becomes a show of hadd and jurrat, thus furthering vulnerability. By definition, ‘hadd’ can mean either ‘limit’ or ‘a punishment which is fixed and enjoyed as the right of Allah’. For the purposes of extremism, it implies more conclusively the extremes one is willing to reach in order to punish apostates or non-believers. ‘Jurrat’ (bravery or courage) – with regards the tactical utilisation of terrorism – refers to the theatrical display of violence highlighting strength and power in order to suppress the adversary and impress the following.
The best way to contain this vicious cycle of motivation and vulnerability is through changing perceptions towards extremist rhetoric by providing alternate interpretations of religious history. It must also be accounted that violence has blooded histories of all religions and can never be utilised as a means of successfully spreading or eradicating belief systems. Salafi preacher Sayyid Qutb, Zawahiri’s mentor, spent his ink and sweat advocating for an offensive jihad, whereas the Prophet devoted his life insisting on its defensive and internal nature. Understanding the difference is a good place to start.
Zoha Waseem is from Karachi and has a post-graduate from King’s College London in Terrorism, Security and Society.