Violent acts of jihadist terrorism during Ramadan, though newly popularized by IS (ISIS), have deeper and older theological roots
The holy month of Ramadan has for decades in the West been seized upon as an opportunity to reject division and promote interfaith dialogue-a month of peace. Celebratory White House and Downing Street iftars are commonplace alongside messages underscoring Ramadan as a month of self-cultivation or inner jihad. Through fasting, night-prayers, qur’anic memorisation, and good deeds, believers seek closeness to God. It therefore strikes a nerve amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike when even Islam’s holiest month is punctuated by violence. On the streets of Liège, Belgium last week an all too familiar scene; gunshots and cries of Allahu Akbar heard as two female police officers and a bystander were slain by a would be jihadist. Before the gunman could be killed he took a cleaner in a nearby school hostage, asking the women two questions: was she Muslim? and was she observing Ramadan? Replying yes to both, the cleaner was spared-persuading the gunman to move away from the school of children before he himself was shot.
Missed by analysts or ignored for expediency, recent years have in fact seen a targeted campaign on the part of Islamic State jihadists seeking to punctuate the month with violence and terror. Should their aim come to fruition, a month much revered for piety will be increasingly marred by its association with heightened jihadist violence.
Having proclaimed the global caliphate in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi swiftly implemented Islamic State’s drive to re-shape the narrative of Ramadan. Setting out on the first night of Ramadan:
“there is no deed in this virtuous month or in any other month better than jihad in the path of Allah, so take advantage of this opportunity and walk the path of your righteous predecessors…Go forth, O mujahideen… Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death in the places where you expect to find it”
Whilst campaigns of Ramadan violence can be traced to the 1973 ‘Ramadan war’ and ‘Ramadan offensives’ of the Iraqi insurgency by Al Qaeda (2003) and Sadrist militias (2006), only IS have achieved global impact. Since their first statement, annual calls for a month of “ raids and jihad” and “of suffering for the Kuffar” have been matched by heightened jihadist terror. In 2016, devastating and coordinated bombings across Baghdad killed 341 Shi’ites breaking their fast and enjoying ice cream. 2017 was punctuated by attacks on Britain in London, amongst over a dozen globally.
What becomes apparent under scrutiny is that IS’ weaponisation of Ramadan did not emerge from an ideological vacuum. Islamist and jihadist organisations have propagated unchanging Ramadan messages for decades, with groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir to Al Qaeda in Iraq and al Aqsa martyrs, all seeking to capitalise on Ramadan as a “month of victories”. Drawing upon a potent historical narrative, they point to a litany of triumphs where Muslims, claiming divine sanction, prevailed militarily during Ramadan. These include the Prophet’s greatest victories at Badr and Mecca, as well and those following centuries later at Andalusia, al-Zallaqa, and Hattin. For the jihadist, the fast and jihad become concurrent acts of devotion; one internal, the other external. Where it is widely held that a good deed in Ramadan is worth twice reward, for the jihadist the reward for acts of martyrdom are doubled. Jihad is elevated above every pillar of Islam except the declaration of faith.
Discourses emphasising military victory and Islamic supremacism combined with self-sacrifice provide an effective ideological foundation for those seizing upon Ramadan for jihadist violence. However, of greater concern is the extent to which these discourses aren’t isolated to the fringe. The Egyptian Grand Mufti in a 2015 statement celebrates Ramadan as a historic month of jihad and conquest. Prominent American and British clerics Yasir Qadhi and Haitham al-Haddad in sermons available online praise and glorify Muslim victories. Whilst Qadhi in 2016 explicitly states that the lesson to be drawn is one of inner struggle, the degree of appraisal for Muslim conquest is apparent:
“…those were the good old days, those were the glory days-one battle being fought here, the other being fought there, one conquest after another….Look at all of these conquests. Conquests in the East, conquests in the West, conquests in the heart of Islam and all of them are taking place in the month of Ramadan and inshaa’allah we gain that the greatest moments of our life, our own personal victories should be during this month.”
Haddad, in a 2012 address ‘Ramadan: The Month of Victory’, speaks in support of the Syrian rebels:
“This year my dear respected brothers and sisters muslims in Syria inshaa’allah we pray to Allah, we pray to Allah to give them the victory in Damascus and they will be able to take over Damascus and the whole al-Sham. In the month of Ramadan we ask Allah to give them this victory…grant them this victory inshaa’allah in this Ramadan.”
As terrorism increasingly frays the social fabric of Western societies, any apparent linkages between Islam and jihadism intensify division and suspicion. With the former head of MI5 warning of a decades-long Islamist insurgency in the West, the development of a common association between Ramadan and jihadism in public discourse seems inevitable. IS, amidst declining fortunes in Iraq and Syria, are incentivised to seize this opportunity to sow greater discord and shore up their reputation. Ramadan jihadism’s palpable threat then is ultimately ideological. If trends hold true Ramadan may well become an annual focal point of public anxiety, community tensions and anti-muslim attacks.