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The political nuances behind 'Ramadan Kareem'

Reflections on statesmens' recent rush to offer Ramadan greetings

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  • The Economist Erasmus blog
  • International
  • July 1, 2014
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As Muslims all over the world face the tough slog of mixing daily work with dawn-to-dusk fasting, at a time when days in the northern hemisphere are formidably long, they can at least be assured that their political leaders wish them well—especially in the English-speaking countries.

In the Anglosphere, but not in most other Western countries, offering warm words to Muslim citizens as they begin their fast has become an annual ritual, just like a Christmas or Easter message. David Cameron's was particularly warm, effusive and substantial this year, whereas the greeting offered by Barack Obama was more modest in scope than in previous years. For example, the message from the White House pointedly avoided any reference to Arab struggles for democracy and confined itself to generalities about the Muslim belief in care for others and community spirit. Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper was more concise, but he recalled that Ramadan was "a time for fasting, worship and contemplation as well as a time to share with family, friends and community."

The British prime minister used a slightly tired expression—he called Ramadan "incredibly special" for Muslims, exactly as he had described Easter's import for Christians—but he went on in a rather unexpected vein. Noting that Ramadan was about "charity, contemplation and community" he praised the altruism of Muslim citizens, as reflected in sporting and charitable activities organised by mosques and the fact that British Muslims had donned their gumboots and gone to help victims of storms and floods last winter. (A new meaning, perhaps, for "green wellies"?)

In the course of their forthcoming Ramadan-inspired reflections, Mr Cameron suggested, people should pause to meditate on another topical theme—the contribution of thousands of Muslim soldiers to Britain's forces during the first world war. The "selflessness and courage" of these soldiers, mostly from India, has helped to secure the liberties that Britons now enjoy, he added.

Now that is an intriguing note to have struck. Britain was, it has to be said, fighting the Ottoman sultan-caliph whom many revered as the leader of global Islam. But at the same time, as the novel Greenmantle recalls, spies from Britain and its enemy Germany were vying to persuade simple Muslims, Ottoman and otherwise, that their cause was a "holy war" to which followers of Islam should flock. (Only a few years ago, Erasmus had the weird sense of re-entering the world of Greenmantle when the British and German foreign ministries organised rival conferences on Islam's future, on the same weekend, in different parts of Istanbul and he had to shuttle discreetly between the two.)

Whichever of the rival powers of the old world you regard as the more Islam-friendly, the fact is that the first world war was a time when Muslims were generally used as pawns in European imperial games—whether they were Indians who fought for Britain, Senegalese or Algerians who fought for France or Turks who fought on the German side. Fighting on any side in the first world war was a pretty miserable experience, and that certainly deserves to be remembered. But Islam's collective memory of that period is probably a bit different from the European one.  

Full Story: The politics of good wishes

Source: The Economist Erasmus blog

 

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