Egypt, meanwhile, enters Ramadan with tensions high as the Muslim Brotherhood supporters vow to continue their sit-in protests against the military’s ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and plan a “million man march” in Cairo on Friday.
Marking the month during which Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed to Mohammed, Ramadan and its sunrise-to-sunset fasting is meant to be a time of reflection and Islamic unity. But major battles have occurred during the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar and radicals view it as an auspicious time to wage jihad.
As in past years, Ramadan’s arrival this week was accompanied by calls for ceasefires during the “holy month” – this time by figures including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the new leader of Syria’s opposition National Coalition with respect to the conflict in Syria; and by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) concerning the fighting there.
“I am calling for every military unit of the regular army and the Free Syrian Army, for every person holding a gun, to stop fighting and offer this month of peace as a collective present to their people – and to do so across Syria,” Ban said in his appeal.
Despite the appeals the SANA news agency on Wednesday reported a number of successful operations against “terrorist groups” in various parts of the country, with the army claiming to have inflicted “heavy losses” and killed many rebels. It also reported the deaths of four people in a rebel car bomb attack in Homs.
The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of activists, said 60 people had been killed across the country in fighting on Monday. The reports could not be independently verified.
A statement by the Syrian religious endowments minister welcoming the start of Ramadan included condemnation of sectarianism but no call for a ceasefire. Instead Mohammad Abdelsattar al-Sayyed said he prayed President Bashar Assad would “keep Syria impregnable in the face of its enemies.”
In Afghanistan, Karzai in a statement read on state television on Tuesday appealed to the Taliban to “to respect the holy month of Ramadan, to follow the path of peace and to stop killing people. I invite them to come and help the country and start an honorable life.”
U.N. special representative for Afghanistan Jan Kubis in a statement a day earlier urged “all parties to the conflict to respect the sanctity of this month and allow Afghan families to worship and celebrate in peace.”
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yasouf Ahmadi, rejected the appeals, saying attacks would continue and that the rewards for fighting are “much higher in the holy month,” according to reports in Afghan and Pakistani media.
Earlier another Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that “in the holy month of Ramadan, jihad has a big reward, and we will continue our war against the enemy by continuing our attacks.”
A car bombing in western Herat province on Tuesday killed 16 women and children and two men, and seriously wounded another six children, according to UNAMA.
UNAMA’s acting head, Nicholas Haysom, condemned the attack and reiterated the earlier call for all parties “to respect the sanctity of this holy month and avoid actions which could harm civilians.”
“These continued acts of murder against innocent women and children are appalling and unacceptable,” said International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. Joseph F. Dunford.
‘Month of holy war’
Afghanistan’s Tolo TV on Wednesday quoted several religious figures in Kabul as renouncing violence during Ramadan as “un-Islamic.”
But that isn’t a view held universally by Muslims, historically or today.
In Islam’s earliest years, Mohammed led forces against his Meccan enemies during Ramadan in the year 624, defeating them is what is known as the Battle of Badr.
Other important Islamic battles during Ramadan included those waged against the Franks (732), Crusaders (1099 and 1187), Mongols (1260), and Tartars (1476).
When Egypt in October 1973 launched a surprise attack against Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, it coincided with Ramadan, and Egyptian commanders called it Operation Badr, invoking Mohammed’s early Ramadan battle.
During their long and bloody war from 1980-1988, Iran and Iraq fought through Ramadan, as did the mujahideen fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and the Taliban while fighting other Afghan groups after it seized most of Afghanistan in 1996.
Jihadists frequently call for stepped-up activity during Ramadan, as Osama bin Laden did during Ramadan 2011, urging Pakistani Muslims to rise up against U.S.-led forces then fighting to topple the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies after 9/11. (At the same time, Muslim governments were urging the U.S. to cease fire in Afghanistan during the fasting month.)
In 2005 al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi urged Muslims to escalate attacks against “the worshippers of the cross” during Ramadan – “a month of serious work, jihad and initiative.”
Major jihadist terror attacks during Ramadan targeted churches in Indonesia in 2000, the Indian Parliament in 2001, Israelis in Kenya in 2002, Jewish and British targets in Istanbul in 2003, a hotel frequented by Westerners in Islamabad in 2008, a mosque in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2011, along with numerous attacks in Iraq over many years.
“The month of Ramadan is a month of holy war and death for Allah,” a jihadist group said in a statement claiming responsibility for the bombing of a bus targeting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria on the eve of Ramadan 2012. “It is a month for fighting the enemies of Allah and God’s messenger, the Jews and their American facilitators.” (A Bulgarian investigation later concluded that Hezbollah members were behind the attack.)