Suffering oppression during the holy month
How will Muslims celebrate Ramadan in a year when Muslim minorities are suffering oppression in a number of countries worldwide?
By Ossayma Jano
Ramadan has come. Muslims around the world, who now number more than 1.6 billion, repeat the seasonal greeting: “Ramadan Kareem,” a phrase meaning noble, generous, or holy Ramadan in Arabic. Muslims, who will account for 26.4% of the world’s population by 2030, repeat this phrase from Indonesia and Japan in the east to Mauritania in the west. Today, 23 million Muslims live in Russia, a fifth of the country’s population, and the number of Mosques in southern France equals the number of churches. In the United Kingdom, the number of Muslims has risen to 2.5 million worshipping in over 1,000 mosques.
Ramadan is a month of joyous celebration, despite the long hours of fasting and soaring temperatures. Muslims are steadfast in their practice of the fast, a period during which they abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and marital relations from sunup until sundown.
Muslim peoples do not differ greatly from one another when they hang traditional Ramadan lanterns and decorate their houses with colourful paper ornaments. In the Persian Gulf, Muslims prefer to spend their Ramadan nights in luxurious recreational centres, and in Canada and Australia they stay up late in shopping malls. The “tables of the merciful,” public meals for the poor to break their fast, can be seen in the streets of every Muslim country. The story of the mesaharaty, who would walk the streets beating drums to wake the people for the Suhoor meal, has become legendary in Muslim countries. Egypt is also the source of the Ramadan cannon as well as Ramadan lanterns, which Muslims would use to light the way to the evening Tarawih prayers.
The largest populations of Muslims in a single country is Indonesia, where 202,867,000 Muslims live, accounting for 88.2% of the total population. Pakistan follows with 174,082,000 Muslims, or 96.3% of the population and160,945,000 Muslims live in India, making up 13.4% of the population. The next most populous Muslim countries are Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, and Turkey.
But how will Muslims celebrate Ramadan in a year when Muslim minorities are suffering oppression in a number of countries worldwide?
Asia: Ethnic Violence and Oppression
Far from what is usually considered the Islamic world, Muslims in Myanmar are facing a particularly trying time. According to the United Nations, there are 800,000 Muslims in Myanmar today and Muslims in the Rakhine region are among the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Most of Myanmar’s Muslims, called Rohingya, are concentrated in the Rakhine region, which borders Bangladesh in the Southwest of the country. The Rakhine Yoma mountain range separates the region from the rest of Myanmar. Muslims in Rakhine number approximately 4 million, making up 70% of the population of the region.
Islam arrived in Rakhine during the reign of the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid. The region became an independent kingdom with 48 Muslim rulers, during which Islam spread to the neighbouring regions of Thailand, the Philippines, and China.
The Rohingya people’s tragedy began when the Buddhist king Budowpaya, who ruled from 1782 to 1819, occupied the Arakan region. He proceeded to destroy Islamic cultural heritage sites in the region such as mosques and madrasas and kill members of the ulama, or Islamic scholars. Buddhist rule continued for 40 years until British colonialism came to Myanmar in 1824. The region was then incorporated into the British raj.
According to reporting in the New York Times in 2008, the Chinese authorities have imposed a number of restrictions on the country’s Muslim population during Ramadan, banning the veil for women and long beards for men. The government also banned local officials and students from fasting as well as retired public employees from entering mosques. Restaurants are prevented from closing during the day. Chinese officials claimed that the actions were taken “to avoid any group event that might harm social stability.”
On 6 June 2012 Chinese Special Forces, tasked with combating “terrorism,” surrounded a secret Quran memorisation schools and used tear gas to force the teachers and students out. The Special Forces injured more than 12 children and arrested the teachers and students. The spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress said that the Chinese government declared war on the Quran, students of Islam, and Islamic traditions.
In June 2002 the authorities in Kashgar, home to a large Chinese Muslim population, burned thousands of Uyghur books, particularly religious texts. The authorities routinely monitor the works of Uyghur writers.
This Central Asian region, which is 95% Muslim, falls in Central Asia and borders other Central Asian Islamic countries as well as Russia, Mongolia, and India. Many Chinese Muslims believe that Islam entered China during the rule of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, when he sent a delegation led by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas to invite the emperor of China, Yun Wei, to become a Muslim. Although secular scholars have found little evidence for these claims, Muslims believe that the message of Islam so impressed the emperor that he ordered the building of a mosque that still carries the name of Abi Waqqas to this day.
Historians have written that Islam entered the eastern Turkestan region in the year 934, subsequently becoming one of the centres of the religion in Asia. The authorities, however, have closed more than 29 thousand mosques since the beginning of communist rule, turning them into slaughterhouses, stables, and military barracks. The communists also destroyed more than 700 thousand books in Arabic, especially religious books and Qurans.
In Africa: Ongoing Armed Conflicts
There are a number of focal points of struggle in Africa at the start of Ramadan. Groups that fight in the name of Islam are the cause of many of the conflicts. The Tuaregs of Mali have recently engulfed the country in violence. They previously established the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MPLA), the Tauregs’ first national organisation. A number of other organisations sprung up, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which was formed in 2011. Last April, the Tauregs announced the independence of the Azawad region in northern Mali after a series of bloody battles.
The region has been in conflict since 1962, the year of the first Taureg rebellion. The army violently suppressed the uprising, forcing many Tauregs to flee to Algeria and other neighbouring countries. Muammar Gaddafi relied on Tauregs in his attempt to suppress the Libyan revolution. After the Libyan regime fell, many armed Tauregs returned to Mali to participate in the fighting. It is surprising that many of the armed Taureg fighting groups claim that they are secular, despite the fact that they have destroyed many of Mali’s historic mosques and other ruins because they were forbidden according to Islamic law.
The Tauregs are a Berber people that occupy the desert areas of Niger, Mali, Libya, and Algeria. Like most North African Muslims, they are Sunnis and follow the Maliki School of Islamic law. They speak a number of Berber languages in addition to Arabic. They continue to be involved in several ongoing conflicts in the countries where they reside.
Another focal point of conflict is Nigeria, where the antagonists this time belong to the militant group Boko Haram. Since 2009, the group has targeted government officials, security forces, and Christian minorities in northern Nigeria where Muslims are the majority. The violence has reportedly left more than 10,000 people dead. The group has stepped up attacks in the last two months and has dragged Nigeria into one of the worst standing conflicts at the start of Ramadan. The conflict is sure to worsen as the government prepares for further offensives against towns sheltering Boko Haram fighters, especially in light of a massacre that left 23 Christians dead in the Plateau State in central Nigera.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with 160 million residents. The country is divided between the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south, the latter enjoying greater wealth because of the presence of oil. Wealth inequality is one factor that has spurred the rise of militant Islamic groups among the country’s marginalised Muslim population.
The Horn of Africa
This year may be the most miserable yet for the people of the Horn of Africa. Poverty continues to grind and hunger continues to worsen to the extent that many African Muslims don’t know the difference between the Ramadan fast and the remainder of the year. Somalia is one country that suffers from a serious political crisis and severe poverty. Circumstances are possibly worse in Ethiopian occupied Ogaden, a region in western Somalia.
Given Muslim suffering in Africa, it is ironic that the continent was among the first that welcomed Islam. The new religion came to Africa shortly after its foundation, promising to erase distinctions between peoples. The prophet preached that “there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or a white man over a black man, except in piety.” The coming of European colonialism and eventually communism, however, overturned the tables.
Dr. Peter Pham, a specialist in Africa at the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, testified before the United States House of Representatives in 2007, saying that the Ethiopian government imposed “a trade blockade which exacerbated the humanitarian situation of the region’s population which, given their pastoralist economy, is particularly vulnerable.”
Ramadan is, beyond doubt, extremely difficult for Ogaden refugees. There are an estimated one million Ogaden refugees spread out among 21 refugee camps in Somalia and Djibouti. The countries that host the Ogaden refugees are poor and unable to provide adequate support for them. A number of charitable agencies have confirmed that many Ogaden refugees survive only on what they receive from relief organisations, with food and water shortages forcing them to fast day and night.
Ogaden is not the only country in which Muslims’ rights are being violated, but it is one of the most tragic examples. Today, the Ethiopian military continues to impose a complete blockade of the region’s eight million residents. Thousands have been lynched, burned alive, or bombed with whole villages destroyed. Ethiopian forces have even prevented Ogadem Muslims from burying their dead according to Islamic customs, leaving bodies in the streets instead to spread fear and humiliation.
The United Kingdom ceded Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1954. The region is another testament to the fact that Muslim minorities are not trespassers or immigrants, but rather native inhabitants and an integral part of the history and social fabric of the areas in which they live. Ogaden was part of the Islamic Ifat Sultanate, which ruled over the Horn of Africa and parts of Christian Ethiopia in the 13th century. The Ethiopians, however, defeated the Muslims in the end of the 19th century. The region then fell into Italian hands in 1936 before the British gained control of the area and included it once again into Ethiopia, with the exception of Haud. Ethiopia today is unwilling to cede the Ogaden region because it contains large quantities of oil and gas and because of its important strategic position.
With the coming of Ramadan, the International Islamic Relief Organisation opened two new mosques and two Quran recitation schools in the Zanzibar region of Tanzania. The project will enable Muslims in Zanzibar to practice collective worship and perform the Tarawih prayers for the first time in their villages. In the past, some villagers were required to walk long distances to perform the evening Ramadan prayers. Despite the poor conditions of Zanzibar’s Muslims and their constant persecution, they eagerly prepared for the coming of the holy month by hanging decorations and Ramadan lanterns. In Zanzibar, anyone who breaks his or her fast without a good excuse is called an “infidel heretic atheist,” as Iftar is treated extremely seriously during Ramadan. All restaurants close during the day, starting work just before sunset. The cuisine of Zanzibar during the holy month features dates, sweet beverages, calorie-heavy rice, and most importantly, fish.
Zanzibar is a series of 52 islands under Tanzanian rule. The region is a major producer of cloves, and it is said that the islands contain over four million trees that produce the spice. Arabs ruled the islands from Oman at the end of the first Islamic century, with the British taking over in the 19th century. The population of Zanzibar is approximately one million, 98% of whom are Muslims with the remaining 2% made up of Christians and Hindus. Zanzibar’s Muslims suffer from poverty, hunger, and poor education.
The situation in Europe is different from Africa and Asia. Muslims in Europe, unlike their counterparts in Africa and Asia, are not from among the native inhabitants of the region. Muslims in Europe are allowed to practice their religious traditions, although governments have placed some restrictions on them in recent years. Muslims are no longer allowed to sacrifice animals in public places, nor are they allowed to pray in the streets during Ramadan in some countries, such as France, that had previously allowed the practices.
Anxiety about Muslims in Europe is intense, especially after the events of September 11th and the Arab revolutions which brought Islamist political parties out of hiding. Muslims account for 3.12% of the 457 million residents of European Union countries, bringing their number to approximately 14.26 million. Muslims account for 1.3% of the population in Croatia, 2.7% of the United Kingdom, 4% of both Germany and Switzerland, 6% of the Netherlands, 7.5% of France, and 70% of Albania.
France does not share the notion of cultural and ethnic diversity as the concept exists in the United States or the United Kingdom. Immigrants in France account for approximately 10% of the country’s 60.6 million citizens. French Muslims number roughly five million, but they do not belong to French society. In the past they were called “French Arabs,” but more recently French society has simply called them “Muslims.” Immigrants from North Africa make up 70% of the population of French Muslims, mostly living in the suburbs surrounding Paris and Marseille. The community suffers from a high rate of unemployment, particularly among unskilled workers.
In 2005 the French were shocked when riots spread throughout the country’s poor, mostly Muslim ghettos surrounding major cities. As Muslim youths burned cars and public buildings, the French became aware of the extent of squalor and misery from which the country’s immigrant population suffers.
Ossayma Jano is a writer and researcher with special focus on religions and Islamic history