Ramadan is supposed to be a time of peace. In Syria, that is almost a cruel joke. There are some factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, that have used the holy month as an opportunity to win hearts and minds through services. Others, namely the Free Syrian Army and the Bashar al-Assad regime are less concerned about religious observance than blowing each other up. Finally, the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State (also called ISIS) has used the occasion to further its control over civilian populations and foment global jihad. In other words, Ramadan in Syria looks a lot like the other months in Syria—but worse. It is even longer, bloodier, and more desperate.
During Ramadan, in addition to fasting, Muslims are instructed to refrain from sinful behavior, such as false speech (insults, curses, lies, and so on) and fighting. Before the war and the rise of ISIS, every Syrian Muslim learned during mandatory religion classes in school that, if you want to receive all benefits of hasant, you must be kind to other people during Ramadan, because relations with others are almost as important as relations with God.
Five years into the civil war, even groups that claim to fight on behalf of Islam do not appear follow this basic tenet. Even worse, some have radically reinterpreted the meaning of Ramadan to suit their own purposes. Thus, among Syria’s warring groups, there is a wide spectrum of meaning attached to the holy month.
In the Assad-controlled territory, Ramadan is observed, but with secular overtones. Although food is made available to Assad’s military for the evening meal (iftar), so too is alcohol—trucks loaded with beer and wine head daily to the front lines. Plenty would agree that, during a war, fighters should refrain from fasting to save their strength for battle, but many civilians are deeply troubled iftar. Not only does “all the money go for alcohol for fighters,” one civilian living in regime controlled territory told us, “but also it makes them less of a fighter.”
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