Joharah Baker: Fasting for the Right Reasons

 By Joharah Baker

It is the Muslim month of fasting once again. Tomorrow, September 13 marks the first day of Ramadan, a month of fasting off food and drink from sunrise to sunset, worship, contemplation and appreciation. Over the years, it has also become a month of celebration, family gatherings and social activities. Throughout the Muslim world, streets are alight with Ramadan lights, colorful lanterns and festive decorations. Concerts, parties and gatherings are scheduled into the month as people shift into a different mode of existence – fasting in the daytime and feasting and partying throughout the night.

The Muslim population among the Palestinians would be no different, if they were allowed this luxury. True, the alleyways of the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City are lined with colored lights and lanterns in preparation for tomorrow, but Palestinians have grown accustomed not to expect too much festivity during the holy month.

For starters, this year Ramadan coincides with the start of the Jewish New Year. This means Israeli authorities have imposed a “total closure” on the Palestinian territories. Even Palestinians with Israeli-issued permits are not allowed into Israel (including and especially Jerusalem) during a military closure, which means many who planned on breaking their first day of fasting with family on the other side of the Green Line will have to change their plans.

Military closure or not, things are more or less the same for the Palestinians in the West Bank. The extensive checkpoint system imposed by Israel, the separation wall that has snaked through and around large portions of Palestinian areas, severing people from their land and families, and the omnipresent Israeli military presence makes everyday life a daily struggle. Getting from point A to point B means waiting for any length of time at a checkpoint, enduring security check after security check and expecting closures, curfews and harassment from the Israeli forces stationed on the outskirts of every Palestinian city.

The situation is even worse in the Gaza Strip. The population there is under the constant threat of Israeli assaults, which are carried out more times than not. Now, on the eve of Ramadan, Gazans are bracing themselves for yet another possible military assault in the wake of yesterday’s Qassam attack on an Israeli army camp, which resulted in the injury of some 70 soldiers. Although the Israeli government has not yet announced any decisive military action in response to the attack, there are enough voices from within the establishment calling for revenge.

Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak maintained in a meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner yesterday that “every rocket should carry a price,” proposing that for each rocket fired, an hour of electricity be cut off from Gaza.

Gazans are no strangers to this sort of collective punishment. Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of Gazans endured days on end without electricity after EU funding to Gaza’s main power plant was halted on suspicion of Hamas’ misuse of funds. During one of the largest Israeli military attacks on the Gaza Strip in June of 2006, Israeli missiles destroyed the power plant, plunging huge swathes of the Gaza Strip into darkness for weeks.

In Ramadan, this problem will be magnified tenfold given that hungry fasting Muslims looking forward to a hot cooked meal at the end of the day may not appreciate the lack of electricity to make this possible.

Even those Palestinians who live in relative comfort are constantly reminded that the Israeli occupation is all encompassing. Coming home from work for many means waiting at an Israeli checkpoint, sometimes for over an hour. Over the past six years, Ramadan scenes in the Palestinian territories have included men, women and children waiting to cross a checkpoint, thirstily downing a bottle of water and munching on a date with the voice of the muezzin in the background sounding “Allah Akbar”, marking the setting of the sun and the end another day of fasting.

Still, in spite of the ongoing Israeli occupation and the multitude of negative ramifications it has on the Palestinians, especially during times like Ramadan, there is so much more that Palestinians can take away from the lessons of this month. This year, these lessons are more valuable than ever and the sooner Palestinian Muslims in particular learn them, the sooner we as a people can regain focus of our common goal of liberation.

While the outwardly features of Ramadan is the abstention primarily from food and water, there are other hidden treasures that are often overlooked. It is also about tolerance, compassion and empathy, which are supposedly manifested in these acts of deprivation. With the Palestinians engrossed in a bitter battle of power between Hamas and Fateh (whose leaders are predominantly Muslim), perhaps this Ramadan will be about more than just the ritual meal at the end of the day and the lighted streets and festivities at night.

The Palestinians have had to endure the ills of the Israeli occupation for over 40 years, including during Ramadan. However, the burden of these hardships becomes that much heavier when they also must endure the inanities of their own leaders. What is the point of fasting in the name of God and Islam for 29 or 30 days, preaching faith and compassion with those less fortunate, only to curse fellow Palestinians and Muslims in the same breath?

So, since we Palestinians are already excluded from the overdone festivities characteristic of Muslim communities today during Ramadan, maybe we can take this opportunity to reflect on more important aspects of the month. There is not much we can do right now to rid ourselves of the checkpoints or the offending separation wall, which will only come down with perseverance, intent and national unity. What our leaders can do is realize that being Palestinian, and in this case Muslim, comes with a responsibility, not just empty shows of loyalty. It is not enough to fast the entire month to claim we are true Muslims, just like it is not enough to claim patriotism just by pledging allegiance to a flag.

Ramadan is meant to be a month of reflection, so let’s hope it will be just that. Before they were Fatah and Hamas loyalists, our leaders were Palestinian and they were united in one cause. It is never too late to reclaim our past.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (www.MIFTAH.org)

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