August 22nd, 2011
11:29 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) - Ramadan might not seem like the ideal time to attempt a government overthrow.
The Islamic holy month, which began earlier this month and is now entering its final week, is best known for its all-day fasts, which would sap the energy of the most ardent rebels.
In Libya, where rebel fighters entered the capital over the weekend, appearing to usher in what some say are the last days of Moammar Gadhafi's regime, Ramadan is coinciding with some of the summer’s hottest days: hardly ideal weather for staging street fights against a deeply entrenched regime.
And Ramadan, with its calls for Muslims to show compassion and to step back from worldly affairs for a month of purification, might not seem conducive to calls for regime toppling.
But experts say Ramadan probably helped intensify the Libyan civil war and probably played a contributing role in taking the 6-month-old conflict to a dramatic level.
And they say a similar Ramadan effect is at work in Syria, where protests against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have grown over recent weeks, and possibly in other countries where the Arab Spring is raging.
“During the month of fasting, people are praying at night at mosque and are allowed to connect with other Muslims, praying about God promising justice and rulers who are compassionate,” said Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies professor at American University in Washington. “And they think of the reality of these brutal, completely mad regimes, and there’s a sense of ‘we have to do something. It’s now or never.’ ”
In a country like Libya, Ahmed said, where most universities and religious schools have been shut down by the government or are tightly controlled by it, mosques are among the only places where the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population can gather and speak freely.
That means houses of worship are among the only places where people can organize politically.
Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, said that in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the public call to prayer broadcast by many mosques on Saturday night doubled as a signal for underground rebels to join the fighting.
“The message, which was ‘God is most great,’ is what you say when you’re fighting a struggle,” Cole said. “No Muslim would have had any trouble deciphering that.”
Cole said that each day’s final Muslim prayer, for which many men head to mosque after breaking the Ramadan fast, provides a unique opportunity for social mobilization efforts.
“These prayers happen about 9:30, and when you have a big gathering of men in a mosque, you can mobilize them for social action,” he said. “You can talk them up and send them out into the streets to protest, which is what’s happening in Syria.”
In Syria, which has been roiled by months of protests demanding the end to the al-Assad regime, nighttime protests have swelled during Ramadan, provoking a brutal government crackdown.
In Libya, experts said that months of NATO airstrikes against Gadhafi's installations, the organization’s increased coordination with Libyan rebels and recent rebels victories in key towns were the major factors behind opposition forces finally making it to Tripoli.
But Ramadan created a surprisingly ideal atmosphere for a stepped-up rebel campaign, they said.
Nic Robertson, CNN’s senior international correspondent, said that some Western governments worried Ramadan would mark a lull in the Libyan rebels’ campaign.
“There was a feeling that the war needed to be over by Ramadan,” Robertson said. “That didn't happen, but it focused a lot of Western minds … that and the high financial and political cost of having a protracted NATO involvement.
“The fear was that Ramadan would mean an end to serious fighting, pushing the end of the war phase into September, which would be politically more dangerous for Cameron, Obama, Sarkozy,” Robertson said, referring to the leaders of Britain, the U.S. and France, which all contributed to the NATO campaign.
Instead, Libyan rebels have latched onto Ramadan as a public relations opportunity.
Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. who studies Libya, says that rebels there have attempted to co-opt the Ramadan message to win popular support.
“The rebels have gotten a lot smarter and are being magnanimous,” Wehrey said. “They’re playing a smart game where they don’t have to pummel people into submission, they’re inducing people’s defections (from Gadhafi), and Ramadan is an opening for that.”
Wehrey said that although Libya is less religious than some other majority Muslim countries, Islam could play an outsized role in a post-Gadhafi government because Gadhafi has gutted other civil society institutions.
“If there’s no way to organize people, if people don’t feel like they have a voice, and the only organizations for meeting people's basic needs are religious, that translates into greater political power,” he said. “It all depends on how quickly a government can be established that meets people’s needs.”
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