This year, the birth of the invisible new moon, an event that will be followed in a day or two by the beginning of the month of Ramadan, upon the sighting of the waxing crescent in the evening sky, will occur on September 11th, the anniversary of the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11). Although no one can accurately claim that Ramadan will begin on the night of September 11th, this coming Tuesday, the beginning of the month of fasting will never be so close to the anniversary of those fateful events during the lifetime of anyone reading this article. That being the case, the occasion provides us with a good opportunity to reflect on 9/11 and Ramadan.
9/11 has been used by both the government and a significant segment of the Christian Right in this country, along with their allies, to launch a war on Islam. For the government that war has been confined to what it terms "radical" Islam. As for the latter grouping, that war can generally be described as a war on Islam itself, its beliefs, its Prophet, peace upon him, and its people. The actual prosecution of that war includes a variety of tactics, from invasion and occupation, to a war of words that involves demonizing and vilifying what is presented as the inherently violent Muslim "other" .
By choosing to wage this war, the parties mentioned above have placed themselves in the service, wittingly or unwittingly, of what the late American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, referred as the military-industrial complex. They have become either the military or propaganda wing of that complex, aiding the accomplishment of its strategic imperatives. By so doing, they have contributed to a war that lacks an identifiable enemy, has no moral parameters for its execution, and theoretically, no end. Such a war threatens to undo most of the advances in international law and organization that have led to a situation in human affairs where war is an anomaly in relations between states, whereas in the pre-modern world it was the norm. Similarly, it threatens to erode valuable advances towards the creation of a global human rights regime that provided the basis for the extension of fundamental rights, at least in theory, to all members of the human family. These setbacks in international law and organization did not have to occur.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America enjoyed the sympathy and goodwill of the entire planet, including the most significant political actors in the Muslim world. Muslim leaders including the presidents, kings, and dictators of all the Muslim countries, ranging from the President of Iran to the late Yasir Arafat, expressed their sympathy and support for the United States. An international climate was created, which would have allowed the United States to use her power and influence to help usher in an unprecedented international collective security regime. This regime would have been founded on the premise that global terrorism is an international problem that can only be effectively combated through the combined and principled effort of the international community.
The approach buttressing such a regime includes a combination of intelligence gathering, policy changes, and a series of highly focused disruptive activities targeting the financial, recruitment, training, and communications infrastructure of identified terrorist organizations. Such activities rely far more on effective police work than they do on the might of standing armies.
This approach has been employed in Europe, and has been overwhelmingly successful, even if we include the setbacks represented by the Madrid bombings, and the events of 7/7 in Britain. Despite those setbacks, many plots have been foiled, a wealth of useful information about violent groups garnished, and most importantly, a pervasive climate of fear and siege among the general population has been avoided.
On the other hand, the approach taken by the United States, one she encouraged among her allies in Latin America, in face of the threat posed by violent groups confronting many of those countries during the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s, includes brutal repression in a political climate characterized by suspension of the democratic process, usurped civil liberties, or both. This approach, successfully employed in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, and most famously, perhaps, Chile under Pinochet, includes torture, kidnapping, curtailing the right of free association, electronic spying, along with other surveillance techniques. In saner times, such an approach would never be viewed as suitable for a democratic state. However, it is the basis of the strategy currently employed by the United States in her "war on terror." If one adds to these abuses secret military tribunals, closed deportation hearings, the suspension of habeas corpus for a new class of detainees who can be held indefinitely without any charges or evidence levied against them, one has a clear formula for a police state.
The irony of this situation is that all of the measures mentioned above, in the case of the United States, have proven of little efficacy in eradicating the terrorist threat, if anything, if has exacerbated it. Furthermore, describing these tactics and the larger strategy they comprise as a "war" is misleading and counterproductive. In the words of Philip B. Heymann, a leading international security specialist:
Repeating and relying on the concept of "war" is also harmful to fighting terrorism. What we face is a very prolonged series of contests with opponents that do not have the powers of a state, or hope to defeat our armies, or destroy our powerful economy, or threaten to occupy our territory-the dangerous characteristics we have traditionally associated with war. More important, designing our plans as if this is a war leads us badly astray. The dangers we face involve several possible forms of attack by several forms of possible organizations, each of which may have any of a rich set of possible motivations and a rich set of possible organizational structures. This wide range of possibilities must be handled in a variety of different ways-with a subtlety that is obscured by the simpler assumptions hiding behind the term "war." Many of the most important ways we do not require, and are not advanced by the use of, our awesome military capabilities. 
The abuses outlined above, and using a fictitious "war" as a pretext for those abuses, is part of an effort to consolidate the position of America in the international arena as a militaristic global power. In addition to base motivations such as the mere lust for power, the militarism of this country has become the basis of massive commercial concerns, and those concerns are not just confined to the massive weapons manufacturing sector of the economy. To give just one small example:
Whole sectors of the American economy have come to rely on military sales. On the eve of our second war on Iraq, for example, the Department of Defense ordered 273,000 bottles of Native Tan sunblock (SPF 15), almost triple its 1999 order and undoubtedly a boon to the supplier, Control Supply Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its subcontractor, Sun Fun Products of Daytona Beach, Florida. 
The growing militarism of America, and the attempts to consolidate and institutionalize the empire it facilitates in the international arena, in part through the abusive tactics mentioned above, has dire consequences for this country domestically and internationally. Domestically, as insinuated above, it threatens the civil liberties and freedoms that are the foundation of our democracy. Internationally, in addition to its destabilizing influence, it represents, among other things, a missed opportunity for this country to place its immense power in the service of justice, something many analysts see as being fundamental to a democratic state. Reinhold Niebuhr mentions in this regard:
Modern democratic nations have sought to bring power into the service of justice in three ways. (a) They have tried to distribute economic and political power and prevent its undue concentration. (b) They have tried to bring it under social and moral review. (c) They have sought to establish inner religious and moral checks upon it. 
Niebuhr discusses in a very pragmatic fashion the challenges to the accomplishment of these three objectives. He is particularly pessimistic about the feasibility of the achievement of the first in the international arena, although its attainment within a particular state is viewed as highly possible. He states in that regard:
No world government could possibly possess, for generations to come, the moral and political authority to redistribute power between the nations in the degree in which highly cohesive national communities have accomplished this end in recent history. 
Herein lies one of the greatest failures of the current administration, for in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 had our government pursued a policy that focused on redistributive justice, as opposed to blind vengeance, its moral and political authority, in the estimation of a sympathetic world, would have never been higher, and the beginning of a new, unifying political project would have been a real possibility. Rather than working for the creation of a true international community we chose to rationalize conflict. Rather than attempting to understand and work to accommodate the "other" we attempted to impose our strategic imperatives on him, or in the name of decency and democracy to eradicate his perceived barbarism. In pursuing this path, we are proceeding towards the negation of the moral foundations of our greatness.
Niebuhr offers us prescient advice concerning the requisites of community. He says:
Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need each other, though we certainly do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weak as instruments of their own self-realization. Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented with the recognition that "the other," that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand. 
9/11 provided this country with an opportunity to seek genuine community. By making the apparently tragic choice to pursue the path of war and blind vengeance, the administration has made the leap from irony to evil, for that choice accentuates the requisites of a militaristic policy to a point that pretensions to such virtuous goals as spreading democracy and stabilizing the Middle East ring hollow to informed observers. As long as the general public of this country supports such a policy, it can only be viewed as a partner in the evil that ensues.
One of the ironies of our current situation is that the events of 9/11 are the greatest factor urging the general public to support the militarism of the government. Those events have been used to rob that public of the political imagination necessary to begin to think of sharing power and resources in a more equitable fashion or to desire to establish a genuine international community. Herein lays the challenge to the Muslims. Will we allow the events of 9/11 to destroy our political imagination? Will we allow them to rob us of the ability to resolve the ironies that define our situation, thereby pushing us to evil acts that defy our pretensions to higher virtues?
It is here that we will speak of Ramadan. Ramadan is the promise of what Islam should be. Above all else, it is the unadulterated reverence and worship of God that seeks to glorify Him, and not our selves. In a beautiful passage in Lata'if al-Ma'arif, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali mentions the following concerning the Night of Power (Layla al-Qadr) the very climax of Ramadan:
The scholars differ concerning the wisdom of the angels descending during this night [The Night of Power]. Kings and notables do not like guests to enter their homes until they have adorned them with suitable furniture and carpets and decked out their servants with fine clothing and ceremonial weaponry. When the Night of Power arrives, the Lord orders the angels to descend to the earth, because the servants have adorned themselves with acts of worship: with fasting and prayer throughout the month of Ramadan. [They have likewise] adorned their mosques with candles and lamps. The Lord then says to the angels: "You have levied a grave charge against Adam's descendants when you said concerning them, 'Will you place therein [on earth] one who will work corruption and wantonly shed blood, while we glorify your praise and extol your sanctity?' Did I not say to you, 'Surely, I know that which you know not.' Go forth and behold them on this night so you can witness them standing in devotion, prostrating themselves, and bowing on their knees in prayer. Then you will know that I chose them over all other creation based on [my] knowledge." 
This passage mentions what the angels perceived would be the reality of the human condition, but it also informs us of what God knew of our potentialities. Yes, we shed blood. Sadly, we often do so in the name of God. However, we also pray to God, we seek His Guidance, we humbly confess our weakness before Him, we dedicate great acts to His service, and we seek light through Him.
If we can lose ourselves, every individual "I", and each divergent "me", in the worship of God, as Muslims do on the Night of Power, then perhaps we can discover that the "I" and the "me" are not so important, that this life is really about the "He", God; and the "us", His children. If He can freely bestow His gifts upon us, what prevents us from sharing those gifts with each other? If He can forgive us for the countless transgressions we have engaged in relating to Him, what prevents us from forgiving each other?
These are two other great lessons from Ramadan-forgiveness, and charity. It is related that the Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, was excessively generous. However, he was even more generous during Ramadan. The reason for that enhanced generosity, we are told, is that the Angel Gabriel would visit the Prophet, peace upon him, during Ramadan and review the Qur'an with him .The Prophet's, peace upon him, reflection on the verses of charity as he reviewed the Qur'an would move him to his enhanced benevolence during this month.
As for forgiveness, the Prophet, peace upon him, mentioned that the beginning of Ramadan is mercy, its middle days are forgiveness, and its latter part is liberation from Hell. Many paths leading to God's forgiveness are opened up for us during this blessed month. Fasting sincerely during the month is path to forgiveness. Standing in prayer during the nights of the month is a path to forgiveness. Spending the night of power in worship is a path to forgiveness. Remembering God is a path to forgiveness. Lightening the burden on an employee during this month is a path to forgiveness. Providing breakfast to a fasting person is a path to forgiveness. Merely, asking God for forgiveness is a path to forgiveness. All of these and many other avenues to good are open before us during Ramadan.
The Qur'an also contains verses urging the faithful to fight, in the defense of the truth, the oppressed, and one's person. It contains other verses of great strategic import. However, these are not the lessons the Prophet, chose to emphasize in Ramadan. He emphasized charity. He emphasized forgiveness. He emphasized worship. These are the lessons, we as a community will have to collectively emphasize if we are to contribute to making the spirit of Ramadan the basis for the creation of the type of moral and political authority Niebuhr sees as essential for a more equitable sharing of power and resources in the international community.
Hence, Ramadan, if understood, could become our basis for a reformed world, for any real and lasting change is rooted in an idea, an idea that is subsequently actualized. That so many Muslims are able to actualize the ideas advanced by Ramadan in their individual lives and then make that actualization the basis for their personal reformation is a function of their moral imagination. Seeing those ideas as the basis for the reformation of our world is a function of our political imagination. Unlike so many others, we cannot allow 9/11 to destroy that imagination. If we can believe that a better world is possible, we can begin the work to make it a reality. If we believe otherwise, the terrorists, of all stripes, have indeed won.
Imam Zaid Shakir is amongst the most respected and influential Islamic scholars in the West. As an American Muslim who came of age during the civil rights struggles, he has brought both sensitivity about race and poverty issues and scholarly discipline to his faith-based work.