The onset of Ramadan has raised the question of whether the United States should suspend its attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan out of deference to Muslims. While there is less discussion of this question now than before Ramadan began, it is still worth considering, because it raises fascinating questions about the ethics of war. Like all religious observances of a constructive nature, Ramadan is worthy of respect from those outside the tradition. Muslims are directed to fast from dawn to sundown, abstaining also from smoking and sexual relations. The purpose of the Ramadan fast seems similar to that of Lent for Christians--a time of reflection, contemplation, and self-purification.
But should we stop fighting? The response to this question must be offered at two levels: the ethics of war in general, and the ethical and political issues raised by events in this particular war as they unfold.
In terms of the ethics of war in general, I am aware of nothing in the world's moral or legal traditions related to war that would indicate a religious holiday should interrupt military activities. Mainstream interpretations of the just war theory, for example, while regulating various aspects of fighting, do not mention religious calendar considerations.
The primary moral issue related to war is whether it should be fought at all. The secondary moral issue related to war is how to restrain its destructive impact. War, to put it bluntly, is simply not a nice enough phenomenon to allow pauses for various holy days, feasts, and fasts. If that much mutual understanding existed between warring parties, there would be little need for war in the first place.
Further, there is nothing in the Qur'an forbidding war during Ramadan. Muhammad himself led his followers in battle during Ramadan. As well, Muslim nations have waged war both on non-Muslims and on each other during the Ramadan fast. And the predominantly Muslim nations that attacked Israel in 1973 chose a date holy both to Judaism (Yom Kippur) and Islam (Ramadan). At a moral level, therefore, the issue of a Ramadan pause is a non-issue.
The ethics and politics of this particular war raise a very different question. Here the matter is a prudential judgment: will continuing (or choosing not to continue) the attacks during Ramadan advance the just cause of the United States as well as the broader human interest?It is certainly true that Muslim nations are not enthusiastic about Ramadan attacks. But they were not, of course, enthusiastic about pre-Ramadan attacks either. Muslim states that are at least officially allied with our nation in this battle must be especially sensitive to the reaction of the so-called "street." The stability of the government of Pakistan, with its atomic weapons, is particularly important. If Ramadan fighting had seriously risked the fall of the regime there, it might not have been worth the trouble. But so far, all seems quiet on that front.