Ramadan begins in Muslim world

Even before the Bali bombings, the Middle East was jittery as it headed into Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and spiritual introspection th

Even before the Bali bombings, the Middle East was jittery as it headed into Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and spiritual introspection that has become, as well, a time of increased terror attacks. From Iraq to Lebanon to the Sinai, the month of prayer and after-dark feasting is now, often, a month of heightened security. Egyptian police planned increased watchfulness throughout the month, while insisting no specific threats had been received. But Israel warned its citizens to stay away from Egypt's beach resorts in the Sinai peninsula, calling the threat of attacks substantial. Militants have not issued specific Ramadan-related threats. But the spike in violence in recent years - especially suicide attacks in Iraq the last two years during Ramadan - has been noticeable. One possible reason is the belief by some Islamic extremists that those who die in combat for a holy cause during Ramadan are especially blessed. "This is a month that has a spiritual feel to it, which condones the issue of jihad (holy war)," said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic groups. Tradition holds the Prophet Muhammad led his forces in winning battles against nonbelievers during Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month on the Islamic calendar which is based on the cycles of the moon. Observance this year starts Tuesday across much of the Middle East, following the announcement by religious officials that the new crescent moon had been sighted Monday night. Saturday's blasts in Bali came as Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim nation - was preparing to begin celebrating Ramadan, which begins there on Wednesday. Muslims believe God began to reveal the Quran, the Islamic holy book, to Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago during Ramadan. Muslims are expected to fast - abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk - in an effort to focus on the spiritual. Muslims spend long periods in mosques, and attempt to read the entire Quran during the month. It is believed that in Ramadan good deeds are rewarded 10 times. But, in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Ramadan also is a month of festivities, large after-dark meals and endless special TV series. Cafes and special Ramadan tents stay packed until dawn and traffic jams snarl streets late into the night. In Lebanon, Ramadan this year comes at a time of high tension, as a U.N.-mandated probe into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination nears its end. The Lebanese fear the continuation of a series of bombings that have rattled the country since Hariri was killed. Nevertheless, the bustling sidewalk cafes, restaurants and shops in downtown Beirut are jammed these days with locals and Arab tourists from other Mideast countries, who come to dine, smoke water pipes or just stroll through the district. In Egypt, an Islamic group that previously claimed responsibility for this summer's attacks at Sharm el-Sheik vowed Sunday to launch an all-out war against Israelis, Americans and Egyptian police. One Egyptian security official called that nonsense, but said security was high all across the country. He spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to talk to the press. Israel, however, urged its citizens not to travel to Egypt's Sinai peninsula during the upcoming Jewish holidays, which coincide with Ramadan's start, because Arab militants were planning to kidnap Israeli tourists there. Only about 1,000 Israelis were in the Sinai by Monday, the start of the New Year's holiday, Yitzhak Hai, manager of the Taba terminal, told Yediot Ahronot. "This time I can say that we have very substantial information," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel TV. Kfir Pavzaner, an Israeli who had just returned from Sinai's Ananda Beach, described the scene: "As soon as the warning was announced it became like a huge storm that washed the Israelis out of Sinai. Suddenly there were rumors that Israelis will be kidnapped and they kept circling." Debates about Islamic extremism have also become a routine part of Ramadan. "Political and economic reform can't take place without religious reform," wrote Ahmed al-Rubei, a liberal Kuwaiti columnist in pan Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat Monday. "Religious reform requires courage from preachers and religion scholars. There is a majority that is afraid of expressing its ideas." Under the headline: "A Muslim murderer, and a Muslim killed," Khaled Salah on Monday put what he called "an embarrassing question" Egypt's Grand Mufti. In an article in the Independent Egyptian daily, Al-Masry El-Youm, Salah said he wondered "How people among us are following jurisprudence that made a Muslim a killer in the London underground, or a car bomber in Iraq or killer like in Sharm el-Sheik...?"