All eyes on Rafah as Ramadan gets underway

(RNS) — As we broke our fast for the first time this Ramadan, my family, gathered for the day’s iftar, had a simultaneous realization: We weren’t just grateful for the blessing of food that we often take for granted, but guilty knowing that the same money we used to purchase our meal finds its way via our tax dollars and U.S. aid to Israel to bomb and starve the people of Gaza.

Every Ramadan is a little different. I recall how the global Muslim community, including here in the United States, navigated the uncharted territory of COVID-19 restrictions on religious and social gatherings during Ramadan in 2020. The pandemic was a new phenomenon for our generation. Over the millennium of Islamic history, Muslims have navigated war, famine and death during Ramadan.

But this year, and for arguably the first time in recorded history of the holy month of fasting and prayer, Muslims are witnessing — and some of us experiencing — an active genocide.

On average, roughly 200 Palestinian men, women and children have been killed every 24 hours in Gaza in the past five months. This wholesale murder of a predominantly Muslim population is unfathomable, and fundamentally alters how Muslims are experiencing this holy month.

On Oct. 11, only four days into Israel’s brutal reprisal, I wrote that “more than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 300 Palestinian women and children, consistent with Israel’s record of about a quarter of its victims being women and children.” Since then, the martyred list has grown 30 times, with more than 31,000 Palestinians murdered in cold blood by Israeli bombing and an ensuing ground invasion. 

The women and children death ratio? Over 80%, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The genocide many predicted has come to fruition.

Muslim worshippers perform “tarawih,” an extra lengthy prayer held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Muslim worshippers perform “tarawih,” an extra lengthy prayer held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Cellphone footage of the violence exacerbates its evil. Thousands of videos posted to social media serve as further evidence of an indiscriminate bombing campaign by Israeli forces. Watching on social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and X, we can see what the mainstream media, in a calculated measure, hides from us.

In one individual’s video, Israeli soldiers are seen killing an elderly deaf Palestinian man as he attempted to sign to Israeli soldiers, later congratulating one another about it. In another, viewers see the immediate aftermath of an Israeli airstrike, with buildings flattened and bodies scattered across a street.

None of this started Oct. 7. Gaza has endured a 17-year-long blockade by Israel. The Palestinian territories have suffered through Israeli occupationapartheid, harassment and dehumanization. In 2023, before Oct. 7, Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinians, including children, and rarely did it appear in headlines.

Now, more than five months into a generational tragedy, Muslims welcome Ramadan. Can we celebrate, and what does that joy look like? 

In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered” this past week, I was asked how this Ramadan is being observed under these circumstances and how Muslims can celebrate Ramadan amid genocide. The truth is, the concept of joy is multidimensional. At times, we experience the joy of celebration — smiles, laughter and the like. Other times, we are comforted by the joy of perspective, the knowledge that our loved ones — the murdered of Gaza — are in a better place. We celebrate that there is ease after hardship, light after darkness.

That is one of the central lessons of Ramadan. After the deprivation of a long day of fasting, there is fulfillment. After death and destruction, victory and peace. And God willing, after the Israeli occupation, Palestinian sovereignty. 

We celebrate that Ramadan offers a month of blessings unmatched by any other, and that God has historically granted victory to the oppressed in this month.

But as the threat of an Israeli ground invasion turns to Rafah, we focus our prayers and efforts on the people of Gaza with the goal of securing their safety, establishing justice and achieving a lasting freedom. As Ramadan commences, our eyes remain on Rafah, and our hearts remain with Gaza.