This Ramadan I'm praying for a miracle. Islam's holy month began this week, and millions of Muslims everywhere are fasting, reflecting and asking God to answer prayers. Like millions of American Muslims, I will be thinking about the cycle of violence that appears to have taken on a life of its own, and I worry that cycle is unstoppable.
The so-called Arab Spring was thought to mean a new beginning; but the wave of change did not bring freedom and prosperity to the region. Instead two years into this new chapter, people everywhere are fighting one another. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood-led administration was overthrown last week, leaving at least 50 people dead. In Iraq and in Lebanon, Sunnis and Shiites trade bombs and insults. In Syria, the Sunni majority is caught in a bloody battle with the minority Alawites. And Shiites are attacked in such faraway places as Pakistan and Indonesia.
What happened to the faith? The answers are complicated, but many religious leaders encourage their followers to shun those different from them. Al-Jazeera TV's Sheik Yousuf al-Qardawi calls Shiites "heretics," clearing the way for Sunnis to harm or even kill them. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei denies minorities their rights and reportedly prevented the building of a Sunni mosque in Tehran.
Some argue that secularism is better than religion. But the seculars are seen as unbelievers by the political Islamists, and the seculars themselves look down upon the Islamists. The military rulers in several countries, including Egypt, were secular. Those governments colored the impression of Muslims by mistreating the population and imprisoning and torturing anyone who disagreed with them, including Islamists.
Naturally the dictators don't represent everyone. Plenty of seculars observe the faith but believe in the separation of mosque and state, but the political Muslims don't see it that way.
Another problem is the Western press calls the Muslim Brotherhood "moderates" for some unknown reason, when Egypt's first elected leader Muhammed Morsi's year in power illustrates little moderation. Traditionally the Brotherhood looked the other way when other groups, such as the less-tolerant Salafists, are jailed and tortured. And under the Brotherhood's rule, violence against women, already a problem in Egypt, became commonplace.
Where is that pleasant Islam I knew when I was growing up? Religious observances were warm and neighborly when I lived in Baghdad as a child of a Sunni mother and a Shiite father. I remember marking religious occasions with traditional exchanges of pastries. Our Christian neighbors sent a plate of cookies, and we sent one over to celebrate an occasion. That was how it had been for years and years. Where are those people who respected each other's beliefs? Today I hear about claims that Iran is trying to convert everyone to its Shiite sect. And others tell me that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are trying to destroy Shiites. And still others tell me the seculars are godless creatures headed for hellfire.
I know ordinary Muslims are being pushed aside by political forces fighting for the mainstream. It's those very forces that frighten me. Egypt is accusing Iran of interfering in its affairs. The Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates despise Shiite Iran and so they reportedly finance Sunni political movements that are intolerant. The Gulf Cooperation Council just agreed to expel members of the Shiite community, and Qatar started by kicking out 18 Lebanese workers who belong to the Shiite sect. For their part, the Shiites, backed by Iran, wreak havoc in Iraq and Lebanon — not to mention Syria. In other words, political leaders on both sides promote intolerance of the two sects of Islam and of Christians, Bahai's and other minorities. And the saddest thing is that many Muslims accept and follow these ideas blindly.
Certainly it's easy to call all ignorant and argue that the solution is education. Never mind that it will take years before those who throw children to their deaths from the roofs of buildings understand tolerance and respect. How can we stop the killing?
Critics say Muslims have to deal with it on their own. What does that require of the average Muslim? March in the streets? Egyptians and Bahrainis did. Rise up? Check. Demand rights from leaders? Check. Clearly nonpolitical Muslims need help.
While political Muslims demonize each other's groups, the United States has adopted a wait-and-see approach. I am not sure what we are supposed to make of this, but I worry it means more civilians will die before things get better.
That's why I'm praying for a miracle. And I think I'm not the only one. As we sit down each evening this month to break our fast on traditional lentil soup, many will ask God for answers. Some are afraid of what that answer will be. Even Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's al-Azhar, just announced that he will go into seclusion until the violence is over. I never thought I'd say this, but I know just how he feels.
Yasmine Bahrani, a native of Iraq, is a former editor for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.