Syrian protests and state violence expected to escalate during Ramadan
It is usually the month of reflection and prayer, laying low in the heat of the day, before gathering to watch soap operas and feast as dusk falls.
But this year Ramadan is anticipated in Syria for different reasons: as an opportunity to intensify protests against Bashar al-Assad, despite fears the regime may fight back even harder.
Activists intend to exploit the increased daily attendance at mosques, which have over the past five months acted as gathering points for protests following Friday prayers. Many who do not regularly attend mosque do so during Ramadan, when prayers are believed to carry more weight that at other times of year.
“It’s become a cliche to say it will be like Friday every day as people gather for prayer, but it will be,” said a former political prisoner who has strong links to the Sunni community, speaking in his house in Damascus. “Pressure on the regime will increase from more frequent protests and more people coming out.”
On Friday, the last before Ramadan, at least nine people were killed as thousands defied a heavy security presence to take to the streets, including in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where deaths were reported earlier in the week.
Ramadan, the lunar month when people fast and show their devotion to Allah in one of the five pillars of Islam, is usually a quiet time. Business grinds to a halt, with people struggling to get through the heat of the day without water. But they do go to the mosque more often, especially for tarawih, the the special nightly prayers.
In anticipation, protesters in the city of Hama have chanted: “Our God, help us to fast and pray … and topple the regime.” They hope sheikhs, some of whom have taken a central role in backing protesters from the early days when an imam, Ahmed Sayasna, came out against Assad in the protest hub of Deraa, may help to rally people if violence, which has left 1,600 civilians dead, escalates during the holy month.
Not only do tempers flare and people become more emotional, said one activist, sitting in front of a whirring fan in the midday heat, but the security forces will be annoyed.
“Ramadan means shorter working hours when people can rest, while the security forces and army will be tired and morale will be low because they should be home with their families,” he said.
Protesters have already started to demonstrate under cover of darkness, when the security forces cannot target them so easily. “We know our streets better than them,” said the activist.
Anger may also rise for spiritual as well as material reasons. Ramadan is a time for spending, especially for the Eid festival when decorations go up and new clothes are bought, but it is also a time of rising price. The cost of basics have shot up in the past month.
And it is a time to sit back and reflect.
“You have so much time to sit and think,” said a father of three, who has become more opposed to the regime since his wife was insulted at a security checkpoint. “I think we will all be thinking what we should do,” he said, followed with a quick prayer to God.
The country is becoming increasingly polarised. As one young professional in Damascus put it: “The friends I went out with last year are not the ones I will dine with this year.”
He adds that he can no longer discuss politics with his brother, an official. “Friendship circles have shifted.”
He added: “People are coming together but they are also being torn apart … Ramadan will test that. I can imagine families expecting their sons at home when all they want to do is go out on the street.”
Security forces have carried out more raids and arrests this week in a sign that the regime is becoming increasingly agitated, attempting to scare people into submission before Monday.
Activists report some mosques being closed for renovation and people being stopped from attending dawn prayers in the Damascus neighbourhood of Midan on Friday. Sermons by the state-backed clergy are expected to be influenced far more than usual.
Trying to prevent worshippers attending mosque will only provoke more anger, said the former political prisoner. The conflict could also take on increasingly religious dimensions. The regime is by no means solely Alawite but the majority of security forces are. Many Sunnis do not regard the Alawites as Muslims. Any killings during Ramadan could trigger a sense of injustice at the regime’s ruling and religious heterodoxy, galvanising more people to the cause.