American diplomats in Muslim countries should be fasting for the month of Ramadan just as their hosts do. As fasting is a cultural centerpiece of those countries (as well as being a religious requirement), it would be good diplomacy for American embassies to honor this practice. While American officials make endless speeches extolling their desire for closer ties to the Muslim world, it is actions that change opinions and foster better relations.
On August 11, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a brief and bland congratulatory message to the Muslim world regarding the beginning of Ramadan. It was followed by a strange press release from the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, who bizarrely linked Ramadan to the Afghan parliamentary elections on September 18, 2010.
Ambassador Eikenberry should have announced that U.S. Embassy personnel in Afghanistan, out of respect for and solidarity with the Afghan people, would be observing the Ramadan fasting requirements. It would have been a significant gesture of friendship and unity.
Ambassador Eikenberry never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The fasting requirements are not particularly onerous. For a month, one can eat and drink before sun rise and after sunset. American diplomats would be essentially missing lunch. If that is too much of a hardship for any particular diplomat then he or she should be sent home.
Within Islam, fasting is a tool to enhance self-restraint and patience. It is supposed to instill humility and purify the soul as one is relieved of the burdens of eating and drinking. Fasting is also but one side of the coin. The other side is feasting. At the end of each day there is a feast where friends and family gather to celebrate the day. American diplomats posted to foreign countries where Ramadan is observed are there to win the hearts and minds of the people. That means sharing in their culture and celebrations.
American embassy employees in Afghanistan, who are supposed to be working side by side with their Afghan partners, apparently break off work for lunch while their counterparts continue to work and fast. U.S. diplomats should not be feasting while others fast. All that does is reinforce the gulf that exists between both countries. From a military perspective, it also portrays State Department officials as being so weak and uncommitted to the mission that they would rather forego an important opportunity than miss a meal. Secretary Clinton can surge thousands of such diplomats to Afghanistan, but in the end, because they live in their own luxury bubbles, it is a waste of time and resources. There is still time for the U.S. Department of State to join in and honor the celebration of Ramadan. It would be the diplomatic thing to do.
The author is a former U.S. Air Force Captain who was hired by the U.S. Department of State in 2008, as a Senior City Management Advisor.