Muslim rage takes on stronger religious tone as U.S. strikes Iraq

AP, Mar. 23, 2003
http://www.usatoday.com/

CAIRO (AP) From mosques to the Internet, Muslims around the world are increasingly expressing anger at the U.S. attack on Iraq in radical religious terms.

“The war between right and wrong has begun. This is a jihad,” a holy war, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, one of India’s most influential Islamic clerics, said in a sermon in New Delhi that drew cries of “God is great!” from worshippers.

A London-based Arabic Web site known for extremist commentary posted a fatwa, or religious ruling, declaring any Muslim ruler or official who helps the “aggressor forces” in the war on Iraq to be an apostate dangerous words when some fundamentalists say apostasy the renouncing of Islam should be punished by death.

The banned Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to transform Egypt into an Islamic state, is gaining exposure at anti-U.S. protests on a scale rarely seen in Cairo.

Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islamic groups at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he has noticed a trend as he navigated Web sites and chat rooms in recent days.

“Now we have many calls to jihad, and those calls aren’t only coming from what we usually call radicals or extremists,” he said. More moderate clerics are using similar language, as are Islamic thinkers who usually confine themselves to political analysis, not calls to arms, he said.

The mix of religious and political rhetoric when it comes to Iraq is worrying for pro-Western states like Egypt, whose secular governments have historically been at odds with radical Islam, and Saudi Arabia, a conservative kingdom that according to a strict interpretation of the Quran cuts off the hands of thieves and forces women to fully veil themselves in public.

Saudi Arabia, which has quietly aided the U.S. war effort, fears a backlash from extremists. In his Friday sermon broadcast on Saudi state television, the imam of Mecca urged worshippers to shun disputes and obey their rulers. A day earlier, a prominent preacher appeared on Saudi TV to tell Saudis that holy war could be waged just as effectively by boycotting U.S. products. Saudi Arabia.

Ever since the United States girded for a war on terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks, there have been Muslims accusing it of waging a war on their religion, despite constant U.S. protestations to the country. President Bush’s use, shortly after Sept. 11, of the term “crusade” against terrorism has been thrown back at him repeatedly as evidence of anti-Islamic prejudice, even though he quickly repudiated the word.

Fundamentalists commonly promote Islam as the solution to the weakness and disunity of the Arab world. In the West, the Muslim voices that make the headlines are those that denounce Western values, attack Jews in anti-Semitic language and proclaim the superiority of Islam.

Earlier this month, the Islamic Research Center at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University, decreed: “If the enemy descends on the land of Muslims, jihad becomes an Islamic obligation … because our Arab and Islamic community will be facing a new Crusade targeting our land, honor, faith and nation.”

Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, chided the think tank for using the word crusade, saying it could be interpreted as an Islamic declaration of war on Christianity. But after the war broke out, Tantawi himself in a Friday sermon called for jihad to support the Iraqi people.

“Jihad in Islam is meant to defend religion, money, soul and freedom, and to support those who are subject to injustice,” Tantawi said.

Al-Azhar, whose authority is widely recognized in the Muslim world, is usually moderate in its views, reflecting its close ties with the Egyptian government.

Arab Muslims feel it is not only their religious identity that is under siege, researcher Rashwan said. They fear the United States plans to redraw the region’s map, starting with Iraq, and that threatens their political and ethnic identities. In reaction to being “surrounded,” Rashwan said, Muslims are talking of jihad in the sense of legitimate self-defense.

Complaints the United States is targeting Islam have been building because of what is seen as unfair U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinians and for India against Muslims in Kashmir and the demonization of Muslims in the Western media since the Sept. 11 attacks. The war on Afghanistan that opened the post-Sept. 11 war on terror and now the war on Iraq, accused by the United States of threatening the world with alleged weapons of mass destruction, has fueled the fire.

Defenders of the United States point out that Washington twice went to war on behalf of oppressed Muslims in the Balkans. But Farish A. Noor, a Malaysian political scientist, says “This fear and suspicion of the U.S. cuts very deep in the collective imagination of ordinary Muslims, and this goes across lines of class, race and nationality.”

Rashwan knows that secular leftist Egyptians like him have been killed for supposedly being insufficiently Islamic.

“I have four children. I am very concerned about the future,” he said. “Egypt will be affected by this radicalization. It will be very bad, very bad.”

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