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Listening for Islam's silent majority

As Osama bin Laden calls for a jihad, and militants rally, where are the moderate Muslims?

By Staff writer / November 5, 2001



LONDON

In the warm autumn sunshine, worshippers stream out of London Central Mosque, their Muslim duty of attending Friday noon prayers fulfilled.

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They are greeted at the gates by young bearded men with megaphones, bellowing their rage at the way America is waging the war on terrorism.

The two images frame a battle for the soul of Islam that is taking on new urgency in the wake of Sept. 11.

Inside Britain's best-known mosque, a pillar of moderate respectability, the faithful have just heard Sheikh Saeed Radhwan give a calm, erudite discourse on the nature of worship in Islam.

Outside, the message is simple, direct, and aggressive: "Who is the terrorist? Bush is the terrorist!" shouts one protester, flanked by posters of Afghans killed or injured in recent bombing raids.

A few hours earlier, on the other side of the world, Irfan Shah had also attended noon prayers - in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. He had heard a more political sermon, urging Muslims to defend their brothers in Afghanistan against aggression.

"There has always been politics in the sermons," said Mr. Shah, a clean-shaven computer specialist dressed in Western clothes. "Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't agree. But in Islam we can all think what we like."

The Friday prayers in mosques from London to Cairo to Islamabad are one way to take the global pulse of Islam. What's clear from these, and from interviews with Islamic scholars and leaders, is that the level of tension within the one-billion-member Muslim community is growing. The drama and scale of the tragedy of Sept. 11 have inspired some moderate Muslim leaders to gird their loins for fresh combat with their extremist co-religionists.

Yet, it's also apparent that, for the moment, the voices of moderation are few - and often conflicted. They condemn the terrorist attacks on the US as a violation of Islam. But many have long been critics of US foreign policy, and the current military retaliation in Afghanistan - a Muslim nation - is a hard sell to their followers.

"The images of children being killed - they are drowning out the people who talk about what happened on Sept. 11," said Ahmed Khan as he left the London mosque Friday, like most others paying only passing attention to the protesters. "Even the moderates are growing more angry about what is happening in Afghanistan."

That view is widely echoed across the Islamic world, where an instinctive closing of Muslim ranks makes it hard for moderates to criticize other members of the faith, however wrongheaded and dangerous they think they are.

In Egypt, says Fahmi Howeidi, a columnist at the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper and a prominent spokesman for nonviolent Islamists in Cairo, "I'm afraid that people have mostly forgotten Sept. 11, and now they are talking about Oct. 7," the day when the United States and Britain began bombing Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

That was clear enough at Friday prayers in Cairo three weeks ago, just after the bombing began. From the pulpit at Al Azhar mosque - the most respected seat of Islamic learning in the world - Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi told his audience that "it is the right of the country that has been attacked to retaliate, but it shouldn't kill innocent people."

But as soon as he had finished his sermon, worshippers took the microphone to call for a holy war against America, which they accused of launching a war against their religion.

Despite the best efforts of US leaders from George Bush on down to deny that the war against terrorism is a war against Islam, Muslims everywhere are afraid that this is just what the campaign has become. Poor and powerless, most of them already resent America's sway over large parts of the world, and that resentment feeds a readiness to see Washington as the enemy when bombs start falling on fellow Muslims.

"People sympathized with Americans before, but now there is a feeling they are making the same mistake and killing innocent people," says Mr. Howeidi, the Egyptian columnist. "In certain circumstances you can convince people with moderate arguments, but under different circumstances they won't listen."

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