Terror shifts Muslim views

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the American invasion of Iraq began, Adel al-Mashad and his activist comrades sprang into action.

The next day they helped organize an antiwar protest in Cairo that brought tens of thousands of Egyptians onto the streets; it evolved into the biggest public attack on President Hosni Mubarak's rule since he came to power in 1981.

Mr. Mashad says that protest, which tied the anger at the US invasion to the aspirations for democratic change at home, is one of his proudest moments.

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But that was March 20, 2003. Today, the voices of Mashad and activists in other Arab capitals are largely mute when it comes to Iraq.

They still fervently oppose the US presence. But they are increasingly put off by the brutal tactics used by the insurgency against civilians. Similarly, many Muslims are angry over the tactics used by terrorists in the name of Islam.

Among the manifestations of this shift in public attitudes:

• On Sunday, about 1,000 Egyptians, mostly hotel workers, marched through Sharm el-Sheikh, where a weekend bombing killed scores of people, chanting: "There is no God but God; terrorism is the enemy of God."

• In Pakistan, an Islamist call for nationwide protests against a crackdown on militants fell flat Friday with rallies drawing just a few hundred people.

• A recent Pew poll showed a decline in public support for suicide bombings in Muslim countries (see chart).

Mashad says he's been appalled by recent incidents in Iraq, such as the suicide attacks that killed 25 children receiving candy from US soldiers two weeks ago, and more than 50 Iraqis in a separate incident near a Shiite mosque.

And with suicide attacks on civilians spreading to places like Egypt, with 88 killed in the country's worst terrorist attack Saturday, he and many others are asking how one can honorably oppose American foreign policy without lending support to brutal tactics.

"The people fighting in Iraq, we don't know them and it's hard to be comfortable with them,'' he says. "We want to support the Iraqi people, but the situation now is so complicated and confused, and there's so much that happens that simply can't be tolerated. You ask me who do we support, and the answer is: It's hard to say."

Recent weeks have seen an outpouring of concern and condemnation of the culture of suicide terror.

In a talk given in Los Angeles last Friday by Maher Hathout, a senior adviser to the US Muslim Public Affairs Council, an organization opposed the US invasion of Iraq, he condemned suicide bombings. He spoke of a "perversion" of Islam as having affected the men who attacked London. "Somehow, some person [made] them swallow the bait that transformed them into [being] willing to blow themselves up and take with them innocent lives that God created," he said. "So many hearts that were supposed to be opened are closed; so many minds that could have been guided by the light of Islam have been confused."

"Confusion" is now the operative word for millions of Arabs, alarmed by the daily suicide attacks on civilians in Iraq, Europe, and now Egypt.

That has left secular activists like Mr. Mashad, an electrical engineer with a small contracting business, and some Islamists in the position of condemning both the US and the tactics used against US and Iraqi soldiers. "These are the tactics of extremists who are against democracy,'' he says.

Still, many Arabs continue to make distinctions between "legitimate" resistance that targets American forces and the "illegitimate" resistance that has become common in Iraq.

"There are both resistance fighters and terrorists," says Mahmud Kaswani, who runs a small store in Damascus. "The resistance has a right to continue to fight. [But] the people who are killing civilians - they are the terrorists.... I am against anybody who kills civilians - even British or American civilians."

But there are those who see attacks on civilians as a necessary component of an asymmetric war. Ayman Samarra, who sells scarves and robes in Damascus, says he supports the expansion of terror tactics to places like London. Iraq "was a safe country and now ... it is turning into a civil war. This is what America did. Everybody is against the Arabs. The bombings in London - things like this have to happen because before the war in Iraq, there were hundreds of protests and nobody listened."

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the Supreme Guide of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, has repeatedly said killing civilians "contradicts religion and its laws." But he has tempered his criticism by saying the US and its allies bear some of the blame.

Mashad remembers thinking that a nationalist Iraqi resistance would quickly emerge after the US invasion, focused on getting America out of Iraq and creating a democracy. Just as his organization had organized material and political support for Palestinian groups fighting Israel, he envisioned similar efforts on behalf of the national Iraqi resistance.

Instead, he sees the insurgency in Iraq as mostly religious extremists and former supporters of Saddam Hussein who want to restore dictatorship to Iraq. Were that to happen, the interests of democracy in the region would be hurt as badly as it has been by, in his view, an illegal US invasion to impose its views on Arabs from the outside.

"I can never agree to the American occupation and the US ability to impose its will on the region,'' he says. "But I can't support a resistance that commits so many crimes. Each seems as bad as the other."

Rhonda Roumani in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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