Feeling under attack, Arabs turn to Islam for answers

At the Al Kaluti Mosque in a middle-class neighborhood of the Jordanian capital, hundreds more worshipers than the building can hold spill into the streets, a testament to the rallying capacity of Islam in troubled times.

The crush of mostly young men at Friday's prayers could be explained by the fact that this is Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But in Jordan, as across the region, the Iraq war is the latest of many factors that have Muslims turning to their faith for solace and answers.

"The occupation of Iraq, Palestine, American rhetoric about Islam, and the so-called war on terrorism - the feeling it is a fabrication to facilitate the taking of resources by American companies - all of these things help explain a higher interest in Islam," says Abdullateef Arabiyat, former secretary general of Jordan's Islamic Action Front.

"People feel their identity is under attack and are afraid," says Mr. Arabiyat, now the party's minority parliamentary leader. "That is unfortunate, as Muslims need to open up and close the gap between Islam and the modern world, but right now the effect is people turning inward."

Reflecting the general sense of mounting wrongs, the rhetoric of the mosque has turned more strident and political.

At the same time, Arab regimes are seen to be using the growing interest in Islam to ease social pressures and deflect attention from their own shortcomings. But the turn to Islam, coupled with the deepening unpopularity of the US, is also putting regimes in a delicate position as they seek to respond to US calls for aid in Iraq.

On Friday at Al Kaluti Mosque, one of Jordan's best-known sheikhs, Laith Shbeilat, focused on the need for charity during Ramadan. But he also lectured on occupation and resistance. "No occupation is good," he intoned, his words resonating from loudspeakers that blanket the surrounding blocks.

Earlier this year, many analysts warned a war in Iraq would inflame the "Arab street," risking instability and turning Arab public opinion against the US. While the street did not erupt, observers say the war, and occupation of an Arab country, have left people feeling under siege in a way that does not serve America's long-term interests.

"Resistance to the US is popular, but it is not politicizing actions," says Musa Schteiwi, director of the Jordan Center for Social Research. "People respond more as spectators than with a sense of participating in any resistance. The impact is in how they think about things."

Arabiyat agrees, saying that while the appeal of radicalized Islam is growing, the attraction so far is not to radical options. "It is not growing as a style of state," he says, noting a wide rejection among moderate Islamists like himself of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. "But [radical Islamists] are growing [in popularity] as a people against occupation. It is not their style of Islam that is attractive," he adds, "but the people they support in the world."

In Syria, religious fervor is blossoming in a secular state that violently eradicated a rise of Islamic fundamentalism two decades ago. The Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad, facing intense public dissatisfaction over economic woes and lack of political freedom, is seen to be allowing religious expression as a safety valve.

The growth of politicized Islam won't be allowed to go far, most observers say. "The regime in Syria is more intelligent than to flirt with Islamic extremism, but they are trying to give people outlets to address their frustrations," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

Syria was "terrified by the quick fall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad," he says, and is "desperate to protect its flanks." Syria's Islamists are a "particular beneficiary" of the regime's reaction.

That may sound like the kind of fomentation some US officials had in mind when they said toppling the Hussein regime would usher in positive changes across the region. But some analysts say the US and regimes that use Islam as a pressure valve could be playing with fire.

"It's simply unbelievable how the [Iraq] war has revived the appeal of a global Jihadi Islam that was in real decline after Sept. 11," says Mr. Gerges. Jordan's Mr. Schteiwi says the US insistence that outside terrorists are increasingly responsible for violence in Iraq risks giving an Islamic identity to the resistance to occupation, which many Arabs sympathize with.

Schteiwi also worries that US actions may allow some regimes to resist change "The Americans have actually helped Bashar and the old guard," he says. He cites growing US hostility - as expressed in toughened sanctions against Syria - and the recent Israeli bombing in Syria of what Israel claims was a terrorist training camp, as providing the regime an excuse.

But others are responding differently, he notes: Saudi Arabia recently announced plans to hold its first municipal elections.

But the difficulty countries are having even with small steps reflects the broader problems Arab governments face in responding to the Iraq occupation and US pressures, analysts say. At a meeting Sunday, Arab, Iranian, and Turkish foreign ministers condemned terrorist bombings in Iraq and urged coalition forces to restore security. But they also stressed the need to restore Iraqi sovereignty and called for strengthening the role of the UN.

Leaders want to appear supportive of the Iraqi people, but not of the US occupation. Jordan's King Abdullah, for example, has received ministers from the Iraqi Governing Council and promised assistance "to the Iraqi people," but is portrayed here as telling President Bush that US policy in Iraq is "naive" and must change.

With religious leaders winning support as they promote the idea of resistance, political leaders can't afford to stray far from that line. "All of these countries," says Schteiwi, "are walking a very thin rope."

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