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Arab World Sees the Conflict in Religious Terms

March 18, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

DOHA, Qatar — The caller to one of the Arab world's most popular phone-in television programs was angry.

"How can the umma [Islamic nation] not answer back to this peacock?" he asked, referring to President Bush with a commonly used image of arrogance. "He is an aggressor who has aggressed the umma and Muslims around the world."

Many in this part of the world see the approaching war in religious terms, similar to the leitmotif in this week's episode of "Sharia [Islamic Law] and Life," a regular program broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based pan-Arab television network.

Across the Arab world, from U.S. allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the militant refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, cries for jihad, holy war in all its forms, are growing in response to the Bush administration's likely invasion of Iraq. A volatile overtone, however, has been the religious cast given this impending war by both sides.

Bush's use of religious rhetoric and the evocation of his Christian faith to attempt to justify a widely unpopular war has played into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists who see the looming battle as a "crusade" against Islam.

Bush himself used the word "crusade" -- a politically charged allusion to a historical period 800 years ago during which Christians slaughtered Muslims and Jews in the course of conquering Jerusalem -- in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. He was forced to backtrack, but the damage was done, the tone set.

"Extremism leads to extremism," said Hamad Kawari, Qatar's former ambassador to Washington and the United Nations. "Extremism in the Bush administration helps feed extremism in the Arab world."

Bush, in the only major news conference he has given this year, again emphasized his reliance on faith and prayer as the force that guides him into war.

Egypt's Al Azhar University, the highest religious authority in the Sunni Islamic world, sanctioned a call for jihad against the "new crusade" targeting Islam.

"If an enemy descends upon Muslim land, then it is the duty of all Muslim men and women to perform jihad," Al Azhar's Academy for Islamic Research said March 10, adding that Muslims the world over "must be ready to defend themselves, their faith and their honor."

A collection of 200 Islamic clerics and scholars, several of them Saudi and many of them considered moderates, issued a similar decree four months ago.

"The American administration's insistence on using its forces to attack the countries of the Arab region reminds us of the Crusades and the era of imperialism," they said in a statement posted on a popular Web site. "At that time, the imperialist armies killed innocent people, humiliated them, created disaster in Asia and Africa and looted the resources. Jihad and lawful resistance movements emerged in that era and triumphed over the invaders."

At the same time, numerous prominent Arab officials and intellectuals have tried to shift the religious interpretation. They point to huge demonstrations against the war in largely Christian European capitals and to calls for peace by major Christian bodies such as the Vatican to show that the fight is not between Islam and Christianity but between the United States and most of the rest of the world.

"This has had a positive effect, showing that many Americans and Europeans also have reservations about the policy," said Kawari, the former diplomat, who writes frequently about regional matters. "It helps us as we fight to tell people that this is not a war against Islam; this is a political issue. We keep telling people this, but they are not all convinced."

Kawari said the wide perception is that Bush is surrounded by ideologues, some motivated by religious fundamentalism, who are viscerally anti-Muslim.

The message was mixed during street demonstrations in Cairo last weekend.

"No, I don't think this is about religion," said Walid Sayed, 25, a college student marching against the war. "It's about U.S. aggression in wanting economic power and military bases everywhere."

Mohamed Amara, an Islamic scholar in Egypt, agreed that the war does not pit Christians and Muslims. Still, he said, the only appropriate reaction to the invasion is jihad.

"Hitting American interests is an act of martyrdom," he said.

Times staff writers David Lamb in Cairo and Jailan Zayan in Doha contributed to this report.

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