St. Petersburg Times Online: World and Nation

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

At mosques: sympathy, ire

Arab expressions of sorrow give way to anger over U.S. policies.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


Arab expressions of sorrow give way to anger over U.S. policies.

JERUSALEM -- The mosque preacher began by denouncing attacks against innocents, and every one of the listening worshipers knew he was speaking of the thousands who died in New York and Washington. To wantonly kill like this, he declared, was an abomination. A coward's cry.

But by the time the imam wound up his sermon to thousands of Muslim faithful at a West Bank mosque, familiar and long-held grievances -- most particularly, the plight of the Palestinians -- were at the forefront.

"America's terrorism is greater than any terrorism in the world," Sheik Hamed Betawi thundered to an overflow crowd at the old stone mosque in the cobblestone center of Nablus. "The U.S. administration is criminal -- injustice always leads to injustice."

In mosques across the Middle East on Friday, the most important prayer day of the Muslim week, a wounded America received a measure of sympathy for the catastrophic suicide attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Away from the crush of fellow worshipers, some expressed quiet sorrow.

"What happened was terrible -- I look at it from a human perspective only," said Palestinian construction worker Jamal Abu Eid, who attended prayers at one of the region's most politically explosive venues, the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

But the day's sermons -- traditionally an important indicator of national sentiments -- also offered a passionate reminder of the hatreds and hardships that fuel the region's conflicts. In mosques from Baghdad to Beirut, from Tehran to Gaza City, the attacks were portrayed as an inevitable consequence of U.S. support for Israel, and as retribution for American policies seen as bullying and unfair toward Arabs and Muslims.

Perhaps the most strident rhetoric came in Iraq, which blames America for the deaths of thousands of civilians from malnutrition and disease under U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's soldiers occupied Kuwait in 1990.

At a neighborhood mosque in Baghdad, Al-Shawi, worshipers listened as the imam characterized the attacks as "heavenly punishment" for American wrongs. A nationally televised sermon from Baghdad's Al-Azam mosque urged that no tears be shed for "tyrants whose hands are stained with the blood of our people."

At Egypt's oldest and most venerable Islamic institution, the attacks were criticized, though in indirect terms.

"He who kills a person without necessity ... will never go to heaven," Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi told worshipers at Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque. "It's not courage in any way to kill an innocent person, or to kill thousands of people, including men and women and children."

Perceived messages of moderation like this one, though, drew an angry response from some listeners. "The attacks in the United States are the right thing to do. If anyone had asked me to do this myself, I would have done it," said Ahmed Adel, 20, a student.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.