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In Muslim world, militants shaking balance between secular and spiritual at weekly prayers

Posted: Friday, November 22, 2002

QOM, Iran (AP) -- First they prayed, holding their palms to the heavens as an act of devotion to God. Then they chanted, clenching their fists in anger against perceived enemies of Islam.

The setting was a mosque in the spiritual center of Iran's ruling theocracy. But it could be anywhere across the Muslim world, where politics and piety serve as twin pillars at public prayers each Friday.

Now other voices -- from activists to moderate Muslim clerics -- are asking whether this traditional interplay on the Muslim holy day is becoming corrupted by today's shrill vocabulary of extremism and anger.

''Politics is part of the essence of Islam. Society and faith, for us, exist side by side,'' said Ayatollah Assadollah Bayat, a former Iranian parliament member who now heads a seminary in the desert city of Qom, the center of theological study in Iran.

''But this balance can be upset if politics overwhelm the spiritual side,'' he said. ''It is a danger to true Islam.''

Muslim theologians say their faith is both a religious doctrine and a secular code -- shaping everything from personal finance to dietary restrictions. Some worry the all-encompassing nature of their faith is under threat from so-called ''politicized Islam'' -- allegiance to narrow objectives or viewpoints that drown out the spiritual elements of a Muslim's actions in daily life.

Al-Qaida is the most virulent strain. But some scholars and theologians see increasingly sharp-edged messages coming from mosques around the world.

''There are ideas building that Islam is under attack from the West. We must be very careful because people can easily manipulate such feelings for political motives,'' said Ali El Samman, the adviser on interfaith affairs at Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the most respected theological institute for Sunni Muslims.

In Iran -- where the 1979 Islamic Revolution solidified the bond between politics and religion -- the role of Friday prayers has become a flashpoint in the struggle between reformers and conservatives.

The prayers, especially the nationally broadcast Tehran University sermons, are often highly political events directly guided by the ruling clerics. Chants of ''death to America'' are common.

In July, a popular cleric, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, resigned as a prayer leader claiming that Iran's rulers were abusing the ''people's religious beliefs'' to remain ''on the vicious camel of power.''

Taheri later softened his criticism under pressure from Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Recently, the Friday pronouncements have also turned against reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who is asking parliament to limit the ability of conservatives to impede initiatives such as greater press and social freedoms.

In October, a top Khatami aide asked the body that runs Friday prayers at Tehran University to tone down the attacks. The request was reportedly rejected.

''Friday prayers have been seized by conservatives who try to use the public podium for their political ends,'' said Mohammad Soltanifar, a communications professor at Tehran's Faculty of Radio and Television.

Experts also note that many moderate Muslims are staying away from Friday prayers because of the strong political oratory. The two views of Islam -- one mostly spiritual, the other highly political -- could become further estranged in the future.

''The struggle over the identity of Islam has been made even more intense by globalization ... There is a tendency to draw sharp boundaries and say, 'You are either on one side or the other,''' said John Voll, associate director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

But Islamic scholars say removing politics from Friday prayers is impossible. Western concepts of separating the secular and spiritual do not apply.

''If there is an imam not talking about social issues, we would say his prayers are not complete,'' said Mahdi Hadavi Tehrani, a professor of Islamic law and philosophy at one of the seminaries in Qom.

And the growing power of the Friday sermons is clear. Many governments dictate the Friday messages, or quickly step in when they chafe against their policies.

In Jordan, the ministry of religious affairs has asked imams to ignore politics after some preachers began advocating holy war against Israel and the United States. Jordan has faced criticism in the Arab world for maintaining contacts with Israel.

Indonesian authorities are investigating possible links between radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir and the Oct. 12 Bali bombing that killed nearly 200 people. Bashir had mentioned Osama bin Laden in some of this sermons.

In Malaysia, officials said they plan to install recording equipment in some mosques where imams are accused of deviating from religious texts to make anti-government proclamations.

Preachers in pro-Western Kuwait had been increasingly denouncing the West. But after an Oct. 8 shooting that killed a U.S. Marine, state-run television broadcast a Friday sermon that condemned the act as ''a major crime and high treason.''

''It is a basic rule in the religion that Islam has a direct relationship with the society and politics,'' said Diaa Rashwan, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. ''The conviction that Islam is a religion about prayers and rituals only is wrong.''



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