- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

CALCUTTA — A speaking tour by the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University has exposed a conundrum for the State Department’s public diplomacy program: The mere fact that the visit was sponsored by the Bush administration left many Indian Muslims unreceptive to the message.

The chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi, was in India for three days late last week to debunk myths about the status and treatment of Muslims in America, much as he has done in State Department-sponsored trips to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The visit, arranged by Karen Hughes’ two-year-old public diplomacy office at the State Department, did produce successes. Imam Hendi was welcomed at a few schools and mosques, and led a mass prayer attended by 15,000 worshippers at a Calcutta mosque.

But several Muslim leaders contacted in advance by U.S. diplomats refused to have anything to do with the visit.

“At our mosque the imam wanted to lead a mass prayer and interact with the people,” said Hyder Ali, a spokesman for the Baitul Aman Mosque, the largest in West Bengal. “But we turned down the request … because he was acting on behalf of a government which for long years has been responsible for killings and sufferings of innocent Muslims in many countries including Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. We did not want to betray our brothers and sisters in those countries by extending him hospitality in our mosque.”

Nur-ur Rahman Barkati, the chief of another prominent Calcutta mosque, said he would be pleased to allow Imam Hendi to conduct a prayer at his mosque had the American been on a “purely religious mission, with no connection with America’s foreign diplomacy.”

“He is a Muslim — he is our brother. But we could not take him in our arms because he was here as a representative of the American government and George Bush — the enemies of Islam and the world’s Muslims,” he said.

The disdain for the U.S. government extended to many of those who attended the mass prayer in Calcutta’s Sola Ana Mosque.

“We took part in this … prayer only because we knew an American imam would conduct it. Had we known that he was sent by the American government we would have never dreamed of standing behind him on this prayer,” said Rifat Hossain, a 21-year-old student. A dozen of his friends nodded in agreement.

Mohammad Salim, a member of Parliament who is considered among the most powerful Muslims in West Bengal, said he was not surprised by Mr. Hossain’s comment.

“I am dead sure that 100 percent of the ordinary Muslims who prayed behind that imam … did not know at all that he was on a mission aimed at improving America’s image in the Islamic world,” said Mr. Salim, who represents the Communist Party of India-Marxist. “I am proud of my Muslim brothers who rejected the American imam in Bengal.”

Henry V. Jardine, the U.S. consul general in Calcutta, said Imam Hendi had succeeded in meeting a good number of Muslims in the state and had explained to them that Muslims are prospering and practicing Islam freely in America.

“Muslims here … think that there may be some hostility to Islam and Muslims in the United States, which is not true at all. They don’t realize that Islam is a rapidly growing religion in the U.S. and that U.S. society, like Indian society, is a multicultural and multireligious one, with a great degree of tolerance,” he said.

Imam Hendi insisted that although his trip was sponsored by the State Department, his message was his own.

“It is a fact that American Muslims enjoy a freedom in America which many Muslims do not get even in many Islamic countries in the world,” he said.

“Many Muslims in this part of the world are doing an injustice to America, and also to me, by considering the American government their enemy,” he added.

“I think they don’t know that it was America which came forward to save the Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo when they were attacked by the Serbian Christians. They don’t know how Americans were the largest provider of help to Muslim tsunami victims in Indonesia.

“They don’t know how Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S. and that American Muslims live, work and practice their faith freely in this great country.”

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