- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A senior Egyptian Muslim cleric says President Obama should not send more troops to Afghanistan and instead focus on helping Afghans.

Ali Gomaa, grand mufti of Egypt, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Tuesday that Muslims are “very, very hurt and deeply affected by what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

He said Muslims reject the idea of occupation and the use of force. “If America wants to help Afghanistan, it should be aiding the Afghans, not sending more troops there.”

The cleric added his voice to a growing debate in Washington over whether Mr. Obama should heed the advice of his top military commanders and send more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan or scale back the U.S. military presence there.

“Always the increase of troops in these types of situations gives the opposite effect from a perception point of view of what was intended in the first place,” Sheik Gomaa said.

The cleric has become an outspoken critic of extremist ideologies but cautioned moderate Muslims against getting entrapped in a “circle of apostasy” while dealing with extremists.

“We say [the extremists] are not Islamic and they are not Muslims either. But we fear that we end up becoming like them,” he said. “They say that we are not Muslims and not Islamic … It is a vicious cycle.”

Instead, he advocated a policy of first isolating extremists and then providing them with an opportunity to return to their religion. If that is not possible, Sheik Gomaa said moderates should wean these elements away from extremist behavior while letting them retain their extremist thought.

“We don’t like people being extremist in their thinking … but it is better than them being a murderer,” he reasoned. He said it was essential to create an atmosphere in which terrorism does not become an attractive option for people. “We try to reduce the cancer bit by bit. … We don’t want to increase the gap between us and them.”

Sheik Gomaa was appointed grand mufti by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2003.

In June, Mr. Obama picked Cairo for a speech in which he reached out to the Muslim world.

Sheik Gomaa said Mr. Obama had succeeded in patching an open wound in the Muslim community.

“Stopping this intense bloodshed is something that is very important and significant in healing the patient,” he said. “But we cannot think that stopping the bloodshed in and of itself is the healing of the patient, rather it is just the first step.”

The grand mufti, whose daughter and grandchildren live in the United States, said the West and the Muslim world can work together but the path ahead is long and will take a lot of hard work.

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