- 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.

He cited a need to scrub misperceptions from the academic curricula in the Muslim world and the West, where he said misinformation had created a false perception of Muslims and Islam. He cited Egypt as an example where authorities had “engaged aggressively to correct our curriculum” and removed comments offensive to Jews, women and non-Muslims.

On the other hand, rights groups say Egypt under Mr. Mubarak has provided a less than stellar example of a free democracy.

Mr. Mubarak, who assumed office in 1981, is weighing whether to run for another term. Many expect his son, Gamal, to succeed Mr. Mubarak in 2011.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has long been the model for Islamic political movements but, according to Sheik Gomaa, support for political Islam does not exceed 20 percent in the Muslim world.

The cleric said most Egyptians reject the concept of religious parties.

In 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned political movement that seeks to impose Islamic law in Egypt, won about 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament.

Its candidates were at a disadvantage because government security forces prevented people from voting in neighborhoods where the Brotherhood is popular.

Many analysts think the Brotherhood would win control of the Egyptian parliament in an open election, in part because of government corruption and dissatisfaction with Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).

Because Egypt prohibits religiously based political parties, Brotherhood candidates run as independents.

Many Egyptians fear the Brotherhood would bring fewer freedoms for women and increased persecution for Egypt’s Christian minority if it ever took power. Others think the group would rein in its Islamic political agenda if it were to rule.

Sheik Gomaa admitted that while a majority of Egyptians vote for Mr. Mubarak’s NDP, not every Egyptian is against the Brotherhood.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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