Thousands of worshippers repeat his words in a chant that shakes the walls of the ancient building. The echo resounds throughout the capital - the same capital the US came to liberate only a short time ago, expecting to find only friendship from Iraqis who would greet them with rice and flowers.
 
It was a striking scene.

The larger picture

For those sitting in distant living rooms watching CBS's 60 Minutes in wide-eyed amazement and eating popcorn, it was perhaps unexpected and tense.

But the men in Washington certainly knew that the murderous siege of Falluja lay somewhere in the background, just as they had to know that the Iraqis had burned an American flag in the streets of Baghdad following the Israeli assassination of Shaikh Ahmad Yasin in Gaza.

Nevertheless, and very unfortunately, it appears that politicians in Washington, heading to the G8 summit with the Greater Middle East Initiative tucked in their fine leather briefcases, are not seeing the entire picture.

Sidelining Islam

What was also striking and foolish - even if entirely coincidental - was the major change introduced to the Iraqi flag by the US only days before.

The most sacred phrase in Islam, God is the greatest, was gone and, in a gesture of the utmost foolishness, the flag was now adorned by two parallel blue stripes similar to those that have lined the Israeli flag for the past 50 years.

Here we have yet another religious obstacle on the rocky path of what the US has called the reform of the Middle East, the official blueprint of which will be unveiled next month.

Day by day, Muslims grow more apprehensive about the true intentions of the master planner from across the Atlantic.

In addition to the growing sense of frustration at the bias of US policy in the region, the Arab world has severe misgivings about any talk of modifying academic religious curricula, demands to close religious schools or transform them into secular institutions, and the scrutiny directed at charitable organisations involved in the collection and distribution of alms, a fundamental religious obligation in Islam.

Muslims grow more apprehensive about the true intentions of the master planner from across the Atlantic

When the religiously inclined among the general Arab public hear talk along these lines on their satellite TVs, their adrenaline starts pumping and they excoriate the US, along with everything that comes from that direction, reforms or otherwise.

The paradox is that many opponents of US-sponsored reform in the region have long been allies of the US government.

Though not necessarily religiously observant, they intentionally focus on the religious aspects of the US discourse on reform, stirring up the public and turning them against the discourse as a whole, including the democratic aspects of the reforms, which would allow this long-excluded public more effective participation in decision-making and determining their own future.
 
US discourse and policies have succeeded in mobilising the greatest possible resistance to its plans for reform in the region.

Nor has long US support for totalitarian Arab regimes encouraged Arab intellectuals and activists, who have long demanded reforms of their own, to support the US-sponsored plan.

Although everyone realises that not everything the US says is an evil - whether the Greater Middle East Initiative or statements made by Colin Powell more than a year ago - the fact is that everyone finds themselves on the defensive.

Reformer's viewpoint

The observations of Tariq al-Bishri are of essence. 

Discussing the issue with me, a renowned legalist and Islamist intellectual known for his democratic tendencies and his defence of Coptic Christian rights in Egypt, al-Bishri finds three major inconsistencies in US initiatives for reform.

Firstly, the US talks about political and democratic reform despite its support of autocratic regimes in the region.

Secondly, the US secretary of state is busy designing policies for us Arabs in everything from governance and the economy to development and education, even though neither he nor his government was chosen or "elected" by anyone in any Arab country to speak in our name or represent our interests.

Secretary of State Colin Powell 
is busy promoting Arab reform

Thirdly, notwithstanding its platitudes on democracy, the US creates leaders for us from abroad. It gives them names similar to our own and then exports them to the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Afghanistan is a prime example, and the same tendency is discernible in Iraq and elsewhere.

They are ultimately able to impose these leaders not in any democratic process, but only due to the physical presence of the US army, after an invasion and occupation.

Religion vs reforms
 
Is religion becoming an obstacle to development and reform?

Unfortunately, yes, because ideologues in the US are making it so, when they provoke Muslims by insisting on the need to modify certain aspects of Islam.

Some, drawing on the Christian experience, have even envisioned rewriting the Quran itself.

Unfortunately, these people have forgotten that religion was once a tool of renewal and development in the region.

This was the case 150 years ago in the era of Jamal al-Din al-Hussaini "al-Afghani", followed by his disciple Shaikh Muhammad Abdu, who coined the phrase: "The fault lies with Muslims, not with Islam."

Years later, this thought was developed further by Muslim thinker Muhammad Iqbal in his famed thesis, The Renewal of Religious Thought in Islam.

One of the problems seems to derive from Western cultural experience.

The historical inability of the Church to conform to new exigencies and developments gave rise to violent intellectual conflicts between intellectuals and clerics during the Renaissance.

Ultimately, religion was separated from life, cloistered away in monasteries and churches, while intellectual life and behaviour were liberated from its restraints.

Evolving Islamic thought
 
Muslims, or Muslim intellectuals, view the matter differently.

In welcoming calls for reform and renewal, they distinguish between two forms of revitalisation.

The first, shaped by both Western and some Muslim researchers, is based on intellectual foundations that have no relation to the Quran, the Sunna, or the Islamic heritage.

The second, on the other hand, they see as evolving from within Islamic thought itself.

That is, it is Islamic thinkers who have formulated the general framework as well as the features and foundation of reform, using their profound understanding of Islamic heritage and history and the variety of experiences that heritage holds.

It is Islamic thinkers who have formulated the general framework and foundation of reform

Islamic thinkers have a keen understanding of the age, its challenges, and what is at stake.

They are thus able to produce a contemporary understanding of faith and Islamic law, one in which religion imbues all realms of human behaviour, individual action, and social institutions of all types.

This is the content of Islamic intellectual discourse in Arab societies. This is a recognisable, legitimate form of revitalisation because, according to one writer: "It grows out of the community's heritage, its faith, civilisation, history, and environment.

"It is adaptable to local, subjective elements and tools in its application. Even as it draws on the past, it does not deny the use of contemporary techniques and circumstances in its development.

"As for the type of renewal proposed by those who are not familiar with the history and faith of the community, inspired by Western sources and authorities, it is an attempt to quash religion and distort its function, even though it wears the cloak of reform."

There is a great distance between these two visions, and it seems that the US attempt has a difficult road ahead of it.

Real dilemma

Since 9/11, Americans, convinced by the need to dry up the wells of terrorism, see Islam as the major obstacle to propagating concepts of modernity and, in turn, their platform for reform. Muslims believe that true Islam is inherently more progressive, whether we are discussing democracy, political participation, human rights, or even women’s rights.

The dilemma is that opinions on the subject within Islamic societies are one of two.

The general public clings tightly to their religion and will readily reject any talk of reform if they have the slightest doubt that it will touch on their religious beliefs.

The Islamic faith is seen as more
progressive than Western reform

The elite welcome calls for reform, but they believe their own religion is more progressive than any reform initiative coming from the West.

All you need to do is listen to someone talking about the status of women in Islam and how women's rights exceed all Western laws and social customs. Freedom of religion? They will recite the Quranic verse: "Let him who will, believe; and let him who will, disbelieve." (18/29)

In fact, everything they say can be supported by the Quran and Sunna. If you want to debate the state of Islamic societies and the clear injustice and oppression that prevails, they will tell you that the fault lies with Muslims, not with Islam.

In short, many do not differ with the US prescription for reform in the region.

True democracy is absent and desperately needed. Most of the time human rights are no more than a poster hung in sham councils and organisations.

The educational system is severely retarded; schools produce ignorant young men and women who excel in rote memorisation more than educated innovators.

Most intellectuals, even if they deny it, realise that most of what was said in the most recent Arab Human Development Report is true.

US errors

But the US errs in its belief that the key to resolving the region's problems is uprooting religion or modifying some of its precepts. The US errs, sometimes dangerously so, in not realising that their problem is with Arabs and Muslims, not with Islam.

Do you remember the famous Newsweek cover of 25 November 2003, bearing an image of Usama bin Ladin and his words: "As you kill, you will be killed"?

Bin Ladin is the consequence of 
biased US policies

Do you remember the warnings of many before the invasion of Iraq - regardless of the context - that America's biased policies in the Middle East will lead to the appearance of 100 Bin Ladins?

Do Americans now truly grasp the significance of what they are seeing in the streets of Iraq, the trains of Madrid, and even the quiet streets of Riyadh?

The US is erring once again by turning a deaf ear and insisting that it understands everything in its own way, despite the existence of dozens of research institutes and intelligence agencies.

Just as someone led them to understand that the Iraqis would greet them with roses, someone has led them to understand that Muslims are their enemy simply because they are Muslims or because their religion turns them against Western modernity.

Both of these explanations are naive and simplistic, and I fear they are taking US leaders in Washington who are looking for security for their citizens in the wrong direction.

Exactly one year ago, Time magazine featured the following article on its cover: "Why the war on terror will never end".

The reason may be quite simple - if the US succeeds in translating correctly: What feeds extremism and violence against the US in the Islamic and Arab world? How can Americans feel safe and secure?

It is perhaps necessary to first ask those who always point the finger at Bin Ladin: how has this sick, old fugitive managed to garner such support, from posters held aloft by demonstrators in Karachi and Kuala Lumpur to Arabic chatrooms on the internet?

Columnists in the US press pose the question and come up with the same standard answer, endlessly recycled in various forms.

Security and despair

Meanwhile, those who are familiar with the opinions of these young people know very well that it is not Bin Ladin's organisational capabilities - especially now, after the intelligence siege - nor Islamic schools, nor donations to orphans and the poor, even those to the families of martyrs. Rather, it is a sense of injustice and despair, the sense of being mercilessly ground down by the New Empire. 

Members of the United Nations'
Security Council cast their votes

Every day these young people see what the Israeli occupation forces do in the Palestinian territories, occupied now for 35 years. They know very well that Washington has used its Security Council on behalf of Israel fully 31 times.

When they hear the US talk about Palestinian terrorism, they recall that two years ago the US thwarted a Security Council resolution that would have mandated UN peace-keeping troops in the area to maintain the security of both parties to the conflict.

They hear George Bush sanctimoniously reiterating that he went to Iraq to disarm it of weapons of mass destruction. Then they find that he shoots down a Security Council resolution that would strip the entire Middle East of these very same weapons.

There are many, many more examples, as the gentlemen in Washington are undoubtedly aware. Do they read part of the answer to their question here?

We understand the US recipe, but as we have repeated many times before, we believe the only way to guarantee one's security is to not make enemies who loathe you so much they are willing to commit suicide to harm you.

The only recipe for the security of the sole superpower comes - oddly enough - from the heart of the Islamic tradition: "If you ruled and ruled fairly, Umar, then you are safe and may sleep soundly."

The author is the managing editor of the Wighat Nazar (Point of View) magazine in Egypt.