Sunday, November 4, 2001

The faithful begin arriving for evening prayers in the
courtyard of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, above.
Outside the mosque, a sign condemns the U.S. bombing
in Afghanistan. It is written in English, presumably
to impress foreign visitors.

Mosque welcomes
visitors as U.S. bombs
rain on Afghanistan

Despite warnings from the U.S.
embassy, only curious stares greet
visitors to India's largest mosque

By Craig Gima

NEW DELHI, India >> "It's a bad idea."

That's what one U.S. embassy official thought of our plan to visit Old Delhi on the Friday after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan had begun.

A protest was scheduled after noon prayers on the Muslim Holy Day at the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, a spectacular structure built by Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal, at the peak of the Mughul Empire in the mid-17th century.

At a party Thursday night, an Indian journalist pooh-poohed the danger. Aditi Phadnis of the Business Standard said it would be a shame if I didn't visit Old Delhi and offered to take me. The government would control demonstrations. Besides, she said, noting my Asian features, people wouldn't necessarily think I was American.

The spiritual leader of the Jama Masjid, Shahi Iman Syed Ahmed Bukhari, had been vocal against America, calling the Americans terrorists and urging his flock to join Osama bin Laden's jihad against the United States.

Bukhari, whose family has managed Jama Masjid since it was founded, planned to lead a march to the U.S. Embassy to protest the bombing. "We shall see who is more powerful, the U.S. or the will of Allah," Bukhari was quoted in the Times of India newspaper.

His fiery remarks, however, sparked condemnation from other Muslim leaders. With more than 100-million Muslims -- about 10-percent of the population -- India is the world's second-largest Muslim country, after Indonesia.

Several leaders said Bukhari's comments did not represent the views of most Muslims in India. While most do not condone the U.S. bombing, there was hardly any support for Bin Laden and the Taliban who have been linked to terrorism in Kashmir, the province in dispute between Pakistan and India.

In the morning before the planned march, security was high. Roads were blocked and police were everywhere. When I met Phadnis about 5 p.m., the demonstration had ended and the security troops were gone.

We arrived at the Jama Masjid just before evening prayers. On a wall in either Urdu or Hindi, Phadnis pointed out a couple of small posters against the U.S. bombing. A guide, Syed Rashid Ali, offered to give us a tour for 200 rupees (about $4 U.S.) and watch our shoes for another 100 rupees. Phadnis chided me for paying too much and negotiated the shoe-watching down to 20 rupees.

"We have to hurry," Ali said. Prayers were about to begin and tourists were not allowed to attend the service. He took us into the courtyard that can hold 25,000 people who face west toward Mecca. An official motioned to Phadnis to cover her head with a scarf.

Ali explained the five pillars of Islam -- declaration of faith that there is no god but Allah, ritual prayer five times a day, charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the Haj -- the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. As we left, the azan or call to prayer began and worshippers assembled on prayer mats.

The feeling in the mosque was similar to any place of worship, like we were tourists on a Sunday morning at Kawaiahao Church. People stared at me, but that seems to be normal in India. A blonde woman who was with our East-West Center Jefferson Fellows was constantly asked if it was OK to take her picture. If there was hatred, it didn't feel any worse than what some locals in Hawaii feel against tourists in Waikiki.

Outside the mosque, a sign in English said, "We Strongly Condemn American Barbaric Attack on Innocent Afghans."

Phadnis noted that most people who attend services at Jama Masjid don't read English and we speculated the sign was there for the television cameras. After our tour, I asked Ali about the World Trade Center attacks. He thought those who destroyed the center are "very bad. They should be punished."

He thought the United States needs to do more investigation of the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. cities, however, because it hasn't proven that bin Laden committed the crimes. Phadnis asked if people would hide bin Laden if he fled to India. Ali shrugged and said there are all kinds of people in Delhi.

The next morning newspapers reported Bukhari called off the march because of heavy police presence but Bukhari repeated his call for jihad against the United States and Britain for the bombing that killed women and children.

The Hindustan Times quoted Bukhari: "I fail to understand why America and western countries find terrorism in Muslim countries only," and predicted Afghanistan would become a graveyard for the United States as it had for the Soviet Union. His remarks again prompted other Muslim leaders to disassociate themselves from him.

The editor of a Muslim weekly told the Times of India, "great importance is given to him (Bukhari) because he speaks from a historical monument. It is the media which creates such a larger-than-life impression about him among the public."

That's probably true. After a visit to Old Delhi, one still wonders if that will change if the war drags on and more civilians in Afghanistan suffer.

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