Muslims rebuff American cleric on goodwill trip

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2007, 12:00am

His visit was supposed to spread goodwill and improve Washington's image abroad. But instead, US Muslim cleric Yahya Hendi found himself rejected by many of India's top Muslim leaders.

Imam Hendi, on a trip to South Asia last week sponsored by the US State Department as part of its public diplomacy programme, was welcomed in some quarters but met resistance to his message in others.

'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.'

The imam's three-day trip to West Bengal included leading a mass prayer of more than 20,000 people at Calcutta's Sola Ana mosque.

But Mohammad Salim, a member of Parliament and one of the most powerful Muslims in West Bengal, said he doubted worshippers knew what the imam was doing in West Bengal. 'I am dead sure that 100 per cent of the ordinary Muslims who prayed behind that Imam or came forward to interact with him 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.'

Soon after polls in 2005 showed the worldwide rise in anti-Americanism, the US Public Diplomacy programme began sending US Muslim leaders to reach out to their own in other countries.

Imam Hendi insisted, however, 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.

'I am here purely on a religious mission, to meet my Muslim brothers and sisters. I have nothing to do with US foreign policy.

'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.'

Some Muslim educationists argued that rejecting Imam Hendi simply because he was on a US-sponsored mission was unfair.

'He is a Muslim cleric and he wanted to conduct a Jum'a [Friday] prayer - a simple religious ritual. By not welcoming him our Muslim leaders have sullied our image,' said Sahidul Islam, a college teacher in Calcutta. 'If we don't like anything America is doing we could have taken the opportunity to send our grievances to Washington through Yahya Hendy. He is a Muslim - he was definitely going to act as a trusted messenger for us.'

Henry Jardine, the US consul-general in Calcutta, said Imam Hendi had met a good number of Muslims in the state and explained Muslims are prospering and freely practising Islam in the US.

'Muslims here [West Bengal] think that there may be some hostility to Islam and Muslims in the United States, which is not true at all. They don't realise that Islam is a rapidly growing religion in the US and,' Mr Jardine said.