Sentiment divided at haj pilgrimage over role of Islamist militants

Sentiment divided at haj pilgrimage over role of Islamist militants

ARAFAT Saudi Arabia - Former Egyptian army officer Suliman Ouda minced no words as he climbed Mount Arafat, denouncing Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq as terrorists.

But Syrian engineer Ahmed Orabi, standing nearby on the hill where Muslims on their haj pilgrimage beg God's forgiveness, disagreed.

"Islam is about peace and kindness, not murder and violence, and I don't consider these fighters in Iraq and Syria to be Muslims," Ouda told Reuters as he joined the mass of pilgrims early on Friday. "They bring shame to the word Islam."

Orabi, in his 40s, served time in Syrian prisons for criticising the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before fleeing to Turkey. One of his sons was still in jail.

"If the Islamic state, or Nusra, or any other group can fight the government, I'm in full support of them," he said in a hushed voice.

"Bashar is the terrorist here, Iran is the enemy. And although I can't raise my voice today and say that, I'm crying out to God in my heart to give victory to those brave Islamic fighters."

The haj, a hectic journey that brings millions from around the world to Mecca and Mount Arafat, is tinged this year with concerns over the threat posed by Islamist militants who threaten to target allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia.

In past years, Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims airing political views were the main threat for security forces keen to keep the haj free from politics. But the rise of political Islam since the Arab Spring protests of 2011 has focused attention on Islamist Sunni groups as a new potential source of friction.

While a systematic poll of pilgrims' views at the haj would be impossible, a random sampling indicated sentiment is divided over Islamic State, who have dominated the news since they captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, in July.

Abdel-Rahman al-Gahtani, a Saudi haj organiser, said the militants, known in Arabic as Daesh, gave Islam a bad name.

"Our sheikhs told us that Daesh are terrorists and we believe they are. Those who kill in cold blood and make threats to kill innocent people are not Muslims like us," Gahtani, who works at food and water distribution, told Reuters.

The sermon given by the preacher in the local Namira mosque on Friday included a reference to the Islamic State and the pledge that "Islam is innocent of their actions", pilgrims who attended said.

But Mohammed Askar, a Syrian teacher, said militants fired by religious zeal may be the only way to topple Assad.

"I know America and the Gulf countries see the Islamic state as terrorists, but they should not think that way," Askar said.

"These are the people who can fight to get rid of Bashar, and after Bashar is gone I swear to you no one will want Islamic State. We are just using them."

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