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Listening for Islam's silent majority

As Osama bin Laden calls for a jihad, and militants rally, where are the moderate Muslims?

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In the warm autumn sunshine, worshippers stream out of London Central Mosque, their Muslim duty of attending Friday noon prayers fulfilled.

They are greeted at the gates by young bearded men with megaphones, bellowing their rage at the way America is waging the war on terrorism.

The two images frame a battle for the soul of Islam that is taking on new urgency in the wake of Sept. 11.

Inside Britain's best-known mosque, a pillar of moderate respectability, the faithful have just heard Sheikh Saeed Radhwan give a calm, erudite discourse on the nature of worship in Islam.

Outside, the message is simple, direct, and aggressive: "Who is the terrorist? Bush is the terrorist!" shouts one protester, flanked by posters of Afghans killed or injured in recent bombing raids.

A few hours earlier, on the other side of the world, Irfan Shah had also attended noon prayers - in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. He had heard a more political sermon, urging Muslims to defend their brothers in Afghanistan against aggression.

"There has always been politics in the sermons," said Mr. Shah, a clean-shaven computer specialist dressed in Western clothes. "Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't agree. But in Islam we can all think what we like."

The Friday prayers in mosques from London to Cairo to Islamabad are one way to take the global pulse of Islam. What's clear from these, and from interviews with Islamic scholars and leaders, is that the level of tension within the one-billion-member Muslim community is growing. The drama and scale of the tragedy of Sept. 11 have inspired some moderate Muslim leaders to gird their loins for fresh combat with their extremist co-religionists.

Yet, it's also apparent that, for the moment, the voices of moderation are few - and often conflicted. They condemn the terrorist attacks on the US as a violation of Islam. But many have long been critics of US foreign policy, and the current military retaliation in Afghanistan - a Muslim nation - is a hard sell to their followers.


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