KUWAIT CITY – Muslims from Indonesia to the Middle East on Wednesday labeled as aggressive and irresponsible a U.S. congressman's suggestion that the United States could "take out" Islamic holy sites if Muslim attackers targeted America in a nuclear strike.
Some demanded an apology. Many said the comments fuel Islamic extremism and leave Muslims feeling Americans equate terrorists with all of Islam.
"American mentality imagines that a religion is attacking another religion, and here lies the danger," said Syrian political analyst Ahmed al-Haj Ali. He called it "frightening" to "retaliate against the birthplace of Islam for individual criminal acts or acts committed by groups that are condemned by Islam."
Rep. Tom Tancredo (search), a Colorado Republican, was asked on a radio talk show Friday how the United States should respond if terrorists struck several of its cities with nuclear weapons.
"Well, what if you said something like — if this happens in the United States, and we determine that it is the result of extremist, fundamentalist Muslims, you know, you could take out their holy sites," Tancredo answered.
When host Pat Campbell of WFLA-AM in Orlando, Fla. asked if he meant "bombing Mecca," the congressman responded: "Yeah."
Mecca (search) and Medina (search), in Saudi Arabia, are Islam's holiest cities. All able-bodied Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lives. Mecca is the birthplace of Islam's prophet Muhammad (search) and home to the Kaaba (search), Islam's most sacred site, which Muslims around the world face when they perform daily prayers.
"I find it strange that such a comment comes from someone who represents a civilized people," said Hamed al-Abdullah, a Kuwait University political science teacher. The comment should be rejected by civic societies, the Congress and President Bush, he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the congressman's statement "insulting and offensive." He said Americans "respect the dignity and sanctity of other religions."
In Egypt, the liberal al-Ghad Party condemned Tancredo's comments and demanded "an official apology to all Muslim nations, who love peace and reject arrogance and violence."
"It's aggressive and it is exceeding all limits and doesn't serve anything but extremism and terrorism," al-Ghad said in statement published in its mouthpiece newspaper by the same name.
Tancredo has refused to apologize, telling The Associated Press his comments had been taken out of context. He said he never said he wanted to bomb Mecca or Medina and added that it would be better to think of ways to prevent a terrorist attack, noting that he didn't want to "inflame this issue."
But some Muslims still felt Tancredo's remarks reflected a broader American opinion. "America is trying to market the idea of striking at Mecca in order to fight fundamentalism. This is crazy talk devoid of logic," said Sheik Hisham Hassani, a Syrian expert on fundamentalist groups. He accused Washington of sowing "sectarian discord that always begins with such utterances."
The leader of Indonesia's most influential group of Islamic clerics criticized the remarks as "irresponsible" and called on Americans to protest them. "How can an American congressman say something like that?" said Amidhan, who goes by one name. "It just reflects his inability as a politician."
"Does he understand anything about human rights? At least when the United States attacks Iraq, Muslims blame the government not the American people," Amidhan said.
Al-Abdullah, the Kuwaiti political scientist, put some blame on the way the question was put to the congressman. "These imaginary 'what if' questions are endless," he said.