Published: December 7, 2007

During a recent weekend, I attended two religious services, one at a mosque and the other at a church, and said "amen" to two contradictory prayers. Doing that confused me and added to my stress as these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan go on and on.

On Friday, during the weekly Juma'a gathering in a mosque in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, I and about 300 people repeatedly said "amen" to an imam as he loudly prayed: "May Allah support the mujahideen. May Allah defeat their enemies. May Allah support Islam and the Muslims. May Allah defeat Islam's enemies."

The following Sunday, in a nearby church, I and about 500 people said "amen" to the following prayer by a minister: "Lord, protect and strengthen our soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever they are. Guide our leaders and leaders of other nations and give them wisdom to work for peace."

An Arab friend went with me to the mosque after I convinced him that this might lessen his stress as he, too, was psychologically affected by George Bush's wars. Like many Middle Easterners, he vehemently refused to go to counseling.  (At least that Friday I talked him out of buying a bottle of vodka and “drink to death” as he put it).

When the imam started his "provocative" prayers, we were squatting on the floor in the last row, with our backs to the wall. My friend got scared and whispered in my ear, "Isn't this guy afraid of the FBI?" I, half-scared and half-joking, said, "Let's get out of here."

But we didn't leave, and we noticed that the imam was clever in the way he worded his prayer.  He did not mention Iraq or Afghanistan by name, and didn’t say who the “mujahideen” were.  He probably didn't need to, as it was clear from the congregation's faces, accents and clothes that almost all of them were immigrants from third-world countries.

There wasn't a single white face. There wasn't a single woman either; women prayed in a separate room because a dominant conservative interpretation of the Koran claimed that their presence among men would distract men.

That was a far cry from the church, where men and women mingled. Actually there were more women than men. I sat in the back pew and in front of me sat a woman with long golden hair that became brighter when reflected by the morning sun rays that came through the high window of the church.

Those men and women, from the way they were dressed, seemed to belong to middle and upper-middle classes. They were almost all white.

The minister said a prayer "for military family members fighting in the Middle East." The service program named about 10 of them and selected one named Jonathan, and asked people to "please take time to send him cards or care packages."

The program said that "items must be able to withstand shipping and possible three weeks in transit," and mentioned "lotion, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, cookies, nut-mixes, pretzels, chewing gum, hot drink mixes, fruit roll-up. . ."

I turned to my high-school daughter, who was sitting next to me, and said, "This is your job." The following day, we went to a store and she bought some of these items, put them in a shoe box and gave me the box to take to the post office. She added a short letter to Jonathan, part of which said, "Thanks for serving our country!" and "God bless you!"

The next day, on my way to the post office, I thought of something else: I bought a package of exclusive ground coffee and put it in the box. I thought of Jonathan finding a quiet time in the midst of the turmoil in Iraq to sit down and enjoy a cup of fine coffee.

At the mosque, the imam asked for monetary donations and pointed toward a row of boxes at the entrance.  Each box was labeled for a certain cause, like "Flood in Bangladesh," "Drought in Somalia" or "Earthquakes in Pakistan." There were also boxes for close-to-home causes, such as "Fix Mosque's Roof" or "Pay Mosque's Utility Bills."

There was no box for the "mujahideen" (whoever and wherever they were), no requests to send them cards, soaps or cookies (or coffee). Doing this would have been a crime - supporting terrorists - punishable by prison.

Mohammad Ali Salih is an Arab journalist based in Washington. (mohammadalisalih@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007, International Herald Tribune