Hajj pilgrims not hopeful of Obama

They're hopeful for at least some improvement under Obama but doubt the changes will go deep.

hajj 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hajj 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
After pelting a symbol of the devil with stones, the Iraqi pilgrim knelt and prayed that one day soon all sorts of devils will be removed from his homeland - among them, that American forces will soon leave. Hatim Mohammed al-Sakr said he hoped President-elect Barack Obama will carry out that promise. "We have to wait and see if Obama will do that, but I'm optimistic about it," al-Sakr said Tuesday. But he and many others among pilgrims conducting the annual hajj pilgrimage this year were skeptical Obama will bring deeper changes to American policies that have angered many across the Islamic world, such as US support for Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians and Arab nations. Faith, not politics, is naturally at the center of the hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime journey for the faithful who hope to purify their souls of sin with the rites at Islam's holiest sites around the city of Mecca. On Tuesday, for a second day, pilgrims filed past three walls symbolizing Satan, stoning each with seven pebbles in a symbolic ritual of rejecting temptation and evil. But the hajj is also the biggest gathering of Muslims - nearly 3 million this year, from across the world - so it also becomes for many pilgrims a moment of unity and a chance to assess the problems of the Islamic world and pray for change. Many Muslims have seen the United States as a cause of many of those problems under the administration of President George W. Bush. They have viewed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tensions with Iran and abuses of prisoners in the war on terror as signs of American enmity toward Arabs and Muslims. They're hopeful for at least some improvement under Obama but doubt the changes will go deep. "I expect him not to follow a confrontational approach like Bush," said Ezlan Benbasar, a pilgrim from Malaysia. "But at the same time, I don't expect deep changes in U.S. policy or changes in favor of Muslims." Most had little expectation Obama will change what Arabs and Muslims widely see as a bias toward Israel in the Middle East, which they see as blocking progress in the Mideast peace process. "Obama is circled by many pro-Israel advisers. Reforms under Obama, if any, won't go beyond cosmetic changes," said another Malaysian pilgrim, Mohammed Yousri. "But I do expect Obama will fulfill his promise of shutting down Guantanamo prison," he added, referring to the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The hajj, which began Saturday, will close on Wednesday, when pilgrims return to Mecca for a "farewell" circling of the Kaaba - a cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth that Muslims around the world face during their five daily prayers.