updated 10/24/2006 12:51:04 PM ET 2006-10-24T16:51:04

With tensions high between the Western and Islamic worlds, Dubai's leaders are trying to help with an unusual new form of tourism in this Gulf Arab boomtown best known for shopping and sunbathing.

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Dubai's leader, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is funding mosque tours for Western visitors that aim to clear up misconceptions about Islam, especially that the religion condones violence. The ultimate goal is defusing strains between Muslims and Christians that rose after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and the war in Iraq.

The hope is that tourists can spread understanding of Muslims in their home countries.

"They are our messengers," said Abdallah bin Eisa al-Serkal, a 40-year-old real estate salesman who moonlights as director of the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding.

The tours of Jumeirah Mosque have grown over a decade from irregular gatherings of a dozen people to five-times-weekly tours of a hundred or more.

Now, the government-linked center wants to expand inside the United Arab Emirates and beyond with an eye on the more than 1 million Westerners, mostly Europeans, who visit every year.

It has budgeted $2.7 million for a multimedia center devoted to Islam and Arab culture at the mosque. The center is also expanding tours to seven more mosques in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, capital of the Emirates.

On a recent Sunday, about 100 Western tourists reclined on perfumed carpet under the soaring dome of the Jumeirah Mosque to listen to al-Serkal describe the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims, with references to common themes in Judaism and Christianity.

He explained the idea behind Ramadan fasting — sacrificing things you like — and demonstrated Muslim prayer technique: standing, bowing, kneeling, sitting and then pressing his forehead to the carpet.

Then he revealed the contents of his prayers. Standing, he cleared his mind of anything related to work. Kneeling he recited a bit of the Quran. Prostrate, he whispered "glory to God in the highest." And sitting he prayed for his parents.

Tourists had plenty of questions, asking about the differences between Sunni and Shiite sects, and between Christianity and Islam, as well as Islam's problem with violent extremists. Two of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were from the Emirates.

Briton Steve Smith, 53, who works for the London Underground train system, said al-Serkal's message didn't explain how suicide bombers could use Islam in 2005 to justify killing 52 commuters.

"This message is all peace and happiness. As an English person I see the bad side of it. How can you equate one with the other?" Smith asked.

Al-Serkal said Muslim lands suffer from extremist "psychos and crazy people."

An American woman asked why men and women worship separately. Al-Serkal responded by separating men and women on opposite halves of the mosque and aligned them shoulder to shoulder, like Muslims at prayer.

He asked a Belgian man, "If a strange woman has her shoulder pressed against yours, are you going to be able to concentrate?"

"No," the Belgian replied.

Separating men from women prevents distractions, al-Serkal said.

It isn't just tourists who seek answers about Islam in Dubai. The Jumeirah mosque recently hosted 180 U.S. Navy sailors and an American businesswomen's group.

The center has managed to turn its Ramadan fast-breaking dinners into a vogue event for Western diplomats and dignitaries.

Eventually, the center wants to open branches in Europe and North America. Al-Serkal stressed that he wants only to improve the West's view of Islam, not chase converts.

Al-Serkal's message did make some headway. Belgian Lode De Busscher, 43, and his Slovak wife Zdenka Ochodnicka, 33, said they now questioned their "very negative" opinions of Muslims in Belgium.

Ochodnicka said she was scared when arriving in Dubai seeking women veiled and men in traditional Arab robes. After a few days, she realized Dubai was safe and that her negative impressions stemmed from television.

"When anything is Muslim, it's automatically negative," Ochodnicka said. "Maybe it shouldn't be that way. That's why I'm glad I came here. Now I'm open to this."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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