A scene from the horror story of BBC correspondent Frank Gardner, gunned down by Islamists in the streets of Riyadh, won't leave me. They killed his Irish-born cameraman and shot Gardner and left him for dead, but he sat in the street, conscious, bleeding, and shouted to bystanders, in Arabic, "I'm a Muslim, help me, I'm a Muslim, help me."

The Beeb's news director said, "Nobody knew Saudi Arabia or knew the sort of risks they were undertaking better than Frank who had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and spoke fluent Arabic ...."

Which tells me Gardner shouted out, not "help me, I'm dying," or "help me, I've been shot," but "help me, I'm a Muslim," because he knew those were the words that would move people around him to do something to save his life.

In what other place in the world would a man, obviously gravely injured, have to shout out an explanation of his religious affiliation before he got help to save his life?

In Tel Aviv, I can imagine, a wounded person might shout, "help me, I'm a Jew," if he had reason to think that the people around him feared he was a Palestinian martyr-in-the-making with a half a crate of dynamite strapped to his body. But even if that is the case, I hardly think that proves a flaw in the heart of the people of Tel Aviv, or their religion.

Can you imagine a man dying on the streets of Philadelphia or Copenhagen, shouting out, "help me, I'm a Christian"?

What's wrong with Islam, that in its core nation, this can happen? Even beyond the fact of the shooting itself, which is part of a wider political and religious war, why this cruelty?

For that matter, why the crushing treatment of women, the "dhimmitude" status of non-Muslims, the muzzled media, the denial of basic civil rights for Shiites in Saudi Arabia, the genocide against blacks in Sudan, the murderous repression of gays everywhere, the continuing tendency to slavery.

It's part of the "problem of Islam." The modern leaders of the faith, in Saudi Arabia, have embraced a brutally fundamentalist form of Islam, to the exclusion of other interpretations. Those interpretations do exist, but they're not being given breathing room. After 9-11, this is no longer merely an internal concern among Muslims. As Irshad Manji points out, "How the Koran is allowed to be interpreted -- and how it isn't -- has become everybody's business."

I've opposed fundamentalism in the religious culture around me. Since I am an American, that religion principally has been Christianity. Three years ago I found my country under attack from a different religion's fundamentalists. I have no problem recognizing the same enemy. Fundamentalism in the three great monotheisms, as Karen Armstrong wrote, is of a piece. It offers the same solutions to the same challenges, and along the way it locks personal paranoias and cultural fetishes into the word of God.

More than in the other great monotheisms, a militant, violent tendency is limned in the holy texts of this religion, as is rejection and hatred of the "unbelievers." The fundamentalists and absolutists in Christianity and Judaism generally exist on the fringes of those faiths. In Islam, for centuries, they have been at the helm of it. Except in the North American mosques, and less and less even in them, the idea of "ecumenical Islam" is a contradiction in terms.

But the problem in the picture is more than that.

Islam is Arab-centric. The Quran is only read, properly, in Arabic, even if you're a Malaysian Muslim. V.S. Naipal has written eloquently about this, and how it warps lives and cultures in the non-Arab Muslim lands. "The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism."

Manji herself, in her book "The Trouble With Islam," tells of a speech she gave at a North American university. The campus Muslim Students Association showed up to try to intimidate her, and they lined the walls and glared at her as she spoke about "God and gays." When they got down to Q and A time, she began to challenge them, offering up the diverse, non-fundamentalist approaches to Islam that once had flourished in places like Pakistan. One of her attackers shot back that that was, "because Pakistanis are not real Muslims. They're converts. Islam was revealed to the Arabs." Without intending to, she had hit on just the weapon to make the solid wall of her opponents melt -- many of those who had come to object to her lesbianism were South Asian Muslims.

Gardner is a Muslim. But he also obviously is a Westerner. When he was shot, it was his non-Arab skin color that marked him out as different to the people whose forms you can half see in this picture, watching him pleading for his life.

In parts of old segregated America, there once were hospitals that would not admit black people. Billie Holliday died of such prejudice. And it's been damned and execrated and rightly banished from modern America. Our health care is still far from equitable, in terms of rich, middle-class, and poor. But if any American ambulance driver refused to pick up a black person, or an Arab, for that matter, he'd be fired at once and lambasted in a hundred newspaper editorials.

So why did Gardner shout as he did? Islam divides things into pak (pure) and najis (unclean). Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has a helpful Web site listing "ten things are essentially najis." [Sunnis and Shi'ites differ between them and among themselves on details, but on most of this there is general agreement.] They include blood, shit, piss, dead bodies, pigs, dogs -- and infidels (kafir). Even the tears of an infidel, if he eats pork, are unclean.

Islamic theologians debate who exactly is a kafir, and especially whether the term applies to Christians and Jews. Sistani has a fairly humane interpretation of Islam. He believes Christians and Jews may be pak, not najis. Then again, they may not be. Because of the uncertainty, he advises, "it is better to avoid them." According to

An infidel i.e. a person who does not believe in Allah and His Oneness, is najis. ... As regards the people of the Book (i.e. the Jews and the Christians) who do not accept the Prophethood of Prophet Muhammad bin Abdullah (Peace be upon him and his progeny), they are commonly considered najis, but it is not improbable that they are Pak. However, it is better to avoid them.

The entire body of a Kafir, including his hair and nails, and all liquid substances of his body, are najis.

If the parents, paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather of a minor child are all kafir, that child is najis, except when he is intelligent enough, and professes Islam. When, even one person from his parents or grandparents is a Muslim, the child is Pak.

If a Pak thing touches a najis thing and if either or both of them are so wet that the wetness of one reaches the other, the Pak thing will become najis.

As a polytheist, I'm clearly najis. Could I be treated in a hospital if I fell sick in a land where this division of pure and impure was believed? Could I be permitted to use a public toilet? As I read Sistani's interpretation, if I shake hands with a Muslim, who is sweating, he becomes najis by his contact with me. And if he dries his hand on a towel, that towel, too, becomes najis. But if another Muslim with wet hands uses the towel, the najis is not communicated to him.

The parsing and re-parsing of the law becomes as fascinating as a puzzle, but by this time I feel clearly in my heart I cannot join a religion that rules on the impurity of tears. Or that could let a man die in the street for fear of the faith in his blood.


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© June 27, 2004 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"