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Navigating The Nouman Ali Khan Scandal

Muslim Matters - 25 September, 2017 - 00:36

American Professor Randy Pausch famously said, “When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it.” So let’s talk about Nouman Ali Khan.

If you don’t know who he is, don’t worry. Two million followers on Facebook do, as do hundreds of thousands of students who benefitted from Bayyinah Institute, one of the most well-respected Arabic Studies institutions in the United States. Nouman Ali Khan is its founder and CEO.

This September 21st,  he was outed on Facebook by Omer Mozaffar, Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University of Chicago and Adjunct Professor of Theology. In a post that elicited over 2500 comments in less than 24 hours since its posting, Omer wrote:

“I have been working on a case regarding my friend of twenty years, Nouman Ali Khan. He confessed inappropriate interactions with various women, violating agreed-upon bounds of Islamic law. He also told lies to cover up those relationships, and filed threats of litigation against multiple parties to further hide his misconduct. I am calling on him to focus on repentance and reform. He is jeopardizing his soul and reputation; he is tampering with the Iman of so many of the students of his courses and lectures….

In a meeting with the above scholars and myself, Nouman agreed to stop public speeches until further notice, to get professional and religious counseling, and to cease all contact with those women. I had the responsibility to determine when he would be ready to speak again. I gave him an exception, allowing him to post previously recorded lectures, so long as they were not about marriage or gender matters…

This brings us to where we are today. Nouman has now broken his agreement with us and has been sending threats against each of us through his attorney.” full post here

Within 24 hours of Omer’s posting, Nouman Ali Khan posted a response as well. In it, he asserts his innocence and claims that enemies to himself and his family are conspiring to destroy him, and sums the situation up as follows:

“I have been divorced for nearly two years. The circumstances of my divorce are one of the most difficult and painful experiences of my life. Many rumors surrounded that event and I chose to remain silent to protect my children more than anyone else. After the passage of some time I did in fact pursue remarriage with the help of my family. Along that process I communicated with a few prospects with my family’s knowledge and consent and that has been used, distorted and manipulated way out of proportion and turned into something it isn’t. All such communications took place between consenting adults and there was nothing malicious or predatory about them. I fail to see how such interaction can render anyone a victim. These communications took place for a dignified purpose. Yet these are the communications that are being alleged as predatory.” full post here

In a relatively short time, the Muslim world online has been split into two camps, one that believes the accusations and one that doesn’t.  Both parties are shocked, but one is an obvious majority.

The overwhelming majority of responses on Facebook – and remember, this is a story unfolding on Facebook itself – are incredulous, unconvinced, and offended on Nouman Ali Khan’s behalf. Commenters on Omer Mozaffar’s original post curse him, call him an apostate, and have gone so far as to suggest the accusations against Nouman are part of a Zionist conspiracy.

Angry commenters to Omer’s post also suggest that he is either a fake profile, a fake person, or a fake in general – taking a stab at Nouman Ali Khan’s reputation in a misguided show of Muslim jealousy.  This isn’t the first time that Omer Muzaffar has made news in the Muslim community. Muzaffar was called to act as a mediator in February of 2015 when a prominent Chicago Imam -Mohammad Abdullah Saleem – was accused of sexual assault of a student as well as an employee at the Institute of Islamic Education. Saleem was its founder. He plead guilty on both charges.

Other shuyukh have spoken up in defense of Omer Muzaffar as well.

“A lot of you will be hearing about the Nouman Ali Khan case and will be in utter disbelief. It is very important to put things into perspective:

The accusations against him have been verified by multiple people, and some of them have even been confessed by him…” full post here

This is excerpted from a post by Navaid Aziz, Director of Religious Education and Social Services at the Islamic Information Society of Calgary. While Nouman Ali Khan distanced himself from Omer in his rebuttal post, Navaid Aziz is someone Nouman Ali Khan knows and loves, if Nouman Ali Khan’s own words are anything to go by:

I love sheikh Navaid Aziz. People like him are an inspiration. Make dua for him and his family!

— nouman (@noumanbayyinah) May 2, 2014

To make matters grossly messier, screenshots of contact between Nouman Ali Khan and various women have been released (not by the collective of Muslim community keaders mediating this situation, ie. Omer Mozaffer), which include private conversations, shirtless selfies, and money transfer receipts.

On one hand, Nouman Ali Khan is a respected teacher whose founding and teaching at Bayyinah have been an undeniable benefit for the Muslim community world-wide. On the other hand, those accusing him are also respected and trusted in the Muslim community. If there’s a third hand- given the painful complexity of the situation, what is the common Muslim supposed to do?

In a word: Nothing.

If you believe he is innocent…

If you believe Nouman Ali Khan is innocent; that the screenshots “proving” his guilt are fake, that his shirtless selfie is photoshopped, and the entire affair is a conspiracy meant to divide the ummah and undermine Muslim scholarship; then make dua for him and carry on benefitting from the good that Bayyinah provides in your life.

That is all.

Do not call people names. Do not slander other Muslim preachers for slandering your favorite Muslim preacher, because in doing so, you are committing the same sin that you’re calling out. Do not invoke the wrath of Allah or curse those who you believe to be falsely accusing Nouman Ali Khan.

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

Verily, when a servant curses something, the curse rises to the heaven and the gates of heaven close upon it. It turns right and left and if it does not find somewhere to go, it will return to that which was cursed only if it deserved to be curse, otherwise the curse will return to the one who made it.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4905, Grade: Hasan

You may feel very strongly that Nouman Ali Khan is being falsely accused, but only Allah knows if any person is truly deserving of His curse. In cursing Omer Muzaffar and those who agree with him, you are taking a serious risk. Remember- if the person you are cursing is not truly deserving of it – it will return to you instead. Be patient and fear Allah. Trust that in the end, as Allah says in Surah Isra ayah 81, that falsehood is bound to perish – whether you leave angry comments or not.

 

Seek refuge in Allah from Shaytaan and do not act – or update your status – in anger. Do not assume you have the right to any sort of righteous indignation on Nouman Ali Khan’s behalf. You are not his ex wife or his children. You are not his colleagues at Bayyinah. You are not his friends or his family members.

In all statistical likelihood, you are at best an outsider to the affair, and your fury against those who disagree with you has zero effect on justice in Nouman Ali Khan’s situation. You are neither the defense nor the prosecution. You have zero first-hand knowledge of the situation at all.

If you choose to decide that he is innocent because you love him and no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise, then take a step back and examine the religious devotion you are feeling. Remember that no one except Allah is perfect.

Do not be shocked at the suggestion that a religious personality could be accused of irreligious behavior. That sort of incredulity and disbelief is what shames real victims and discourages them from seeking justice. After all, Shaytaan goes out of his way to take down the righteous. The closer you get to Allah, the more likely Shaytaan will try to drag you down.

Do not conflate an “attack” on Nouman Ali Khan with an attack on Islam itself. Islam is with Allah, and Islam is not the sole domain of any one Muslim. Islam is not hurt by the sins of a scholar any more than it is hurt by the sins of an apostate. Don’t be offended on Islam’s behalf.

Do not conflate your “relationship” with Nouman Ali Khan to your relationship to Allah. Many commenters on the issue have said things like, “I could never believe this about Nouman, he guided me to Islam!” Nouman could not guide you to Islam any more than the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself could guide his beloved uncle Abu Talib, who died a polytheist. Guidance is with Allah, not with any Da’ee or teacher.

If you wish to draw parallels to the Ifk- the incident when hypocrites in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) community made up adulterous rumors about his wife Aisha RA, then remember this: we have his example of silent patience. Those with adab and knowledge stayed silent on the matter, and Allah caused the truth to be revealed.

Do not curse, not even those you believe to be wronging Nouman Ali Khan. Not even the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) would do that to the people wronging him.  The Messenger of Allah was asked, “Messenger of Allah, invoke a curse for us against the idolators.” He ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) replied, “I was not sent as a curser. I was sent as a mercy.” [Sahih Al-Albani, Al Adab Al Mufrad 321]

Pray instead for their guidance and for the emergence of truth. Remember that because you have no first-hand knowledge of what has happened, you have no right to comment on his innocence. Or, for that matter, his guilt.

If you do believe he is guilty though…

If you do believe he is guilty of what he has been accused of, then take a moment to ask yourself this: do my own sins infuriate me as much as Nouman Ali Khan’s do? If you committed zina, or cheated on your spouse, or had an inappropriate conversation with someone in privacy, did you benefit in any way from a public skewering? Or did Allah hide your sins and allow you to repent from them?

If you are convinced of his guilt and find yourself seeking out more details, answer this: are you responsible for his justice? Do you need to read every message and study every picture? Do you have any reason at all that you could give standing before Allah, to justify trawling through the public details of another Muslim’s private sins to satisfy your morbid curiosity or moral outrage?

You don’t.

You and the millions of Muslims – literally, millions – following this story are equally irrelevant regardless of whether you presume his guilt or not. While this story has entered the public sphere, at its heart this is still a private matter. There are faces and broken hearts behind the names. There are families who will have to pick up pieces and rebuild their lives long after your curiosity has been satiated. The purpose of Nouman’s misdeeds being announced publicly – if you believe he is guilty – is to protect and prevent victims. Not to create hatred or entertainment within the Muslim community. That it is currently doing both is a poor indicator of our restraint as a community.

If you believe Nouman Ali Khan is guilty, and you cannot stand the sight of him, then don’t watch his lectures. Do not, however, stop or discourage others from doing so. Allah commanded us to encourage good and forbid evil, and while you may not want to use Bayyinah books or watch Bayyinah lectures that is your choice.

The grammar books and educational lectures provided by other teachers at Bayyinah have nothing to do with Nouman Ali Khan’s sins, and to discourage other people from seeking knowledge is of no benefit to the victims.

The people who work at Bayyinah are not complicit in his sins simply because they are his employees. The students at Bayyinah are not complicit in his sins because they are his students. The only parties complicit in Nouman Ali Khan’s sins are those directly complicit in Nouman Ali Khan’s sins.

You could argue that Bayyinah is Nouman Ali Khan’s company, and you disapprove of his actions and don’t want to support the business of a sinful teacher. Considering that all teachers and scholars too are human, and that all humans are sinful, you would be dead before you found that perfect person to learn from. Nouman Ali Khan’s sins do not have any bearing on whether the contents of his previous lectures were correct or beneficial to you or not. If you found them inspiring before, one would hope it was due to your faith in Allah and independent of any faith in Nouman Ali Khan.

Do not lose faith in Islam. Islam is the religion of Allah, sent down by angels, transmitted by messengers and then bumbled-through by Muslims who sin night and day. Allah tells us so, literally-

 O My servants, you sin by night and by day, and I forgive all sins, so seek forgiveness of Me and I shall forgive you. full source here

Every scholar, every teacher, every person you have ever respected has sinned, is sinning, and will sin until they die. What makes a person “good” isn’t lack of sin, it is the presence of repentance. 

Still though, if you believe Nouman Ali Khan is guilty, you could choose not to watch his lectures anymore.  Or you could watch them anyway knowing full well that every daee (caller) is a sinner, every last one of them, because it is equally as ridiculous to see all scholars as perfect as it is to see all scholars as angels.

A balanced view is that all scholars are all fallible. It is fitting and bittersweet then, to recognize that perhaps the only real difference between preachers you love and preachers you hate is whether their sins are private or not.

But do not use Nouman Ali Khan as an excuse to disparage all preachers. Or to disparage all male scholars. Or to disparage all men. You are as personally culpable for Nouman Ali Khan’s sins as they are- which is none at all.

No one is responsible for Nouman Ali Khan’s actions except Nouman Ali Khan. Allah will not question you – the uninvolved – about anyone’s deeds except your own. Nouman Ali Khan – like all humans – will stand accountable on the Day of Judgment for those that he has wronged.  Imagine the irony if you stood accountable on the Day of Judgment for wronging Nouman Ali Khan instead.

Whoever does an atom’s weight of good in this life will see it, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it. Consider the weight of an atom, and consider whether or not you want to stand accountable before Allah for insulting Nouman Ali Khan or those who stand by him – even if you believe him to be guilty.

Do not insult Nouman Ali Khan. You have no right to insult anyone, regardless of their righteousness. You do not know whether he will repent to Allah. You do not know whether Allah will accept it. Imagine if Nouman Ali Khan had repented – imagine if the beauty, depth, and magnitude of his repentance so outweighed his sins that he became those beloved to Allah. Imagine if Allah forgave Nouman Ali Khan for his mountain of sins and wrote a mountain of blessings instead and yet you were still trashing him.

You have no way of knowing if and when Allah forgives Nouman Ali Khan, and while that is an important reminder, it’s actually irrelevant to whether you are allowed to talk badly about him or not. You can argue that what your saying is true – if you believe he is guilty- but the definition of slander is to speak lies about your brother. The definition of backbiting includes any thing that your brother would not like you saying about him, even if it’s true.

Don’t say that Nouman Ali Khan is not your brother.

As long as he is a Muslim, he is your brother. Even if he is guilty, he is your brother. Those directly connected to him are responsible for giving him naseeha, and the very definition of naseeha is that your recommendations are for the betterment of the one you are advising. You are not his judge, jury, or executioner. You may be shocked, offended, or upset at his sins, but unless he has directly transgressed against you, you have no right to call for his humiliation or destruction.

No matter what you believe….

If the communal conversation about Nouman Ali Khan focuses no further than guilt or innocence, then we’re wasting our time. Justice must be served, but we the uninvolved social media spectators, are not in the place to serve it. It is the role of the mediators, the community leaders, and those in positions of authority and actual evidence to do so.

So what should we be doing instead?

Seeing as how ignoring problems is zero percent effective in making them go away, now is the time to have important discussions about many, many things.

What are we doing to prevent emotional and sexual abuse in our communities?

How can we help protect our prominent Imams from situations that could lead to sins like these?

How does our community respond to the victims of cases like these, what support structures do we have in place?

How should the Muslim community hold its leadership accountable for abuses of position or power?

What, if anything, can we learn from this experience as a community?

And most importantly of all – how can we rebuild from this experience in a way that leaves us better prepared and less likely to freak out on a global level. In the things that sadden, shock, or throw the ummah for a loop, any situation that brings us closer to Allah through our response is good, and any situation that takes us farther from Allah – even when it makes us happy- is a failure.

May Allah have mercy on all of us, I seek refuge in Allah from Shaytan and from trolls, who are normal Muslim people that shaytaan tricks into letter their anger lead them. May Allah protect us all, and strengthen us as a community and unite us in our desire to please Allah and work for justice no matter the cost or consequence.

Stabbing of surgeon at Manchester mosque treated as hate crime

The Guardian World news: Islam - 24 September, 2017 - 22:53

Dr Nasser Kurdy suffers stab wound in neck while arriving for evening prayers at Altrincham mosque

A man has been stabbed outside a mosque in Greater Manchester in an incident that police are treating as a hate crime.

The victim, named locally as Dr Nasser Kurdy, an orthopaedic surgeon and imam, was reportedly arriving at the Altrincham Islamic centre, Grove Lane, for evening prayers at 6pm when someone stabbed him in the neck from behind.

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May’s speech rewrote history

Indigo Jo Blogs - 24 September, 2017 - 21:54

A front page from the Daily Mail, with the headline "Europe's war on British justice"So, last Friday Theresa May, the British prime minister, gave a speech in Florence (full text here) in which she told us what sort of Brexit she hoped she could achieve, notably rejecting both the “Norway model” in which the UK would be a full member of the Single Market without a seat at the table when EU policies are made, and the “Canadian model”, the latter being a straightforward free trade agreement. One section of her speech that has caused a lot of upset was this:

The strength of feeling that the British people have about this need for control and the direct accountability of their politicians is one reason why, throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union. And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.

Whether we “ever really felt at home” in Europe is a subjective matter; certainly, enough Britons bought homes in Europe, including holiday and retirement homes in Spain and Portugal and chateaux in France. It’s known that some of our politicians who have made a political and media career out of banging the drum for Brexit have homes and family in other EU countries. The fact is, however, that Britian granted Parliamentary majorities to pro-EEC and pro-EU parties in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005 (in 2010, the Tories were still only the biggest single party; Labour and the Lib Dems were still officially pro-EU). Labour’s worst electoral performance was in 1983 when it supported withdrawal from the EEC and the leading pro-Europe elements had broken away to form the SDP; the Tories’ worst performance was in 1997 when it was divided over Europe and anti-EU and anti-Maastricht elements were in the ascendant.

A front page from the Daily Mail, with a picture of the Muslim preacher Abu Qatada and the headline "Why *can't* we kick this man out of Britain?"One could trace the ascending popularity of the pro-Brexit position to the accession of the former Eastern Bloc in 2004 and Blair’s policy of allowing workers from those countries in without restriction, although he still won the election the following year, or to the failure to hold a referendum on Maastricht, although Blair won a landslide on a pro-Maastricht platform in 1997. What hasn’t changed is that the press has run a drumbeat campaign against both the European Union and its institutions and the European Convention on Human Rights going back to the Thatcher era where manifestly untrue stories about how “you can’t sell curved bananas” appeared in the press on a regular basis (alongside similar stories about “loony left” Labour councils), but picked up pace during the Blair and Cameron periods where the pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners were blamed for the Tories not being able to do everything they wanted and Europe was blamed for, among other things, the government not being able to deport criminals or suspected terrorists. The British polity and press were not used to the idea of individuals having legally-enforceable rights (even in weaker form than, say, the US Bill of Rights) and the state not being able to stick the boot into people at their behest.

As I have said before, a large part of the discontent at the EU that was not racist or hostile to human rights stemmed from how Britain interfaces with Europe; we have a history of accepting European integration in such a way as to benefit business and leaving what makes life easier for ordinary people. Much of the EU’s laws and policies were agreed to by British politicians or MEPs (some of it could not have been voted through without everyone’s consent, not just that of a simple majority, unlike in the British parliament). Very many of the policies which coincided with us being members of the EEC were in fact purely British and not forced upon us by the EU at all.

A front page from The Sun, with the headline "Who do you think EU are kidding, Mr Cameron?" with an image referencing Dad's Army behind it.Theresa May’s claim was a rewriting of history. The EU has not always been unpopular: pulling out of the EU has been either a vote-loser or off the table for most of the time we have been a member. The movement to drag Britain out is of very recent gestation.

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Who’s celebrating Uber’s eviction from London?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 24 September, 2017 - 12:22

A hand holding a Samsung phone with an Uber logo on display, in front of a Ford steering wheelEarlier this week the minicab firm Uber, which allows people to hire cabs using an app which calculates the fare to their destination, lost its licence to operate in London and will have to cease operations here as of the end of the month unless it appeals (which it probably will) in which case it could continue to operate into next month. This will mean getting a cab ride in London will become either more complicated or more expensive, as minicabs have to be booked in advance and cannot be flagged down in the street, while taxis or black cabs, which can be, are expensive to ride even short distances. The cancellation of its licence by Transport for London, the transport authority overseen by the mayor, was because it was not “fit and proper” to hold a private hire licence on public safety grounds; the decision has been criticised by a lot of women who said it was the only way they could rely on getting home at night, as well as by black and Asian people who said that problems with minicabs and black cabs, whose drivers often refused to stop for them, made Uber the only way they could get a cab at all.

The BBC’s article has a graph showing how the numbers of minicab and taxi licences changed from 2005 to this year: there were fewer than twice as many minicab licences as taxi licences in 2005 and the number of minicab licences fell slightly before 2007 but began rising sharply after that and has risen considerably since 2013 (Uber started operating in 2013), while the numbers of taxi licences rose only slightly until 2013 and has fallen by 15.4% (25,200 to 21,300) since 2015, this being in large part because they cannot get enough business anymore because of competition from Uber. There are a lot of people who will shed no tears about this, because they have come across a lot of “old white cabbies” who are opinionated and racist and there have even been incidents of white “black cab” drivers racially abusing Muslim Uber drivers, but in fact not all black cabbies are white (although more than two-thirds of them are, compared to just 18.3% of private hire drivers), and those of other ethnicities and creeds are feeling the pinch as well, many giving up because driving a cab no longer pays the bills despite the investment they made in gaining their licence and hiring the vehicle (which must be one of about three specific large cars).

If TfL are going to simply ban Uber or they withdraw out of unwillingness to comply with public safety or minimum wage laws, someone had better come up with a replacement pretty quickly, because the cab trade in total provides only a fifth of the number of vehicles the minicab trade does and the cost of a ride, even to the nearest main railway station, let alone home, is well outside of most people’s price range (there are apps available to hire taxis, but an app does not put vehicles on the road). TfL regularly runs campaigns against unlicensed minicabs (albeit heavily focussed on women and rape, rather than concerns about unroadworthiness and rip-offs), yet before Uber came along the available options were just inadequate — there aren’t enough parking spaces even for ride sharing, the pre-booked minicabs were all booked, the Night Bus was packed and/or didn’t go where you needed (and it was dark), most National Rail lines didn’t have night trains, and as has been widely complained of by Black, Asian and disabled people travelling in London (as Sunny Singh noted on Twitter), the black cabs often drove on by. Yet saturation Uber coverage is not sustainable either; they rely on contract drivers who, as an ongoing legal case demonstrates, are not guaranteed a minimum wage and many of the drivers remain on benefits. If the company insists on relying on that business model, they cannot be allowed to operate.

Yet the London taxi/minicab model is out of date; it is made for the age of the paper map and the phone box. It’s 2017 and it’s the age of the app-enabled smartphone and the sat-nav; phone boxes have been disappearing everywhere. Of course, it’s right that a cab driver should have to have knowledge of the city or region he’s operating in, but that doesn’t justify an onerous test which was designed to maintain a cartel and keep “upstarts” and outsiders out (hence the white domination) rather than maintain a good service. And some of the privileges of the black cab are unjustifiable; they should not be the only cabs allowed to drop passengers (as opposed to pick them up) on Red Routes, if this is where they live, and they should not be allowed to delay traffic at a green light to pick up a fare. The taxi system in London needs a huge overhaul.

Yet there has been a petition to “save Uber” from people only concerned about its benefits to customers and not about its poor safety record, its underpaying of drivers and the way it makes it impossible for cab driving to be a living-wage occupation for everyone. According to Clive Peedell of the National Health Action Party, this petition has received more than 500,000 signatures in under 24 hours, while a “save the NHS” petition took weeks to get that far. That’s unacceptable. I won’t be signing, because the same rules have to apply to Uber as to everyone else and if they won’t follow them because it’s not profitable for them, someone else will replace them fairly quickly now that the tech world knows the demand is there. There’s still enough technological know-how (and money) in London, although if Uber is going to be shut down on a “cold turkey” basis this month or next, the pain is going to be huge. I suggest giving them six months and then pulling the plug, if they have not cleaned up their act by then, by which time a home-grown replacement could have started up.

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Anti-Zionism versus Anti-Semitism

Indigo Jo Blogs - 22 September, 2017 - 23:28

A boy riding a suspension mountain bike with a bright blue frame in front of the Israeli concrete wall which is about three times his height. A graffito "Peace 4 Palestine" appears to his left.I’m a Muslim and an anti-Zionist. The latter means I support the right of the Palestinian Arabs to their country: all of it. Right now, part of it is a settler state that allows some remnant of the former Palestinian population to remain as citizens, part of it is occupied by that same settler state, and parts of it are under a form of limited self-rule, mostly without access to their external borders and subject to incursions, curfews and other impediments to normal daily life at the will of the Israeli army. These facts are the reason there is a well-established movement to boycott the state which oppresses the native people of Palestine and the settler state of Israel, and to bring an end to the oppression as has been done with similar régimes, ‘democracies’ which exclude a large proportion from any say in their own lives or how the country they lived in was run, in southern Africa. The settler state, however, has powerful friends in the West which denounces this movement as inherently racist and accuse it of desiring to see genocide against the Jews, effectively another Holocaust. Both these accusations are groundless.

There’s a difference between saying that anti-Zionism is often a cover for anti-Semitism, or that a lot of anti-Semites claim to be “merely anti-Zionist” but then use the term ‘Zionist’ to mean Jew, or to articulate conspiracy theories about Jews controlling western governments, banks, the media and so on, and saying that to oppose a state of Israel in Palestine is itself anti-Semitic. The first is undoubtedly true. The second is not, because one might oppose there being a state of Israel not out of hatred for the Jews as such but because our sympathies are with the native Palestinian population. There are many populations in the world which do not have a state, including many in Europe; there are others who cannot live in their homelands but aren’t being given a chunk of someone else’s country, at the native people’s expense. We have seen thousands of refugees of Syria flood into Europe and some countries welcome them, but nobody is suggesting that part of Germany or Sweden be forever Syria.

A few weeks ago I saw a Twitter discussion between a Jewish disability activist acquaintance and one of the oiliest and most unreasonable radical feminists I know of (she blocked me a few weeks ago after I quoted her effectively blaming Vladimir Putin for Brexit, which was in fact stoked by lying British polticians and journalists with little or no help from him, even though he has much to answer for). One of the two alleged that “if Israel was held to a higher standard than comparable Countries, it was anti-Semitism” and that “it’s not acceptable to argue to dissolve a sovereign State, on the basis of its security policy” and a third person said that she had opposed the rule of Silvio Berlusconi (“what’s his name the big perv”) in Italy, but was never “anti-Italy”, just against that government. The obvious difference is that Berlusconi was elected by a majority of Italians, was re-elected several times and then left office when he lost elections, on two separate occasions. He was not an oppressor; he was in some ways corrupt. Italy is also not a settler state, and neither for that matter is it a state based on colonial boundaries rather than on where a people lives. Italy is the land of the Italians; they have lived there for centuries if not millennia. “Israel” was inhabited by Arabs and some Armenians until a programme of Jewish settlement started in the late 19th century and gathered pace in the mid-20th. The mere possibility of settling Jews from Europe there was not even on the table until the British took over after the First World War.

To refer to a system of thorough-going oppression as a “security policy” is to side with the oppressor against the oppressed. In any case, Palestinians do not enjoy security; they are subject to being locked up at will or on spurious charges by the state or army or killed with impunity by Jewish settlers. In western social justice circles we often hear the term “oppression” used with a sort of ideological definition, to refer to mere annoyance or disadvantage or any reminder that one’s tribe or group is not the most powerful in existence. This, I suspect, is why people look for stronger words, like “genocide” (which right now is not happening there) to refer to what is happening in Palestine. Palestinians are not the Oppressed, like white middle-class women sometimes reminded that they are “not the default human”. They are oppressed, and this is not a case of a small ruling class or the military oppressing the great mass of the population, but of one nation oppressing another.

Opponents of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and anti-Zionism contend that if Israel falls, the result will be another genocide, which is what it was set up to make sure never happened again. However, two other states ruled by European settlers which oppressed the non-European native population, namely South Africa and Rhodesia, have been forced to admit their former subjects as equal citizens in recent history, and neither immediately resulted in a massacre, much less a genocide. Whites in South Africa, although no longer the exclusive ruling class, retain their wealth; Blacks, although their party has governed the country for more than 20 years, often still live in poverty. Even if we imagine that such an outcome is inevitable given the oppression the Palestinians have suffered — that enough would want revenge to make a massacre inevitable — we should remember that there was oppression and exploitation in South Africa under Apartheid too: people expelled from their homes and lands, people forced into barren “homelands” and township ghettoes, people preventing from marrying whom they wanted, people killed unjustly (judicially or otherwise), people subjected to ‘banning’ regimes or locked up for political reasons, people tortured. The majority of perpetrators who confessed to their crimes were pardoned and there has yet to be a massacre, and if Black South Africans are capable of an orderly progression from oppressed subjects to equal citizens then so are Palestinians, unless you believe they are a bunch of uncivilised savages, which is one fairly good definition of racism.

Zionists oppose the idea of a one-state solution in which both Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights as it would end the state of Israel as a “Jewish democratic state”. Yet while it maintains an occupation of the Palestinian territories, it is not a democratic state. An occupation can be accepted as a temporary measure, but it has been 50 years since Israel seized the West Bank, Golan and Gaza from the surrounding countries and all of them except Syria have made peace. The reasons for why Palestine is occupied become more and more irrelevant as the occupation becomes older and older. It is as clear as it can be that Israel intends to maintain the status quo and there will be no “two-state solution”; there will certainly not be as long as Benjamin Netanyahu and his gang remain in charge, so ‘liberals’ in western countries who persist in considering Israel to be a progressive project should wise up: it’s a tyranny whose ruling class intends it to remain a tyranny.

Of course, the Jews were the target of a genocide in the mid-20th century. Everyone knows that. But the régime that perpetrated that is gone, and in fact was overthrown before they could finish it. Having been oppressed once does not give Jews the right to be oppressors now, especially to a people who were not responsible for their previous suffering, yet this is exactly what their deluded liberal and ‘sensible left’ friends demand, and their response to the question of Palestinian suffering is to blame the Palestinians for resisting. They call this “victim blaming” when women in their own countries are blamed for violence against them, but when it’s children being locked up for throwing stones at soldiers on a regular basis, it’s a “security policy”. In my observation, BDSers strenuously avoid association with anti-Semites and watch their language to avoid letting anything in which implicates Jews generally rather than Zionists, the Israeli army or whoever is to blame for the oppression of the Palestinians, but having that slur thrown at you is an occupational hazard.

But it’s not racist to want to see the back of a state which has perpetrated a tyranny lasting 50 years. It’s racist to think that one nation should have to tolerate it when others should not, or to blame them for it when you would not blame any other, or to extend to one nation (your own, or one you sympathise with more than another) the right to be an oppressor when you would not condone it of any other. And you cannot accuse anyone of “holding Israel to a different standard” when you will defend them knowing it is an oppressor with no intention of giving up that status. Are these people simply blind to their own racism (they would not be the only ones), or do they just believe that some people deserve it and others don’t?

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‘She feared no one': the life and death of Qandeel Baloch

The Guardian World news: Islam - 22 September, 2017 - 12:00

She was known as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, a social media star who courted controversy. One year on, why has no one stood trial for her killing?

In April 2016, Qandeel Baloch was invited to appear on the comedy news show Ajeeb Saa. The format was a live debate with Abdul Qavi, a 50-year-old mullah frequently on television. Qavi joined via video link from Multan, the city in southern Punjab where he runs a religious school. Baloch, a 26-year-old social media celebrity dubbed “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian”, sat in a studio in Karachi.

It was a match made for controversy. The mullah was known for his Islamic erudition; Baloch for her revealing outfits, Instagram poses and pouting Facebook videos. Over the past two years, she had in turn amused and scandalised Pakistani society. She had also inspired thousands of young people, particularly women, who admired this “simple girl’s” transformation into one of the country’s biggest celebrities.

She was a very simple girl, but she had big dreams. She was thirsty for fame

Her posts were a subversion of her country’s cultural norms. She twerked, filmed herself in the bath, danced in a bikini

For popularity, you need to take off clothes. To become popular and famous, you need to act strange

She came to embody the lingering chasm between our social media and our social reality

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Qandeel Baloch: the life, death and impact of Pakistan’s working class icon

The Guardian World news: Islam - 22 September, 2017 - 12:00

The life, death and impact of Pakistan’s working-class icon Qandeel Baloch, killed in 2016 after becoming a social media celebrity. This film tells Qandeel’s story through her own videos and media appearances. A young, fearless woman who collided with Pakistan’s mainstream media, Qandeel exposed the religious right and challenged middle-class morality. From her life before stardom in a rural village to her early days in entertainment as a model and actor, Qandeel gained attention by making provocative web videos. We get to know Qandeel through her family, admirers and those she interacted with and inspired. The film also analyses her life through the lens of class and power politics and connects it to women’s continuing struggle for self-expression in Pakistan

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Two in five European Muslims have felt discriminated against – survey

The Guardian World news: Islam - 21 September, 2017 - 16:20

Study for EU’s fundamental rights agency finds 30% say they have been insulted and 2% physically assaulted in past 12 months

Discrimination against Europe’s Muslims is increasing, with two in five (40%) saying they have faced unfair treatment when job- or house-hunting or accessing public services such as education or healthcare, according to the first report of its kind in a decade.

Nearly 30% of respondents in a survey said they had been insulted or called names and 2% had been physically assaulted in the previous 12 months.

Related: Islamophobia holding back UK Muslims in workplace, study finds

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Zaid Karim, Private Investigator, Part 16 – Finding Anna

Muslim Matters - 20 September, 2017 - 05:13

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

Zaid Karim Private Investigator is a full length novel. Previous chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15

The front door of the house – a huge wooden door that must have weighed a half a ton – swung open. A woman emerged, shouting and waving a half-full bottle of liquor. She was beautiful, petite and slender, and wore a white designer pantsuit, black heels and a white fur stole. Apparently no one told her that fur is now politically incorrect.

I lowered my arm slowly, awaiting developments.

A man emerged from the house. He wore slippers, underwear and a fur bathrobe that was open in front to expose his hairy chest and legs. A large automatic pistol was tucked into his underwear. That seemed like a stupid idea. He was short but wiry, with hair dyed the color of a beet salad. He spoke to the woman in a pleading tone, his hands out in supplication. He turned slightly, and I saw his profile. His right ear was missing. He was El Demonio.

The woman threw the bottle at him and – as he barely dodged it – screamed a long string of curses, some of which I understood. Among them was one word that struck my ears like the ringing of a gong: pedófilo. Pedophile.

My heart sank. I’d half hoped that El Pelado had been wrong, and that El Demonio’s interest in Anna lay in some other direction. But it seemed the pimp had told the truth, and that El Demonio’s wife or girlfriend or whatever she was knew it too.

The woman in the fur stole stormed over to the Rolls Royce and started it up. El Demonio shouted something but the woman roared straight for the gate, not slowing down at all. El Demonio hollered to the guards to open the gate. It began to slide open.

Too late. With a tremendous clanging, crashing noise, the woman barrelled headlong into the gate, which tore free from its hinges and flew into the air, coming down halfway to the treeline. The fence itself was partially pulled down, with at least once fence post torn from the ground. Sparks flew, illuminating the night sky like fireworks, and the hum of electricity through the fence abruptly cut off.

The woman didn’t even slow down. She sped off down the road at a high rate of speed. The Rolls was barely dented, though one headlight was smashed.

El Demonio walked in a circle, raging and waving his arms. The guards exited the guardhouse to inspect the damaged fence and gate. The patrol vehicle pulled up, while two other guards came running out of the house.

One of the guards laughed upon seeing the destroyed gate. El Demonio rounded on the man, drew the pistol from his underpants and shot the man point blank in the forehead. The guard crashed to the ground, and the cartel boss fired twice more into the man’s body.

He turned to the other men and yelled. Two of them hurried to the ATVs and sped down the road after the woman. The remaining guards conferred with El Demonio.

This was my chance. The fence near where I lay was partly torn from the ground. A gap of about a foot and a half at the bottom allowed enough room for me to crawl through. I began to move. The conferred with El Demonio. I resumed my motion.

As I crawled beneath the fence, my belt caught on a ragged bit of metal that projected from the torn fence. I reached back slowly and tried to free it. I was not more than ten meters from where El Demonio stood with his man. My legs were hidden by the guardhouse, but my upper body was in plain sight. All they had to do was look up and they would see me.

I jerked at the belt, trying to free it. El Demonio gestured wildly toward the west, and he and his man turned in my direction. I flattened myself against the ground, pressing one ear to the warm earth, trying to look like a clump of weeds or a stone, or anything except what I was. Only then did I realize that my face was about two inches from a line of leaf-cutter ants. They marched past, each ant carrying a bit of leaf many times larger than itself. I’d heard they could denude an entire mango tree in a few days. I wondered what they’d do to my face if I got in their way.

A brilliant yellow light burst across the island sky, followed an instant later by a tremendous booming sound that rolled across the forest from somewhere down west. Birds rose up by the thousands, while monkeys screeched in alarm. I moved my head the tiniest bit and peered behind me. A massive fire was burning far down at the western tip of the island, where the marina was located. Bits of flaming wrecking soared high in the air, arcing out over the forest and ocean, as if a flock of phoenixes had just taken flight. The yacht, I realized. The yacht had exploded.

El Demonio went apoplectic. His face turned bright red and he began shrieking at the guards around him. He struck one and shoved another. I caught the words, esa loca mujer – “that crazy woman.” El Demonio seemed to think the woman was responsible for blowing up the boat.

I was pretty sure it was not the woman. I was pretty sure it was Niko. I resisted the urge to laugh. That crazy maniac! I’d told him to disable the boats, not blow them to kingdom come.

One of the guards said something – it sounded like a question – and to my shock, El Demonio pulled the pistol from his pants and shot the man in the chest. The man fell and began crying in pain. The cartel boss disappeared into the house, then emerged with a set of keys. He started up the Lamborghini, which was bright red, and shot down the road toward the marina, brakes squealing as he rounded the bends. The guard in the patrol car followed. The two others still standing in the driveway conferred intensely, then lifted their wounded comrade – ignoring the dead one – and carried him to the last vehicle parked in the driveway, a smaller pickup truck that was coated in mud. They loaded the wounded man into the bed, drove right past me through the gate, and headed down the road. I had no idea where they were going.

I studied the house. There was literally not a single guard in sight. SubhanAllah! I reached back and pulled my belt loose from the snag. I crawled quickly through the hole, avoiding the ants, then rose lightly to my feet and ran toward the house, drawing my scuba knife. I slipped through the front door and dashed into the huge house.

In spite of the late hour, the house was brightly lit and smelled of baking bread. The interior was predictably huge, with a lobby big enough to hold three average houses. The lobby ceiling soared to the full height of the house. A circular staircase ran against the wall and rose all the way to the third floor, while second and third floor verandas circled the lobby, just as on the outside. Rooms and corridors ran off in four directions. Samba music played softly from somewhere upstairs.

The decor was an epic clash of hunting lodge versus French renaissance, as if a Russian trapper and a French noblewoman had declared war and chosen furniture and paint as their weapons. The massive mounted heads of jaguars, leopards and cape buffalos hung side by side with impressionist paintings of lakes and trees. Some of those paintings were probably worth millions. Antique French furniture shared space with bear skin rugs with the bear heads still attached.

I chose a corridor to my right at random and ran down it, then stopped in shocked horror, my feet nearly tripping over each other. On the walls on both sides were mounted human heads. They were not sculptures or wax models. They were real heads, preserved at the moment of death. They were the heads of older men and younger, hairy and bald, eyes closed or open and staring in perpetual dread. Some were scarred or bloodstained. These were the heads of El Demonio’s enemies, no doubt. There were at least thirty.

God willing, I would not join them. What had I expected, tea and crumpets and a docent-led tour? I recovered my aplomb and ran on. I dashed through scores of lavishly appointed bedrooms, bathrooms that made Chausiku Sulawesi’s look like a broom closet, and three large kitchens. There was an indoor pool, a bowling alley and a cinema. In one of the kitchens I heard talking. I glanced in to see two female cooks in white aprons apparently baking breads and pastries for the next day while another man washed dishes. I bypassed them without being seen. Aside from that, the entire floor was deserted. I returned to the lobby and mounted the stairs to the second floor. It was more of the same. Twice I saw guards on the outdoor verandas, but their attention was focused outward, on whatever was happening down by the marina, and they did not see me.

Donning the infrared goggles, I moved cautiously through a second floor bedroom that was the source of the softly playing samba music and that smelled of menthol lotion and pipe smoke. I froze when I realized that the two large lumps in the bed were an elderly couple with sleeping masks over their eyes. Maybe they were drugged, because the noises of the night didn’t seem to have disturbed them at all. The room smelled of I prowled on quietly and moved up to the third floor, growing increasingly frustrated. I’d found no evidence that Anna was here at all.

I’d just begun my search of the third floor when a second explosion boomed outside, followed immediately by a third, smaller blast. The house’s windows rattled in their frames and someone down on the ground floor cried out. The other two boats, was my guess. Whether it was Niko’s doing or simply the fire spreading, I did not know. If it was Niko, then his work was done, and bravo. He’d disabled the boats as I asked.

Of course nothing about this mission had gone as planned. I’d imagined I would sneak in, find Anna, sneak out, and leave with Niko. But it’s said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. What my plan was now, I did not know.

In a third floor bedroom a maid screamed when she saw me, ducking and covering her head. I imagined I looked quite scary with the goggles on and a knife in my hand. “Silencio,” I commanded her, then I moved on. I knew she might alert someone, but I would deal with that if it happened.

I passed through a huge glass-ceilinged atrium housing an indoor arboretum, where tropical trees and ferns filled the space with green warmth. The air was thickly damp, and a small waterfall cascaded down one wall into an artificial pool. The floor was earth, with trails meandering through the room. It was nearly an indoor forest.

I was tired, and my ribs ached. I doubted very much that Anna was hiding behind a banana tree. I turned to leave and found myself face to face with a six foot five behemoth with dark brown skin, a neck the size of a tree trunk and one of those pseudo-beards that is just a thin strip of hair along the jawline. He already had his rifle raised, and before I could react he slammed me in the face with the butt, knocking me to the ground. Luckily the night vision goggles caught the brunt of the blow. They shattered and became instantly useless. I snatched them off just in time to see the guard lean over me and attempt to bring the rifle butt down on my head.

That was a mistake. I couldn’t count the times Malik Sulawesi had said to me, “Never lean. Anytime you lean you’re off balance and vulnerable. Move your feet, kneel or squat, but don’t lean.”

As the rifle butt sped toward my face, I shrimped to the side, grabbed the guard’s arms and pulled. He tumbled headlong over me, landing on his back beside me, the rifle slipping from his hands. I was on him like a viper, shooting my right arm between his arm and neck, reaching around to grasp my left biceps, and locking on a head-and-arm choke that was tighter than a vise. This choke compressed the carotid arteries, completely cut off the blood flow to his brain. The guy might outweigh me by a hundred pounds, if I could hold the choke he would be unconscious in six seconds, eight at the most. Fortunately it was my right arm applying the choke, not my injured left arm, or I’d never have pulled it off.

It was like holding a buffalo. He made grunting sounds, thrashed and tried to rise, but I dragged him back down, using his head for leverage. Two seconds. He tried to roll toward me but I based out, shooting my legs back, bracing the balls of my feet in the earth. Four seconds. He tried to roll away and this time succeeded. I was carried right over his body to land on my side with his weight atop me. I could hardly breathe myself, but I maintained the choke. Six seconds. Then the guy did something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Moving ponderously, gnashing his teeth, he rose to his feet with me literally hanging from his neck. I dangled, feet in the air. I saw him reaching for a knife that hung in a sheath on a utility belt. The choke required both arms to maintain. If I let go, I’d lose whatever advantage I had against this brute. Eight seconds. He drew the knife, which turned out to be a huge hunting knife with one straight edge and one serrated. I was about to give up on the choke in order to defend myself against the knife – and probably get myself gutted like a fish – when the guard’s arms went limp. He swayed, then crashed to the ground. I fell with him, but managed to land atop him so that his body took the brunt of my fall. I gasped with relief.

The guard would recover consciousness in perhaps thirty seconds. In a flash I released the choke, removed the guard’s utility belt and searched it. It contained a communications radio, extra magazines for the rifle, mini binoculars, a tactical flashlight with crenellated edges for striking, and an expandable baton. I’d been hoping to find zip ties, but there were none of the control tools associated with police duty belts, like stun guns, pepper spray or handcuffs. I supposed El Demonio’s security force was less interested in nonviolent control, and more interested in gleeful slaughter.

I looked around wildly. Some of the younger trees were tied to wooden stakes with short lengths of rubber tubing. I pried the knife out of the guard’s meaty hand, ran to the trees and cut two lengths of rubber tubing. Dashing back to the guard I used the tubing to bind his wrists and ankles. Then I removed the man’s boots, balled his socks and stuffed them in his mouth. Lastly I put on the utility belt and sheathed the knife. I was now carrying four knives, which would have been perfect if I were half human and half octopus.

The guard was literally snoring, taking a nap on the proverbial rowboat drifting gently down the stream. Applying the standard recovery technique for someone who’s been choked out, I picked up his feet and shook them, sending blood to his head. He opened his eyes, looking around dazedly.

I squatted atop his broad chest. I drew my scuba knife and pressed the point against the side of his neck, gripping his chin with my other hand to hold his head in place. The knife bit into the skin, drawing a trickle of blood.

“That’s a very sharp knife you feel pressing against your neck,” I said in English. “You make one wrong move and I will cut your carotid artery like a fruit roll-up, do you understand? Blink once if you understand.”

He blinked once, his eyes wide with a combination of fear and rage.

“Good. So you speak English?”

Again he blinked once.

“Alright. I’m going to take the gag of your mouth. You will say nothing except to answer my questions. If you call for help it will be the last thing you ever say.” I turned my words into a snarl. “I consider you and your master to be filth. If you doubt my resolve, try me.”

I removed the socks and the downed guard breathed deeply. “You are a dead man-” he began to say.

I stuffed the socks back in and dropped an elbow onto his left eye with all my body weight behind it. I felt the orbital bone crack. The big guy grunted in pain. I pushed his head up, exposing his neck, and began to draw a shallow cut along the jawline. It wouldn’t kill him, but might send a message.

“Mmmafffff!” His words were muffled but the tone of panic was clear. I removed the socks.“Okay,” he said. “I will cooperate.” His left eye was swollen shut. Tit for tat. He smashed me, I smashed him.

I brought my face close to his ear and continued to press the knife into his neck. “I have only one question,” I growled through gritted teeth. “And I swear to God, you will answer truthfully the first time or I will kill you. I have no patience left. None. You have once chance.”

I meant every word, and the guard must have heard the verity in my words because he held his head very still as he whispered, “Fine. Ask your question.”

“Where is the girl? The little girl, Anna? The one El Demonio bought from El Pelado.”

“I don’t know that name.”

I gripped his hair, pulled his head up and began to dig the knife into his neck. The trickle of blood became a small stream. I hadn’t cut his artery yet, just the skin.

“Wait!” His voice was frantic. “I swear I don’t know the names of the girls, but they are kept in the outbuilding. The gray one on the south side of the house.”

The girls. My God. There was more than one. Without another word I withdrew my knife and began to stuff the socks back into the guard’s mouth.

“Ayuda!” he bellowed, calling for help.

I drove the blade into his larynx, cutting off the shout. Blood poured from his throat. I stuffed the socks into his mouth. He thrashed uselessly, his eyes wide with terror. I had not cut any major vessels. He’d never speak again, but had a chance of survival, if he received medical care in time. Whether that happened or not was not my concern.

I picked up the guard’s rifle and recognized it right away. It was a Galil, an Israeli-made assault rifle. I’d carried one for a while when I was a bank robber. Horse used to take me, Deuce and Red out to the Mojave desert to train with a variety of weapons. I’d fired shotguns, bolt-action rifles, automatic handguns, revolvers, and all manner of assault rifles. I never knew where Horse procured all those weapons. We practiced firing at paper targets, bottles and cans, and we even had an automatic skeet shooter that allowed us to train against moving targets. I wouldn’t have won any national shooting contests, but I was pretty good.

I took a shine to the Galil right away, and yes, I was aware of the irony of a jihadi (as I imagined myself) carrying an Israeli gun. It was a low maintenance weapon patterned on the Kalashnikov, but with the accuracy of an M-16. It was fed with a curved steel magazine with a 35 round capacity. My only complaint was that the AR, the standard rifle version, was a bit large for urban use, especially for a skinny teenager like I was then. Horse told me there was a popular SAR carbine variation with a shorter barrel, and an even more compact MAR variation for cops and airborne troops, but he hadn’t managed to procure those.

Now here it was, a Galil MAR. The shoulder stock had been detached, leaving it with a pistol grip, a tiny barrel, and a curved magazine that looked ridiculously long by comparison. The entire thing was made of burnished black steel and could easily be concealed under an overcoat. Not that I had one.

I still did not intend to use the weapon, but between the maid who’d seen me and the guard I’d left bleeding, I expected the alarm to go up at any moment, at which point the advantage of stealth would be lost. I might be glad for the Galil if that happened. I slung at around my neck with the attached strap.

I descended the staircase, moving as quietly as I could, my scuba knife at the ready. I could only see out of one eye, so I had to turn my head constantly from side to side. As I approached the front door I saw that it was closed. I opened it incrementally, an inch at a time. A lean guard with a blond crewcut stood outside, his back to me. Like the other, he was dressed all in black and carried a rifle. I took a quiet step forward, then another. I was only one step away when the man sensed something and turned, rifle pointing at me.

I was on him like a komodo dragon – I’ve always had komodo dragons on the brain, I don’t know why, maybe because it’s a real thing that sounds unreal. I slammed the scuba knife into the side of his neck as I pushed away the barrel of his rifle. Blood sprayed into my face and neck and the guard fell like a toppled tree. He uttered only a surprised grunt, and didn’t get off a shot, though his rifle clattered on the pavement. Grateful that he was not a large man, I dragged his body around the corner of the house to the south side, behind a stand of papaya trees intermixed with berry bushes. I opened his belt pouch and took the three rifle magazines he kept there, stuffing them into my pockets. One thing I’d learned in the field was that you could never have too many bullets. I knelt, catching my breath. No shout went up, and no guard came running, thank God.

Twenty meters upslope to my left stood a gray structure that looked like a garden shed. Beyond it, further upslope, was a second structure that could have been a guest house. I no longer had the night vision goggles, and it was dark on this side of the house, but there appeared to be nothing between me and the outbuildings but open grass. Darkness was my friend, so I figured I had a good chance of crossing that space unseen. I took a deep breath, said Bismillah, and ran for it.

I made it. The shed was constructed of stucco over cement, and had a heavy steel door that was secured with a sliding bolt. The bolt was closed, effectively locking the door, but there was no padlock securing it. There were no windows and no exterior AC units. I slid the bolt open as slowly and quietly as possible, gripped the metal handle of the door and pulled. The door opened with a creak of rusty hinges. I stood as still as a stone sculpture and listened. Nothing. The shed was completely dark inside, and a foul odor emanated from it. It stank of blood, vomit, bodily fluids and death. The smell made my skin crawl and my feet want to run. I fervently hoped and prayed that Anna was not in this building.

I entered the shed and pulled the door shut behind me, eliciting the same rusty whine. Only when it was all the way closed did I allow myself to take the tactical flashlight from “my” utility belt. With my knife still in the other hand, I clicked on the flashlight and shined it around the room.

I was in a chamber of horrors. The walls and floor were splattered with blood and gore. A drain in the floor was clogged with shards of bone, flesh and hair. Shackles were bolted to the floor and wall. A variety of tools hung from the walls. All were stained with blood. This was a torture box. The pain, terror and despair of the men who had been brutalized here, who had been killed here and dismembered, was a physical presence. I could smell it, taste it and feel it on my skin. It made me gag. I bent over and retched, but managed to hold it in. Then I turned off the flashlight, opened the door and fled that terrible place.

I shut the door behind me hurriedly, forgetting to be cautious. I don’t remember if I slid the bolt closed. I didn’t even check for guards. I simply ran from that abominable hole, stumbling up the slope toward the other building I’d seen, taking deep breaths, trying to slow my racing heart.

This was it. This was the final building on the property, as far as I could tell. If Anna wasn’t here then – then what? I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to consider what it might mean.

Ya Allah, I thought as I jogged up the hill. I wanted to say so much. I wanted to throw my prayer to the heavens with a voice that would light up the sky and shake the earth. I wanted to smash this island with a fist that would tear it apart and throw this entire compound into the sea. I wanted to be away from here, back with my wife and child in a place of safety and love. But most of all I wanted to find Anna Anwar and take her away from this evil place. All these thoughts and more roiled in my chest and stuck in my throat. I was too tired to formulate words, too heartsick and angry, so all I managed was Ya Allah, Ya Allah, Ya Allah.

Like the shed, this building was only one story high, but it was the size of a villa, with at least four or five rooms. Also, it had a large front window, though it was barred and curtained. Like the shed, this building’s door was a massive slab of metal, but again it was secured only from the outside with a deadbolt. No lock. That meant that this villa, like the torture chamber, was meant to keep people in, not out. It was a prison. The fact that it was unlocked spoke to El Demonio’s supreme command and confidence on this island.

Standing before the front window, I reached through the bars and touched the glass. It wasn’t glass at all but some sort of thick shatterproof plastic. The villa was pitch black inside and I couldn’t see a thing.

Moving as silently as I could, I made a complete circuit of the building. There were two other windows, both small and high on the wall. There were no other doors.

Returning to the front door, I slid open the deadbolt. This door was apparently better maintained than the other, because it opened without a sound. I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.

I shined the flashlight around, partly covering it with one hand to reduce the beam intensity. The light illuminated a large room that was like some adult’s fever dream of a child’s funhouse. There was a small inflatable bounce house, a ping pong table, a soda dispenser and soft-serve ice cream machine, a giant gumball machine, bean bags strewn about the room, and paintings of clowns all over the walls. Streamers hung from the ceiling, and here and there helium balloons bounced against the ceiling, their strings dangling down. Dolls were piled onto a child-sized pink leather armchair in one corner of the room. When the flashlight beam hit them, their eyes glittered and glowed like little possessed demon creatures. Dolls were scattered about on the floor as well. Several had been dismembered, their ams or heads pulled off. Some of the clown paintings had been disfigured as well, drawn over with crayon or marker. And, I noticed now, there was a large puddle of dried residue beneath the soft-serve machine, as if someone had deliberately poured ice cream onto the floor and left it there.

As bizarre as the room was, my heart soared, because I knew this was the place. If Anna was indeed a captive on this island, I was fairly sure she’d be inside this twisted funhouse villa.

To the right was what would have been a large kitchen, except that all the appliances had been stripped out. There was nothing in it but a sink. When my light hit it, dozens of cockroaches and silverfish scurried into the shadows.

I moved through the room to a hallway. A door opened off the left of the hallway into a large bathroom with a huge claw-footed tub and a mirror with light bulbs all around the sides. Again, cockroaches scattered.

A little further on my right I found another bedroom. When I shined the light into it, I was shocked into motionlessness. Wherever the light hit, dolls stared back at me. They sat on shelves on the walls, dangled by strings from the ceiling, and were piled on a bed against one wall. There were hundreds of them. Then I noticed something else and my blood turned to ice in my veins. The bed had restraints attached to the four posts. Leather cuffs were attached to chains and they were small, the size one would need to restrain a child. At the foot of the bed stood a tripod of the kind to which someone might attach a camera.

My hand tightened on the flashlight and my jaw clenched. I wanted to destroy this place and leave it an island of ghosts. I took a breath and forced myself to relax. I couldn’t afford to let anger take over. I was not here to seek revenge or go on some vendetta. I was here for one thing only, and that was to find Anna.

There was one last room at the end of the hall and I moved toward it. Even before I reached it I heard scuffling noises from inside and the sound of a frightened whimper. My heart flipped over in my chest. I felt excitement, trepidation and fear, not fear for myself but over what I might find. I wanted to call out and say, “Anna, it’s alright, you’re safe now,” but I dared not. I didn’t know who was in that room. There might be a guard in there for all I knew, ready to blast me when I walked through the door.

There wasn’t. I shined the light cautiously into the room. There were two sets of wooden bunk beds, a pile of defaced clown paintings on the floor in one corner, and a tiny, barred window high up on one wall. Finally my light came to rest on two pairs of terrified eyes. The two girls were backed into one corner of the room. A girl of perhaps twelve years stood in front. She was thin and barefoot, with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. Her features were fine, and her bright green eyes flashed defiance. She wore a long cotton paisley nightgown, and might have been pretty if not for the bruises on her face and the look of desperation in her eyes.

Behind her a smaller girl huddled on the floor, covering her face with her hands. She wore a pair of ill-fitting shorts and a white t-shirt with food stains on the front. She had Anna Anwar’s build, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

I sheathed the scuba knife. There was nothing in my hands now but the flashlight. “Anna,” I said gently. “Is that you?”

The huddled girl began to wail. The girl in front, in contrast, stood as straight as a stop sign, her shoulders back. “Tómame,” she said. “Seré bueno para ti. Me va a gustar.” Take me. I’ll be good for you. You’ll like me. She held out a hand, palm down, in a self-contradictory gesture that seemed to combine an invitation and a ward.

“No estoy aquí para eso,” I said. “I’m not here for that. I”m a friend. Un amigo. Anna,” I repeated softly. “I’m here to help you, to take you home. My name is Zaid. I’m a friend of your father, do you remember me?”

The wailing from the huddled child lessened. “My – my -” she stammered. “My father?”

“Yes.” I smiled, knowing she couldn’t see it but hoping she could hear it. Of course, I realized. What an idiot I am. They can’t see me. I’m just a dark figure behind a bright light. I shined the light on my own face, and both girls gasped. Oh, crap. I’d forgotten that I was covered in the guard’s blood. I must look like some kind of vampire.

“I know I look terrible,” I said, wiping my face with one sleeve. “But I really am a friend of your father Tarek. I’m his old friend Zaid. He used to call me Stick. You and I have met before. You gave me flowers once at a party.”

“You – you looked lonely.”

I smiled and tears came to my eyes. I was amazed that she remembered that. “Yes,” I said.
“I’m here to take you home.”

“My mommy doesn’t want me.” I heard a shuffling sound and shined the light on the girls. The huddled child had gathered herself to stand beside the older girl. She was indeed Anna Anwar. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, but aside from that she seemed unmarked. Though of course that did not mean she was… unharmed. I moved the light to the center of the floor between us.

“Your mommy loves you, but she can’t take care of you right now. I’m taking you back to California. To Fresno.”

“To my Daddy?”

The hope in her voice nearly broke my heart. This child had been betrayed in the worst possible way, and I didn’t want to add to that by lying to her. But if I told her the truth, she might break down into despair, which wasn’t what we needed right now. I needed her alert and paying attention. The guards would soon discover the injured guard and the dead one, if they hadn’t already. When that happened, they would lock this whole place down and begin a search.

I chose a half truth. “Your Daddy can’t take care of you either. I’m sorry sweetie. But you still have your grandparents. They love you and want you. So please, come with me now.”

“My Nana doesn’t want me.”

What an odd thing to say. “She does. Your grandparents hired me to find you.”

“No. My Nana doesn’t love me.”

I ran a hand through my hair and tried to control my exasperation. “Maybe that’s true, maybe not. We’ll work it out when we’re out of here. I promise you, I swear by Allah, I will find a safe place for you. Come on now, Anna. We have to go.”

“Oris too.” Anna reached up and took her friend’s hand. “You have to take her.”

“Yes,” I said emphatically. “Of course. Now come.”

Anna rose, and a quick exchange took place between the girls in Spanish too quick for me to follow. I hadn’t realized that Anna spoke Spanish.

“Okay,” Anna said. “We’re ready.”

I nodded. “Do you have shoes? We’ll have to run.”

Oris fetched a pair of slippers from beneath the bunk bed, and Anna slipped on her Adidas sneakers, the same ones she’d been wearing in the school photo.

“When we get outside,” I told them, “no matter what happens you stay behind me, stay quiet and keep on following me, do you understand?”

Anna translated for Oris, and we slipped out of the house in total darkness. I ran downhill toward the gate with the two girls close behind, sticking to the deepest patches of darkness as much as possible. I would have preferred to avoid the gate, as it was likely the guards had either returned or someone else had been stationed there. But there was no choice. It was the only way past the perimeter fence. The gap I’d crawled under was on the other side of the guardhouse and inaccessible from here.

I led the two girls past the torture shed and up along the side of the main house, skirting the spot where I’d dumped the blonde guard’s body. I peered around the corner of the house. It was worse than I’d feared. There was no sign of the patrol car, and the Rolls and Lamborghini were still gone. Firelight still shone from the western end of the island. And the wrecked gate still gaped open. The problem was that there were now four armed guards stationed at the gate, two on each side.

I unslung the rifle and held it in my arms, flicking the safety off. In spite of being a different model than the one I’d carried, the configuration was familiar and comfortable. I closed my eyes. “O Allah,” I breathed. “I’m not asking anything for myself. Do what you will with me. Strike me down if you choose. Take from me all worldly things, leave me without coin or love or breath if that is the price of success here. I can take it. I’m your servant to the end. But save these girls O Allah. That is all I ask.”

I opened my eyes and looked at the girls. “Listen carefully,” I whispered. “There are four men at the gate. The only way out is for me to kill them. You stay in hiding until I say, ‘Go.’ When I say, ‘go,’ you come out and follow me. We’ll run through the gate then into the forest. The gunshots will be loud, but you keep on running, keep following me. Don’t stop. Understand?”

Anna translated for Oris, and both girls nodded their heads. Their eyes were wide, and Anna’s lower lip trembled as if she might cry. I simply had to trust that they would do as I told them.

I flipped open the magazine pouch and folded the cover behind the belt, so it would stay open. Then I said Bismillah and gripped one magazine between with my teeth. I didn’t know how well trained these men were. They might be highly trained mercenaries, or run-of-the-mill gangsters with no real tactical training. As for me, I knew how to shoot, I was a skilled martial artist with the ability to adjust to new tactical information on the fly, and I had the biggest advantage of all – the advantage of surprise.

I stepped out from behind the corner of the house.

Only then did I see that there were two additional guards at the house’s front door. They were immediately to my right, so I rounded on them and opened fire. From my perspective they were lined up one in front of the other. My first volley mowed them both down like grass. Without a pause I pivoted left, dropped to one knee and let loose on the two guards on the right side of the gate, in front of the guardhouse. I wanted to get them before they retreated into the guardhouse, and I did. One fell screaming, while the other flew backward and crashed into the guardhouse window, shattering it. Hey lay bent backward over the sill.

The two on the left had no cover. They dropped to their bellies and fumbled with their rifles. I rolled left, came to my feet, ejected the magazine and slammed in the one from my mouth, and cut loose on full auto, emptying the entire 35-round clip into the earth where they lay. The bullets chewed them to pieces.

A tremendous impact struck my left shoulder and sent me spinning to the ground. It was the guard who’d gone down screaming. He wasn’t dead, and he’d put a bullet in me. My shoulder was numb, but I didn’t feel the pain yet. I thrust in a new magazine, rolled to my right, stood, and advanced on the man. He shot at me but he was panicked and in pain, and the bullets went wide. I raised my weapon, aimed, and riddled the guy, killing him where he lay.

A volley rang out and I stumbled as my leg gave out. I rolled to my back and saw two guards on the second floor veranda, both firing at me. Bullets ripped up the earth all around me. I tried to return fire and got nothing but an empty click. I popped out the mag, inserted a new one, and calmly returned fire, sweeping a line of lead across the veranda. One guard’s head rocked back as a bullet took him square in the forehead. The other dropped to his belly. I dropped the clip, put in a new one, and emptied it into the spot where he lay, firing right through the ornately carved wood. Chunks of wood flew in every direction and an entire section of the veranda railing broke loose and fell to the ground with a crash. I saw then that the guard lay in a heap against the wall of the house, dead.

I reached for another clip and found that I was out. I rose to one knee and tried my leg. A bullet had gone through the outside of my calf, taking a piece of my muscle with it. Blood poured down into my shoe. But I found that I could stand, as long as I kept most of my weight on the other leg.

“Anna, Oris,” I called out. “Go! Follow me now.” The two girls, to their credit, darted out from behind the house. I ran for the gate, hobbling badly, nearly dragging my left leg behind me, with the girls right on my heels. We passed through the gate, which was a scene of devastation, with pools and spatters of blood everywhere. I made a beeline across the clearing, heading for the forest to the southwest.

Gunfire sounded, and I heard the whine of a bullet as it whistled past my ear. Oris screamed, but she and Anna kept running. I looked back and saw a guard on the third floor veranda firing at us. At the same time headlights came up brilliant and white on the road almost directly ahead of us. There were at least two vehicles racing our way. And then my leg gave out on me again.

I pointed to the treeline. “Go!” I shouted. “Get to the forest and keep going. Hide, don’t let anyone find you.”

The girls stared at me, wide-eyed with terror. “Go!” I screamed, pointing. “Corre, corre!”

They ran.

I climbed to my feet once again. I saw now that there were in fact four vehicles: the Lamborghini, the patrol truck and the two ATVs. The Lambo stopped on the road, idling, but the pickup and the ATVs bounced into the clearing, coming right at me.

I had to lead them away from the girls. That was all that mattered. I drew the hunting knife and began hobbling back toward the gate. The pickup came roaring right toward me. The two ATVs, however, headed for the treeline, following the path the girls had taken. I stopped, drew my right arm back, and threw the hunting knife at the nearest ATV, aiming for the spot where it would be in about a second and a half. The knife sailed through the air, tumbled end over end, and missed. A shot rang out, and I saw a flash of light from the treeline. One of the ATV drivers screamed and tumbled from his vehicle, which flipped onto its side, wheels spinning and engine whining. Another shot came, and the other ATV did a wheelie, the front end shooting up in the air. The driver hit the ground and the vehicle landed atop him with a sickening thud.

Niko, I thought. It had to be Niko firing from within the forest. No no no, Niko, you were supposed to be long gone. What are you doing?

The pickup stopped directly in front of me and three men clambered out carrying rifles. One trained his weapon on my chest and approached me while the other two opened fire on the treeline.

I drew my scuba knife and took a fighting stance.

“No lo mates,” El Demonio called out. “No lo mates.” Don’t kill him. The guard stepped forward and swung his rifle stock at my face. I ducked the blow, inserted my knife along the inside of his leg, and sliced his femoral artery wide open. Then I shoved him away. He fell, staring in horror at his leg, which was literally fountaining blood several feet in the air. He tried to stanch the flow with his hands, without effect. He’d be dead in seconds, I knew.

The two other guards rushed over to me. One, a hugely muscular black man who looked like he did nothing all day but eat beef and lift weights, pointed a bulky black and yellow handgun at me and pulled the trigger. Except that it wasn’t a handgun at all. A pair of needles attached to wires flew at me. Not fair, I thought as I tried to dodge and failed. It’s just not fair. The needles struck me in the back. Every muscle in my body went rigid, while my back felt like an entire pub full of Irishmen was using it as a dartboard. I fell, completely frozen, unable to control any of my muscles, though I could see the big guard through my peripheral vision as he approached, put away his Taser, lifted his rifle and brought the stock down a sledgehammer on my skull.

* * *

Cold water splashed my face and I half-gasped, half-screamed. I looked around wildly. Where was I? What was happening? An instant later pain hit me like a planet. There was hardly a part of me that did not hurt. My head ached as if it might split open, my right ribs felt tender and breakable; my left shoulder screamed with agony, and my left calf felt like some hungry fanged creature was eating it for dinner. Every muscle in my body felt sore and twitchy. And I couldn’t move my hands or my legs.

I’d been stripped to my shorts and chained to the floor in a bare cement room with gore-spattered walls. A single bright bulb blazed directly overhead. There were tools hung on the walls, some I recognized and others that looked like medical implements.

It all came rushing back then. El Demonio. Ouagadiri Island. The torture chamber. I was in the torture chamber. El Demonio himself stepped into my field of vision. He’d put on a red track suit that nearly matched his ridiculous beet-colored hair. A pair of men flanked him. One was the muscle-swollen black man, the beefeater. He was so big he looked like he could probably not scratch his own back. The other was a short Latino man with a handlebar mustache, wearing a black leather cowboy hat.

To my surprise, my gunshot-wounded shoulder and leg had been bandaged. The bandages were soaked with blood, but the bleeding appeared to have stopped. I guessed that these guys didn’t want me dying of blood loss before they could interrogate me.

El Demonio lifted one of those big black and yellow Taser guns and tapped it against his chin, grinning. He spoke in Spanish, first insulting my parentage and then rattling off a series of questions: Who sent you? Who do you work for? Who is with you? Where are your compatriots? Where are the girls?

These last two questions made me smile. El Demonio didn’t have Niko or the girls. He hadn’t found them. Maybe Niko had the girls, and was at this very moment heading back to the mainland with them on the fishing boat.

The hairstyle-challenged cartel leader must not have liked my smile, because he pointed the taser at my belly and fired. My body convulsed and arched, jerking against the chains that held me. My teeth clamped together so hard I thought they’d break.

“Quien te envio?” he demanded. Who sent you?

My chest heaved as I gulped air. “Santa Claus sent me,” I replied in English. “He said to tell you you’ve been a bad boy, and you’re not getting any presents for Christmas.”

El Demonio laughed and spoke in English. “Oh, so you are NorteAmericano? You know, you kill eleven of my men. Eleven! Who blow up the boats? Who is with you? Where are the girls? Are you DEA?” he demanded. “CIA?”

“Neither,” I said. “I’m CRC.”

He frowned. “What is CRC?”

“Can’t Remember Crap.”

“Hmm.” El Demonio made a hand gesture to Beefeater – the big black guard – who handed him another type of Taser, the kind that must be touched directly to the skin. El Demonio pressed a button and a blue arc of electricity snapped up between the poles. It buzzed and crackled as he kneeled down beside me and brought it close to my face. I thought he would ask another question, but instead he simply touched the device to my mouth.

Again my entire body clenched and arched. My jaws snapped shut and I bit the inside of my cheek hard. My mouth filled with hot, coppery blood. My lips burned like slices of meat on a barbecue.

“Llámame cuando dé respuestas,” El Demonio said to his men. Call me when he gives answers. He exited the room.

The Panamanian cowboy took a few choice implements off the hooks on the walls, then pulled up a folding chair beside of me. He began to torture me as the big black man watched. He . started with the skin of my inner thighs, and moved on to my toenails. There was neither joy nor malicious intent in his actions. I think that was the worst part of it all – the coldness of it, the matter-of-fact monstrousness of their cruelty. As he tortured me, he repeated the same questions in Spanish. Who did I work for? Who was with me? Where were the girls?

I gave no answers. That’s not to say that I took it like a man. I screamed, groaned, and shouted until my voice failed. I bled, and I hurt. But I did not beg, and I gave no answers. Give me credit for that, if nothing else.

At least twice I lost consciousness. The first time they revived me with another bucket of water in the face. At some point Cowboy went on a break and Beefeater took over. Apparently not being one for finesse, he began by simply beating me on the face, chest and arms with a rubber hose. One of my bottom incisors broke loose and I spat it out. At some point he said to me in English, “You alone here. No one know, no one care. Why you no speak? You speak, all dis finish. You speak, we give you food, water, let you rest. No one comin’ to help you, man.”

At Beefeater’s claim that I had been abandoned, Surat Ad-Duha flowed into my mind like a cool mountain spring. I began to recite it out loud in Arabic, slowly. My words came out slurred, partly because my mouth had been damaged, and partly because I’d lost so much blood.

I knew this surah had been revealed after a period during which the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhi wa-sallam, had come to a halt. The Prophet was anxious and confused, fearing he had done something wrong. The disbelievers scorned him, saying, “Muhammad’s Lord has bidden him farewell.”

Until Allah responded with these sweet words:

By the morning brightness, and the night when it covers with darkness, Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor has He detested [you]. And the Hereafter is better for you than the first. And your Lord is going to give you, and you will be satisfied. Did He not find you an orphan and give refuge? And He found you lost and guided [you], And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient. So as for the orphan, do not oppress. And as for the petitioner, do not repel. But as for the favor of your Lord, report.

I was not alone. No matter what these human beasts said, I knew better. I belonged to Allah. I was alive at this moment not by the agency of these pathetic, soulless men, but by Allah’s mercy, and I would die not by these men’s hands, but by Allah’s decree only.

I recited the surah aloud through a broken mouth and burned lips, and when I opened my eyes I found the black guard staring at me wide-eyed and trembling. The door opened with that same rusty-hinged squeal and Cowboy walked in. “Qué?” he said. “Que pasó?”

“He sayin’ magic words,” Beefeater replied. “Power words. No more for me, no more.” He spun on his heel and left the room.

Not that his departure helped me. Cowboy just picked up where he’d left off.

The second time I fell unconscious, Cowboy revived me by digging a thumb into my eye. He spoke into a radio, and a few minutes later El Demonio entered the room carrying, of all things, a pair of rattan Kali sticks. He grinned and began to swing them in a classic sinawali or weaving pattern.

Two guards entered behind him, men I had not seen before. When they entered, sunlight shone through the open door. I was stunned. It was morning already. They’d been torturing me all night long. I’d had no idea.

They carried between them the limp form of a man. His head lolled, and his yellow shirt and jeans were completely stained with blood. It looked like he’d been shot somewhere in the abdomen. It was Niko.

El Demonio grinned at me. “Yes, we find your friend. And guess what, idiota?”

I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to hear the words. The cartel leader, seeing the dread in my eyes, kneeled beside me and sneered. “We have the girls as well.”

My will and determination deflated as if someone had just punctured me with a pitchfork. Through all the torture to which I’d been subjected, I had not wept, but now tears came to my eyes. The pain of my countless wounds hit me like the heat of the sun, and I felt despair for the first time. I wanted to curl around myself and die. All for nothing. It had all been for nothing.

El Demonio’s men dragged Niko to the shackles on the wall and hung him up so that he dangled by his wrists. His hands turned white, indicating that the blood flow had been cut off. If he remained like that for long, he’d lose his hands.

The cartel leader swung the sticks through a series of patterns, showing off. He went through the Ikis pattern, Dog’s Tail, Umbrella and Espada y Daga. Even through my despair, the analytical part of my mind, the part that had been studying stick and knife combat for most of my life, noticed that El Demonio’s movements were fluid and natural, but his stick angles were off, and his footwork was entirely lacking. I pegged him as a mid-level student, though clearly he thought more of himself.

Returning to a six-count sinawali pattern, El Demonio pivoted without warning and struck Niko six rapid blows, three on the left and three on the right: temple, cheek, jaw, skull, ear, shoulder. The sticks made dull thwacking sounds against Niko’s flesh and opened a cut on his forehead. At that, Niko opened his eyes. His lids were heavy, and I wasn’t sure he saw me, but then he said, his words slurred, “I am sorry señor. I told you I will stay with you until the point of death.” His eyes closed.

El Demonio lifted his sticks to beat Niko again.

No, I thought. No, no no. Each repetition of the word banished a bit of the despair that had enveloped me and replaced it with white hot determination. This was intolerable. This would not stand. I remembered the guard who had laughed at El Demonio’s wife, and how the cartel leader had reacted by shooting the man. And then, when I’d smiled earlier, he’d Tasered me in the face. He couldn’t stand to be laughed at.

So I took a chance. I began to laugh. It was artificial, of course, just a forced imitation of a laugh, but almost as soon as I began some switch flipped in my brain and I began to laugh for real. This entire situation was so unlikely, so absurd. How had I ended up here, being tortured in a cement shack on a Caribbean island, when just a week ago I was comfortably ensconced in my California office? Of course I hadn’t known at the time that my office was comfortable, but everything was indeed relative, it seemed.

My throat was hoarse from screaming, so my laugh came out sounding the cough of a sick cow, but it was genuine, and El Demonio saw that. He turned away from Niko and his face flushed as red as his ridiculous hair. “Deja!” he screamed, ordering me to stop. “Deja eso!”

“It’s just,” I rasped, “you have this fully stocked torture chamber, and you’re playing with sticks like a little kid. Sticks, really? Give me a break. Give me one of those and I bet I could beat you silly with it. Come on, you and me, one on one.”

That was it, that was my play. If he didn’t go for it, then we were all doomed. I watched as El Demonio’s face returned to its normal color. An evil light came into his eyes.

“Really?” he said. “You think is easy? Okay, I give you a chance.” He barked out an order in Spanish to the guards. They proceeded to unshackle me and Niko. Two guards hauled Niko out the door into the sunshine.

They came back and bent to lift me up.

“No,” I growled. “Deja me. Don’t touch me.” As slowly as a wounded turtle I rolled onto my stomach, then pushed up onto my hands and knees. Like an animal, I crawled across that filth-stained floor until I reached the wall of the shed, where I used the wall to push myself to my feet. For a moment everything spun. I leaned against the wall, closing my eyes, and waited for it to stop. When it did, I walked out of that place of horror into the sunshine of a new day.

The guards tossed Niko’s unconscious form into the bed of a pickup truck. They drove the short distance downhill to the circular driveway in front of the house. I followed on foot, moving very slowly and limping badly, mostly just dragging my left leg behind me. El Demonio, Cowboy and Beefeater flanked me. When we reached the driveway I saw the other patrol car parked there. Anna and Oris were indeed there, sitting in the cab. Anna’s face was swollen from crying. Oris looked frightened but rock solid. What a child she was, what a human being.

There was something else: the body of El Demonio’s wife lay in the bed of the truck, twisted unnaturally. Her formerly white pantsuit and white fur stole were stained crimson with blood.

El Demonio planted himself right in the middle of the circular flower bed around which the driveway ran. Maybe with his wife dead there was no one to object to him stepping on the petunias. He kept one stick for himself and threw the other down, gesturing for me to pick it up. I stepped into the flower bed, feeling the stalks break beneath my feet, bent to pick up the stick, and fell. Using the stick as a cane, I regained my feet.

Standing there dressed only in my underpants, I tipped my head back and let the morning sun shine on my face. I was covered in blood from head to toe. I’d urinated on myself during the night. My body was wrecked. I knew it and El Demonio knew it. I had no toenails left, and my feet were bloody, swollen masses. The skin on the front and inside of my thighs was shredded and torn, bleeding from dozens of places. My left leg barely functioned. Because of the gunshot wound to my left shoulder, my left arm was useless. My right eye was swollen shut. Every other part of my body was covered in welts and bruises, and I was dizzy from blood loss. I had maybe ten seconds of fight in me, if that. If it went beyond that I was done. All El Demonio had to do was dance in, strike me and dance out. If he waged a battle of attrition like that, I’d be helpless.

El Demonio shouted to his men. One of them rolled Niko out of the bed of the pickup. Niko’s body fell and hit the ground with a dull thud. I knew my friend either dead or dying, but there was nothing I could do. Cowboy dragged the two girls out of the other vehicle and forced them to their knees beside Niko, on the edge of the flower bed. Looking at me, seeing my ruined condition, Anna began to cry.

I wanted to say something to her, offer her some reassurance, but anything I might say would ring hollow. Trust in Allah, I thought, and He will feed you as He feeds the birds.

Perhaps,” my subconscious replied, “but will He save you? I’m not a bird, and I live in the real-”

SHUT UP! I hollered at my subconscious. Yes! He will! He will save, provide, nourish, reward, and redeem. One way or another, HE. WILL.

The cartel leader twirled his stick. “Are you ready?”

“Hold on. I have terms.”

He cocked his head. “What means, terms?”

“Conditions. Condiciones. Every contest must have terms, something at stake, something to be won or lost.”

He nodded slowly, still grinning. “I like. Say the terms.”

“If I win, you let me, my friend and the girls go.”

He eyed me thoughtfully, still smiling. “And if I win?”

“I’ll tell you who sent me. Then you can kill me and let the others go.”

El Demonio snorted. “No, amigo. No one send you, I see that now. You and this one-” he gestured contemptuously toward Niko’s still form – “are amateurs. Maybe you are the father of one of the girls? Your identity is meaningless. Here is the terms. If you win, one of you will live. The rest of you die. This is the only term I offer. Choose now. Who will live?”

I racked my mind for a counter-proposal, anything I could say, anything to bait him with. But there was nothing. He was right. He held all the cards. This was only a bit of fun to him, an entertaining way to kill me, and perhaps a way to show off to his people and save face after last night’s losses.

“Anna,” I said. “The little girl. She lives.” There was no other possible choice. I had come here to save Anna no matter the cost. I’d offered myself to Allah, bargaining my life away for hers. I asked for this. My only regret was Niko.

El Demonio nodded knowingly. “So it is the little girl you love, eh? Then listen this. When I defeat you, I will kill all except her. Your little Anna I will take back to the villa and do as I please. She will live, but as my slave.” He grinned. “This is according to the terms, yes? Now no more talk. Vamo’ hacerlo!” He twirled his stick in a figure 8 pattern and came straight at me, arrogant, not trying to feel me out at all. He probably thought he’d need only a few seconds to put me down. He might be right.

The feeling of either a knife or a stick in my hand was so familiar, so comforting. I had been training obsessively in Kali for almost twenty five years. The stick was as much a part of me as my own hand. Heck, for a long time, people had called me Stick. Holding a stick in my hand was like coming home.

Could an inanimate object impart emotions to a human being? Confidence flowed into me from the smooth rattan in my hand. I smiled from ear to ear, and felt the burnt skin of my lips split and begin to bleed. Mine was a smile of joy, acceptance and power. It was the smile of a man with nothing left to lose, a man trusting his fate to the Most Merciful God, a man willing to pay whatever price was asked of him. It was the smile of a man ready to die.

The poet struggles, Niko would say, and without struggle, what will he do? Without struggle and resistance there is no victory. Perhaps in that moment I was a poet. My writing tool was a rattan stick, my page the bed of flowers in which I stood barefoot and bloody, and the subject was life and death. I had given all I had. Whatever little remained I would leave here, in this flowerbed, and it would have to do.

In my hoarse, raspy voice, I breathed “Allahu Akbar,” and raised my stick to meet the oncoming attack.

* * *

Next: Chapter 17: Crater Valley

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

Wael Abdelgawad’s novel, Pieces of a Dream, is available on Amazon.com.

Caravan of Love takes its peace message to Indian families touched by hate

The Guardian World news: Islam - 20 September, 2017 - 05:00

As tide of caste or religious violence rises, one activist is taking his message of peace around India, meeting families of people killed in hate crimes

A police escort is a must when travelling in the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, or “Caravan of Love”.

Its leader, Harsh Mander, can see the irony. The caravan – an air-conditioned coach emblazoned with a banner proclaiming a message of love – is traversing seven Indian states in two weeks with a “call to conscience” for India’s Hindu majority.

Continue reading...

Leaving the MSA: Relationships with the Masjid

Muslim Matters - 20 September, 2017 - 02:55

Transitioning out of college can be challenging for many when it comes to finding a role in the community. After leaving college, MSA becomes a idea of the past, the overarching structure vanishes, and people are left without a roadmap to rejoin the community. No clear path exists for those seeking to be involved, and many alumni are introduced to the idea that community work is not their responsibility–a very dangerous notion.

At the base of this dilemma lies the question: how can we maximise human capital in the Muslim community? Given the nature of Islam when it comes to community, it is an unavoidable reality that one must be participate in one form or another within the larger American Muslim society. Although rekindling a relationship with one’s respective MSA as an alumni is one way to get involved, it’s not the only way to give back. One alternative is to be involved in the local community, and this comes in various shapes and forms. For now, the focus will be the role one can play as an active community member in the masjid.

A key element of developing ourselves as Muslims is through community. Without investing in the community there would be no foundation for Muslims in this country, as we lack larger governmental infrastructures that uphold a sense of Muslim culture or morals. Community work goes beyond the measurable results. It fosters a sense of belonging, unity and identity through culture. These are fundamentals for our success and survival especially as a minority group. Abandoning the larger body of Muslims isolates one from the community and hurts the overall productivity of Muslims as a whole. Given the current climate, it is hardly the time to shy away from developing our Muslim community. How do we ensure we take a productive part in our communities? In the absence of a college paradigm, where MSA’s are no longer around, paths and roles can be a bit messy for Muslims who are no longer attending college. It’s important to note that Islam has predated MSA’s by 1400 years and is by no means bound by this structure. However, in recent years Islam has been constricted, especially for younger people, to MSAs limiting how Islam can be practised in an institutional sense. There exists numerous ways to be active in the Muslim community, and this by no means prevents Muslim involvement outside of our community.

Lives of early Muslims were centred around the masjid. Gathering for prayers when they had time, staying after to talk to one another, and staying connected with one another helped them maintain the bonds of brotherhood that are so vital to Islam. As a focal point the masjid acts as a foundation on which to build one’s faith. Adhering to this basic modicum of practising Islam, frequenting the masjid keeps the religion fresh in the heart and mind of the believer as long as they are sincere in their efforts to connect with Allah and his other servants.

The focus of this piece will remain as community work tied to the masjid as an institution. Two important assumptions should be noted: the first is that the individual is a practicing Muslim who has a relationship with Allah privately, and the second is that the masjid is an inviting space that fosters a preexisting community. The following is not meant to be a specific prescription, rather, an overview of ways to be involved with the masjid.

Start with making daily prayers at the masjid. It is a simple and highly undervalued means of keeping a connection with communal Islam. Simple attachment to the masjid by offering prayers isn’t the goal, building a human connection with the other congregants is. As basic as it sounds, getting to know the people one prays with, even if it remains surface level, builds that sense of community. Neither activism nor deep spiritual knowledge is required for this. All that is required is the need to fulfill the five daily prayers and express love for other Muslims. Congregational prayers are bound to keep some semblance of community in one’s life. This works well for those who are strapped for time and find it hard to dedicate portions of their day to causes. Community work is typified through campaigns around social or political issues, and these don’t need to be the foundation of why people get involved with the community. It is also a viable solution for those who don’t have a strong Muslim presence outside their home and wish to keep the feeling of communal Islam strong, given the masjid is a welcoming space.

Making the prayers could be a good introduction to attending classes or events at the masjid, another commitment that generally isn’t very time intensive, but that is very beneficial to one’s Islam. Classes enhance a believer’s knowledge of the religion along with opening opportunities to meet other Muslims. Just as a social component is necessary in one’s Islam, so is a knowledge base. This makes for more well rounded Muslims and sustains the connection of Islam to the heart of a Muslim. In addition, those who organise and teach these classes have invested a good amount into them and shouldn’t have their classes go unattended.

The means for getting involved by visiting the mosque for prayers or classes are very much tied to the individual. They require a lower time commitment and don’t require work to be done outside of being at the masjid. Though it does work to situate one with the larger community, there are larger systems to take part in. There is little to no commitment to others in this type of involvement, and because of that the impact one can have on a larger scale is limited. There are a few options for one to take to get involved further.

If one has more time to spare, getting into involvements which permeate outside the masjid walls becomes a possibility and allows for a greater effect to be made. No longer is your involvement just personal engagement, but now it encompasses a more tangible social fabric. Halaqat, for example, are one way to do this, since classes or lecture series’ generally don’t require attendees to do more than listen to the material, they can be narrow in their effect. Halaqat are tighter knit and higher intensity their focuses, and they can be more flexible and expand beyond the masjid walls.

Moving beyond the general classroom and into a more closed off space can allow for more serious discussion of topics as well. Halaqat should not be limited to just meetings for discussion but baselines for actions. They can lead to humanitarian work in the community, such as feeding the homeless, masjid beautification projects, and volunteering for other social services as a group.

Just as how we invest in our own Islamic learning and growth, it is vital we invest in the new generation’s. The need to do this is immense, but the work being done to achieve this goal doesn’t always show that. Many times, communities are not invested in their younger generations, leaving a chasm in the community. This void needs to be filled with wholesome activity and interactions.

In the traditional masjid space, the suggested involvement for youth is in line with established practices. Two staple methods of getting involved are Sunday School and Youth Group. Many times, as the only means of involvement with the masjid, these two are vital to the bridge between new and old generations. Because of this, it is imperative they function smoothly.

Youth Groups should function primarily as a way for younger Muslims to feel connected to the masjid, and each masjid is different. For some, feeling connected might mean opening the floor to a question and answer session by the Shaykh, or playing sports, or nature hikes, or beach clean ups or any number of activities as long as they fall within the Islamic guidelines of interaction. What Youth Groups generally should not be are dry or repetitive lectures on matters that have little relevance to them. Those who step up need to understand the importance of long term relations with younger Muslims. Too many times the commitment to youth groups is done with passing of mentors coming and going at whim. This is more hurtful in the long run, as mentees fail to develop long term bonds, or worse, have those bonds broken.

The other staple of masjids are Sunday Schools, which generally target a younger demographic. They also serve an important role for masjids in relation to youth. Where these two differ is the focus on education. Youth Groups tend to be more flexible, while Sunday Schools follow curriculums more closely. To create better environments for learning, teachers should be given training on how to teach based on modern learning techniques. Sunday School should be a path to foster love for the masjid and Islam over rigorous curriculums and memorisation of Islamic facts.

There exist endless ways to be involved with a masjid, and the suggestions above are confined to traditional understandings of the space and are by no means exhaustive in this category. They constitute a broad outline to approach involvement in the masjid for anyone looking for a community. The most important takeaway from this is that Islam is, and should be, a community. We all belong to it once we say our shahadah and it is our duty to be part of that community in any role that we can fit into. Don’t limit yourself in how involved you can be, explore all the different ways there are to be involved and find your way to give back.

 

Related Posts:

Leaving the MSA: Keeping a Community Mindset

Leaving the MSA: Reinventing Alumni

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