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Doug Howard

Mixed Message

The testimony of a self-described former terrorist.

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Lest I be accused of endangering his family, I will not disclose Kamal Saleem's real name. Nor do I want to be "destroying reputations with unresearched words," as the book warns. So with the blessing of the Calvin College president, I telephoned his former employer, Focus on the Family, and with the help of colleagues John Hubers, an RCA pastor, and Habeeb Awad of Hope College, investigated his background. I spoke with Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, and with his assistant Ron Reno, who described his own job as "looking at everything we do with a cynical eye." What I was saying jibed with their own reservations about Kamal Saleem's story when they first heard it in staff devotions. Their concerns had to do not with his fabricated terrorist past but with his implausible conversion story. The physician treating Kamal Saleem took him into his own home because his medical bills were excessive and he had no health insurance? Then why the reluctance to identify the doctor, or the city and hospital where it happened?

I bear Kamal Saleem no malice. He is my age, a refugee and a victim who now, thanks be to God, has found new life. Much of his difficult biography is shared by the Arab Americans who were in the audience that evening at Calvin College. They also are immigrants who have settled down to find a better life and have lived here for decades as respected professionals and merchants. Like him, many fell in love and married. Some are Christians, some are Muslims. Some, like him, became Christians. Others did not. Still others married Christians who themselves converted to Islam.

The book purports to describe only "radical" Muslims, and once even concedes that "[m]any Muslims are kind and gentle people." But we meet no such Muslims in The Blood of Lambs. It repeatedly asserts that the core value of Islam is to kill Christians and Jews. This is common fare in Christian pulp fiction, where the fatuity of Islam matches its mind-numbing power. Still, some of the book's distortions are bizarre. It claims, for example, that the "rules of Islam" mean "no ham, no bacon, that sort of thing," and that Islam's higher rules are: "Do not drink alcohol. Do not use your right hand in the bathroom. Do not look upon women. Do not tolerate a disrespectful woman. Do not tolerate your grandma's Christianity." There are no adequate terms for such absurdities. Suffice it to say that if the subject were Jews, this book could not have been published.

Yet the book's seductiveness is more complex than this, and it does not really matter in the end whether or not Kamal Saleem is a fraud. The Blood of Lambs is obsessively, sadistically violent. It describes so many deaths and killings, in such pornographic detail, that we wonder whether indulging this secret lust is the whole point. Everyone longs to live a relevant life. It is as if Kamal Saleem has been very close to something that the reader, too, deeply yearns to experience, and that something seems to be encapsulated in the book's violence. Through violence the book pretends to give vicarious access to a more real knowledge of life. But our family has been through an attempted terrorist attack, and this is not just us, it is Umar abd al-Muttalib's family too—and many others, actually. My wife has survived cancer. Last summer in the Upper Peninsula we saw a bear in the wild (from our car!). Our niece just gave birth to twins. These are not our experiences only, they are every person's in some measure. It is insulting to be told that we have to look down the barrel of a gun to see life's inner meaning, or that only a killer can really understand Islam. Authentic experience comes when we see a man or a woman before we see a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew; when we hear a human voice before we hear "a thick Middle Eastern accent"; when the person next to us on the plane is a young man—with a father and a mother waiting for him—before he is a Nigerian or an American. Anything else leads down the road toward extremism. Although Kamal Saleem has forsaken much, he has evidently not yet forsaken that.

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