So I finished the 5-part (plus epilogue!) New York Times series about the hostage-taking, captivity and escape of reporter David Rhode. I enjoyed the series, and it reminded me of the one about a similar situation involving the Christian Science Monitor's Jill Carroll. This series, written by Rhode, gives a first-person account of his seven months as a Taliban hostage in Pakistan. He was kidnapped with two Afghan colleagues -- a translator and a driver -- in November 2008 as they traveled to interview a Taliban commander outside Kabul, Afghanistan.
The account is riveting and it will probably not surprise readers of this blog that the story involves more than a bit of religion. In the first installment, Rhodes says that despite seven years of reporting in the region, he didn't "fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become." Maybe I don't understand exactly what he's getting at but many of my former colleagues at Army Times (some of whom had first-hand knowledge) seemed to understand that years ago, describing the religious movement as just as or even more extreme than Al Qaeda.
One of the most important aspects of the series is how completely it describes multiple temperaments and beliefs among Muslims. At first, Rohde says he was impressed that his guards vowed to follow the tenets of Islam mandating good treatment of prisoners. But his captors begin lying to him and display "an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed" despite describing themselves as the true followers of Islam. He gets really worried when his Muslim translator is concerned that the captors are "really religious" and praying a lot:
Much of the story discusses the things he did in an attempt to gain favor with this captives. So, for instance, he tells them he wrote articles during the war in Bosnia and that Serbian Orthodox Christians had arrested him there after he'd exposed the massacre of Muslims.
It also looks at what has to be a remarkably under-reported story about misconceptions about Christians among certain Muslims:
I tried to get to know one of the guards, who was preparing to be a suicide bomber. A young man in his 20s with a slim build and brown eyes, he said he had studied engineering in high school. He never attended college but was relatively well educated compared with the other fighters.
When I asked him why he wanted to die, he replied that living in this world was a burden for any true Muslim. Heaven was his goal, he said. Earthly relationships with his parents and siblings did not matter.
He spoke a smattering of English, and my own beliefs seemed to interest and amaze him. During our six weeks together, he asked me a series of questions. Was it true, he asked, that a necktie was a secret symbol of Christianity? Was it true that Christians wanted to live 1,000 years?
His captors rail against the evils of a secular society. They celebrate a suicide attack on a mosque in Jamrud, Pakistan, that killed 50 because Pakistan has an apostate government, they said.
Again, here's the discussion of more than one kind of Islam:
One commander declared that no true Muslim could live in a state where Islam was not the official religion. He flatly rejected my compromise suggestion that strict Islamic law be enacted in Afghanistan's conservative rural south, while milder forms of Islam be followed in the comparatively liberal north.
Citing the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, he said it was every Muslim's duty to try to stop others from sinning. If one person in a village commits a sin, those who witness it and do not stop him will also be punished by God.
After we had been held for months in captivity, my kidnappers demanded that I stop washing the group's dishes because they did not want to catch my diseases. They believed that problems I was having with my stomach stemmed from my being an inherently unclean non-Muslim, not from unhygienic water.
Their rigidity was the opposite of the tolerant attitudes I had found among the vast majority of Muslims I had met in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pressing me to convert, one commander ordered me to read a passage of the Koran each day and discuss it with him at night. He dismissed my arguments that a forced conversion was not legitimate. He and the guards politely said they felt sorry for me. If I failed to convert, they said, I would suffer excruciating pain in the fires of hell.
At one point, a visiting fighter demanded to know why I would not obey. He said that if it were up to him, he would take me outside and offer me a final chance to convert. If I refused, he would shoot me.
Rohde describes himself as a nonobservant Christian, although he also discusses prayer throughout the series, including his recitation of the Lord's Prayer during times of distress. There's even a poignant bit where he says a Taliban commander who had been pressing him to convert told him that if he said "forgive me, God" 1,000 times each day, his captivity might end. Rohde did it but got no results.
Still, the prayers soothed him and passed the time so he did it ever day. The night on which he escapes, waiting to make sure the guards were sound asleep, he asks God to forgive him 2,000 times. Later that night, he and his translator made it out of the house and onto safe ground.