After an Islamist rampage in the Saudi town of Khobar on May 29 and 30 that ended in the deaths of 22 people, survivors of that atrocity have recounted how the terrorists went to great lengths to ensure that they would kill only non-Muslims. Their

After an Islamist rampage in the Saudi town of Khobar on May 29 and 30 that ended in the deaths of 22 people, survivors of that atrocity have recounted how the terrorists went to great lengths to ensure that they would kill only non-Muslims. Their actions raise a delicate but urgent issue: how might non-Muslims best protect themselves if caught in such a situation?

Even as the massacre was underway, the terrorists took pains to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims. Here are some of the survivors' testimonies:

Hazem Al-Damen, Muslim, Jordanian: two terrorists knocked on his door and asked him and others hiding whether they were "Muslims or Christians." On hearing "Muslims," the assailants told them to stay in the room because their purpose was to rid the country of Americans and Europeans.

Abu Hashem, 45, Muslim, an Iraqi-American engineer (also called "Mike" in some accounts): The terrorists demanded his residency card, which documented his religion (Muslim) and nationality (American). That combination provoked an argument between two terrorists. "He's an American, we should shoot him," said one. "We don't shoot Muslims," replied the other. The two went back and forth until the latter decided it: 'Don't be afraid. We won't kill Muslims, even if you are an American." With this decision, the terrorists turned polite, even apologizing for breaking into Abu Hashem's home, searching it, and leaving blood stains on his carpet.

Abdul Salam al-Hakawati, 38, Muslim, a Lebanese corporate financial officer: He and his family hid upstairs in their house after hearing gunfire. Downstairs, they heard the terrorists break in and rummage around before one apparently noticed framed Koranic verses on the wall and announced to the others, "This is a Muslim house." When a heavily armed terrorist came upstairs, Mr. Al-Hakawati confirmed his identity by greeting the assailant with "Assalamu 'Alaykum," the Muslim greeting.

Nizar Hajazeen, Christian, a Jordanian software businessmen: He hid with another Jordanian in a room but they opened the door when two armed young men banged violently on it. The terrorists asked the identity of the Jordanians, Arab or Westerners. "We're Arab," came the response. Each was then asked, "A Christian or a Muslim?" Both claimed to be Muslims and showed a Koran as proof.

Taking care to kill only non-Muslims appears to be in response to widespread Saudi criticism of Islamist terrorism directed against Muslims; Saudis seem to agree that murder is a tool suitably directed only against non-Muslims, as two quotes suggest:

Abdelaziz Raikhan, a maintenance man for the Saudi security forces, responded to the suicide bombing of a police headquarters in Riyadh that killed 5 people and wounded 148 on April 21, accusing the perpetrators of being "mentally ill. … There's not one American in this entire area. Not one! What kind of jihad is this?"

Mohsen al-Awaji, a Saudi lawyer, suggests that terrorists should be encouraged by the authorities to go to the many "occupied territories that require resistance," such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Chechnya. "If someone decides to go, we wish him luck. He's going to die anyway, so let him die there while achieving something, not die here and kill innocents with him."

Nor is this the first time Islamists have specifically targeted infidels. In Malaysia in 2000, for example, jihadists purposefully killed two non-Muslim hostages and spared two others, both Muslims. In Pakistan in 2002, a police chief noted killers "took a good fifteen minutes in segregating the Christians and making sure that each one of their targets gets the most horrific death." The murderers separated Christians from Muslims by requiring each hostage to recite a verse from the Koran. Those who could not were shot.

In all these cases, non-Muslims facing jihadists could have saved themselves by passing as Muslims.

There are several ways they could have done this. They might have greeted their potential murderers with Assalamu 'alaykum (which, ironically, means "peace be with you"). They might have recited in Arabic the Shahada, the Islamic statement of faith. Or they might have recited in Arabic the first sura (chapter) of the Koran, the essential prayer of Islam called the Fatiha ("Opening").

In the past, such knowledge would have saved lives. It could probably do so again in the future.


June 8, 2004 addendum (1): Here is the text of the Shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, in a Latin-letter transliteration of the original Arabic and in translation:

Ashhadu an la ilaha illa-llah
Wa ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasul-Ullah

I testify that there is no divinity but God
And I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of God

Here is the same for the Fatiha, the opening sura (chapter) of the Koran and the essential prayer of Islam (click here for audio):

Bismillah ar-rahman ar-raheem
Al-hamdulillah, rabb al-'alameen
Ar-rahman ar-raheem
Malik yawm ad-deen
Iyyaka na'budu wa'ayyaka nasta'een
Ihdina as-sirat al-mustaqeem
Sirat allatheena an'amta 'alayhim ghayri
al-maghdubi 'alayhim wala daalleen

In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds;
The merciful, the compassionate;
King of the Day of Judgment.
You we worship and Your aid we seek.
Guide us on the straight path,
The path of those You have blessed, not those
who incurred wrath, nor those gone astray.

June 8, 2004 addendum (2): I have received a number of responses to this article along the lines of "You are suggesting that I forsake my religious tradition to save my life, which I will not do." To this I have several reactions:

  • I respect this response.
  • I am not advocating religious dissimulation but pointing out the choice that a non-Muslim might face and making the information available with which to make that choice.
  • When non-Muslims are mortally threatened as described in the article above, they are not threatened for belonging to a religion (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) but for not belonging to a religion (Islam).

June 8, 2004 addendum (3): For further discussion of this subject, see my weblog entry, "Passing as a Muslim."