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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October 2003, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Viewpoint: A hostage's story
By Brian Keenan
Author and former hostage

Brian Keenan
Irish author Brian Keenan was kidnapped while working as a teacher in Beirut, Lebanon. He was held hostage by militant group Islamic Jihad for four years.

April is the cruellest month. That line of TS Elliot's has a special significance for me.

On 11 April, 1986, it was a bright sunlit morning as I locked the gates to the Turkish villa I rented in Rue D'Americque, Beirut and began the 10 minute walk to the university campus where I taught in the English department.

There were several butterflies drifting daintily across the bougainvillea - the last butterflies and sunlight I was to see for four-and-a-half years.

Within minutes I was bundled into the back of an old Mercedes by four armed gunmen. I was driven into captivity and the terrifying squalor of the secret underground prisons of Lebanon's Islamic militants.

Darkness and despair

For several months, I was held in isolation and complete darkness in a cockroach and rat infested cell. All my clothes and personal belongings were taken from me and I was made to wear a blindfold and a pair of shorts.

One meal a day of rice, vegetables and bread was shoved under the cell door.

The chains remained on our wrists and feet for the duration of our confinement

I was permitted only 10 minutes each morning to wash, use a stinking toilet and fill a bottle of drinking water. Another bottle was given to me to urinate into. The rest was unremitting darkness and despair.

For the first two years I was given no books or papers or allowed any access to radio or TV. Nor was I told who was holding me or why. My jailors spoke little English and pidgin French, so we conversed little.

My first interrogators spoke both languages and seemed to have some grasp however naively of international politics. They were primarily interested in the names of British teachers and the CIA operatives working in the American University of Beirut, company I was not in the habit of keeping or knowing.

Constant abuse and violence

After this initial period I was moved and held with John McCarthy, a British journalist captured a week after me. During our captivity, we were moved to several locations throughout Lebanon. One was in or near the Israeli occupied zone.

With the moves came the chains, which remained on our wrists and feet for the duration of our confinement.

My captivity revealed something about the psychology of these zealots that is rarely factored into any understanding of their cause
These men were in their early 20s with little education and a life experience that probably never extended to more than a few miles from their home.

As the years passed, we learned to communicate more. We were after all in each other's company 24 hours a day.

But a hostage existence is lived in a kaleidoscopic decompression chamber. Reality is a minimal but very heightened one. The mercurial temperament and psychotic personality of some of our captors occasioned erratic but constant abuse and violence.

Second hand rhetoric

Like fundamentalists anywhere they had a naÔve, myopic and absolutist view of the world. Everything was black and white. The West and particularly America was the great Satan and we, by association, were his acolytes.

Their rantings about American imperialism, Zionism and the Thatcherite and Reagan regimes were the second-hand rhetoric that they had been force fed and regurgitated.

A masked Islamic Jihad activist holding a machine gun
Militant Islamic groups began taking hostages to highlight their cause
If these men talked about the dispossessed and the poor of the world and the spectre of American and international capitalism, then that is because that was their very real experience of the world.

They wanted sovereignty over their own lives and affairs. The individual Jew was not abhorrent to them, but Zionism and the state of Israel has no legitimacy for them.

Jihad: Inner conflict and moral self-refinement

My residence in Lebanon before my capture had clearly pointed up the intense historical and political complexity of the Middle East.

My captivity revealed something about the psychology of these zealots that is rarely factored into any understanding of their cause.

Fundamentalism in any guise is the expression of a terminal sickness
These are people who want to be heard, who feel in their skin, the exclusion of the world and so turn against it. Flight or fight is a human response and these people were human even if their abuse of us was gratuitous and bestial at times.

However, what happened to me has not influenced my opinion of extremist Islam. Fundamentalism in any guise is the expression of a terminal sickness.

Messianic pronouncements and spectacular feats of martyrdom and carnage convince me of nothing. The call to holy war is a corruption of the meaning of the Koran. Jihad is about inner conflict and moral self-refinement as man approaches his God.

Obsession and psychosis

In comparison to today's extremists, my captors were markedly different. Their cause and the reason for our captivity were specific not global.

Brian Keenan with his sisters Brenda Gillhan and Elaine Spence
Keenan was released in 1990 after four-and-a-half years in captivity
They were a much smaller organisation operating only in Lebanon and organised and funded out of Iran. Our captivity was a reaction to British, American and Israeli support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.

It was also about the prolonged economic sanctions in Europe against Iran and also it was a means of leverage to obtain the release of 14 Muslim freedom fighters held in prison in Kuwait.

Today's extremist belongs to a more sophisticated and extensive covert network. Its operatives are organised, well funded, educated with a focus and commitment, which crosses the divide between obsession and psychosis.

Who is the prisoner here?

As an ideology it is neither theologically liberating nor politically revolutionary. Rather it is personally repressive, politically reactionary, and theologically prohibitive. It is the expression of a mind-set trapped in the middle ages, in collision with modernism.

It is a problem that will not go away. Least of all because another fundamentalist in the White House makes pronouncements about the axis of evil and promises to rid the world of this contagion.

This will only serve to rally young impressionable minds to the cause. But are they terrorists? Terrorism, like the word Jihad, is a term bandied about for the gullible by the myopic. It serves to legitimise aggression as a form of righteous crusade.

Just as I was chained in darkness for almost five years, my captors were chained to their guns in a profound darkness that I could see into. Tell me now, who is the prisoner here?

Your comments:

Bravo Brian Keenan! We still have some real heroes left
Riaz Quadir, Versailles, France

Brian's expressions are simply beautiful, as are many of the responses on this thread. I truly do hope that the clarity so many have shared here will multiply and flourish in the world at large.
Jonathan, York, UK

I feel that a major point left out in this story is the basic education, throughout, that one has to help one self. The blame game does not bring you anywhere. Look at the Chinese, Koreans and even India. They were or still are poor. But they work hard and try to improve their life. This is the only way into a better future. As long as the Muslims play the blame game, as demonstrated by the racist speech of the Malaysian prime-minister they won't get anywhere.
Gideon Schreiber, Israel

Bravo Brian Keenan! We still have some real heroes left. Every idea espoused by Mr. Keenan one of true humanity. To even attempt to understand the religion behind one's capturers, abusers and torturers is an act of spirituality. I wouldn't want to waste valuable space repeating many of the wonderful comments made by some of the other readers. But I would definitely like to note that the likelihood of the continuation, if not increase of violence is almost certain under the present political climate that has been brewing for decades and has been brought to the fore by the Iraq War and the subsequent US occupation. History is unforgiving, however much we may wish otherwise. The American led domination of the world (from Iraq to shoving GM food down the throats of the unwilling European population) by brute force (military, economic, legal sophistry, the list is long) will only reap its reward. And the USA is not a dictatorship, where a handful of the leaders can be held responsible for their many crimes against humanity, but a democracy where the majority of its populace has either backed the misdeeds of its government (as the few Americans commenting on this piece have proved) or have been guilty of being too busy pursuing their American "right to pursue happiness" to care. The really sad part of the story it seems is that the rest of the world has also lost its moral strength (as today's passing of the UN Security Council resolution shows) and is caving in under the pressure. But with heroes like Mr. Keenan around we must not lose heart and continue our noble struggle with all our humanity intact.
Riaz Quadir, Versailles, France

Brian your message is an inspiration to us all. If there is any good to be taken from the current crisis, it is the transparency with which this debate is being played out in the media globally. The key lesson to take from recent events is that for the first time in the history of human kind 'might is not right'. The dark days of meddling and manipulating regimes in pursuit of national interests needs to become a thing of the past. We cannot continue to look at current events in Iraq, Israel, the war on terror and WTO in isolation. All of these events are interrelated.
D.J.Elliott, Ireland

Beautifully written, but what is at the root of this problem and how to get rid of it? Firstly, it is the economy; the world needs a better managed and a well-balanced distribution of wealth. Secondly, mass education and teaching human values. My belief is that the tide is turning and a majority of Muslims are rejecting violence but the signs from the West, where you have some of the most right wing administrations in power, are disturbing.
Jalal Ahmad, Australia

My family psychologically suffered similar mental pain
Nina Aziz-Molnar, Malaysia/Germany
I remember reading Mr Keenan's book An Evil Cradling. Although I have never had such a tormenting experience, I can totally understand and empathise in the fundamental basis of the pain and agony which was inflicted by his captors. My family, who are devout Muslims, who follow the rules and teachings of Islam, psychologically suffered similar mental pain. In my opinion, Islam has lost its original purity. Instead it has been replaced by a subliminal feeling of "the chosen ones" by those who call themselves Muslims.

As someone who was born into a Muslim family, as an educated woman, I believe these squabbles are never ending, and the pressure from both ends will inflict tremendous amount of pain on the majority who sits in the middle. I am sick and tired of hearing: "Does the West understand Islam?" because I believe Islam doesn't understand the West either. As a liberal and educated Muslim woman who lives in the West, I am ashamed to be apart of both parties. We need more people who can stand apart from these pointless squabbles.
Nina Aziz-Molnar, Malaysia/Germany

Brian Keenan is a remarkable individual to be able to report so objectively. His generosity of spirit is amazing. Lots for all of us to learn from this. It would be interesting if you could interview some Palestinian survivors of Israeli prisons and some from Guantanamo Bay. Good to see both sides of the picture, no?
Mirza Yawar Baig, India

I am truly amazed at Mr Keenans's compassion in the midst of imprisonment and tribulation. As with many people, I do agree that it is only through the destruction of poverty and ignorance are we going to achieve peace and understanding. However, there will always be those who thrive on others' ignorance. The key is that more "humanists" should seek to spread the messages of tolerance, peace and love. I am sure if the people in those parts of the world had more food, clothing and shelter and the needs to raise their families there would be less time to devout and less susceptible to the poisonous words of these zealots. As for the President, he truly has a right to defend the American people. I hope that Mr Keenan can truly enjoy his life and continue to teach us all.
John, USA

This article should inspire and encourage everyone to find their own answers to the chaos in the world
Waqar Shareef, UAE
This article by Mr Keenan should inspire and encourage everyone to find their own answers to the chaos in the world. For all those who are trying to understand the chaos in the world, especially concerning Islam, I have one thing to say. I encourage you to investigate till you reach a logically sound and satisfactory conclusion. If you stop at the reference in the Koran about killing infidels, remember that the Koran is also the only book of God that recognises the existence of other religions and tolerance towards them. How can any Book of God be conflicting on the same subject? Read it for yourself in the Koran. Read it in its complete context. You will find that there are more ignorant people spreading ignorance than you want to believe or want to admit.
Waqar Shareef, UAE

I suppose the ultimate temptation when someone doesn't agree with you is to wipe them out physically and emotionally; if both sides do it then they become mirror images of each other. Ghandi, Martin Luther King and others point out there are other ways to deal with people and events. What fundamentalists don't have is imagination - a certain antidote to the "terminal disease"? A million thanks to people like Brian Keenan.
Jenny Bell, UK

I would salute Mr Keenan firstly for his understanding of the misnomer "Islamic terrorism", and secondly for the courage to share it. Islam is a philosophy, a set of principles for a civilised life. It does not advocate brutality. Neither does Christianity, but a similar act by a Christian does not brand the faith as a haven for terrorists. What we are witnessing today is a reaction. The causes need to be identified
S M I Razawe, Pakistan

We humanists differentiate ourselves from the secular and religious fundamentalists by our better arguments
Joris Luyendijk, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Reading Mr Keenan, one can only hope that right-wing Americans will one day muster the courage to overcome their justified anger at what happened on 9/11, to react not with more anger- provoking policies but with the humanism that underlies Mr Keenan's article. We humanists differentiate ourselves from the secular and religious fundamentalists not by our bigger guns but by our better arguments. Once we dare to use the latter, we will discover how many allies we have in the Islamic world. or, better still, how many of our humanist ideals stem from or were developed further by Muslims.
Joris Luyendijk, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

I just would like to thank Mr. Keenan. Thank him for his understanding attitude, for the very real grasp he has of the mindset of these "fundamentalists", for knowing the "other fundamentalist" so well, for not being resentful despite his ordeal, and for the wonderful language of his article.
Anna, Iran

It is amazing that despite his huge suffering, Mr. Keenan continues to be fair with his captors. I personally prefer to use the word "extremists" instead of "fundamentalists", because fundamentalism can just be sticking to the fundamentals of one's faith, but extremism is what really can be defined as terminal sickness! Mr. Keenan hit an important point, when he mentioned the 'fundamentalism' of Mr. Bush. There is not much difference between the extremism of small groups, and the extremism of governments, except in the fact that governments can sometimes inflict more harm on people than small groups.
M. Abdulghani, Syria

I am deeply moved by the inspiration and insight that Mr. Keenan has to offer
Syed Rizvi, UAE/Pakistan
I am deeply moved by the inspiration and insight that Mr. Keenan has to offer. And I hope that the words do reach the ears of Washington and its allies. As a Muslim, I have always known Islam as a religion that teaches tolerance and promotes peace.
Syed Rizvi, UAE/Pakistan

If ever you wanted an example of 'jihad,' Brian Keenan's rejection of anger and attempts to understand the reasons for the awful way they treated him, is it.
Aqib Elahi Mehboob, Pakistan

I agree fully with Mr Keenan's second last paragraph, the word "terrorism" is thrown around way too much today. Just like the word Jihad it has been hijacked by a group of opposing fundamentalists. We now have a situation where terrorism means any country to the United States and so they can legitimise their own aggression with manipulations like a "war on terrorism". Just like a group of Muslim fundamentalists can do the same thing with their own corruption of the word Jihad legitimising their violence against their victims. These actions only serve to polarise both sections of the world community. With the kinds of devastating effects we have seen all over the world.
Matthew J McCullough, Northern Ireland

Lumping the White House in with militant Islam is rather ludicrous
Steve Gertz, USA
Mr. Keenan,
I appreciate your insights into the terrorist mindset and extreme fundamentalism. However, I do think lumping the White House (who does not engage in international terrorism) in with militant Islam is rather ludicrous. Classifying nations as more "evil" than others, while distasteful to some, hardly compares with the terror of 9/11. Also, jihad is about more than self-purification. The Qur'an is explicit about killing "infidels," and Muslims have used jihad to fight non-Muslims for centuries. I agree that many Muslims are peaceful - I personally know Muslims who are. But that does not change what the Qur'an commands, nor does it "marginalize" militant Islam.
Steve Gertz, USA

To Steve Gertz: Just read neutral viewpoints on what USA did to Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile - just to mention a few. It supported Saddam in the Iran/Iraq war and at the same time sold ammunitions to Iran for the same war. USA is the only country to use nuclear bombs on civilians in Japan. I know you can justify even this, because "might is right"? I think one can write a whole encyclopaedia on how the White House terrorised this world with their might, yet they are right.
Jameel, Bangladesh

Steve Gertz from USA couldn't be more wrong when he stated "Muslims have used jihad to fight non-Muslims for centuries". Whilst the "civilised" world was indulging in pogroms and inquisitions Muslims provided sanctuary. Their period of colonialism in Iberia was by no means brutal. When Muslim rule ended in India, the bulk of the population was Hindu. When Christian rule came to an end in neighbouring Goa, the population was 100% Christian, converted by sometimes brutal tactics. BBC then went on to highlight Steve's statement "Lumping the White House in with militant Islam is rather ludicrous". This is the same White House that ignored the fact that Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in absolute peace and harmony in that very Palestine for more than a millennium.
Mohamed-Amin, Zimbabwe

I find it amazing that despite his horrific ordeal, Mr Keenan still has the willingness to analyse and understand these criminals, and I am touched to see that his experiences have not clouded his view of the world. This is the mark of a great and a civilised man, and if there is any justice in the world, these animals will be punished for their hideous crimes one day.
Anon, UK/Lebanon

Born a Lebanese Moslem, I must attest that Mr. Keenan has given me the words I've been for many years looking for to describe 'fundamentalism'. It is as he rightly described it "personally repressive, politically reactionary, and theologically prohibitive". I never saw it anywhere so beautifully put. Glad you came out with such a brilliant spirit, probably it was this same spirit who took you there in the first place. One day all the western hostages who were taken captive in Lebanon should have a memorial in the country for everyone to visit, see, and learn.
Sam Maeroum, Toronto, Canada

Mr. Keenan has given voice to an important truth in this conflict
Ricardo S. Baez, USA
I am profoundly impressed with the depth of understanding Mr. Keenan has given expression to. This conflict as many others in the world today are precisely this collision of mind set between the middle ages and the modern world. We live not only in different places and cultures, but in a different world of time as well. You can see this in rural S. America, in the countryside of Italy and Greece probably in more places than we would readily think. Mr. Keenan has given voice to an important truth in this conflict. His voice and reasoning are to be encouraged and cheered.
Ricardo S. Baez, USA

This is an extremely well-written and moving report as can be expected from an English teacher. The one thing I liked about this article is that he understood the viewpoint of his captors too. Though he does not and should not condone their actions, he definitely believes that the people who held him captive were forced into this because of the misery of their lives. It is this understanding that is required from people around the world. We must try to remove misery from people than try to create more misery by making the Iraqs and Afghanistans. The best way to ensure a safer world is by the richer countries of the world to share their wealth with the poorer nations. We need more balance in the world in terms of wealth to make more people happy and less people miserable.
Taha Suglatwala, Buffalo, USA; Bombay, India

Kennan's essay is sadly ridiculous. Even after suffering inhuman torture at the hands of Islamic terrorists, Keenan still feels obliged to defend them. The men who kidnapped and tortured Keenan are not, as he writes "like fundamentalists anywhere." Nor do they simply want "sovereignty over their own lives and affairs." These kinds of atrocities are inflicted, routinely, only by Muslims, and not only against Christians and Jews, but against other Muslims as well. Keenan's assertion that his captors just "want to heard" indecently shifts the blame for the torture that he and others have suffered at the hands of these Muslim terrorists to everyone (apparently the West) but the Muslims themselves. And while his interpretation of jihad and the Koran sounds very nice, it is not the interpretation being taught in Islamic schools in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Palestine, or other Muslim countries where the current generation of Islamic terrorists and torturers are creating the next.
Michael D. Fox, USA

To Michael D. Fox in the USA: The form of Islam you are talking about is not Islam, it is state-sponsored Wahabism, an extreme form of Islam. There are fewer and fewer real Islamic schools, and the reason for that is that Saudi Arabia, you're country's best friend, is paying enormous amounts of money to newly funded Wahabism schools throughout the world. As long as your country is sponsoring and protecting the Saudi regime, terrorism will flourish and the real meaning of jihad will be forever hidden.
Paul, Belgium

I remember watching these events unfold on the BBC. I find Brian's comments interesting, but does he have any answers as to how to prevent the fundamentalists forming their views in the first place? Only through a mutual understanding can our world be safer.
Chris Redgrave, UK, currently in Panama

Mr Keenan has a better understanding of a fanatic's psyche than perhaps anyone who reads his article. I do not believe, however, that this makes him qualified to pronounce judgments on Mr Bush or anyone who stands opposed to the very real threat of Islamic militarism. Mr Keenan's apparent sympathy for his captors is disturbing and sickening. "Fight or flight" is the correct way to describe his jailors' mindset, only it does not look like that is the attitude adopted by Mr Keenan toward them. Perhaps Mr Keenan should explain, exactly what allows a western man to be in a better position to feel charitable in the face of adversity, and what should compel westerners to understand those who want to kill them?
Stan, USA

Muslim clerics need to re-educate the youth - but the question is with what?
Mak Khan, England
A wonderful and moving account of the awful time he suffered. I completely agree that Muslim clerics need to re-educate the youth - but the question is with what? When all the youth hear and see if violence from the 'western aggressors', there is little peace to educate them with. Remember, a teaching may be viewed as being perfect but a people can never practice it perfectly. In many cases (such as the Palestinian situation), the underlying causes of peoples' 'sickness' needs to be tackled... otherwise, it's awfully hypocritical for us to sit here in our comfy homes and judge over the morals of deep rooted political and religious prejudice.
Mak Khan, England (origins in Pakistan)

I am deeply moved by Mr. Keenan's words. Having been exposed to fundamentalism in religion and politics through friends and family, I agree that it is like a cancer, destroying happiness and deluding its followers. Mr. Keenan's comments about the frustration these people have felt saddens me. There don't appear to be any solutions.
Michele Zeller, United States

I fully agree with the author and the real-life experience of his captivity is a lesson to Muslim clerics (Sunni and Shia both) to guide the youths towards the right path of Islam; as Islam is a religion of peace.
Nadia Khan, United Kingdom originally Pakistani

Moving, and horrifyingly accurate. Written with a profound respect for the humanity of those who treated him so inhumanely. Bravo.
John, Canada

As a humanist, I would have to say that Brian Keenan's article is a breath of fresh air. Too often in this day and age are the common man guided into darkness by fundamentalists i.e. Bush, Bin Laden, Sharon. When will the voice of the moderates be heard? "Fundamentalism in any guise is the expression of a terminal sickness."
Lam Ung, US

Let us all begin to see that we are one people who must learn to acknowledge each other's views
Fred Jones, US
Your story is touching and revealing. Fundamentalism, be it Islamic, Christian or whatever, serves to rob people of their common sense and makes them servants of a mindless evil. The madness of Islamic jihad against a perceived demonic America and the west is currently countered by a US president stuck in the low-brow, gun-toting mentality of the 1800s. Let us all begin to see that we are one people who must learn to acknowledge each other's views and respect each other's right to life and liberty.
Fred Jones, US

Poignant and beautifully written. Provided food for thought and gave a first hand insight into the situation in the Middle East.
Jason Assam, Trinidad and Tobago

I spent many years involved in a fundamentalist sect. This author has correctly identified the limited experience and "black and white" world of fundamentalism. He refers to any fundamentalism as a "terminal sickness". This sentence has two meanings, and I think the author meant both. It is a dead end, but it is also caused by fear that the narrow "truth" these people believe is threatened and about to die. And the author's reference to President Bush as a fundamentalist is correct.
Raymond Mercier, United States of America

Very compelling. Clearly the cycle can only be broken when one of the sides spends the time to rid their country's mind of the myopic ignorance that perpetuates this.
T Pike, Canada

Brian Keenan is a hero. His take on the minds & methods of fundamentalists is absolutely on the dot...truly amazing!
Flavian Castelino, Canada

Mr. Keenan, being a Muslim I feel really sorry for what happened to you and my words will not heal the sufferings you faced during captivity. But I would share my intense hatred against all these zealots, Muslims or otherwise, who use the name of religion to promote their own vested agenda. I would also like to ask those Muslim fundamentalists, who made you hostage, which religion do they follow.

Being grown up in modern Pakistan, I myself have never seen any reference and any relation to their acts in any of the books and history related to Islam. Who treats hostages like that, haven't they read. Who kills humans, would they like to be held charged for the killing of whole humanity. I guess they are blind-folded and have chosen a path to destruction. I would request them to please don't use my religion and its clear beliefs for their own motives.
Ahsan, Canada/Pakistan

Muslims and non-Muslims alike could profit from his generosity of spirit
Deanna Bean, Toronto, Canada
Brian Keenan is to be deeply respected for his ability to report in such a balanced and insightful manner after the horrors of his incarceration... an example himself of the refinement of the human spirit that he mentions as the real object of the Holy Jihad. Muslims and non-Muslims alike could profit from his generosity of spirit.
Deanna Bean, Toronto, Canada

Brian Keenan makes an excellent point. The only way out is through mass education and freedom of speech. Without these two fundamental things, they will not be able to shun and overcome the sickening culture.
Mohd F Mahmood, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

I think Mr Keenan's last paragraph sum's it all up perfectly. Although he was physically imprisoned, his captors had confined themselves to a mental/spiritual prison of their own making, just as most so-called fundamentalists do.
Richard Danks, UK

Disturbing insight into some of the motivations behind these groups. It's a cultural rift very difficult for the average American to understand or resolve.
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