THE INTERVIEW FRANK GARDNER: Making Sense of Mayhem ; Last Year, Saudi Extremists Wounded the BBC Security Correspondent, Leaving Him Paralysed, and Murdered His Cameraman. but That Hasn't Destroyed His Love of Islamic Culture and Respect for Its History. Ian Burrell Talks to Frank Gardner
Burrell, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
Frank Gardner, the BBC's security correspondent, who 18 months ago was the victim of an attempted assassination by fanatical Islamists in a suburb of the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, came very close to becoming a Muslim himself.
In his early 20s, while living in Egypt, he thought deeply about converting to Islam. 'What attracted me to it was that it seemed to provide a very complete way of life that made a lot of people very happy,' he says.
After much thought he decided he could not commit to the demands of the religion. 'I thought that if I was going to do it I would have to do it properly and pray five times a day,' he says. 'I know so many Muslims who drink alcohol and break the fast " nothing wrong with that, it's up to them " but if I were going to do it I would have to do it wholeheartedly. I didn't think that was going to be very compatible with my life.'
Because of an attack made some two decades later in the name of Islam, Gardner will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair " only occasionally rising to his full height with the aid of callipers. He was shot six times by a gang which greeted him in Arabic with the words 'peace be upon you' before opening fire on him and killing his cameraman and friend Simon Cumbers.
His response to the shooting has been remarkable on so many levels. He has gratitude for his 'good innings' as an able-bodied man, travelling the world, running marathons and teaching his children to Rollerblade. He retains a profound positivity, noting that technological innovations mean that his disability will not necessarily prevent future opportunities for pursuing his interest in such activities as paragliding and skiing, or reporting for the BBC.
Most admirable of all, perhaps, is his continued 'respect' for a religion and culture in whose name he was so callously attacked, while preparing a report on the terror threat to Saudi oil installations. In 2006 he will sit on the board of the Festival of Muslim Cultures, a series of events across Britain. 'I'm all for promoting more positive aspects of Islamic culture,' he says.
This respect is tempered, though, by his deep understanding and wariness of the effects of the politicisation of Islam in recent decades. He will outline his knowledge of this subject in a 60- minute documentary for Radio 4 this Thursday, the making of which, you suspect, has been a cathartic experience for Gardner.
While he probes the roots of political Islam by interviewing such figures as the leading Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood activist Kemal el- Helbawi and the Libyan intellectual turned Afghan jihadist Noman Benotman, he refuses to engage with the type of fanatics who support the kind of bloody attacks to which he and Simon Cumbers fell victim.
'I would not be interviewing anybody who had any sympathy with the people who killed Simon Cumbers or shot me. I've got no interest in talking to those kind of extremists because they are beyond the pale of discussion and negotiation,' he says. 'Everybody who I interviewed was appalled and full of condemnation for what happened to us.'
His eloquent, even delivery is infused with a rare hint of anger, his voice rising slightly as he observes: 'Essentially the attack on us was a racist attack. Had we been brown skinned they wouldn't have shot us. We were shot because of the colours of our skin.'
A year and a half after the shooting, no one has been brought to justice. Saudi investigators have told Gardner, and he believes them, that all but one of his attackers have been killed in subsequent shoot-outs with the authorities. 'There's one person who's been arrested who we have been told took part in the attack on us,' he says. 'He was very badly wounded and the Saudis, I understand, were trying to give him the best medical attention they could so they could bring him to justice and charge him with the murderous attack on us. …