A few months ago I received a call from Toronto. "Professor Sardar," said the caller, "I am Dr al-Masri from the university in Jeddah. We met at the international Islamic conference in Kuala Lumpur last year." The caller went on to talk about "our friends" and ask about my family and children.
I am not particularly clubby. Chit-chat about mutual acquaintances seldom holds my interest. Lacking as I am in the memory department, references to times, places and faces are wasted on me. But mention my books and I am yours.
I was not perturbed by the speed with which the caller subtly switched from friends and family to my book Desperately Seeking Paradise. From that moment he had my undivided attention. The caller rushed headlong to observe how my writing so crystallised the heart of the matter of Muslim life and times. What is more, it had stimulated him to conceive a cunning plan. Should we not, he wondered, grasp the very nettle of our dilemma, confront the power structures directly and hold a conference in Saudi Arabia? "It will set a reformist cat among the Saudi pigeons," he said. Moreover, he went on, he had already secured "serious funding" for the conference. "Not everyone in the kingdom is an obscurantist nut. There are reform-minded sheikhs who are willing to give generously, if anonymously, to support reformist efforts." Then I learned that Dr al-Masri was visiting Canada; and he would like to pay me a visit en route back to Jeddah to discuss the details of the conference.
A conference: the essential device of the intellectual, the shop where talking is all and everyone has their 30 minutes to set forth their stall of panaceas and take questions if time permits. I have been to more conferences than most people have consumed hot dinners. But am I sated? No, I still salivate at the very idea. I waited for Dr al-Masri to turn up on my doorstep.
A couple of days later I got another call from him. He sounded in distress. He was stranded with his family at Toronto airport, he said. Their tickets and money had been stolen. Could I help him out in his hour of need and wire some emergency cash by MoneyGram? "How much do you need?" I asked. "Twenty thousand pounds," came the reply. That seemed a rather large sum to fly from Toronto to Jeddah. "I have a large family," he replied. "Besides, we are Saudis: we travel first class." I laughed. He realised that the game was up, and laughed back.
I had to salute the man. He had done his research. It is why this is one of the most successful cons in recent Muslim history. I don't want to name names, but numerous reputable Muslim scholars and academics, largely in North America, have been had. (I could be persuaded to provide a list if an appropriate honorarium was forthcoming!) Even a number of schools, mosques and Islamic organisations have been defrauded.
In the case of institutions, our con artist pretends to be the director of a Saudi trust who wants to distribute grant money. Other cons targeted at Muslims tend to be less literate. A recent post-Iraq arrival follows the pattern of the well-established Nigerian 419 fraud. Named after the relevant section of the criminal code of Nigeria, this scam has been running for more than 20 years and has netted the fraudsters billions of pounds.
In the scam's new incarnation, the target receives an e-mail allegedly from someone in hiding in Iraq. He once worked in the office of Saddam Hussein, he says, and has come into £20m of the ex-leader's ill-gotten gains. But in all Islamic honesty, this money cannot be used by individuals. The only way to infuse it with God's blessings is to use it to set up a waqf - an Islamic charitable trust - to benefit the destitute and the needy. Something the e-mailer would like to do with the help of the target. The only problem is that the dollars cannot be used in Iraq without raising suspicion. And transporting such large sums has its own logistical problems. So the target is asked to send money to an external account, which can safely be used to get Saddam's riches out.
A home-grown variation claims to have unearthed fortunes, languishing in various banks, which belong to recently deceased Muslims. These people have left no kith and kin. Instead of the money earning forbidden interest and propping up an infidel society, it has to be rescued for the benefit of Muslims. Of course, the rescue attempt requires an initial sum.
Thanks largely to the efforts of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, my Dr al-Masri has been caught. Real name: Mohamed Agbarie, not a Saudi but a Palestinian from Israel. It seems that certain Muslim scholars were not only willing to help him financially, but even felt the need to ensure his physical comfort. A number of them actually turned up at Toronto airport, with the Orangeville Police Service in tow. Agbarie is now in first-class accommodation in one of Canada's finest penitentiaries.
But I think a man capable of such meticulous research, and of discussing complicated ideas, deserves a reward. And you must agree that, for all the madmen and fanatics we produce to bestir our conscience, we can still produce a better class of scoundrel - the kind who really do read books.
Give this man a doctorate!