Islam is by far the most misunderstood religion in the world today thanks to centuries of medieval-style propaganda successfully peddled by bigots and Christian zealots. So I should not have been entirely surprised by the almost hysterical reaction in the mainstream media to news that I am considering becoming a Muslim. Some of the comments were (nasty) and snide, other journalists asked me stupid questions showing a distinct lack of research or understanding. One even accused me of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome as a result of spending ten days in the hands of the Taliban!
My spiritual journey, like that for many converts/reverts, was meant to be a personal affair between myself and God. Sadly it has now become a very public issue and so I have decided to share with Q-News readers my feelings and thoughts on Islam to prevent any more misunderstandings or misconceptions.
Yes, my journey did begin in the unlikely surrounds of an Afghan prison where I was being held by the Taliban facing charges of entering their country illegally disguised in the all-enveloping burqa. One day, during my captivity, I was visited by a religious cleric who asked me what I thought of Islam and if I would like to convert. I was terrified. For five days I had managed to avoid the subject of religion in a country led by Islamic extremists. If I gave the wrong response, I had convinced myself I would be stoned to death. After careful thought I thanked the cleric for his generous offer and said it was difficult for me to make such a life-changing decision while I was in prison. However, I did make a promise that if I was released I would study Islam on my return to London. My reward for such a reply was being sent to a ghastly jail in Kabul where I was locked up with six Christian fanatics who faced charges of trying to convert Muslims to their faith. (After being bombarded with their bible readings, happy-clappy Christian songs and prayers twice a day, I think we can discount the accusations of Stockholm Syndrome).
Several days later I was released unharmed on humanitarian grounds on the orders of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed spiritual leader. My captors had treated me with courtesy and respect and so, in turn, I kept my word and set out to study their religion. It was supposed to be an academic study but as I became more engrossed with each page I turned I became more impressed with what I read. I turned to several eminent Islamic academics, including Dr. Zaki Badawi, for advice and instruction. I was even given several books by the notorious Sheikh Abu Hamza AI-Masri whom I spoke to after sharing a platform at an Oxford Union debate. This latter snippet was seized upon by some sections of the media in such a ridiculous fashion that outsiders might have thought I was going to open a madrassa for AI-Qaeda recruits from my flat in Soho!
Thankfully the support and understanding I have been given from my brothers and sisters (for I regard them as that) has been unstinting and comforting. Not one of them has put pressure on me to become a Muslim and every convert/revert I’ve spoken to has told me to take my time. One of the big turning points for me happened earlier this year when the Israelis began shelling The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, one of the most precious monuments for Christians. Every year thousands of school children re-enact the Nativity at Christmas time, a potent symbol of Christianity. Yet, not one Church of England leader publicly denounced the Israelis for their attack. Our Prime Minister Tony Blair, who loves to be pictured coming out of church surrounded by his family, espousing Christian values, was silent. Only the Pope had the guts to condemn this atrocity. I was shocked and saddened and felt there was no backbone in my religious leaders. At least with Islam I need no mediator or conduit to rely upon, I can have a direct line with God anytime I want.
While I feel under no pressure to convert/revert by Muslims, the real pressure to walk away from Islam has come from some friends and journalists who like to think they’re cynical, hard-bitten, hard-drinking, observers of the world. Religion of any form makes them feel uneasy, but Islam, well that’s something even worse. You’d think I had made a pact with the devil or wanted to become a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan.
Others feared I was being brainwashed and that I would soon be back in my burqa, silenced forever like all Muslim women. This, of course, is nonsense. I have never met so many well-educated, opinionated, outspoken, intelligent, politically aware women in the Muslim groups I have visited throughout the UK. Feminism pales into insignificance when it comes to the sisterhood, which has a strong identity and a loud voice in this country. Yes, it is true that many Muslim women around the world are subjugated, but this has only come about through other cultures hijacking and misinterpreting the Quran (Saudis take note).
I wish I had this knowledge (and I’m still very much a novice) when I was captured by the Taliban because I would have asked them why they treated their own women so badly. The Quran makes it crystal clear that all Muslims, men and women are entirely equal in worth, spirituality and responsibility. Allah ordained equality and fairness for women in education and opportunity. Fair property law and divorce settlements were introduced for Muslim women 1400 years ago; maybe this is where Californian divorce lawyers got their inspiration from in recent years! The Quran could have been written yesterday for today. It could sit very easily with any Green Party manifesto, it is environmentally friendly and it is truly an inspiration for the 21st century, yet not one word has changed since the day it was written, unlike other religious tomes. "It’s more punk than punk," musician Aki Nawaz of the band Fun-da-Mental recently told me. And, of course he is right.
"The British journalist seized by the Taleban..", BBC News 29 September, 2001
This is the story of Yvonne Ridley’s journey that started in a Kabul prison and put her on a quest to discover the truth.