In 2001, British journalist Yvonne Ridley was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Upon her release she left behind her life as hard living Fleet Street journalist and converted to Islam. She is now one of the most outspoken, and at times controversial, authors in the Muslim world.
She tells Al Bawaba News about her capture by The Taliban, her life as a Muslim activist and her personal strategy for tackling ISIS.
ABN: Tell me about your life before finding Islam?
YR: I worked hard and played hard 24/7 with an adrenalin-fuelled lifestyle which leaves me breathless when I look back. Considering I didn't take drugs I wonder how I existed with only a few hours sleep for more than two decades. I think I didn't stop to reflect otherwise I'd probably be appalled at a life littered with broken marriages and relationships. I lived very much for the moment and embraced an almost hedonistic philosophy. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a bad person just reckless with myself and the feelings of others although I also did my best to inject a bit of happiness into the lives of others so not an entirely selfish existence. The one constant in my life was work and it was to that I gravitated.
ABN: Describe the circumstances surrounding your capture by the Taliban? What happened? How was your relationship with your captors?
YR: I was done for by a rogue donkey! After two successful days undercover in Jalalabad and outlying villages the final stages of the return journey was made on the back of a donkey. The animal bolted and unseated me in front of a passing Taliban soldier who immediately spotted a camera around my neck which slipped out of the folds of my all enveloping blue burqa. He seized the camera and left me trying to find out who was accompanying me. At that point he didn't realize I was a Westerner and lost interest while searching for my male companions. I realized I could escape and so I made a getaway by latching myself on to another mixed group of travelers ... what's one more burqa, I thought. However, when I looked back and saw they'd arrested my two male guides I felt compelled to return in the belief they'd lose interest in the guides and arrest me instead.
When I pushed my way through a crowd of curious, angry men who'd gathered I was thrown back. This was men's territory and no business for a woman, or that was their attitude. So at that point I removed my burqa (I was wearing a shalwar kameez) and shouted at everyone in English to leave the guides alone.
My cunning plan backfired (no surprises there then) and all of us were arrested and returned to Jalalabad where we were taken to the intelligence HQ and questioned. I genuinely thought they'd kill me either before, during or after their interrogations and so I decided to be the prisoner from Hell since I had nothing to lose. I swore at them, spat at them and threw things at them - they were quite shocked and appalled at my bad behavior. On several occasions they got up and walked out of the interrogations they were so offended by my responses. After six days of verbal abuse (from me) and I'd gone on hunger strike I was sent to the terrorist wing of Kabul Prison and held for another five days before being released on humanitarian grounds.
When they removed me from the prison I thought I was going to be executed. It was October 8, 2001 and the war had started the night before with lots of Afghan civilians killed and injured in US and UK bombs. You can hear a cruise missile from 20 miles away and these were coming within a quarter of a mile of the prison. It was terrifying.
ABN: How did you come to find Islam after this point? Was it difficult for you to accept given the fact that this was the religion of the men who had held you captive?
YR: There was a bizarre period during my captivity in Jalalabad when I was invited to embrace Islam. I told the imam I couldn't make such a life changing decision in prison but if I was released then I promised to study Islam. While they held on to eight other westerners in Kabul they did release me against all odds. So I decided to keep my word and, as a journalist, I realized that I couldn't write with any authority on the Muslim world until I knew more about the faith as peoples' lives were influenced in so many aspects by Islam.
ABN: How has Islam changed your life? I know you've previously denied suggestions that your conversion is a result of Stockholm Syndrome, but was was it that attracted you to the faith?
YR: I do laugh when people say I'm a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. The Taliban despised me nearly as much as I despised them - hardly conducive if you are supposed to bond with your captors. I suppose you could argue that the experience was a trigger to me picking up the Holy Qur'an but then again 9/11 was also a trigger for thousands of others to do the same. Call it curiosity if you will but I wanted to know what is in this book that has such a huge impact/influence of peoples' lives. What attracted me were the rights, equality & justice themes running throughout the Qur'an. It's quite obvious when you consider the treatment of some women that there are men out there who do not understand their own religion. The Holy Quran makes it crystal clear we women are equal in education, spirituality and worth. When I mention this not one man has tried to contradict me because even the most ignorant misogynist will not challenge the words of Allah.
ABN: How did people close to you react to your decision to convert? What about your colleagues?
YR: What few people outside my closest circle realized was I was already a practising Christian who went to church at St James' in Piccadilly. Previously I'd sang in the choir and been a Sunday school teacher in my local parish back home in County Durham. Basically few people realised I was religious and so it came as a shock to them; the reaction by many was hostile and some have avoided contact ever since which is really sad. One particular chap even reduced me to tears when he publicly ridiculed me and my hijab at a public party. I was shocked. I made a beeline for him, laughing to myself remembering our last encounter over a bottle of absinthe. Although I no longer drank I thought we would be able to laugh about old times but he was so hostile I was aghast.
ABN: Do you believe that your religion affects your political view points regarding British foreign policy and the Middle East generally?
YR: I don't believe Islam has colored my views on foreign policy. I've held previous UK governments to account for foreign policies. I often joke that the first person to radicalize me was Margaret Thatcher and one of my favorite sayings is: "If you're not radicalized yet it's because you're not paying attention." People of faith and no faith are angry at British foreign policy for all sorts of reasons.
ABN: What is your view on the separation of church and state and political Islam generally? Do you believe that Shariah law can offer a fairer alternative to secular law?
The idea of separation of church and state is a myth. Look at the opening of the British Parliament for evidence .. every year The Queen, head of state, opens the proceeding and announces what her government is going to do that year. She is also the head of the Church of England, the defender of the faith if you will.
Shariah law will never work as long as incompetent men are allowed to make judgment and rulings based on their own skewed interpretations. The Shariah councils in the UK, for example, are largely a disgrace and anything but just or fair especially when it comes to women's rights.
The judicial systems operating in England and Wales leave much to be desired although I believe the judicial system in Scotland, which is different again, is probably fairer. However there are still miscarriages of justice so we should always be on our guard.
ABN: What about the issue of Islamophobia in the West? Do you believe that Muslims are being unfairly targeted more in the West following Brexit / the election of Donald Trump? Have you experienced Islamophobic incidents?
YR: I used to be proud to wear my hijab and tell people it is my business suit and tells people I'm a Muslim. Now the hijab is seen as an open invitation by some to be abusive and violent towards Muslim women. I no longer wear the hijab in the UK unless I'm in a mosque or in a predominantly Muslim area.
I still go in to conflict and war zones and, if I'm in a Muslim country, I will wear a hijab but I am not going to set myself up as a target in my own backyard where I should be able to walk about freely without being targeted for abuse.
Brexit and Trump are symptoms of a much wider problem largely driven by secularists who are intolerant of any religion.
ABN: Are there any parts of the Quran with which you don't agree? If so, what are they?
YR: To understand the Qur'an you have to understand the context and the historic backdrops of passages written at certain times. Fools will pick up texts out of context and deliberately skew them in order to demonize Islam. I really can't be bothered with these idiots who spout bile and hatred without knowing the full story. it's a bit like reading the headline of a news story without examining the full content.
What I would say is that Sir Winston Churchill was considered one of the greatest orators of his time and people still read and/or listen to his recorded speeches today. That doesn't mean to say we still consider Germans the enemy or fight Germans on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, in the hills as urged by Churchill in 1940. There are some idiots out there who need to get a grip and, if they are going to criticize Islam, at least get the context right.
ABN: Do you believe that Islam has become a tool for extremists in some cases? For instance, for use by ISIS and / or the far-right? How so and what is the best way to combat extremist doctirine and those who spread it?
YR: Daesh, it is widely accepted, has nothing to do with Islam. Most of the recruits lack basic knowledge of Islam and, as such, are easy targets for propaganda. The best way to combat extremism is in schools through education. it is also important to tackle poverty, crime and unemployment.
Consider the profile of the French and Belgium terrorists.. young men with petty criminal records who are a product of a racist environment driven to extremism because someone tells them something they find attractive. Most of these young men and ISIS recruits are disenfranchized, have low self esteem and are on the fringes of society without hope of work, getting married or having their own home.
ABN: Given your experience with the Taliban, what do you believe is the most effective method to tackle groups such as ISIS? Will the current military offensive prove successful in defeating Daesh?
YR: It is not helpful to compare the Taliban and Daesh; they are two different groups with two entirely different ideologies and agendas. Defeating Daesh can only be achieved with a multi-pronged approach and co-operation with the international community. While establishing the so-called Caliphate Daesh officials managed to sell vast quantities of iraqi oil and buy fleets of Toyota trucks to mobilise their army. How did this happen? It could not have been done on a street corner or through petty crime - it involved some major state players, allies of the West. Unless the likes of the US & UK are prepared to stand up to some of these Arab states this sort of nonsense will continue.
Daesh did not happen by accident and was a by-product of shock and awe, the war launched by Bush and Blair. There are direct consequences for meddling in the Middle East and while billions of dollars and pounds are made with arms deals in the Arab world we have to start asking what is the real price back home in terms of security and safety.
ABN: What do you believe is the most effective solution for promoting religious harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims? What is the best solution for a peaceful world?
YR: The solution, while not easy, is there for all to see and act upon and that is to promote a female friendly foreign policy and start inviting women in to keep political roles and public life. Where there is gender equality there is progressive government and where there is misogyny there are backward, primitive civilizations which are in chaos through war, famine and natural disasters.
At the height of Islam's golden era when science, engineering, inventions, education, medicine and architecture excelled women were predominantly shoulder to shoulder with them men. Where are the women in Iraq? Where are they in Darfur, South Sudan, Syria, Asia and Africa?
Look at the war mongering coming out of the Trump Administration, most photo opportunities show Trump surrounded by pale, stale, suited men. It is no coincidence that progressive countries like Sweden, Denmark and Scotland are flourishing under gender-balanced governments.
There is misogyny in the Muslim world but that largely came about because of colonial occupation from the West which found it far easier and encouraged men to control their women - that way they need only worry about dealing with the men.
Where there is gender balance in government there is usually harmony from both religious and secular communities.
Yvonne Ridley now writes several international media columns giving political analysis and promoting women rights. Her latest book is called Torture: Does It Work? Interrogation issues and effectiveness in the Global War on Terror It follows her previous book based on what happened in Afghanistan - In The Hands of the Taliban. From her farm in the Scottish Borders, she is now working on a fictional trilogy for book and film but still gives lectures and talks on the MENA region.