Monday, August 26, 2002

Yvonne Ridley Converts to Islam 


Last September, as tensions mounted in Afghanistan and Washington prepared to invade, British tabloid journalist Yvonne Ridley made headlines around the world. Clad head to toe in a burqa, Ridley was captured by the Taliban after sneaking into Afghanistan on the back of a mule. In her native Britain, the incident provoked heavy criticism. Ridley was accused of pulling a dangerous stunt at a sensitive time, endangering herself, her guides and the fragile state of international diplomacy. Now, nearly a year later, the veteran journalist is once again in the news. She recently announced plans to convert to Islam. Ridley sat down with Newsweek’s John Ghazvinian last week to explain her decision. Excerpts:

It's a bid odd, isn't it, that a journalist who was held captive by the Taliban would, several months later, be converting to Islam?

I know, you couldn't make it up. It is strange. Some people have said, "Oh, she's suffering from Stockholm syndrome" [in which kidnap victims become enamored of their captors]. But I abused them, I spat at them, swore at them, offended them, which is not what someone suffering from Stockholm syndrome does.

So why are you converting?

When I was captured, I was visited by an imam who asked me if I'd like to convert. I thought if I just said yes, he'd say I was a fickle woman, and if I said no, then it would be a huge insult to Islam. So I promised that if they released me, I'd study Islam when I got back to London. And what started out as an academic study has now turned into something much more spiritual. I'm very impressed with what I've found.

What was the point at which your academic interest tipped over into a personal or spiritual one?

I can't define one particular thing, but I can define the moment that I lost faith in Christianity. And that was during the siege of Manger Square, when the Israelis were shelling the Church of the Nativity, the holiest shrine in Christendom, and not one single church leader in this country condemned what was happening. Children up and down the country re-enact the Nativity every Christmas, it's so pivotal to the whole religion, and not one lousy bishop or archbishop-not one of them-stood up. If they don't have the conviction to stand up and shout about the abuse that's happening to the holiest shrine in Christendom, if they couldn't care less, why should I care?

What sort of conversations did you have with your captors in Afghanistan? Did you ever talk about Islam?

I wish I knew then what I know now, because I would have felt confident raising the issue of Islam and asking what on earth they thought they were doing with their women... But they were fanatical about their religion, so I just kept away from [the subject]. I did ask them why they destroyed the Buddhas. And they said, the whole world had ostracized us, and we had decided we were going to get rid of these rocks, and suddenly the whole world wanted to talk to us. We have millions of people starving, nobody gives a damn about us. We say we're going to destroy a few rocks, and suddenly the whole world gets very agitated, everybody wants to come and talk. So we thought, stuff them.

Do you think there could have been some room for conversation or dialogue with the Taliban?

What happened in Afghanistan is a fantastic example of why you should never totally ostracize a country. Because it will then become a target for all the fanatics to go in and take advantage of. If the West had been able to help them, and if they had been allowed to become dependent on food aid, they might have come in from the edges a bit. We'll never know.

What was your impression of the Taliban's brand of Islam while you were there?

Every mealtime, even though I was on hunger strike, they would go through the ritual of washing my hands for me. They kept referring to me as their "sister." They prayed five times a day regardless of what was happening.

What about this business of hanging your knickers up to dry in front of your captors?

I was washing my knickers and bra, and I hung them up on the line. And they told me to put a towel over it or something. And I said, that's bloody ridiculous. I thought, that's typical of men, who've never had to do washing or drying in their life. And I told them to get stuffed. And they told me that the governor was getting very angry, because his soldiers could see it, and it could give them impure thoughts. I said, if he's that bothered, tell him to come and take them down himself. Anyway, within half an hour, because of the baking sun, they were dry.

Now that you're becoming a Muslim, would you do the same thing again?

Well, it was very difficult. I had a game plan to get out of that prison, and I just had to be as difficult as possible. No, I don't think I would have been more sensitive. I mean, I was their prisoner. I had to be as awkward and horrible as possible.

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.


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