Yvonne Ridley: Captive, convert, activist

Yvonne Ridley converted to Islam after being held captive by the Taliban in 2003

It’s a story that never gets boring no matter how many times you hear it. Journalist Yvonne Ridley tells Dilly Hussain about her life as a captive under the Taliban to her transformation into one of the most high-profile female converts to Islam in Britain. In this interview, Yvonne describes her time as a prisoner, the role Islam plays in her life and her views on the Arab Spring two years on.   

DH: Yvonne tell us briefly why you went to Afghanistan in 2001 for The Sunday Express?

YR: It was the build-up to war and as a Sunday newspaper journalist I wanted to do a thought-provoking feature about what life was like for ordinary Afghan people under the Taliban and under the threat of war. There were pages of speculation but facts were very thin on the ground other than what was being spoon-fed to the daily newspaper journalists by Washington and London.

DH: What were your initial views when 9/11 happened and the US and NATO led invasion that followed?

YR: 9/11 was horrific and a news event I would say on a scale comparable to the assassination of JFK and man landing on the moon. I was left, like everyone else, feeling quite breathless and not given time to think or analyse what was happening. There were cries for revenge by the American people and a huge wave of sympathy from the rest of the West towards them.

DH: How did you get into Afghanistan, considering visas were being refused to Western journalists?

YR: I sneaked in undercover of the all enveloping blue burqa with two guides, one from Afghanistan and one from the old NWFP province. I did try and get a visa three times from the Afghanistan embassy but it was quite clear by the reception I received the Taliban were not going to issue one.

DH: How were you captured by the Taliban and who were you with?

YR: It’s a very long story but in a nutshell I fell off a donkey after my camera fell through the folds of my burqa. It all happened in the full view of a Taliban soldier. He went to challenge my two guides and at that point I could’ve got away because he didn’t realise I was a westerner. I was ignored and so I latched on to another group heading towards the Pakistan border, but when it came down to it I could not abandon my two guides and so I returned to the melee and pulled off my burqa! I’ll never forget the look on everyone’s faces.

DH: What were your first instincts when captured?

YR: I completely shut down emotionally and appeared incredibly cool and calm when in fact I was in such a state of shock. I was incapable of showing any emotion. I thought that I was going to die and was minutes away from being executed.

DH: What were the charges brought against you?

YR: I was investigated for espionage and entering the country illegally without visa or travel documents.

DH: You spent time in solitary confinement and then a prison in Kabul. I believe you were on hunger strike?

YR: I was held in solitary confinement in Jalalabad where I was interviewed by a team of the scariest looking men I’d ever seen. They all had huge turbans and big black beards and refused to look at me. I thought they couldn’t look at me because they had already decided to execute me but it transpired they were showing me respect as a woman.

The only control I had was over meals and so I refused to eat and went on hunger strike – this really upset them because they regard food as precious and are an extremely hospitable people in that region. Even though I was a prisoner they kept telling me I was their guest. After six days I was moved to a prison in Kabul.

DH: On what grounds were you released?

YR: I was released on humanitarian grounds on the orders of Mullah Omar.

DH: Were you ever physically hurt or abused under captivity? Were you given personal rights including privacy?

YR: All the fear I held was manufactured in my mind which made me realise on my release that the jailer can used the oppressed mind to control his prisoner. They never physically hurt or threatened me although my behaviour towards them was abusive. I decided that since you shouldn’t kiss the hand that slaps you I should be the prisoner from hell.

So in a rather bizarre pre-emptive measure I spat at them, swore at them and was extremely abusive and threw things at them. They could not understand why I was so angry but they never reacted in a violent way to my abuse. That’s why I always smile when people accuse me of Stockholm Syndrome when a captive is supposed to bond with their captors.

DH: What led you to accepting Islam in 2003 and how has it changed your life? 

YR: Six days into my captivity I promised a religious cleric that I would study Islam if he released me. I had rejected his offer to embrace Islam then and there. When I was released I kept my promise but also, as a journalist covering the Muslim world, I realised that I couldn’t report effectively unless I knew about Islam. Islam was clearly a way of life so to report with any accuracy meant I should study their faith and in that way I wouldn’t make basic cultural errors which I had done previously in captivity.

DH: The last time we spoke about the Arab Spring, you were actually emailing me from Libya when a group of militia had stopped you and your film crew after the fall of Ghadafi. Since then, how do you think the region has progressed or regressed? Egyptians voting in Morsi then ousted by the military, and the ongoing conflict in Syria which is approaching its third year?

YR: I’m a big supporter of the Arab Spring. I found it so refreshing watching ordinary people rise up against the tyrants who had ruled them for years and getting rid of them. That, it seems, was the easy part and unfortunately with a combination of Western meddling and constant undermining by a disgruntled Arab Left the revolutionary passage is not going to be that smooth.

I’m not sure why I thought it would be as historically revolutions take many twists and turns. The Cuban revolution is more than 50 years old and is still developing. The big surprise for many was the emergence, and to some degree, success of Islamic parties. The Arab Left which will expunge all religion from every crevice in the Muslim world if it gets a chance, was shocked at the emergence of the En-Nahda Movement in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even the Libyan government is influenced very much in its decision-making by Islam…but then this IS the Muslim world.

It’s very easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise but I would urge people to remember that many have paid the blood price so that others can be free from tyranny and to show some patience. You can’t get rid of decades of decay, dictatorship and corruption in one go.

And I don’t see why the Syrian people can’t be free from tyranny either and the Assad regime has proved it is a regime without mercy, compassion or love of its people. What concerns me now is the growing sectarianism which is forcing families apart, neighbours fighting against each other and polarising the wider Muslim world.

Whose side am I on? The answer is easy…I’m with the people and always will be in the face of despots, tyrants and dictators.

Malcolm X said some very poignant things about freedom and that was: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” And he also said: “If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary”. Well people are dying, their blood is flowing in the streets but this is the price they are prepared to pay so others can be free. The West might be trying to control the revolutions and the Arab royals might be funding the operations to sabotage the revolutions but God will determine the outcome.

DH: How does Islam motivate you as a mother, a wife, a political activist and a journalist? 

Islam defines me as a person and has made be more focussed, calmer although I still have a lack of patience and Islamic etiquette when confronted with idiots or bullies. As a journalist I’ve always fought on the side of injustice or tried to help individuals who are bullied by authority and that works very well with Islamic principles. Journalism is a powerful tool when it’s not abused or in the wrong hands. Everything I do in life is driven or motivated from an Islamic perspective. I wouldn’t say I’m a good and pure Muslim but I do try and hold on tight to the Rope of Allah. Some days I think I do well and other days I think I must do better. I’m like every Muslim…I’m not perfect but my faith is.

One of the biggest inspirations for me is Muslim women – among the most maligned, misunderstood females on the planet. Far from being oppressed and subjugated they’ve taught me that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it.

One of my biggest regrets was missing out on a university education and I mentioned this to a sister a couple of years ago and she said it’s not too late. Now I have a research MA in Modern War Studies – my family came to see me graduate and it was something I never thought possible. As a working class kid from County Durham I always remember the careers master at my school advising that university was not for the likes of me.

Now I know differently and I can and will rise to challenges out of my comfort zone. Last month I qualified as a basic Master Beekeeper and now, with my husband, have a small apiary with five colonies of bees…a few years back the very sound of a bee would set me on edge, now I’m literally working with tens of thousands of them!

Journalist Yvonne Ridley is leader of the Respect political party, the European president of the International Muslim Women’s Union and Vice President of the European Muslim League.

You can follow Dilly Hussain on Twitter @DillyHussain88 and Yvonne Ridley @yvonneridley

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