Yvonne Ridley’s Spiritual Odyssey
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
“On 30th June, 2003, at 11 AM, almost two years after the Taliban captured me in Afghanistan, I embraced Islam.”
Yvonne Ridley was speaking to a packed audience at the Muslim Community Association of Santa Clara, California, on 17th November, 2007. Although her story has been widely known, it was still quite an experience to her it firsthand from her. The former Sunday Express (UK) reporter used humor and drama to give a spellbinding account of her imprisonment by the Taliban soon after the 9/11 attacks, her release after 10 harrowing days, and the subsequent questioning and soul-searching that led her to become a Muslim.
Three thousand journalists had descended on Pakistan within days of the terrorist attacks in New York. Ridley was one of them but she was restless and wanted to report directly from Afghanistan, al-Qaida’s home base.
With two guides from the North West Frontier Province, she set out for the eastern city of Jalalabad through the winding and historic Khyber Pass.
There was a problem, however. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had banned foreign journalists from entering into Afghanistan. Ridley solved the problem by cloaking herself with the ubiquitous head-to-toe blue burqa of the Afghan women. She became “invisible” and moved about freely in the forbidden land.
The disguise worked for a few days until she found herself in a market near Jalalabad. Her swollen and blistered feet made further walking impossible. The intrepid guides found a donkey for her but the animal bolted as soon as she tried to ride it. A camera slipped out from under her, right in front of a Taliban soldier brandishing a Kalashnikov.
“This is the end,” she thought. Images of the Taliban executing prisoners and spies in cold blood flashed through her mind. When that didn’t happen, she was convinced she would be stoned to death. That didn’t happen either but she was hauled away to a prison where she made her unhappiness known by going on a hunger strike. But the food she was offered, freshly-baked bread and other delectable stuff, made her wonder about the blood-curdling reports she had been hearing about her captors.
On the third day of her captivity, a cleric visited her. “A light seemed to emanate from his face,” she recalled. “I have seen such light on only a few faces since that day as I traveled the world.”
To please the cleric, she readily agreed with everything he said, heartily proclaiming the beauty and the greatness of Islam. The cleric smiled (“he saw through me”) and promised that she would soon be released. All he wanted was for her to read the Quran when she was free so she could judge for herself what Islam was like.
Three days later, she was put in a car and told that she was being driven to Kabul where she would board a plane to freedom. Instead, she was brought to another prison where she met six Christian charity workers - two Americans, three Germans and an Australian. She was shocked to find that they engaged in loud, in-your-face bible study in prison, without any retaliation from the Taliban guards.
The Talibans were no angels, of course. “They tried to break me mentally by asking the same questions time and time again, day after day, sometimes until 9 o’clock at night.” In return, she swore and spat at her captors. (The Taliban’s portrayal by Khaled Hosseini in his international best-seller The Kite Runner is, I believe, closer to the truth about the group’s brutality toward its own people, particularly women, than would be suggested by Ridley’s experience).
On the 9th day, there was a tremendous roar that seemed to tear the sky apart. The earth shook as cruise missiles began raining down on and around Kabul. There goes my last chance of freedom, thought Ridley. “Why should the Taliban not kill me now that their country has been attacked?”
Although certain that death was imminent, Ridley found herself wondering about the impersonal nature of bombs and missiles. They don’t discriminate. They kill children and young girls with the same savagery as they kill one’s enemy.
The next day, the guards came and took her away … to freedom.
When she crossed the border into Pakistan, reporters converged on her.
“How did the Taliban treat you?”
“With respect and courtesy,” she replied to the incredulous media hordes.
“They expected me to say the kind of horrible things that (as I was to learn later) happened to prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. But I told them the truth. And that clearly didn’t satisfy them.”
In the end, for Ridley, it came down to a question of keeping her word. The enigmatic cleric she had met in prison (she never saw him again in subsequent trips to Afghanistan) had promised that she would be released, and she was. In return, she had promised him that if set free, she would give the Quran a try. And so she did.
It was a translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali that she picked up one day at her home in London. The first thing she did was to look up “women” in the index. “To my surprise, I found no injunction for beating your wife and oppressing your daughters; instead, I found passages promoting the liberation of women. That this was divinely revealed to the prophet 1,400 years ago, long before the West knew of such radical ideas, opened my eyes. Women were equal to men in spirituality and education in Islam and given our child-bearing abilities, we were, in fact, the deluxe model of human beings!”
Most Western male politicians and journalists, Ridley discovered, propagate the idea that misogyny is a part of Islam. They cite child brides and veils and forced marriages and wrongly blame Islam for these cultural practices, their arrogance surpassed only by their ignorance.
The more Ridley read the Quran, the more she was persuaded that the Quran provided a magnificent blueprint for conducting one’s life on earth.
But she took her time. She read and reflected. She traveled and observed. She talked and asked. And then one day in June 2003, her questions answered and her longings met, she became a Muslim.
Lacking the nerve to inform her mother in person, Ridley emailed her about her conversion. A few days later, mother and daughter met in a London suburb and the following conversation ensued:
Mother: When I learned that you converted to Islam, I began attending my church regularly.
Daughter: See, mother, already my conversion is having a positive effect on you!