U K Journalist Yvonne Ridley Interview
- SHE WAS A HARD-DRINKING, HARD-NOSED NEWS REPORTER UNTIL HER
CONVERSION TO ISLAM.
Eloise Napier, Guardian, 2/24/04
It was September 28 2001 - just 17 days after the destruction of the
World Trade Centre. Yvonne Ridley, a 43-year-old single mother, and
chief reporter at the Sunday Express, had been sent to Islamabad in
nearby Pakistan to cover the start of George Bush's "war on terror".
In search of a scoop, she had dressed in a burka and made an illegal
sortie over the border into Afghanistan.
It was on the return journey, just two miles from the border, that
her careful plans unravelled, with disastrous consequences. Ridley
was passing by a Taliban checkpoint when her donkey bolted. She was
just attempting to scoop up the reins when her camera slipped from
her shoulder and into full view of a Taliban soldier.
Ridley thought she was either going to be gang-raped or stoned to
death. "I wondered how much pain I could take and prayed that,
whatever happened, I would die quickly," she says. In the event, she
was only taken to jail, first in Jalalabad and then in Kabul, and
held for a total of 10 days. In her diary, she recorded: "They [her
Taliban captors] constantly refer to me as their guest and say that
they are sad if I am sad. I can't believe it ... I wish everyone at
home knew how I was being treated. I bet people think I am being
tortured, beaten and sexually abused. Instead, I am being treated
with kindness and respect. It is unbelievable."
Her capture was to mark a watershed in Ridley's life - it began her
own road to Islam and her decision to become a committed peace
campaigner. She quit her job at the Sunday Express and moved to
Qatar, leaving her only child in the UK.
"I always wanted to be an actress," says Ridley with a lopsided
smile. It is now two years and three months since her capture, and we
are sitting beside a swimming pool in the well-heeled compound where
she lives in Doha, Qatar's capital. It is midwinter, and the heat
from the sun is gentle on our backs. Far from wearing the voluminous
robes sported by many Muslim women in Qatar, she is clad in green
combat-style trousers and a large black T-shirt bearing the
words "Don't panic, I'm Islamic!"
When, last year, Ridley converted from C of E to Islam, some
commentators suggested that she was suffering from Stockholm
syndrome - the psychological condition in which captives divest
themselves of former beliefs and adopt those of their captors. Ridley
rejects this, saying that at no time did anyone try to brainwash her.
She tells me that, at one point, she was visited by a cleric who
asked if she wanted to convert to Islam. She refused but said that
she would read the Koran if she ever got out. She kept her word, and
what began as an academic exercise became a spiritual journey.
It seems ironic that such a strident believer in the equality of the
sexes should choose a religion that appears to encourage the
subjugation of women. "On the contrary," she says, "the Koran makes
it clear that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education.
What everyone forgets is that Islam is perfect; people are not."
What has impressed Ridley more than anything else is the sisterhood
among Muslim women. "They are always helping each other in matters
such as childcare, fundraising and studying. They want each other to
do well. I hadn't expected this. In the west we're all too busy
pinching each other's boyfriends, and criticising each other's
clothes or weight."
The daughter of a miner from Durham, Ridley started in provincial
newspapers before progressing to jobs with the Daily Mirror, the News
of the World, the Sunday Times and the Daily and Sunday Express. "I
reached the rank of editor by being one of the boys, although I
didn't recognise this until much later," she says.
Things changed when Ridley had her daughter, Daisy - the result, as
she bitterly regrets admitting, of a burst condom. Suddenly, she
couldn't do the after-work drinks where all the networking was done
and deals were struck. For her, motherhood was "like being in a three-
legged race with a ball and chain on the legs". Her solution to the
problem was to send Daisy, now 11, to boarding school in the Lake
District. (Daisy's father and grandparents live close by and provide
a stable home life for her.) In the holidays, Daisy often flies out
to join her mother and the two of them take off on travel
As we wander back to Ridley's villa, with its airy rooms and marble
floor, I comment that private education doesn't come cheap. She gives
me a semi-smile. "In my bleakest, blackest moments I look at Daisy
and I think: 'Porsche Boxster!' "
Ridley has no zeal to convert the rest of the world to Islam, and is
happy for Daisy to be brought up a Christian - although "of course,
it's a very good stepping-stone to Islam." In the background, the
call to prayer echoes through the windows. I ask her if she prays
five times a day, as good Muslims are supposed to do. She says she
tries to, although she hasn't appeared to do so while I have been
with her - despite having heard the call several times already.
The indiscriminate bombing of civilians during the war in order to
destroy Afghan morale affected Ridley more than anything before or
since. As a result of her disgust, she contacted the anti-war
campaigner and Labour MP, Alan Simpson. He persuaded her to talk at
the Stop the War Coalition rally in Trafalgar Square in September
2002. Since then, she has travelled across the world addressing anti-
war conferences, meetings and rallies.
Her retainer with the Sunday Express ended in February 2003 and,
shortly afterwards, al-Jazeera offered her a job as senior editor of
its English-language website. Life at the new job was rosy to start
with but, within six months, a secretary from the office was sent
round to her home with the message: "You've been terminated."
Her dismissal has never been fully explained by the news station,
though a spokesman cites "administrative reasons". Reading between
the lines, it seems that Ridley was just more trouble than she was
worth. Not only did she attempt to set up the first branch of the
National Union of Journalists in the Middle East, but her reports on
the conduct of US soldiers in Iraq are also said to have angered the
White House. When al-Jazeera suggested she sign an inferior contract,
Ridley refused. In retaliation, her former employers declined to
sanction her exit visa and so, when I visited her, she was stuck in
Doha, twiddling her thumbs while the lawyers tried to thrash out the
Unprompted, she reveals that al-Jazeera is sitting on several Osama
bin Laden videotapes, none of which has been released because of
White House fears that they will incite more terrorist attacks. She
then mentions that the UK intelligence services called her in for
questioning after her business cards were found on terrorist
suspects. With a certain panache, she refused to be questioned in
Scotland Yard and, instead, insisted on meeting her interviewers in
Patisserie Valerie on London's Old Compton Street. With rows of
croissants and strawberry tarts sitting prettily behind the glass
counter, she told the officers firmly: "If I was involved in anything
suspicious, do you think I'd be stupid enough to give my card to a
Next, Ridley brings up the subject of possible sleeping al-Qaida
terrorist cells in the UK. "My theory is that MI6 knows full well who
some of the players are," she says. "I suspect there is an unwritten
agreement that nothing [terrorist attacks] will happen in the UK, so
long as MI6 is kept in the loop." I ask her how she has come to this
conclusion, and her answer is simple. "Through talking to people from
all backgrounds - the intelligence service, the Muslim world ..."
Later that evening, we visit a restaurant close to her home. The food
is delicious, although Ridley, now swathed in dramatic black robes,
eats little and instead puffs cherry tobacco from a large, ornate
hookah. A few of her former colleagues from al-Jazeera join us. They
are all British Muslims, bright and younger than Ridley. They have an
open affection for her and, when the conversation is not centred on
office gossip, they tease her gently. She entertains everyone with an
anecdote from her Taliban odyssey. The last few days of her
incarceration were spent in a Kabul jail, where a group of
evangelical Christian missionaries were imprisoned. They were accused
of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, a charge they hotly
denied. When Ridley made a second trip to Afghanistan the following
year, she discovered that the Christians' headquarters had been
located right next door to Osama bin Laden's former house. They had
had no idea.
Ridley's first novel, Ticket to Paradise, has just been published in
the US. Rife with thinly disguised scandal, it is likely to stir up a
hornet's nest in Fleet Street. More novels and a move into politics
look likely; she is considering standing for the European parliament.
She has no regrets about the path her life has taken. The sobriety
that has come with her new lifestyle has made her realise that much
of her old confidence was founded on alcohol.
"I don't know how long my celebrity/notoriety is going to last, but I
am going to use it for as long as I am able, to highlight injustices
and atrocities," says Ridley. "Hopefully, it will change perceptions,
or at least get people talking more about what is happening - and how
bombs and bullets are not necessarily the answer."
· This interview appears in full in the March 2004 edition of Harpers
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
To subscribe to this group, send an email to:
NEWS ARCHIVE IS OPEN TO PUBLIC VIEW