Natasha Cull interviews Yvonne Ridley
- The former Taliban captive spoke out to press about the issues that
made her global headlines.
Natasha Cull interviews Yvonne Ridley
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Yvonne Ridley, a former Sunday Express reporter who was captured by
the Taleban in Afghanistan and later became a Muslim, spoke to Arab
News' Review in an exclusive interview in Jeddah. She said that the
experience of being held in Afghanistan had removed a veil of
bigotry and prejudice about Islam. Ridley, who covered this year's
Haj for Islam Channel, answered questions on a range of topics as
well as on her books, "In the Hands of the Taleban" and "Ticket to
Q: Do you think you would have become a Muslim if you had not been
captured by the Taleban?
A: I very much doubt it. I think that I would have continued to
cover the Middle East as many journalists do without fully
understanding Islam. This is too bad since Islam is more a way of
life than a religion so journalists should make every attempt to
understand it. Had I not had the experience, I probably would have
remained a Christian. I have often said that I wore a veil before -
a veil of bigotry and prejudice concerning Islam and sadly, I guess
that I would probably still be wearing it had it not been for my
Q: What do you think about the way the Western media has written
about your experience?
A: The Western media is at a total loss as to how to explain my
conversion to Islam. Most critics point to Stockholm Syndrome and
say that this is a classic case of that syndrome. But the reality is
that I did not bond with my captors. I was abusive toward them, spat
at them, and cursed them. The only people I bonded with were the six
Christian fundamentalists that I was locked up with in prison in
Q: You have spoken about zero-tolerance regarding anti-Islamic
attitudes. Please elaborate.
A: There should be zero-tolerance for people who are blatantly
Islamophobic. If someone shouts abuse at Muslims because they are
Muslims, they should be reported immediately as criminals.
Unfortunately too many Muslims in Europe are willing to walk away
because they do not want to make waves or make an issue. But they
really should, because, I think that people would be shocked by the
amount of Islamophobia. We keep hearing about the rise in anti-
Semitism but a study by the Islamic Human Rights Commission recently
showed that 80 percent of Muslims will at one time or another
experience some form of Islamophobia in Britain. Converts are
exposed to higher amounts and it is only if we report every single
incident that the authorities will take the problem seriously. We
have to be well equipped to deal with critics and we have to fight
back logically and systemically.
Q: Are you planning a movie based on your book "In the Hands of the
Taleban?" What message would you want to convey?
A: A Holywood director did express an interest in making a film. I
had a conversation with him and it became very clear, very quickly,
that the film would be total fiction and fantasy and would have
demonized the Taleban. I am not a supporter of the Taleban but I do
not want to see them being demonized and misunderstood .
Q: Where does the project stand now?
A: It is still being talked about but until I see some papers to
sign, I am not taking it too seriously. I would like a faithful
portrayal of the events and a faithful portrayal of my treatment
which was nothing like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. Let's face it:
Hollywood is not going to put a glossy image on my captivity. They
would hijack the story and turn into nonsense.
Q: What about your other book, "Ticket to Paradise?"
A: It is a fictional thriller. It is based on the events of 9/11 and
the characters are fictional. It opens in New York and takes the
reader on a journey through London and the Middle East with a soul-
searching look at the whole issue of martyrdom operations. It
features a Hamas fighter on the front cover and the dedication
inside is to the people of Jenin and their martyrs. It has been
banned in Israel. I often call for a boycott of Israeli goods so I
guess the Israelis are just getting their own back.
Q: Do you think Afghanistan is better off now than before?
A: America has proved that it is not a nation-builder. You have to
look at Afghanistan. It is fractured, lawless and unsafe. Even last
year there were kidnappings in the capital and attacks by the
resistance. Hamid Karzai cannot even trust his own people to protect
him. He has to have American bodyguards. There might be a few bits
of hope in the capital, but the rest of the country is a mess. I
have been back four or five times and wherever I have gone, women
and men have said that they long for the security they had under the
Taleban. The first time I went back, the prison cell where I was
held in Kabul was packed with young girls aged 12-16 whose only
crime was that they had run away from home because they didn't want
to be second and third wives for men twice their ages. The Taleban
stamped out the practice of child brides but it has obviously come
back. The country is still in crisis. The only success story
concerns the opium fields that have made Afghanistan the number one
producer of opium in the world. This translates into heroin on the
streets of the West. The pornography industry is thriving -
pornography that one would expect to find sold under the counter is
now on display in Jalalabad and Kabul. The Americans have given the
Afghans liberation in the form of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Q: How do you think the events unleashed by 9/11 will end? Or will
they ever end?
A: I don't think 9/11 was the start of anything; it was the
continuation. I wish that the American people had stood back and
asked why 9/11 happened. I fear 9/11 is an indication of things to
come. Unless American foreign policy changes dramatically, I think
that there will unfortunately be more catastrophes. It is a never-
Q: How has 9/11 changed the world media, especially in the West?
A: The American media has become hysterical. The great days of
American investigative journalism have all but vanished. With the
exception of people such as Seymour Hersh, the American media is
gutless. It is not giving the American people the truth. Thankfully,
the European media has not yet sunk so low but there are signs that
it could happen .
Q: What about the Muslim media?
A: The Arab world has got to begin accepting journalism as a noble
profession. There are many heroic journalists in the Arab world. In
fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by the reporting in Saudi
Arabia since I arrived. The newspapers seem fairly free, open and
robust in their reporting of events.
Q: You performed Haj very soon after accepting Islam. Why?
A: My present job is with the Islam Channel, a European and African
satellite TV station based in London with global ambitions. We sent
a team of journalists and presenters to cover Haj and I was lucky
enough to be among them. I managed to perform Haj as well as do a
job. Haj itself was a very moving experience simply because of the
huge number of Muslims involved. It is incredible. Anyone who hasn't
been on Haj should do so. It makes you aware of your roots as a
Muslim. The experience was absolutely unforgettable and deeply
moving for me.
One day I was running late for prayer and was going down the winding
streets toward the Haram. There were tens of thousands of pilgrims
in the streets. It was totally chaotic - everybody was pushing and
jostling and bumping in order to get to the Haram on time. Suddenly
there was the call to prayer and everybody stopped and out of the
chaos, people snapped into little lines straightaway. I thought
there wasn't a single army in the world that could have stood to
attention so quickly. And I just thought of Allah's army and that I
am a part of it. My eyes fill with tears when I think of what I
It made me very proud to belong to this huge family. There we all
were, many different languages, nationalities and skin colors. One
prayer call and we all understood and we were all united. Out of the
chaos, a beautiful uniformity. It also made me very sad, because I
thought if we could be as strong as that in only a few seconds, then
why can't we do the same after prayers as well.
Q: Tell us something about the Islam Channel.
A: It was launched only a few months ago and is very exciting
English-language 24-hours-a-day television with a global vision. It
covers Europe and West Africa at the moment but it has a global
vision and plans to cover the entire world. Its main aim is
religious propagation and we have scholars who assist us in
producing live English language programs. We also plan to have
international television news coverage. Basically we are beating Al-
Jazeera at their own game because they have been talking about
launching their own English service for a long time. Well, we are
doing it. We are not just talking about it. We are also looking at
making documentaries and current affairs programs. We have only been
up and running a few months and we have already had a stunning
success. Just before we left for Haj, we had an Irish woman call us
during a live discussion. She was so inspired by the Qur'an, she
actually made the shahada - profession of faith - on the telephone;
it has been described as the world's first hi-tech shahada. By happy
coincidence we had a Muslim religious scholar in the studio and he
agreed that it was perfectly acceptable for her to make her shahada
by phone. I said to her, "If you are still out there listening, pick
up the telephone and do it.' She did. It was an incredibly moving
experience. I get quite emotional when I see people making their
shahada because it reminds me of when I made mine on June 30, 2003 ;
that was a very emotional experience for me.
Q: You have a daughter. How old is she?
A: She is 12, at boarding school and she is interested in Islam.
That would be my greatest achievement next to becoming a Muslim - to
see my daughter become a Muslim. She is being brought up by Muslim
values. It is very difficult because I have only been a Muslim for
18 months. That means it is very difficult for me to teach her when
I still have so much to learn.
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