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Free radical

She was the British journalist captured by the Taliban trying to get into Afghanistan wearing a burka. Now she is a convert to Islam and a fierce critic of the West. Yvonne Ridley talks terror, war and women's rights. By Rachel Cooke

Sunday July 6, 2008
The Observer
Yvonne Ridley
British Journalist Yvonne Ridley who was caputured by the Taliban and subsequently converted to Islam. Photograph: Gary Trotter

As Yvonne Ridley notes, the 'Western media' has no idea what she has been up to in the past two years, and this is a pity, because she has been up to quite a lot. Without our even noticing it, the journalist who briefly became the story when, in 2001, she was captured by the Taliban having entered Afghanistan disguised in a burka, has become something close to a celebrity in the Islamic world. 'It can be overwhelming,' she says. In what way? 'It's difficult to go out. You get mobbed. The anonymity of London is nice. It pulls you back to earth when some bastard gives you a parking ticket.'

But how, exactly, has Ridley become so famous? Surely the weekly show that she presents on an Iranian government-backed English-language television channel, Press TV, doesn't have that big a following? 'It's my speaking. Ten thousand people heard me speak in Kerala.' What kind of speaking? 'I'm a motivational speaker. I'm reinforcing their beliefs, I'm attacking the War on Terror, which is a war on Islam, and I'm defending the resistance in the Muslim world.' She hands me a pamphlet, a copy of a lecture that she gave last year at the Starlight Auditorium in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; it drew an audience of some 2,000. It is entitled: 'Submit to Allah not to Oppressors'. Its cover features a photograph of Ridley, glamorous in lipstick and a red and black hijab, standing behind a microphone. This image has then been superimposed over another of her large and apparently rapt audience.

When Ridley converted - or reverted, as she has it - to Islam in 2003, it was suggested that she was suffering from Stockholm syndrome, the psychological response to kidnapping that has the hostage sympathising with their abductor. Naturally, she denied this. She had promised her captors that she would read the Koran once she got back home, and so she did - and its effect on her was profound. A practising Christian who had always had 'problems' with the Bible's portrayal of women from Eve onwards as dangerous seductresses, she loved the Koran for its sense of 'justice and equality' and, after living without alcohol and 'casual relationships' for a year - 'I wanted to see if I could do it; no point deciding to become a Muslim, then falling off a bar stool shouting, "more champagne!"' - she made the decision to convert. Doing so helped her put three broken marriages, and what she called her reputation as the 'Patsy Stone of Fleet Street', behind her. I'm not sure how long Stockholm syndrome usually lasts but, five years on, you'd think that, if this was indeed her problem, she might be over it by now, especially since she lives in tempting Soho, 'the only hijab in the village'. But, no. Her faith, she says, is stronger than ever. As for her politics, let's put it this way: her colleague in Respect, George Galloway, certainly loves her. 'As he always says: "Yvonne, you make me look like a moderate."' She laughs, delightedly.

But back to her burgeoning fame. After leaving newspapers - she was the chief reporter at the Sunday Express at the time of her stay with the Taliban - Ridley joined Al Jazeera to work on its web operation. However, in November 2003 she was sacked from her job at the Doha-based channel, and launched a case for unfair dismissal, which she finally won last March (she got 14,000 compensation). She then joined the British-based Islam Channel but, in April 2007, resigned after her relationship with its chief executive, Mohammed Ali, broke down; this time, supported by the NUJ, she launched a complaint of sexual discrimination and harassment. Last April, her complaint was upheld, though Ali has since launched an appeal. Today, then, her show, The Agenda, can be seen on Press TV (its website once included an article asserting that the Holocaust was 'scientifically impossible'). Most of her time, however, is devoted to her political activities. Ridley is some traveller. The week after I meet her, she will be a delegate at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers in Uganda; later in the month, she will join Labour peer Lord Ahmed in Sudan, where they hope to negotiate a peace in Darfur; in the autumn, she will join a group of activists who plan to break the blockade of Gaza by sailing into it (we meet before Hamas and Israel agree a ceasefire, so it remains to be seen whether this will still happen).

How does she fund all these trips? 'It's a mixture,' she says, vaguely. She then tells me that Islam Online has recently voted her most recognisable woman in the Islamic world, a truly astonishing announcement, I think. It suggests that she is better known than, say, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who, in 2003, won the Nobel Peace Prize. 'Yes,' she says. She doesn't sound at all astonished.

We meet in Ridley's flat in Soho - she loves Soho, and has lived there for years - where the giant television is tuned to that most Western of media outlets, Sky News. She is a large woman in long, brown clothes and a pair of those disposable slippers that you find in hotel rooms. Her hair is left uncovered, except when the postman rings and she goes down to collect a parcel. She still has a gentle north-eastern accent - she was born in Co Durham, and began her career in Newcastle - but her manner, for all that she refers to her northern roots, is not especially warm. She is extremely verbose but, in mood, swings between vagueness and anger, sudden changes in emotional weather that I find very disorienting.

We begin by talking about her legal battles. I wonder whether her experiences have impacted on her attitude to men who share her faith. She starts by telling me a long story about how she was once sacked by Janet Street-Porter (the former editor of the Independent on Sunday), when she wasn't even in the office. Then, finally, she says: 'There are chauvinists in every office around the world. The difference is that, um, I don't know if this is racist ... most Western bosses would lick their wounds and move on, and my last two bosses, who both happen to have been Arabs, do not seem to have been able to accept defeat at the hands of a woman.' In both cases, she tells me, their action against her was mostly the result of Ridley having stuck up for what she believed (at Al Jazeera she complained when she discovered that her Arab colleagues were being paid less than their Western counterparts; at the Islam Channel, she once refused to shake the hand of a Saudi prince).

'One of my strengths, but it is also one of my weaknesses, is that I don't belong to a [Islamic] family. I don't have 20 uncles and a load of brothers and 40 cousins who would fight on my behalf, or who might take a phone call from my boss saying: "Rein in your bloody sister!" But I converted to Islam because of Islam, not the people who practise it. Speak to converts, and they will say the same.' Do some of the things done in the name of Islam, then, upset her? 'A lot of what goes on in the Islamic world is not Islamic, but it's not just that which gets me annoyed. What gets me annoyed is 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds being locked up without charge, being sodomised by American soldiers in the so-called civilised world.' This is a reference to Guantanamo Bay, from where Ridley has only recently returned (she is making a television documentary about it, and was apparently given unprecedented access).

Ridley believes that Islam provides 'tremendous rights' for females, but that women are not sufficiently educated about them. 'The first convert to Islam was a woman, and the first martyr, and women fought on the battlefield alongside men 1,400 years ago. For the first 300 years of Islam, women scholars were teaching men and women.' But this is not to say that she particularly sympathises with women who, say, feel oppressed by such things as being compelled to cover up their bodies. 'I was in Iran last year. I know the hijab is a pain for them, but they will get no sympathy from me. It is clear that the hijab is an obligation, not a choice. Outside Iran, you can choose whether to wear it or not. Inside Iran ... the Islamic Republic of Iran: there's a bit of a clue in the title. I don't have any sympathy at all with women who don't want to wear the hijab. In Tunisia, women are being brutalised and tortured by the regime for the right to wear the hijab. What annoys me about regimes like that is you can get pissed on the beaches, you can snort, inject and inhale, you can get your tits out for the boys, but put on a hijab and you get beaten; you get pulled off the buses and humiliated.' Personally, she likes wearing it. 'It tells the world I'm a Muslim: Don't hit on me; don't chat me up; don't offer me alcohol or a bacon sandwich; if you're going to talk to me, let's talk about something serious. I can't remember the last time anyone told me a dirty joke. That's quite nice. My old colleagues, when they see me, they come running over, and it's almost cartoon-like: you see the brakes coming on. I have a space around me that I didn't have before: a new respect. Instead of them punching me on the arm and saying: "Come on, Ridders, it's your round." I walk up Oxford Street, and if I see another woman wearing a hijab, I'll say: "As-Salamu Alaykum" [Peace be upon you], and she'll say: "wa Alaykum As-Salam", [And on you be peace], and that's nice. There's my sister. There's this bond.'

So where does her sympathy begin? Does she also withhold it from women who are imprisoned or stoned for adultery? She sighs. 'There are cases that capture the Western media's attention. We get to know half the tale. Sharia law, I think, is superior to most systems because the burden of proof is so high. However, like every system, it's operated by human beings. You can't have a perfect system; you are bound to have human error coming in. I can't specifically look at every case and say: Aha! All I know is that with adultery - and like any woman who's been cheated on, by the way, it isn't nice to have a so-called sister messing round with your husband; not nice at all - under sharia you need four witnesses to the act of penetration, so it is virtually impossible to prove. There are a set of moral guidelines on how to conduct yourself, and transgressing those, you can expect to be punished.' So is she, then, in favour of the death penalty? 'That's something I wrestle with. As a committed Muslim, I really should be saying "yes", but I do hesitate.' As for gay men, Islam's attitude to them is, she says, no worse than that of any of the 'monolithic' faiths. 'I wouldn't be living in Soho if I had an abhorrence for gays. A few weeks ago, I was walking down Wardour Street. The guy walking [by me] had on nothing more than a thong and a pair of platform snakeskin boots. I wasn't judging him and I don't think that he was judging me.'

What does she miss of her old life? 'Gerry's club [a Soho drinking joint]. It took me years to get a membership, and I still keep it up. That's a little part of my [old] life that I don't want to let go. But I don't miss a great deal. I'd stopped drinking a year before my conversion, but everyone was too pissed to notice. I stopped drinking, I stopped casual relationships. I thought it would be really difficult, but it wasn't. What I got in return was a lot of self-respect. I enjoy my own company. I no longer sit, waiting for the phone to ring. I'm no longer at the mercy of some bloody man.' So, obviously, she is now single. (Ridley has been married three times: to Daoud Zaaroura, a former PLO officer and the father of her teenage daughter, Daisy; to a policeman; and to an Israeli businessman.) 'No, I am actually married.' For the fourth time? 'Yes.' She won't tell me her husband's name, though after a 20-questions-style routine, I find out that he is an Algerian she met 'at various events', and that he is 'amazing ... so far'. Under sharia, she was able to write her own wedding contract, in which she put down her hopes and expectations and even her exit strategy, were it to be necessary. What are her hopes and expectations? 'For a happy, stress-free, committed marriage.' Which of them is the more religious? She thinks. 'He is a great role model for me to aspire to.' As for Daisy, now 15, she is still at boarding school. Has she converted (she was baptised at St James's, Piccadilly)? 'I'd be happy if she did, but there is no compulsion.'

When she worked in newspapers, Ridley's reputation was for being tough - she was once in the Territorial Army - but not necessarily terribly thoughtful. Her decision to cross into Afghanistan without official permission amazed and appalled many foreign correspondents because she was not exactly familiar with the terrain; a leader in one newspaper referred to her 'heroic idiocy' (for her part, Ridley thought that this was just the snobbery of the foreign-correspondent hierarchy).

The book that she wrote in double-quick time after her release, In the Hands of the Taliban, makes for bizarre reading. In it, Ridley explains how she had to cancel a facial at Harvey Nichols the day after the attack on the Twin Towers because she had so much work to do. When her newsdesk then rang her at Heathrow to tell her to go, not to New York, but to Islamabad, she was mighty ticked off. 'All my clothes had been packed for downtown New York, not some bloody souk somewhere in f****** Asia,' she writes. Oh, well. The seafood bar at Dubai airport was nice: lobster, caviar, glass of chardonnay. One of the weapons she employed against the Taliban, once she was in their custody, was to perform yoga exercises in the midday sun in front of their noses. 'I wanted the Taliban to think that I was either an amazingly strong woman, or barking mad. Either way, I think they found the whole display disturbing.' When she washed her knickers, she made a point of hanging them out to dry in view of her guards. In the end, she was held for just 11, albeit frightening, days.

Even more odd is her novel, Ticket to Paradise, which she published in 2003 (but not in Britain; it was written before her conversion, and she was apparently too embarrassed by its saucy content) and is set in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Judith Tempest, a tenacious and highly sexed British newspaper reporter, falls for a man whom she believes to be a dealer in fine Persian carpets; unfortunately, Mohammed Khalaf is not what he seems. In fact, he is a terrorist. The novel ends with Judith getting on a plane to New York on which there is also a suicide bomber, an associate of Khalaf. Judith's lover is devastated on finding that she has caught this plane, rather than an earlier one. However, when her body is found, she is holding a piece of crumpled vellum on which are written the words: 'I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Mohammed is His messenger.' The book's last line is: 'Perhaps Judith was in Paradise, after all.' It is published by an American company, Dandelion Books, whose esoteric list includes books that purport to reveal 'the truth' about 9/11 and a title that claims to uncover the anti-Semitism that David Ben-Gurion deliberately stoked in Iraq in order to encourage Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel.

If nothing else, Ticket to Paradise is perhaps more evidence that, as Ridley points out, her conversion had little influence on her politics; she left Labour before she turned to Islam, and soon joined Respect, on whose national council she remains (she stood for the party in the 2004 European elections, and as the candidate for Leicester South in a 2004 by-election, and in the general election of 2005; in 2006, she unsuccessfully stood for a seat on Westminster council). She doesn't know if she will stand again, though she believes that the first MP to wear a hijab will be a Respect MP, in the person of Salma Yacoub, currently a councillor in Birmingham. Ridley feels that perhaps she can get more done in her current role.

And she is nothing if not outspoken. Pay even the briefest of visits to YouTube and Google, and you can turn up footage of Ridley, and articles that she has written, that fairly make the eyes pop. Where to begin? With her description of David Miliband as 'a gutless little weasel who lost more than his foreskin when he was circumcised'? Or with her assertion that the Chechen terrorist leader and architect of the Beslan school massacre, Shamil Basayev, was a 'shaheed' or martyr? After the Amman bombings in 2005, Ridley appeared to be reluctant to condemn the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Jordan. When Al-Zarqawi was denounced by his own family, she thought this 'cowardly' and said she would 'rather put up with a brother like Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi any day than have a traitor or a sell-out for a father, son or grandfather'. In front of the right crowd she goes down a treat. She knows exactly which strings to pull and, judging by the footage I've seen, enjoys the attention. 'Drinking Coca-Cola is like drinking the blood of Palestinian children!' she will shout, and up go the cries of 'Allahu Akbar!' It's not my place to question Ridley's faith. But perhaps this - the attention, I mean - also plays its part in her agenda.

I try to talk to her about some of this, but it is not easy. How, for instance, did she feel after the 7/7 tube bombings? 'I was horrified,' she says. 'It had two effects when I travelled on the tube. People were either looking or smiling kindly, trying to say: we're with you. Or they would try to catch your eye and really glare at you as if to say: it's all your fault.' No, I say. That's not at all what I meant. How did she feel about the bombers? 'As Bob Crow [the general secretary of the RMT] said: this is what happens when you go into other people's countries and start bombing them. This was inevitable. When you're sodomising boys in Cuba, it will impact somewhere else in the world.' She will not condone their actions - 'I'm not saying anything nice about those boys; they are terrorists' - but she likens the tactics of suicide bombers elsewhere to those used by the ANC in South Africa and by the International Brigades in Spain. 'You tell me,' she spits. 'Why did 60,000 foreign fighters go to Spain?' To fight Franco. 'And they're treated like heroes! I'm asking you: why?' We argue for a while about the difference between joining an army and attacking a civilian population. We go round in circles, so I change subject. I ask her how assiduous she is about prayer. 'Your questions are so predictable,' she says, scathingly. 'I am just waiting for [you to ask about] forced marriages, honour killings and female genital mutilation.'

Actually, I think these are worthy subjects for discussion but, unfortunately, we don't have the time. What I really want to know is: has Yvonne Ridley found happiness? She talks about her deep faith, and about her new-found self-esteem, but she seems so ... not depressed, exactly, but certainly dispirited. Her face is sallow; there are shadows under her eyes. 'The amount of people who've tried to destroy me!' she says. 'So if I'm prickly, I'm sorry. But I'm not a pacifist. The jihadis pose no threat to the West. I haven't seen any Taliban-like figures sitting outside bars, whipping people as they come out. If you want to go out, get pissed, sleep around, fine, get on with it. But if I want to pray five times a day, let me get on with it.' Yes, but is she happy? 'I'm ... happy with me. I like me now. I feel more motivated and fulfilled. I wasn't a bad person before but I was quite hedonistic.' Her voice is now preternaturally flat. It's possible that it upsets her to think about the past, or perhaps, these days, she saves her animation for the times when she is holding a microphone and standing in front of a swollen, angry crowd.,,2288589,00.html


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