ISLAM is by far the most misunderstood religion in the world today thanks to centuries of medieval-style propaganda successfully peddled by bigots and Christian zealots.
So I should not have been entirely surprised by the almost hysterical reaction in the mainstream media to news that I am considering becoming a Muslim.
I have even been accused of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome as a result of spending 10 days in the hands of the Taliban. Bearing in mind I spent my last four days in the company of six bible-bashing Christians in Kabul Prison I think we can knock that theory on the head.
The truth is my captors probably thanked Allah when I was kicked out of Afghanistan. They appeared very happy to see the back of me since I spent most of my time being rather abusive and obnoxious to them – I think some are still receiving counselling! When I initially thought about converting, I reflected I had a fundamental problem… I started the day with a bacon sandwich and ended it with a large glass or three of whisky. I was told by someone who had ‘crossed over’ that these issues would become insignificant and indeed they have. However, my spiritual journey, like that for many converts/reverts, was always meant to be a personal affair between myself and God. Unfortunately, it has now become a very public issue and so I have decided to set the record straight to prevent any more misunderstandings or misconceptions.
Stories of my premature conversion were wired around the world resulting in a deluge of e-mails from Muslim congratulating me – some e-mails were not that complimentary. It is true my journey did begin in the unlikely surrounds of an Afghan prison where I was being held by the Taliban facing charges of spying for entering their country illegally disguised in the all-enveloping burqa. I remember the day very clearly.Hamid, my interpreter, said I had a very important visitor and that I must be respectful. My heart skipped a beat as a tall man wearing long flowing white robes and a turban walked into my room.
I realised immediately he was a religious cleric. He asked me about my religious status – Protestant – and then asked me what I thought of Islam and if I would like to convert.
I was terrified. For five days I had managed to avoid the subject of religion in a country led by extremists. If I gave the wrong response, I had convinced myself I would be stoned to death. After careful thought I thanked the cleric for his generous offer and said it was difficult for me to make such a life-changing decision while I was in prison.
However, I did make a promise that if I was released I would study Islam on my return to London. M reward for such a reply was being sent to a primitive jail in Kabul where I was locked up with six Christians who faced charges of trying to convert Muslims to their faith.
I was also brought up in the Christian faith, sang in the church choir and was a Sunday School teacher, but I felt their brand of Christianity was almost as extreme as the Taliban’s brand of Islam.
I remember one evening sitting outside my cell in the prison courtyard listening to happy clappy hymns in my left ear as someone made the call to prayers in my right ear. I thought to myself I was caught in between two sets of religious fundamentalists.
It was a very clear night and as I gazed up at the stars I felt I was trapped in a parallel universe and pondered my fate. Several days later I was released unharmed on humanitarian grounds on the orders of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed spiritual leader.
My captors had treated me with courtesy and respect (despite my bad behaviour) and so, in turn, I kept my word and set out to study their religion. It was supposed to be an academic venture but as became more engrossed with each page I turned, I became more impressed with what I read.
I turned to several eminent Islamic academics, including Dr Zaki Badawi, for advice and instruction I was even given several books by the notorious Sheikh Abu Hamza Al-Masri who I spoke to after sharing a platform at an Oxford Union debate.
This latter snippet was seized upon by some sections of the media in such a ridiculous fashion that outsiders could be forgiven for thinking I was going to open a Madrassah for Al-Qaida recruits from my flat in Soho. It earned me a place on a ‘Watch on Terror’ website in America, so I’m probably now classed as a subversive by those incompetent spooks from US intelligence agencies.
I have also listened to and spoken with Dr Muhammad Al-Massari and had a very enlightening lunch recently with three sisters from Hizb ut-Tahrir. One of the most useful reference points for me has been the New Muslim Project chat site on the Internet, which has given me access to others who, like myself, are in the process of converting.
Thankfully the support and understanding I have been given from my brothers and sisters (for I regard them as that) has been unstinting and comforting. Not one of them has put pressure on me to become a Muslim and every convert/revert I’ve spoken to has urged me to take my time.
One of the big turning points for me happened earlier this year when the Israelis began shelling The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square . . . one of the most precious monuments for Christians.
Every year thousands of school children re-enact the Nativity at Christmas time, a potent symbol of Christianity. Yet not one Church of England leader publicly denounced the Israelis for their attack.
Our Prime Minister Tony Blair, who loves to be pictured coming out of church surrounded by his family, espousing Christian values, was silent. Only the Pope had the guts to condemn this atrocity. I was shocked and saddened and felt there was no backbone or conviction among the C of E religious leaders.
At least with Islam I need no mediator or conduit to rely upon, I can have a direct line with God anytime I want.
While I feel under no pressure by Muslims to convert/revert there has been real pressure to walk away from Islam from some friends and journalists who like to think they’re cynical, hard-bitten, hard-drinking, observers of the world. Religion of any form makes them feel uneasy – but Islam, well that’s something even worse.
You’d think I had made a pact with the devil or wanted to become a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. Others feared I was being brainwashed and that I would soon be back in my burqa, silenced forever like all Muslim women.
This, of course, is nonsense. I have never met so many well-educated, opinionated, outspoken, intelligent, politically aware women in the Muslim groups I have visited throughout the UK.
Feminism pales into insignificance when it comes to the sisterhood, which has a strong identity an a loud voice in this country. Yes, it is true that many Muslim women around the world are subjugated, but this has only come about through other cultures hi-jacking and misinterpreting the Qur’an. I wish I had this knowledge (and I’m still very much a novice) when I was captured by the Taliban, because I would have asked them why they treated their own women so badly. The Qur’an makes it crystal clear that all Muslims, men and women are entirely equal in worth, spirituality and responsibility. Allah ordained equality and fairness for women in education and opportunity, at least that is my understanding.
Fair property law and divorce settlements were introduced for Muslim women 1500 years ago – maybe this is where Californian divorce lawyers got their inspiration from in recent years!
The Qur’an could have been written yesterday for today. It could sit very easily with any Green Party manifesto, it is environmentally friendly and it is a true inspiration for the 21st century, yet not one word has changed since the day it was written – unlike other religious tomes bent on courting popularity.
“It’s more punk than punk rock,” musician Aki Nawaz of the band Fun’da’mental recently told me. And, of course he is right.
Yvonne Ridley is a freelance journalist and a peace campaigner. Her book, In The Hands of the Taliban, is published by Robson Books, price £6.99.