Interview with Yvonne Ridley - Journalist and author who embraced Islam in July 2003.
Were you a believer in God before you embraced Islam?
As long as I can remember, I always believed in God. I was a practicing Christian and I went to church twice a month which, in secular Britain, borders on fanaticism.
Tell us about your career in press - in the past and now.
Because my story made headlines around the world, I had to reinvent myself as a journalist. I had been an investigative undercover reporter, who focused more on humanitarian stories. It was difficult for a journalist wearing a Hijab to get a job on mainstream media, so I decided to form my own television production company and we made films. We went into Guantanamo Bay and we won an award for that. I worked for several Middle East magazines and online publications. I am also pursuing a PhD degree.
When I went into Afghanistan, I was the chief reporter of The Sunday Express. I sneaked into the country wearing the all-enveloping blue Burqa. I was on a donkey and it had bolted, so I fell off, which created quite a distraction in a crowded area. During my struggle to control the animal, the only piece of equipment that I had taken into Afghanistan, a camera, fell out of the folds of my Burqa right into the passing view of a Taliban soldier. He saw this and I was held for ten days first in Jalalabad and then in Kabul.
It was a terrifying experience, but it also gave me an insight into Islam. I realized that as a journalist I couldn't write with any authority about the affairs in the Middle East, Asia or anywhere in the Muslim world without knowing more about Islam. During those ten days I never thought I would get out alive. One day, an Imam came to visit me and he invited me to embrace Islam. I told him I could not make such a life changing decision, while I was in prison, but if he would let me go, I would read about Islam and study the Quran. I would have promised anything just to get out of this prison. He smiled, got up and left, and I was told that I was going home.
It was a crucial moment in your life when that Muslim said that you are free go home. What was your reaction to that?
When I was in prison in Kabul, I was told that the next day I would go home, Insha'Allah, I asked what this Insha'Allah is that they put at the end of every sentence was, because it never happened. On the next day, even though the war had already started, with Britain and America unleashing their bombs on the capital, they were true to their words and took me back to the Pakistan border, letting me to cross over.
When I did get home some days later and reflected on the entire experience, I thought to myself: "You made a promise, so you should try and keep it, even if it was made under duress."
Before I even picked up the Quran, I believed that Islam promoted violence, subjugation and oppression of women. I thought of it as a barbaric and primitive faith. But when I started reading the Quran, I was amazed by what I was reading, because all the great prophets of the Bible were in the Quran, too.
This particular ayah really touched my heart because the theme of justice - it makes it crystal clear that the Quran, far from being a book of hatred as our enemies would say, is one of peace, justice and harmony.
You have read the Quran and studied Islam for 30 months now - tell us about this journey.
Women's rights are very close to my heart, so I looked for all the issues on women: all the ideas that we have in the west about forced marriage, how to beat your wife, how to stop your daughters from being educated and so on. Of course, I found nothing like that in the Quran! But what the Quran makes crystal clear is that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education! It was a huge surprise to me that the rights given to women in the pages of the Quran 1400 years ago have actually come to the western women only in the last 100 years!
Just before I took the Shahadah, I had been offered a job in Doha for a very famous TV station. This new change in my life coincided with my journey to Islam, so I thought - what better way to start a new job in the Muslim world than by embracing Islam? The day before I left for the Gulf, I embraced Islam and joined, what I often tell people, the biggest and the best family in the world. I decided that Shahadah was a very private moment between me and Allah (swt), so I did not want a big fuss - I took it at home in London with less than a handful of people, who had helped and supported me on my journey to Islam.
The most significant piece of writing for me was 'The Farewell Message" from Prophet Muhammad (sa) - nobody from the most raging islamophobe to the most hardened atheist could look at that speech and disagree with a single word. It makes it perfectly clear that we are all equal regardless of gender, colour, culture or background; every one of us is equal. When people ask me what to show to a friend who wants to convert or a friend who is interested in Islam, I always say: "Go to the end first, i.e., show the farewell message as an introduction to Islam, because it is perfect!"
After you took your Shahadah and entered Islam what was the reaction of your family, friends and people close to you?
My family reacted in different ways. One sister was quite supportive; one, sadly, doesn't speak to me right till this day. My late father was very much against the idea, until I came home one day with a copy of 'The Farewell Message". He read it and had tears in his eyes. It is my big regret that I did not follow that through to try to convert him to Islam.
My mother's reaction to my conversion was that she started going to church again. It was great that she had got some spirituality back into her life. There is not much difference between Islam and Christianity. In fact, Christianity is a great springboard to Islam. She said: "I don't want anything to do with your new-fangled Arab religion." I replied: "Where do you think Jesus comes from? Manchester?" And for the first time in her life she realized that the roots of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were all in the Middle East. She is still a Christian. Pray for her - I hope that I can get her to see the light.
In Europe, the moment a women steps out of her house wearing the Hijab, she is immediately identified as a Muslim woman, weather she wants it or not. She is propelled into the front lines, short sword fighting for her faith, because everybody becomes your judge. I tell Muslim women: "When we go about our business, try to do it with a smile. Don't kick a cat, don't throw rubbish on the ground, don't do anything negative, because people will look at us and they won't say: That women has just thrown some litter in the street; they'll say: Did you see what that Muslim did? We are immediately identified by our faith.
Transcribed by Rahila Abdul Aziz - HIBAkidz content coordinator