. An Interview with Yvonne Ridley | London Progressive Journal
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An Interview with Yvonne Ridley

Tue 3rd Aug 2010

TP: In September 2001, whilst working in Afghanistan as a journalist the Sunday Express, you were taken captive by the Taliban and held for 11 days. After your release you mentioned having struck a deal with your captors, promising to read the Qur’an and study Islam if released. You kept your promise and have said that doing so changed your life. Could you please explain how your study of Islam and the Qur’an changed you as a person?

YR: What a lot of people don't realise is that I was a practising Christian, in as much as I went to church (St James' in Piccadilly) twice a month, so in terms of my Faith there wasn't a dramatic change. I am still praying to the same God and, with the main exception being the Holy Trinity concept, not a great deal has changed in my beliefs. I'm just much more disciplined and have a different methodology of worshipping God.

However, my lifestyle has changed dramatically. On a superficial level, the alcohol, cigarettes and pork have gone as did casual relationships and a rather hedonistic lifestyle. Now I feel much more empowered as a woman and, I have a self respect for myself as a woman that I did not have before. My dress, for instance, is much more modest ... my little black dress has gone and now I wear a big black dress or clothes which do cover me.

TP: Following your conversion to Islam in 2003, I believe you wrote an article in which you stated that prior to your conversion ‘[you] used to look at veiled women as quiet, oppressed creatures and now [you] look at them as multi-skilled, multi-talented, resilient women whose brand of sisterhood makes Western feminism pale into insignificance’. Having experienced life from the perspectives of both a Muslim and a non- Muslim woman, what did you find to be the main differences and in which ways did you feel more empowered as a Muslim woman?

YR: I could write acres on this. Essentially Muslim women are more supportive of each other and really encourage each other to do well, often stepping in to assist with child care and the running of a house to free up a sister's time to study and progress in her career. My experience of Western women - and it is dangerous to generalise, so please bear this in mind - is that once they crash through the glass ceiling they then seal it up again. I've also experienced Western women stealing their so-called friends' boyfriends and having no shame moving in on married men. I began to realise that while serious feminists would never betray their sisters, the concept of sisterhood would be brushed aside by many women. I've not seen this sort of betrayal in the Muslim community which prompted me to say that the brand of sisterhood I saw in Islam made Western feminism pale into insignificance.

TP: I believe you visited Guantanamo in early 2009 with filmmaker David Miller. What was the reason for this visit and how did the experience affect you?

YR: I wanted to make a documentary and hooked up with David to make the film: 'GUANTANAMO: Inside the Wire.' The whole experience was very disturbing even though this was not the first maximum security prison I'd visited. I still reflect on those four days in quieter moments and am haunted by the fact that US President Barak Obama did not close it down when he said he would. I think one of the most disturbing aspects was the absolute pride that virtually every military person felt over serving in the prison. They seemed oblivious to the fact that most of the civilised world is repelled by its existence and what it represents.

TP: You are a patron of Cageprisoners- a London based NGO whose stated aim is to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror. Could you say a little about how the organisation works to achieve its aims and how do you respond to claims from certain individuals that the organisation champions the rights of some alleged Al-Qaeda members?

YR: Cage began almost by accident rather than design and soon became the first port of call for journalists, lawyers and other human rights organisations who needed more information about Guantanamo. It's significance increased and it became an important NGO in terms of exposing the weaknesses and hypocrisy of the War on Terror. It does champion human rights of Muslim prisoners. When someone is drowning you go in to save them- you don't ask them about their faith, ideology or beliefs beforehand. Kidnapping, rendition, torture, water-boarding are wrong regardless of what an individual is alleged to have done. But what I would point out is a statistic which does haunt me - less than five per cent of the men in Guantanamo were picked up in battlefield conditions and more than 95 per cent of those who are in Guantanamo, or who have passed through Guantanamo, were not engaged in terrorism. I think they would all have welcomed their day in court to prove this.

TP: In November 2008 you travelled to Afghanistan together with journalist and film producer Hassan al Banna Ghani in order to produce a documentary focussing on the plight of female prisoners held in US prisons on Afghan soil. What prompted the idea to make such a documentary and what did you discover?

YR: This documentary focussed mainly on Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a mother of three children who was kidnapped, tortured and renditioned to Bagram where she was held for several years. My documentary includes several graphic eye witness accounts of people who saw her in Bagram and led to an admission by the US that they had held a woman in Bagram. They had denied this for some months even though I gave them her prison number. Sadly, the confession by the US stopped short of the fact that prisoner 650 was Dr Aafia Siddiqui.

During my investigations Dr Aafia emerged in Afghanistan in a bizarre story that was simply not credible despite details by the US. I went with Hassan to Ghazni and interviewed Afghan eye witnesses who gave a completely different account. My investigation also exposed holes in the US account of the subsequent shooting of Dr Aafia Siddiqui in the police cell in Ghazni and as a direct result, the prosecution had to admit they had no scientific evidence to back up their story.

TP: As co-founder of the organisation Viva Palestina, one of whose initiatives has been to organise convoys to deliver aid to Gaza following the Israeli attack on the area in December 2008, how do you feel about the Israeli government’s blockage of Gaza and what options are open to people in Britain wishing to show solidarity with the Palestinian people and break the blockade?

YR: Viva Palestina was born out of the frustration of ordinary people who realised that the politicians had delivered nothing in 60 years of promises to the Palestinian people. The concept has grown and evolved into a global movement and will be a significant tool in the demise of the apartheid state of Israel, just in the same way that the Apartheid State of South Africa finally collapsed. When the people lead the leaders will have to follow or they will become irrelevant. Great moments in history are not delivered by politicians but by ordinary people who simply snap and take the initiative.

TP: You recently spoke out, at a public meeting in Newcastle, about the recent rise in Islamophobia and the demonisation of Muslims. Last month there was a conference in London called ‘Stop Islamophobia', which was organised by the Stop the War Coalition and the British Muslim Initiative. What do you believe are the main causes behind the rise in Islamophobia and what do you consider to be the most effective way of tackling this problem by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike?

YR: There are several strands to Islamaphobia and I would say the recession, poverty and increased unemployment has exacerbated the situation, just as the recession in the 1930s brought in a wave of anti-semitism. Unfortunately, poor and desperate people with little hope begin to listen to voices about who is to blame for their condition. In the 1930s, Jewish people became the targets and today it is the Muslims. The propaganda is the same- the vile and crude use of cartoons, tabloid stories out to shock, but which are very short on facts and, politicians playing to the racists.

Added to this, are certain elements of the Left who I call the 'New Athiests'. These are secular fundamentalists who despise religion of any kind and will try to undermine and brief against practising Muslims, who they often refer to as Islamists.
Then there is the rise of the Far Right, which is inter-linked to the two above. The rise of the English Defence League in less than 12 months is astonishing and frightening.

One of the best ways the Muslim community can defend itself against these attacks is by joining forces with their supporters, and this is where UK Muslims fare better than their European counterparts. They have developed a mutual love and understanding with non Muslims in the British anti-war movement. Sadly some communities lack confidence and are afraid, making the mistake of hiding, avoiding confrontation and keeping a low profile. This fear and intimidation will continue until they learn to stand up and unite with their supporters.

What a lot of people forget is that many Muslims are second and third generation- Britain is their home and they have no where else to go.

TP: Having seen life from both a Muslim and a non-Muslim perspective, what do you believe is the best way to ensure that Muslims and non-Muslims coexist peacefully and to avoid the propaganda put forth by political/religious extremists and certain daily papers that fuel the flames of discontent?

YR: It's so simple. We have to keep talking and finding strength in unity. I was at a meeting in Birmingham the other day where hundreds of angry residents came together and challenged West Midlands Police over the deliberate targetting of Muslim areas by the installation of CCTV cameras. This anger brought people of faith and no faith together and they were formidable. The Assistant Chief Constable stood there and apologised saying the use of the cameras had been suspended. She was then told this was not good enough and that no one in the community would open dialogue with the police until every single camera was removed, including 72 secret cameras used by anti-terror police. Here was a beautiful example of community cohesion, integration and unity and it was achieved by all these people coming together and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim neighbours. When the people lead, the leaders really do become irrelevant!

TP: What comment can you make in light of members of the French national assembly voting overwhelmingly in favour of draft legislation to ban the face covering veil (Niqab), and the comments from conservative MP Phillip Hollobone’s amounting to a refusal to meet with any constituent who refuses to remove her veil. (Mr Hollobone has also recently put forward a private members bill before parliament proposing a ban on certain forms of the veil - the ‘Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill’). Is a dangerous precedent being set for the further criminalising of ethnic minorities?

YR: In my capacity as President of the European branch of the International Muslim Women's Union, I wrote several letters following Phillip Hollobone's disgraceful comments. First I wrote to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, asking him to launch an investigation into why one of his MPs would discriminate against a woman on the grounds of what she wore. Muslims are often accused of not integrating or partaking in the democratic system in the UK - what is more democratic than going to see your democratically elected MP to raise an issue which concerns you? Mr Hollobone has, illegally in my view, withdrawn this right from a minority of the electorate in his constituency. Therefore I've reported him to both the Parliamentary Standards Committee and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I've also reported him to the Chief Constable of London Transport Police because Mr Hollobone works as a special constable and any police officer holding and publicly expressing such discriminatory views in the way he did would be suspended pending an investigation.

The French national assembly in their drive for equality have scored an own goal by discriminating against a tiny minority of the female population. In the end, this legislation will fail and fall because it will eventually find its way to the European Court of Human Rights and will be exposed for what it is - a piece of legislation which is racist and Islamophobic in content.
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