By Yaseen Kippie
While South Africans feel the country is in bleak state given the current political upheaval and weak economy, world renowned speaker Yvonne Ridley calls our country a place of optimism, and an example for the Middle East. Ridley is a British journalist, who was captured by the Taliban in 2001, and later converted to Islam. Her study of Islam was a condition for her offer to the Taliban for her release. She later went on to join the UK’s Respect Party, known for its support of Palestine. An analyst of current world politics, with particular focus on the Middle East, Ridley has toured the world in opposition to the US-led War on Terror. She is in South Africa this month as part of the South African National Muslim Women’s Forum’s conference on women and youth empowerment.
“South Africa is the one place in the world where one feels optimistic about life. The Middle East has never been in the dire state that it is in now. There is very little to be optimistic about, and you think there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” she told VOC News this week.
“But South Africa reminds us of what was happening in recent memory. You look at where South Africa is now, and yes there are challenges, but no matter how bad things are getting today, it’s nowhere near it was during the Apartheid regime. My optimism levels are always recharged when visiting South Africa, because of its history. Who knows about the Middle East, sometimes the darkest hour is before the dawn. South Africa reminds us that we should always be hopeful.”
Ridley calls the Qatar block as “ridiculous” and a suppression of the truth reported by Al Jazeera.
“The reason behind the block on Qatar is because of the influence of Al Jazeera. I used to work for Al Jazeera, and I was also sacked by Al Jazeera. But despite that, they introduced a gold standard of journalism that was not seen before. When powerful people in powerful places, who do very bad things, start to object to a news station, you know that news station is doing a good job. There are people in the White House, and in power houses in the Middle East, who want to close a news station that has done nothing more than tell the truth. Telling the truth nowadays has become a heroic act. We have to look at the regimes who imprison so many journalists and ask, ‘why are you so afraid of the truth?’”
Ridley identifies as a Muslim without any additional label.
“I am a Muslim, and I’ve looked thoroughly into Islam before I embraced Islam. What defines us as Muslims, it does not matter if you’re in Riyadh or Tehran, we pray five times a day, we believe in the five pillars of Islam, and we have a love for the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. We should focus on what unites us. I’ve visited both places. Every time I go I am asked what type of Muslim I am. I keep things simple: I’m the sort of Muslim the Prophet Muhammad is. What sect did he belong to? He didn’t belong to any sect.”
Ridley believes Muslim women who are in doubt about their position in Islam should do what she did.
“Read the Quran, and the hadith, and the great women in our history. Women around the Prophet Muhammad, who was one of the greatest proponents of women in the world today. Get to know your Islam. There isn’t a tyrant, a despot, a misogynist, or a chauvinist, who will challenge the word of god. The Quran makes it crystal clear, that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education. This is why we need to reclaim our rights, and to know our rights, and to challenge men who don’t know what the rights of women are. The Quran is gender balanced.”
She believes the antidote to the religious distortion in the world is to allocate more women in leadership positions.
“Unfortunately, we are not focused on what unites us, so it results in turmoil. Muslims are killing each other. My solution will be to start putting more women into the political and ideological landscape in the Middle East. When you airbrush women from key decision making roles, is when your country is in trouble,” she said.
“When you look back to the great days of Islam, when Muslims were leaders, doing great things in architecture, engineering, mathematics, science and medicine. Women were visible in Islam, they were not behind the men, nor in front of them. They were shoulder to shoulder with the men. Women need to reclaim their rights to be shoulder to shoulder with the men. We must try and restore those glorious days, because at the moment, we are dropping bombs on each other, attacking schools, hospitals, wedding parties, backstabbing each other. It has to stop. The Arab League should hold their heads in shame. Wall to wall, it’s just men. They need to bring the women on board and step aside, to bring some common sense back into the ummah. Women are half the ummah, and they gave birth to the men.”
Ridley says we need to shake off any victim mentality.
“We’ve got to shake off this victim mentality. We are victims, but we can sit and bemoan our condition and nothing will change or we can follow the South African example and bounce back up and demand our rights as human beings, to demand our respect. Human rights aren’t just for the West or for some in the East, they are for everyone. It is tough being a Muslim at the moment, but it was tougher 1400 years ago, where the first martyr was a woman.”
Her final advice is for young people to pursue honest journalism
“Telling the truth is a very noble deed. It’s almost a revolutionary act. There are journalists who have paid the full price, with their lives, while others are facing prison sentences. The word is mightier than the sword. If you’re scared of doing that, then you shouldn’t be a journalist.” VOC