The ABC documentary Jihadi Sheilas broadcast on the evening of 5 February 2007 profiled two very confused women from troubled backgrounds sucked into the whirlpool combining emotional trauma with jihadist politics.
These women were among many Muslim converts in the 1980s swept away in the hysteria of the US-backed Afghan war against the Soviets. That war was fought by a loose coalition of Afghan tribal militias and a more organised band of Arab fighters led by, amongst others, a man who should really be known as Usama bin Reagan.
Many Western converts left that conflict spiritually scarred and disillusioned with the so-called jihad which, following Soviet withdrawal, descended into brutal tribal civil war. But a small minority, including those with whom Rabiah Hutchinson and Raisa bint Alan Douglas associated, now turned their weapons toward their American ex-backers.
The documentary showed just how easy it is for the wrong set of dominoes to tumble in the lives of desperate converts with few support mechanisms outside the tiny paranoid radical fringe. I remember the period in which these women adopted Islam as one where mainstream Muslim religious institutions were most unwelcoming to converts. It was also a time when two competing forces of political Islam – the US-backed jihadi form of wahhabism and the Iranian revolutionary form of Shi’ism – competed with each other for the hearts and minds of zealous youth and converts.
Many converts I know went through the phase these two women are still afflicted by. However, the spread of mainstream Islam (and with even the Saudi government seeking an alternative to discredited jihadi-wahhabist neo-Conservative theology) has meant most converts have moved on.
Even after making allowances for unfriendly editing, the most damning statements were made not by the assortment of "experts" but by the women themselves. One claimed that Muslim women are attracted to men who carry the sword and espouse jihad. Yeah, right. Speak for yourself, honey. The same woman also claimed Usama bin Reagan took on a pure form of Islam. A bit like suggesting Opus Dei represent pure Catholicism.
The other woman claimed Afghan people want Islam (by which she meant Taliban rule). I encourage her to tell that to Afghan Hazara refugees whose family members were tortured and murdered by the Taliban and whose villages were destroyed because they were Shia. Presumably, like most followers of the jihadist version of wahhabism, she regards Shia Muslims as infidels who can be legitimately put to the sword.
With so much material emerging from the horses’ mouths, one wonders why the documentary makers would compromise the credibility of their work by citing discredited neo-Conservative cultural warriors like Steven Emerson.
One chap named Sheuer, allegedly a CIA operative, claimed Yemen was "a place where radical Islam is taught". It is also a place where Western students go to learn Arabic and classical Islamic sciences such as Sufism which are shunned by jihadi-wahhabis. You won’t see mainstream Yemeni Islamic scholars like these guys spouting terror.
What many Muslims will find grossly insulting was the constant replay of the Islamic call to ritual worship (known as the adhaan) and the images of the Koran’s Arabic text. Repeatedly these two universal symbols of Islam accompanied images of the burning Twin Towers and other acts of terror. Were the producers trying to send a message that the adhaan is a call to arms? That the Koran was a terrorist training manual?
After watching the women rant on about the boob-jobs of female ASIO agents and claim their fringe version of Islam is truer than all others, I concluded that the Prophet Muhammad was right when he said (more or less):
The best of people inside Islam were once the best of people outside Islam.
Which implies that dysfunctional people outside Islam rarely change after adopting the faith.
These women weren’t made dysfunctional by Islamic theology. Sadly, many viewers will now see all Muslim converts through the prism of the Jihad Sheilas.
(A version of this piece was first published in the Crikey daily alert for Wednesday 6 February 2008.)
UPDATE 1: A colleague of mine sent me the following response to this piece ...
Fantastic response. Hit the nail on the spot. The documentary made me feel physically ill. The two women pissed me off so much and i'm afraid it wasn't a case of 'misquoted'. Crass, vulgar, stupid, brainwashed and misinformed don't change, no matter how long the hijab or how many 'ya Allahs' sprinkled into the conversation. The one who had married 5 men- been a 2nd wife to 2, annoyed me the most. Kids to different dads, with 4 divorces. Felt strangely like a run-of-the-mill trailer-trash story except lo and behold she's converted to Islam and simply whacked on the abaya.UPDATE 2: Another colleague sent this message ...
Thanks for writing this piece. I couldn’t bring myself to watch this garbage last night – I need to watch my blood pressure. Several of my colleagues were concerned about what they had seen on the ABC last night but thankfully, talked about their concerns... with me and another Muslim in the team. I’ll be forwarding your article to them also.
© Irfan Yusuf 2008
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