YVONNE Ridley made headlines when, following the September 11th attacks, she was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
While investigating for a story, the British freelance journalist had wandered into the hands of, what much of the world called the most brutal regime on earth. Freed after ten days of captivity, she returned home a public figure.
Almost two years after that, the multiple award-winning journalist and author again made news. On June 30, 2003, Yvonne accepted the faith of her captors -- she became a Muslim.
In the following interview, she speaks of her experiences and her thoughts on the state of Western journalism.
Tazin Abdullah (TA): What took you to Afghanistan after September 11th?
Yvonne Ridley (YR): I was working as the chief reporter for the Sunday Express newspaper published in London. I was writing a humanitarian report about the hopes and fears of the Afghan people. I had been in Afghanistan for two days when I was captured by the Taliban and held because I had entered the country illegally and without a visa.
TA: What happened afterwards?
YR: At first they thought I was a spy and interrogated me for six days before moving me to a prison in Kabul. Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, released me on humanitarian grounds on October 8 2001.
The release came as a huge shock to the West as the US and Britain had launched the war on Afghanistan the day before. When the bombs began dropping in Kabul, no one thought they would see me alive again!
TA: You have repeatedly emphasised that the Taliban, the "most brutal regime on earth", treated you with "courtesy and respect". Tell me about your captors.
YR: I expected to be executed and each day I thought was going to be my last. It was a terrifying ordeal. Yet, throughout my captivity, the Taliban treated me with courtesy and respect.
I went on hunger strike for the full 10 days. Apart from this action being the only type of control I could enforce, I told the Taliban I would not eat until they gave me a telephone to call home. This action caused my captors great distress and over the first few days they tried several different inducements to encourage me to eat including the offer of wine with my food.
Despite this I maintained my hunger strike and in spite of my best efforts, they laid a cloth on the floor morning, noon and night offering freshly cooked food. Each mealtime, they made a point of washing my hands and telling me I was their sister and their guest. Never once did they threaten me physically. In spite of this, I resolved to be a difficult captive and acted in a very aggressive, non-co-operative manner!
TA: Upon your return, what was the general reaction?
YR: Headline writers across the Western world, anticipating what I was going to say, had words like 'torture', 'abuse' and 'rape' prepared. Journalists and politicians were shocked by my remarks. Everyone wanted a victim. They wanted to hear tales of torture, beatings and brutality. After all, you can't drop bombs on nice people and Bush and Blair had done quite a job demonising the Taliban beyond recognition.
I have to say at this point, I could not endorse what the Taliban stood for, nor could I sanitise their movement, but I have to speak the truth about their treatment of me.
TA: Did your experiences with the Taliban lead you to question your own perceptions on the Taliban themselves and by extension, Islam?
YR: I certainly began to examine the demonisation of the Taliban.
I had given an undertaking to a Taliban cleric that if they released me I would read the
Qur'an and study Islam. At that point, I would have said anything to get out of jail! But once I was released, against all odds, I decided to keep my word.
I was engaged covering events in the Middle East so it was only natural that I should read up on Islam.
TA: What attracted you to the faith?
YR: I found the words of the Qur'an breathtaking and as relevant today as they were the day they were written. Furthermore, the word has not changed at all. I learnt that the Qur'an makes it clear that woman are equal in spirituality, worth and education.
TA: Turning now to Western media and particularly its coverage of the Muslim world -- do you see a general bias against Islam?
YR: There is a Western media bias against Islam but much of it stems from lack of knowledge and general ignorance towards Islam by Western journalists.
TA: Is it a deliberate attempt by reporters to write/broadcast stories that toe the official line or the gullibility of some reporters? Or is it simply reporters acting out on culturally inherited values/perceptions and seeing what they want to see rather than what is happening?
YR: Some journalists are gutless, lily-livered, spineless individuals who prefer to be spoon-fed by the governments who like a tame news source. Some journalists are gullible and some are simply ignorant of the power of the propaganda they are asked to repeat. I wouldn't single out the embedded journalists most were making the best of the situation in which they were placed.
In the US after 9/11, anyone who dared question the Bush administration was called unpatriotic. There are some good journalists around and, after a recent trip to America, it appears the American media is now waking up to its duties.
TA: From your experiences in Afghanistan, can you give us examples of reports from Afghanistan that painted a picture of the situation contrary to what was really happening?
YR: The so-called liberation of Kabul revealed a shocking aspect of media lies and manipulation giving a false
image to the West.
Women were pictured burning their burqas while men shaved their beards what the cameras failed to show were the offers of money given to these people by the dollar rich western media which wanted to give 'happy' pictures to the people back home.
Enterprising Afghanis were not slow on the uptake and lots of false documents began emerging outlining Al-Qaida's nuclear secrets. One foolish journalist parted with 500 dollars for Osama bin Laden's nuclear plans ... they turned out to be the contents of a physics student's text book!
TA: In the current occupation of Iraq, do you see most of the media still toeing the official line?
YR: The media is slowly beginning to break ranks and report on the Vietnam-style quagmire that has emerged in Iraq. For example, the dangerous talk of a civil war.
Where has this come from? Paul Bremer, of course. It is in US interests to promote this but the reality is there has never been a civil war in Iraq no conflict of Shi'a against Sunni. Yet the media are falling into the trap of picking up the American whispers and are printing reports using the explosive phrase 'civil war'. If they don't stop it could became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Journalism is a powerful tool and can be a weapon of mass deception in the wrong hands. This has not been lost on various leaders including Saddam Hussein and George W Bush, who both were determined to win the battle over the war of words. In many ways, it is as important as the military campaign.
Yvonne Ridley lives in Central London and is the author of two books "In the Hands Of the Taliban" (Robson Books), a factual account of her experiences and "Ticket To Paradise", a fictional thriller with the real backdrop of 9/11 (Dandelion Books).