Yvonne Ridley (born 23 April 1958) is a British journalist who was a chair of the National Council of the now-defunct Respect Party. She was captured by the Taliban in 2001. She later converted to Islam. She is a vocal supporter of Palestine, which she took up as a schoolgirl. She is an avid critic of Zionism and of Western media portrayals and foreign policy in the War on Terror, and has undertaken speaking tours throughout the Muslim world as well as America, Europe and Australia. She has been called "something close to a celebrity in the Islamic world" by the journalist Rachel Cooke, and in 2008 was voted the "most recognisable woman in the Islamic world" by Islam Online.
Ridley was born in the working class mining town of Stanley, County Durham, the youngest of three girls, and had an upbringing in the Church of England. She began her career at the local Stanley News, which was part of the Durham Advertiser Series. From there she moved to Newcastle upon Tyne and worked for The Sunday Sun and the Newcastle Journal for Thomson Regional Newspapers as well as The Northern Echo which was part of the Westminster Press group. She attended the London College of Printing. As a journalist, she was employed by The Sunday Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Observer, the Daily Mirror and the News of the World. She was deputy editor and acting editor of Wales on Sunday, and was chief reporter when the Sunday Express sent her to Afghanistan after 9/11. In one interview she mentions having "a reputation as the 'Patsy Stone of Fleet Street'" that she was happy to have left behind with her conversion to Islam. Her passion for left-wing, anti-imperialist causes predates her conversion; she joined the Labour Party as a teenager before resigning over the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.
Capture by the TalibanEdit
Yvonne Ridley was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan on 28 September 2001, and held for 11 days, while working for the Sunday Express. In the days before the beginning of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, after being refused an entrance visa, she decided to follow the example of BBC reporter John Simpson, who had crossed the border anonymously in a burqa.
She entered on 26 September, and spent two days undercover in Afghanistan. It was on her return, travelling with her guides, that she was uncovered when the donkey she was on bolted and her camera was seen by a Taliban soldier. She was accused of being a spy, which carried a death sentence, and at the very least faced jail for illegally entering Afghanistan.
The publisher of Express Newspapers, Richard Desmond, sent a team a negotiators to talk directly with Taliban officials at the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. It soon became clear the regime wanted neither money nor aid but proof that Ridley was a bonafide journalist. The British high commissioner to Pakistan, Hilary Synnott, met the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, and asked for her release. Following her release on 8 October, Ridley was escorted to the border, where she was handed over to the Pakistani authorities. It had been feared that this would be jeopardised by the bombing of Afghan targets as part of the War in Afghanistan that had commenced the previous day.
Ridley revealed that she had kept a concealed diary inside a box for a toothpaste tube and in the inside of a soap wrapper. She had been on hunger strike throughout her captivity and described her experience as terrifying but she was not physically hurt. It transpired that during the interrogations to establish her identity she had insulted her captors.
After her release, her guides Jan Ali and Nagibullah Muhmand, as well as his five-year-old daughter Basmena, were held in prison in Kabul. At least three of Muhmand's relatives were also arrested for aiding Ridley after the Taliban developed the film in her camera. All were subsequently released without charge or harm. Ridley had made several public pleas, including one via the BBC's Pashto and Persian Service, urging the Taliban to release the prisoners on the same humanitarian grounds the regime had shown her. She said later she was careful not to refer directly to the men as her guides since they had previously agreed not to admit any involvement in the event of capture.
Conversion to IslamEdit
She said in her book, In the Hands of the Taliban, that, while she was in captivity, she was treated with respect by the men of the Taliban and was, subsequently, amazed by their courtesy. All men that she came in contact with lowered their gazes (to her), which left her bewildered. She had initially thought they had already decided to have her executed and therefore could not look her in the eyes. Only later did she discover they were showing her a sign of respect. While in captivity she gave an undertaking to read the Qur'an and study Islam if they let her go. Fulfilling the promise and setting out on what she described as "an academic exercise" she said she was shocked to discover "the Quran makes it clear that women are equal in spirituality, worth, and education. What everyone forgets is that Islam is perfect; people are not."
She converted to Islam in the middle of 2003, claiming that her new faith has helped put behind her broken marriages and embrace "the biggest and the best family in the world."
After her conversion, she delivered lectures on issues relating to Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Uzbekistan, women in Islam, the War on Terror, and journalism at universities across the US, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East. She has authored and contributed towards a number of books called In The Hands of the Taliban and Ticket to Paradise. A later book entitled Torture: Does It Work was published by Military Press Studies in 2016. In 2019 she authored the book The Rise of the Prophet Muhammad: Don't Shoot the Messenger published by academic house Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Ridley was a patron of the UK-based pressure groups Cageprisoners until December 2014, the European President of the International Muslim Women's Union, and the Vice President of the European Muslim League based in Milan and Geneva. She is a member of the Stop the War Coalition, for which she has spoken at its rallies, and was a member of the Respect Party, for which she stood in parliamentary elections before resigning both leadership and from the party in early 2014.
Writing, speaking and advocacyEdit
In December 2001, Ridley's memoir In the Hands of the Taliban was published which includes an account of the 10 days she was held captive. In it, she expressed worries that officers from Mossad, the Israeli secret service, or from other intelligence agencies, were plotting to have her killed in an effort to boost public support for the war in Afghanistan having been shown incriminating documents by a journalist for the Arabic channel, Al Jazeera.
She left her job with Express Newspapers, and announced she would return to Afghanistan to work on a sequel to her book. The sequel has not yet materialised although she produced a programme for BBC Radio Four called The Return after she did return in 2002 and then the following year as part of a travel feature for The Observer with her daughter Daisy.
Ridley was employed in 2003 by the Qatar-based media organisation Al Jazeera, where, as a senior editor, she helped launch their English-language website. In November of that year she was dismissed because Al Jazeera found her "overly-vocal and argumentative style" was incompatible with the station's programme. Her termination of her employment was also attributed to her campaigning for journalists' rights on the Al Jazeera English channel and website. She brought a case for unfair dismissal against the organisation, winning that case and the subsequent appeals which took four years. She was awarded 100,000 Qatari riyals, which equated to around £14,000. In December 2003, she released a novel, Ticket to Paradise, based on the backdrop of 9/11.
She began presenting The Agenda With Yvonne Ridley, the Islam Channel's politics and current affairs programme, in October 2005. In 2007, the Islam Channel was fined £30,000 by Ofcom after a series of breaches relating to her show and another show. She resigned in April 2007, complaining that she had effectively been dismissed after relations between her and the channel's CEO, Mohamed Ali Harrath broke down. She brought another case of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination. In April 2008, Ridley again won her case and was awarded £26,000 damages against the Islam Channel.
Ridley is a freelance journalist and presenter, and for several years regularly worked for Press TV, the Iranian English-language 24-hour news channel. She hosted a weekly current affairs and politics show called The Agenda, last broadcast on 31 March 2012. She also wrote a column for the now-closed Daily Muslims, an online newspaper for North American Muslims. It was in this paper that an obituary calling Chechen militant Islamist Shamil Basayev a shaheed, a Muslim honorific for "martyr", was published.
In May 2008, in an assignment for Press TV, she and the film-maker David Miller shot a documentary on the Guantanamo Bay detention camp where they filmed on-site and also interviewed former inmates. Their film Guantanamo: Inside the Wire was nominated in the 2009 Roma Film Fest in Italy, and in the 2010 Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Qatar. Another film made in 2009 was also nominated in the 2010 Aljazeera festival; In Search of Prisoner 650, directed by Hassan Ghani, claimed that Aafia Siddiqui was held prisoner in secret by the US.
Ridley joined the Free Gaza Movement in Cyprus in August 2008, as it headed for Gaza to challenge the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. She arrived without incident in Gaza on 23 August. During their brief stay Ridley interviewed Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh for Press TV. In early 2009, Ridley helped organise and took part in the Viva Palestina convoy of around 100 vehicles bearing aid across North Africa to Gaza via the Rafah border.
In July 2009, in the wake of Press TV's coverage of the 2009 Iranian presidential election and the subsequent protests, Ridley and other journalists working for Press TV were accused of being stooges for the Iranian regime.
Election candidate (2004–2012)Edit
Ridley was first on the Respect list for the 2004 European Elections for the North East England region, but was not elected; the party placed last with 1.1% of the vote. She stood for Respect in the Leicester South by-election in 2004, where she came fourth with 12.7% of the vote. When she stood there again in the 2005 general election, although she still placed fourth, her share of the vote fell to 6.4%. In the local government elections in 2006, she stood unsuccessfully for a seat on Westminster City Council.
In the 2012 Rotherham by-election, held on 29 November, Ridley was the Respect Party candidate. Respect Yourself, a leaflet distributed during the campaign which accused the Labour Party of racism, was attributed by Labour to Respect. Labour reported the matter to the police and the returning officer. Respect put the incident down to "dirty tricks"; the leaflet was without the legally required notice identifying the source. In the final result, Ridley came fourth with 1,778 votes or just over 8% of the total votes cast.
Views and opinionsEdit
She has been highly critical of Britain's foreign policy. In complaining of patriotic sentiments voiced by British Muslim pop star Sami Yusuf, and the enthusiasm for him shown by his Muslim fans, she has said:
How can anyone be proud to be British? Britain is the third most hated country in the world. The Union Jack is drenched in the blood of our brothers and sisters across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. Our history is steeped in the blood of colonialism, rooted in slavery, brutality, torture, and oppression.
During a February 2006 meeting at Imperial College London, Ridley described Israel as "that disgusting little watchdog of America that is festering in the Middle East" and said that Respect "is a Zionist-free party ... if there was any Zionism in the Respect Party they would be hunted down and kicked out. We have no time for Zionists," while both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were "riddled with Zionists." She described the British politician David Miliband, then foreign secretary (and Jewish), on her blog in 2008 as being "a gutless little weasel who lost more than his foreskin when he was circumcised?" Ridley has compared the Israeli Government to the Nazis and has argued that the Israeli Parliament "is on the path of reviving the policies of Adolf Hitler" and that Israeli politicians are "promoting a Final Solution for Gaza".
At the "Muslimer i Dialog" conference in Copenhagen in September 2005, Ridley was asked by Danish terror expert Lars Erslev Andersen if she saw it as a problem that militant Islamists distribute recruiting videos of Iraqi insurgents killing hostages. She replied that Muslims used the videos at home as an alternative form of news to what she perceived as the propaganda of Western media. At the same meeting, she compared British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Pol Pot. She returned to Copenhagen in May 2006 to take part in an Islam Channel conference on Islamophobia and was given a standing ovation after urging Muslims not to "kneel before their enemies" or "kiss the hand that slaps them."
In a 2003 speech at IslamExpo, she protested the attention given honour killings and female genital mutilation by the media, which "have nothing to do with Islam". The idea that Islam oppresses women is the biggest obstacle to women accepting Islam, she argued. She herself had believed it, but in keeping her promise to her Taliban captors that she would read the Quran, she "realized I had been lied to", and converted. On the subject of compulsory hijab, she said: "I was in Iran last year. I know the hijab is a pain for them, but they will get no sympathy from me. It is clear that the hijab is an obligation, not a choice." Ridley complained later that she had been misquoted and said, while the hijab appeared to be an obligation it was up to individual women to make that choice.
Among her controversial opinions is that the Chechen terrorist leader and architect of the Beslan school massacre, Shamil Basayev, was a 'shaheed' i.e. Islamic martyr. When the family of Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi denounced him, Ridley declared this "cowardly" and said she would "rather put up with a brother like Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi any day than have a traitor or a sell-out for a father, son or grandfather". In both articles she renounced violence and said later that critics had chosen to "cherrypick out of context to make mischief".
At a meeting of Respect on 6 June 2006, following the Forest Gate raid, Ridley urged all Muslims in Britain to "boycott the police and refuse to co-operate with them in any way, shape or form until the boys are released", including "asking the community copper for directions to passing the time of day with a beat officer." Her comments were labelled as "sheer, undiluted madness" by Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, who added that "To not co-operate would be of no benefit to the Muslim community; no benefit to the police; and no benefit to the security of our country." Respect's only MP George Galloway quickly distanced himself from her comments, saying Ridley was wrong and, "Our policy is not that we should withdraw co-operation from the police". Ridley later claimed that she only wanted Muslim leaders to stop co-operating, not the whole community; this is not supported by her comment about not asking directions from the police. The two men were subsequently released without charge and an official apology was later issued to the family some years later by the Metropolitan Police.
Initially, Ridley strongly opposed the Western intervention in the 2011 Libyan Civil War, and spoke in a rally opposing it held in Central London where she likened asking for Western support to making a pact with the Devil. However, she later travelled to rebel-held territory, where she became a wholehearted supporter of the Libyan rebels' cause and accepted that they had no choice but to ask for help from the West.
In 2012, she expressed her strong support for the end of secret evidence used in the SIAC case against the Jordanian Islamist cleric, Abu Qatada, and her opposition to Home Secretary Theresa May's plans to deport him on the basis of the secret evidence from the UK.
In February 2018, Ridley was invited to speak at the Oxford Union as part of a debate entitled "This House Believes We Cannot Thrive Without Religion". The invitation was criticised by the Oxford University Jewish Society who released a statement which claimed that "Ms. Ridley has a long and detailed history of making exactly the sort of comments that cause Jewish students to feel targeted and unsafe on campus". She has been widely criticised as an antisemite. The allegations were hotly disputed by Ridley, who in January 2019 spoke at Newcastle College at the invitation of trade unions for Holocaust Memorial Day. Her talk highlighted what she described as "the heroic efforts" of Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE who was the British humanitarian who established an organisation to rescue children at risk from Nazi Germany. She also referenced her interfaith work and respect for the Jewish faith during the aforementioned Oxford Union debate she addressed in 2018.
Denial of entryEdit
In January 2013, she was scheduled to attend the Spring of Islam Conference organised by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind in Hyderabad, India. She was given all necessary clearances by the external affairs ministry, but was denied a visa at the last minute because of the tense situation in Hyderabad following the arrest of controversial local legislator Akbaruddin Owaisi a few days before the event was scheduled to take place. However Ridley, through video conference, addressed three sessions of girls, women and journalists during the conference.
Views on ISILEdit
Ridley said there is a clear difference between the ideologies of the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also called ISIS and Daesh) arguing while the Taliban aims to form an Islamic state within the borders of Afghanistan, ISIL was working to create a border-less Islamic state and disregarded the sovereignty of other nations. She also claimed that ISIL recruited by promising financial supports and power, and the Taliban is largely run and supported by Afghan people. These were taken from her 2015 interview with Iranian newspaper Shargh. She wrote a damning chapter on the exploits of ISIL in her book The Rise of the Prophet Muhammad: Don't Shoot the Messenger. In 2013 Ridley offered to swap places with ISIL hostage David Haines according to reports published later.
Ridley has been married five times. She first married when she was 22; her second marriage, to a policeman, lasted seven years; her third husband was Daoud Zaaroura, the CEO of North of England Refugee Service and a former PLO head of intelligence, whom she met in Cyprus, where she was working on an assignment for the Newcastle-based Sunday Sun, and they have one daughter, Daisy Ridley, who was born in 1992; her fourth husband, to whom she was married until 1999, was an Israeli businessman, Ilan Hermosh; her fifth husband is an Algerian.
During her time on the Sunday Sun newsdesk, she told colleagues she was an officer in the Territorial Army, based on Teesside, specialising in intelligence. She had also told the same to colleagues on The Northern Echo and repeated it in interviews.
Ridley resides in Scotland, to where she moved in 2011, and has since been a Scottish National Party (SNP) member, largely in her newly-found desire to support and aid Scottish independence. She is also a feminist and a socialist.
In January 2014, Ridley was nominated for the Muslim Woman of the Year award at the British Muslim Awards. In October 2019 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the non-governmental organisation Protect the Rohingya, when she helped a team of South African lawyers take statements of alleged war crimes from refugees who had fled Myanmar. She was also nominated for her work with Syrian women prisoners who were victims of torture and abuse while held by the Assad regime in Syria.
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