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Taleban kidnap victim, Yvonne Ridley, talks to Alon Or-bach
Yvonne Ridley came to fame when she was kidnapped by the Taleban in September 2001. Back then, she was working as a reporter for the Sunday Express, based in Pakistan, from where she made the trip to Afghanistan in the run up to the war.
Last week, Yvonne spoke at Imperial about the situation in Israel and Palestine. She arrived late, wearing a hijab and a Palestinian scarf and gibed that she'd "just slipped through the dress code at Imperial College". Now working as the political editor of the Islam Channel, she talked a recent experience when she was refused entry to Palestine and labelled as a terrorist when trying to cover the recent elections. Instead, she spent a few days in Jordan and was amazed that Palestinians living there formed two-thirds of the Jordanian population.
Previously, she was one of the first journalists in Jenin, Palestine, where she "could smell the death coming up from the rubble". She told a poignant story of a man called Marwen whose wife and son both bled to death in his arms after being refused any medical help by "laughing soldiers" upholding the siege on the town. "I always wear something Palestinian on me to remember Jenin".
She spoke of the contrast between how the UN treated Saddam Hussein and Ariel Sharon, "Sharon told the UN to `get stuffed', and that is exactly what the UN did". Her criticism of Israel didn't just stop at Sharon. "Israel is called a model democracy I don't see any great signs of democracy in Israel". This tirade went on for some time, "Israel is a vile little state. It's propped up by America. It cannot survive without American money".
Trying somehow to relate the Palestinian situation to students, Ridley stated that the introduction of top-up tuition fees "Is linked in direct correlation to the war" and asked us to "Imagine how much better off you would all be if [the cost of the war] was put into the education system". Puzzlingly, far right groups use the same logic when demanding an end to international development aid such as the aid given to Palestine.
Yvonne sits on the national council of Respect and stood as a Respect candidate in the last general election. "[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." She explained that government support "goes towards that disgusting little watchdog of America that is festering in the Middle East". She went on to attack the Tories and Lib Dems, saying that all the mainstream parties are "riddled with Zionists". I found it hard to comprehend how the notion that "[Respect] encompasses a broad church of ideas and opinions" could be compatible with the hunting down of supporters of an Israeli state. She approves of the recent Hamas victory, firmly stating, "I have no doubt that [Respect] will be supporting the Hamas-dominated government when it's formed in Palestine".
Ridley then plugged Respect's attempt to take control of Tower Hamlets and Newham councils. "When Respect takes control of those councils in the May elections, they will be hoisting up the Palestinian flag". She claimed that Respect's candidates in East London were "a reflection of what I see before me in the room today a rich multicultural mix of people", (clearly assuming that nobody at the event was a Zionist as they're not too welcome in Respect). She boasted "if anybody is being discriminated against in Tower Hamlets... it's probably the single white man".
When asked her views on suicide bombings, Ridley said, "I hate the term `suicide bombers' it's an offensive term which was invented by the West to ridicule what many people regard as `martyrdom operations' and you have to look at each one in context". She's not one to beat about the bush. "The Palestinians are faced with the fourth largest army in the world... Gone are the days of plucky little Israel it's never going to be driven into the sea". But Ridley did offer some reservations, "The biggest shame about the Palestinian martyrs is that they rarely target their tormentors."
I asked her to talk about her kidnapping by the Taleban and what brought about her conversion to Islam. She was quick to jump to the defence of her captors, but explained that was not her feeling at the time: "It was ten terrifying days - each day I would wake up and think, `is this my last day on Earth?'". Ridley blamed her fear on the Western propaganda. "Throughout the ordeal, the Taleban treated me with courtesy, respect and kindness". She persistently denied Stockholm syndrome, the phenomenon of a hostage bonding with their captors, explaining how she went on hunger strike and refused to cooperate.
A Muslim Cleric offered her the chance to a get out if she would convert to Islam. She refused, but promised to read the Koran and study Islam. She explained how at first she did this to get a better understanding of the Muslim world but "what set out as an academic exercise rapidly turned into a spiritual one for me".
Overall, the debate was not so much that of `what now for Israel and Palestine?' as advertised but an all-out attack on Israel. Ridley criticised "the West's" ignorance of Islam and the situation in Palestine. What is clear is that Respect's policy on the Middle East, if that is what Ridley advocated, is pretty much in line with that of Hamas and effectively calls for the destruction of Israel.
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