I recently read The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism on Maryam Jameelah.
Here are links to some gripping excerpts from the book:
(author Deborah Baker’s website)
Let’s call Maryam Jameelah ”MJ,” and just remind yourself that I don’t mean Michael Jackson so as not to become confused if you actually read through all of this
Muslim readers, just curious, how many of you have heard of her or read anything by her? If you or your SO or family members are from Pakistan, have you/they heard of her?
My husband had never heard of her. Neither had a handful of Muslim and Pakistani people who I asked when I started reading the book. I learned of her when I was living in Oman when a friend of mine gave me a copy of MJ’s correspondences with Maulana Maududi. My friend was an older Zanzibari lady, so she reads about Islam mostly in the English language, as do some South Asian Muslims. (Colonialism connection there.) I had been a Muslim for several years in the US before I moved to Oman, so that means that I spent years in an English speaking Muslim context without coming across Maryam Jameelah’s name or writings.
Upon being given the book of MJ and Maududi correspondences, I remember being fascinated by her story because she and I had something in common-namely that she and I are both Muslim converts of Jewish heritage. MJ was born in 1934 to a secular Jewish family in the NYC area, but converted to Islam and moved to Pakistan where she married and settled for the rest of her life. She was a white, Western woman who supposedly gave up a privileged American life for a strict orthodox Jamaat-e-Islami recommended austere Muslim Pakistani life. She had the potential to confirm the supremacy of the Jamaat-e-Islaami narrative by rejecting the Evillle materialism of the West in the nobler quest for the boons of the Akhirah. As an author and intellectual, she wrote in that polemic, absolutist, grandiose way (to use Baker’s terms) that neo-orthodox oriented Muslims lap up. But I think her time of relevancy was over decades ago and the author is making it seem like she is currently as influential.
Years ago, when I read her writing, I was quite put off. Like her mentor Maududi, she was vehemently anti-Western and her Islam was a Salafist neo-orthodox Islam. As with many Salafist oriented writings, I found myself cringing at the ridiculousness of some of the anti-Western assertions put forth as truths in her writing; I recall reading something about Western feminism being a path towards an all-female, lesbian, Amazonian style society or some such utter nonsense. I read this maybe 7-8 years ago, so I can’t remember precisely what it was that she wrote, but some of her writings are available online…I have been lazy to find where I read the Amazonian society thing because I couldn’t find it from a quick google, if anyone knows please let me know…I did find one article in which she suggests that feminism leads to lesbianism here. Her thinking and her writings reflect the colonial and post-colonial times in which she grew up. I agree generally with her criticisms of Western imperialism. I think the long-lasting negative effects of colonialism are pretty clear to us today. But I disagree with her idea of “pure Islam” (which really means rigid, literalist Saudi styled Salafi Islam) as the solution to the ailments of the global Muslim Ummah.
Anyhow-I never gave MJ much thought after having a good eye-roll at her writing all those years ago, but after reading the above linked excerpts from the book in The Friday Times, a mix of nosiness and curiosity came over me and I had to know more about her. Maryam Jameelah is featured as one of the VIPs of modern Islam in Makers of Contemporary Islam by John Esposito. But unlike Baker suggests in her book, I have never seen MJ pamphlets in Islamic centers, and have not heard of her mentioned often, possibly not again since that time in Oman from the above mentioned friend. I think her style of anti-Western discourse is actually very passé for contemporary Western based Muslims. There are certainly some forms of anti-Western rhetoric, but MJ’s was an older anti-technology, anti-modernization ideology that equated modernization with Westernization, and while I am aware there are some fringe Salafi-oriented groups (like Tableeghi Jamaat) who still preach such things, these ideas are not broadly current among us. Clearly this discourse is still prevalent in certain circles in Pakistan, though.
Here is a link to the MJ chapter in Makers of Contemporary Islam- worth a perusal if you are interested.
Apparently, MJ is a person of great importance. That is the take author Deborah Baker has. The author exposes MJ’s unusual life circumstances, and both the author and MJ are fixated on the presumed divide between Islam and The West. Baker seems to agree with MJ that the divide is ultimately unbridgeable. (I disagree, especially in our era of globalization, global inter-connection, and as a Western Muslim myself.) Baker also exposes a lot of dysfunction in MJ’s life, ultimately painting MJ as a lunatic—or perhaps she just pieces together enough evidence to prove that MJ was a lunatic. MJ was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was hospitalized several times for mental breakdowns and psychotic behavior, including a hospitalization in Lahore shortly after she arrived in Pakistan. As a reader, I felt somehow guiltily impertinent and voyeuristic during certain parts of this book, especially since MJ is still alive and residing in Lahore.
Baker delves into the relationship between Maulana Maududi’s and Maryam Jameelah’s writings and the War on Terror. Among the historical factors surrounding the current War on Terror situation are the neo-orthodox Salafist Islamic movements that arose as a reaction to the subjugations of colonialism and post-colonial imperialism. Thinkers like Maududi come from that climate. I do see connections between Maududi’s influence and part of the reasons why Pakistan has become religiously radicalized in some segments of society. For example, the long-lasting injustice against Ahmedi Muslims, including periodic incidents of violence committed against Ahmedi Muslims in Pakistan are connected to Maududi’s anti-Ahmedi stance. Interestingly, I learned from Baker’s book that Maududi didn’t understand the monster he created and lamented it to other elderly Jamaat-e-Islami colleagues in his later years. But all of this blasphemy law insanity, hudud ordinance injustice, and the anti-Ahmedi, anti-Ismaili-Shi’a, and anti-Shi’a rhetoric can be tied to him, not as the originator of such ideas, but as a main source of propagation due to his scale of influence. Baker takes things a step further and blames Maududi and Maryam Jameelah for 9/11. She actually blames MJ to her face and reports on MJ’s unprepared and lame response. I think that both Maududi (and MJ, if she really had such significance) have some small hand indirectly in jihadist/terrorist form of radicalization simply because the Islamist rhetorical foundations of the later extremist movements are connected to these older movements. In the same sense, so do the colonizers who created the oppressive climates that spurred these movements in the first place, right? Anyway, it is a common and irresponsible insinuation in Western rhetoric that neo-orthodox Islamist movements and extremist-terrorist movements are one and the same. I don’t think MJ ever called Muslims to attack The West, just to reject it. Some violent extremists have been influenced by Maududi’s thoughts since their version of ultra-orthodox so called “pure” Islam comes from the same Islamist theological movements, but to my knowledge, he never specifically called for Muslims to rise up and go to the West to attack people, either. As a matter of fact, as far as I know, the Jamaat-e-Islaami vision of an Islamic society is based on individual commitment to their neo-orthodox version of Islam as a logical-intellectual domino effect towards their styling of a ’Shari’ah based’ society, and not on a forceful overthrow or physical attack on any establishment, Western or otherwise. So, I don’t think Baker should have gone and told a 75 year old granny that she personally caused 9/11, which is essentially what Baker did to MJ. In some ways, that seemed like a twist to make MJ’s story extra relevant and interesting to readers. I think MJ envisioned some self-sufficient, powerful “pure Islam” Shari’ah state, and saw resisting the West/Modernity as a way to achieve this, but I don’t think she advocated offensive militant jihad or offensive terrorism.
Anyhow, it is a fascinating book, even though it is essentially a piece of gossip that defames MJ and causes her to look like a loon. Since many of MJ’s ultra-orthodox, anti-Western premises are so disagreeable, perhaps it is a good thing to know the back story and know how deranged she was (is?) because this discredits her and her ideas. But I still feel bad for MJ because she was ultimately just a young idealist, and now just an elderly woman living in a dingy room in Lahore. Apparently, a couple of MJ’s children emigrated to the US from Pakistan as adults.
Though I don’t think MJ is currently as popular or important as Baker suggests, MJ is an interesting figure to learn about. Baker made a sort of peace with MJ’s story at the end, and ended up corresponding with her. As a result of the meetings between MJ and Baker, MJ produced an article in 2009 in which she condemned terrorism, the Taliban, and the destruction of girls’ schools in Northern Pakistan “under the false pretext of Islam.” (p. 222-223) Baker sent MJ some magazines, and wondered in the last line of the book what other reading material she should send to MJ. Well, how about Progressive Muslims: Essays on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, or any of the books by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl?