I am not sure how many caught the award winning film maker Adam Wishart’s BBC documentary ‘The White Widow: Searching for Samantha’, nonetheless, it was a documentary detailing the life of Samantha Lewthwaite. Samantha Lewthwaite, is an English girl who became, and remains, heavily connected with terrorist organisations. The documentary left much to be desired, with it consisting more of speculation and accounts from old acquaintances, than any hard evidence or conclusions as to why she chose to involve herself with such groups, or her current activities and whereabouts. Despite this, it made interesting viewing due to its portrayal of Islam and its impact on her life choices. Much of the language used in the programme presented Islam in a fairly negative light, and, although I am not a Muslim myself, I feel it is imperative to highlight this. Why? Because many of the indirect suggestions made in this programme reflect much of the general discourse surrounding Islam as a result of extremists often taking centre stage.

As the programme was fairly lengthy, and based over her lifetime up to the present, I will focus on the part of the programme that demonstrated this most profoundly: the beginning. The programme opened with a brief summary of Samantha’s childhood and spoke of her encounters with, and interest in Islam during her earlier life. There was a great emphasis on her being a ‘typical, innocent English rose’, a ‘suburban’ girl living in a terraced house with a former solider for a father. As she got older, she was described as one of the only individuals who ‘dared to go to the other side’ due to her curiosity about the Quran, and Islam more generally, by attending Muslim events and festivals in her area. When accounts were taken from former school friends, they stated to have been ‘embarrassed to have known her’, and refused to speak on camera. However, the viewers were informed that despite this, these former friends were determined to speak out on her behalf to ‘preserve her memory’.

These descriptions and others presented her interest, and eventual conversion to Islam, as ending the part of her life best characterised as ‘innocent’ and ‘ordinary’ to a life corrupted by her religious choice. This is something, in my opinion, that has becoming increasingly popular in the general media and discourse about Islam. There is no denial of her involvement, interest, and connection with prominent terrorist groups who claim to be acting in the name of Islam. However, it is unfair to portray her conversion to Islam as synonymous with the start of the demise of her former character, and her desire to involve herself in terrorist activity. It seems to be incredibly common not to distinguish those who are practicing Muslims and those who have been radicalised or referred to as ‘extremists’.

Samantha, yes, began as a Muslim, but was radicalised. The process of radicalisation draws people out of the sphere of ordinary or conventional religious practice, and into an environment of extremist practice and beliefs. Many Muslims would deny that extremists are true Muslims, or even a faction of their religion. The Free Muslims Coalition, a group established in America, is just one example of those looking to make this distinction clear to the public, by having it vocalised directly through the Muslim community.

With this information in mind, I ask, if we can make this distinction for other religions such as Christianity, with most, if asked, comfortably disassociating Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or the KKK from the Christian faith. Is it not time then, to do the same for other faiths?

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/10934451/White-Widow-Samantha-Lewthwaite-remarried-into-family-of-top-al-Qaeda-commander.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b048pc4b

http://www.freemuslims.org/about/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17299084

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/21/virginia-kkk-fliers_n_5008647.html