February 9, 2008
The Canberra Times

Jihad Jills reveal the naive face of fundamentalism

Why is it that gods of various denominations hand out dubious instructions to the most feeble-minded?

I once interviewed a bewildered, wide-eyed pig farmer who had just performed an exorcism on his wife. Under apparent instruction ”from God”, he and a couple of church friends tied down the woman with considerable force. When I asked how God delivered the instructions – to help rid his possessed wife of demons – the farmer told me there had been phone calls. God apparently called someone else, who passed on the messages.

After the interview was broadcast, the police charged the pig farmer and his friends with murder.

Ever since, I’ve found myself bristling whenever I hear someone suggest they are doing what ”God told them” to do.

Perhaps that’s why my lunatic-alarm rang while watching the ABC documentary Jihad Sheilas, broadcast on Tuesday night. It was the purple-burqa-clad Raisa, with her unmistakable Australian accent, who set the bells clanging when she emphatically insisted she’d rather wear a hot and heavy burqa covering her body because ”it’s hotter in Hell, so I’ll just do what God told me to do”. The message was unequivocal: all unclad women are destined to burn in Hell. With such nonsense, Raisa set the film’s tone. But there were plenty more jaw-dropping moments to come.

The documentary focused on the bizarre lives and choices of two extraordinary Australian women. Their notoriety among security agencies concerned about Islamic terrorism is already legendary, but for the rest of us it was an introduction. And the encounter was chilling.

How and why two women born and educated in rural NSW could embrace radical Islam with such a vengeance that they both now espouse hatred of Australians, praise Osama bin Laden and appear to support violent jihad against Westerners, is the confounding and troubling question left hanging.

At one point, the older of the women, Rabiah Hutchinson, shuns sympathy for the Australians killed in the Bali terrorist attacks. Instead she pours scorn on them as people who were ”holidaying in someone’s country, sometimes engaging in child pornography or paedophilia or drug-taking”.

Rabiah once hailed from Mudgee, but no one there would recognise her now, despite her flattened vowels and Aussie accent. Gloved, shod and shrouded in black with only a letter- box slit for her glasses, Rabiah’s burqa helps extinguish any connection she may have had with her past. She’s a Muslim matriarch now, whose al-Qaeda connections, including her marriages to a Jemaah Islamiah operative and a former  associate of bin Laden, have given her access to some of the most feared radical Islamist groups. For that she has been dubbed the ”Grand Madam of militant Islam in Australia”.

It’s a title Rabiah scoffs at, and one that has further isolated her in her Sydney home, where she would appear to be under constant police surveillance. But, like her friend Raisa, she seems to almost enjoy the attention. Both women appear convinced they are being persecuted by over-zealous Australian authorities. Yet it seems that playing the role of the oppressed victim feeds their hunger for a central purpose.

”One man’s suicide bomber is another’s freedom fighter,” Raisa tells her family as they share a meal back home in Dubbo. ”Someone attacks your blood, you want revenge! That’s what suicide bombing is.” Her silent and seemingly dumbfounded siblings keep munching, as they politely tolerate her soapbox rant about the virtues of jihad. ”The West are [sic] invading our lands, killing our people,” she explains.

But what’s that? Whose land and whose people? Raisa’s strong identification with a fringe cause seems proof that you can take the girl out of Dubbo, and apparently take Dubbo well and truly out of the girl.

What happened to these women? Both were brought up and educated in Australia: a liberal democracy that places high value on tolerance, compassion and equality. Although proudly secular, Australia is also proud of its diversity, including its religious diversity. Whilst religious conversion is not at all uncommon, the path of conversion undertaken by Raisa and Rabiah is less common. As Muslim commentator Irfan Yusuf wrote this week, ”These women weren’t made dysfunctional by Islamic theology.” But radical Islamist ideology seems to have got the better of them.

Perhaps, as Francis Fukuyama has suggested, such radicalism and jihadism is a response to the quest for identity. And that quest has been accelerated, or exacerbated, by the isolation some Muslims are made to feel when living in Western communities. But why then would those born well outside that isolation latch on to it? Why embrace someone else’s oppression – perceived or not?

Listening to both Rabiah and Raisa, one gets a strong sense that being one of the ”oppressed” provides succour to their cause. To that end, Raisa praises Osama bin Laden for ”waking Muslims up to the oppression they were under but didn’t realise”.

In the face of foolish behaviour, we can always rely on our mothers to speak the blunt truth. In this documentary, that honour goes to Raisa’s mum. Given her needy daughter’s tendency to panic each time she found herself without a husband, it’s not surprising she’s married five times, including a polygamous arrangement where she shared a husband. When her stoic mother was asked why Raisa would agree to such a thing, she replied quite simply, ”I think loneliness got the better of her.”

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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