Sunday, May 22, 2011

Margaret Marcus becomes Maryam Jameelah

Maryam Jameelah
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
(Image from New York Times)

I'm not sure what general understanding to draw from this odd biography, Deborah Baker's account of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, which tells of how a young New York secular Jewish woman, Margaret Marcus, became "Maryam Jameelah, a . . . convert to Islam, who -- as a disciple of Pakistan's most world-renowned fundamentalist -- made a career out of condemning the West in dozens of books and pamphlets." That fundamentalist mentor was "Abul Ala Mawdudi of Pakistan, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami . . . . [and] a strong influence on both Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini," as noted by Lorraine Adams in her New York Times review, "A New York Jewish Girl Becomes an Islamist" (May 20, 2011).

I haven't read the book, but maybe I should, for I might learn something more about the apparent appeal of Islamism for unbalanced young Westerners, if Ms. Adams is correct:
Baker not only makes us care about this disturbed woman[, Maryam Jameelah née Margaret Marcus,] and her hectoring prose, she has succeeded in composing a mesmerizing book on one of the more curious East-West encounters. She proves once again how a marginal case can be an illuminating way into vast and much disputed subjects, in this instance the meeting of West and East and the role of women under orthodox Islam.
From the details of the review, this sounds less a meeting of West and East and more a subsumption of the former by the latter. Or at least a story of how Islamism can make instrumental use of disturbed Westerners like the unstable Margaret Marcus, whom it turned into the unbalanced Maryam Jameelah:
[H]er tendentious books . . . are fixtures in madrasas around the world . . . . Her frenetic writing . . . matched Jamaat-e-Islami's interest in promoting her diatribes against secularism and women's rights . . . . Her prose was not the key to the popularity of her books. "The true source of Maryam Jameelah's authority arose not from her readings and argument, but from the circumstances of her life," Baker writes. "Every book she wrote is framed by an account of how . . . the daughter of secular Jewish parents . . . came to reject America and embrace Islam" and "sacrificed the supposed freedoms and privileges of a Western lifestyle to live . . . by the sacred laws laid out in the Holy Koran."
No doubt, these 'popular' books, read by Islamists for pious inspiration, leave out the dismal details of Jameelah's condition, which Adams, however, spells out for us:
[A]t age 23, she voluntarily checked into psychiatric hospitals for about two years . . . . [and within a year of her emigration to Pakistan] Mawdudi committed her to a Lahore psychiatric hospital . . . . Baker sidesteps one of the book’s most crucial questions: "Was Maryam Jameelah a schizophrenic? I couldn’t say." Yet the letters led me to believe she was. Baker mentions that Jameelah was medicated with Compazine, but blurs the implications when she omits that it's prescribed for schizophrenia. She also leaves out instances when Jameelah unambiguously acknowledges why she takes the anti-schizophrenic medication Thorazine. In a letter of Sept. 15, 1981, for example, Jameelah wrote: "I have to take Thorazine every night. I know if I stop taking it, I will soon relapse into the same condition I was before I went to the hospital both in New York and Lahore."
Conversion to fundamentalist Islam didn't solve Jameelah's problems, apparently, but did offer her a career "presenting 'a savage and titillating portrait of America' while disclaiming 'all responsibility for the crimes' committed by young terrorists who were inspired by her."

Little wonder that products of Pakistan's fundamentalist madrasas have such fanatical hatred for America, given that their formative view stems from the pen of such an unbalanced woman as the secular New Yorker Margaret Marcus who became the fanatically Islamist Maryam Jameelah.

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At 7:35 AM, Blogger Clarissa said...

Wow, that's scary. Mentally unbalanced individuals like this woman are the perfect fodder for crazed fundamentalists.

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

And there seem to be too many of both . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You haven't read the book? What is the point of writing about a book you haven't read?

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous commented:

"You haven't read the book? What is the point of writing about a book you haven't read?"

Why write about a book I haven't read?

Well, because I'm interested in lots of books that I might never have the chance to read, so I read reviews instead and pursue my thoughts here on what the reviews say about the books.

Nobody is required to read what I write, so I write on what interests me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

She had the nervous breakdown at age 23 before she converted and before she left the country. This consequently lead her deeper into Islam and to read the Qur'an.

She married and had 5 children.

I don't believe you accomplish all that she did being too unstable. My guess is that the structure and stability of practicing the conservative end of Islam helped her stability. In some ways being completely covered allowed her to escape from the world.

At 3:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What you say is plausible, but I seem to recall that even after her conversion, and while she was already living in Pakistan, she was sent to a psychiatric institution on the recommendation of the imam who had helped her convert, so her instability may have continued, despite her adoption of Islam.

Jeffery Hodges

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