The tale of Maryam Jameelah, a New York Jewish girl who became a leading polemicist for radical Islam, has become the focus of a new book by biographer Deborah Baker. A New York Times review of Baker's The Convert shows how Jameelah became an anti-Western legend, at the behest of South Asian extremism Abul Ala Maududi and despite her battles with a questionable case of schizophrenia.
Jameelah's claim to fame didn't come from her ranting style and repetitiveness of subject matter, but rather from the narrative of her life. Born to secular Jewish parents, she rejected Western society and became an active opponent of Western women's rights and non-Muslim societies. As reviews on her own website indicate, her life story is taken as a confirmation of the validity of her facts, such as in her anti-Jewish, anti-Christian rant Islam Versus People of the Book [Ahl Al Kitab] - Past and Present.
Even as a child, Maryam Jameelah (Margaret Marcus) expressed a fascination with Arab culture and desired to live as an artist in the Middle East. "At 15, while her friends were listening to Frank Sinatra, she was buying records by the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. After dropping out of New York University, she spent years reading Muslim texts in the public library's Oriental division," notes the Times review. "At 27, she converted to Islam with the help of a Brooklyn imam, and the following year, in 1962, boarded a freighter for Pakistan, never to return to the United States."
Her story is riddled with twists and turns. "Jameelah's parents were dumfounded by her zigzagging fixations and flirtations — first with Holocaust photographs, then Palestinian suffering, then a Zionist youth group and, ultimately, fundamentalist Islam. While her classmates fell happily into 'boys, dates, dances, parties, clothes and film stars,' Jameelah recoiled, refusing to date or form friendships." A two-year stint in a mental hospital didn't help either, and Jameelah finally reached out to Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Pakistani Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami.
Maududi's rigid form of Islam and his personal attention changed Jameelah. Calling her an "equatorial sapling struggling to survive in an Arctic climate," Maududi became her "correspondent and protector" and ultimately invited her to live with his family.
However, Maududi's misinterpretation of Jameelah's illness backfired, and the "charming autodidact of her letters became, in the flesh, a logorrheic pest with an explosive temper." Despite her failure to live up to his expectations, Jameelah achieved lasting literary fame. As a former Westerner, her voice would lend credence to radical Islam's anti-Western ideology.