Radicalized by the Quran? A Former ISIS Wife Shares Her Story
Ex-Muslims aren’t rare in the West. You might not know it, considering the media’s adoring fascination with converts to Islam. But when the “apostate” is a woman and former member of ISIS? Then she’s hard to ignore.
See Tania Joya. She burst onto the scene in 2019, interviewed in dozens of outlets. Most of those homed in, understandably, on how she wound up in the “caliphate.” And on why she left, as well as on her ex-husband. I interviewed Ms. Joya last month by telephone and covered those topics. But I also delved deeply into how Islamic theology affected her. I asked her whether that religion’s teachings are “radical” — or merely mainstream for most Muslims.
Tania was raised by “non-practicing ‘Ramadan Muslims,’” of Bangladeshi extraction, in the U.K. Despite their lack of piety, they forced her “to read Quran every day.” In fact “the very first book that ‘radicalized’ me was the Quran,” notably the part mandating “kill the idol worshippers” [surah IX:5].
But what really set her on the path to joining ISIS? When her cousin, who had gone to Oxford University as a “normal secular girl,” joined Hizb al-Tahrir or “Party of Liberation.” This group is dedicated to re-establishing the caliphate and works in many countries. (Here is HT’s website, and an article I wrote on the organization after attending one of their conferences.) Joya bought fully into HT’s goal, but not its program.
Why not? Because “I felt they weren’t militant enough.” An added benefit of becoming a more fundamentalist Muslim — someone who “takes their religion seriously” — was that this annoyed her Muslim Lite parents. So she already had a fanatical personality, even before she met a kindred spirit and married him.
From Christian to Muslim
John Georgelas was from Plano, Texas, and had converted to Islam in September 2001, while in college at Texas A & M. Georgelas, according to Joya, had had a rough home life. In particular he didn’t get along well with his father, a West Point graduate, physician and Air Force officer. Experiencing depression, the son turned to drugs.
John also encountered theological problems, according to Tania. Raised a Greek Orthodox Christian, he was attracted to the idea of the “militant” Christ of the book of Revelation. He was also troubled by the idea of the Trinity. So under the influence of his Tae Kwon Do instructor, Georgelas became a Muslim.
He then spent time studying in Damascus, thanks to Saudi funding. The next year, 2003, Joya met him on a Muslim dating site. He traveled to the U.K., where they married after all of three days in March 2003. Georgelas, even more than most Muslims, was an excellent memorizer. He is said to have memorized the entire Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary.
He also read many classical Arab Muslim works, such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Hazm. (Ibn Khaldun was a 14th century North African Muslim historian. Among other matters, he laid out the qualifications for the caliph. Ibn Hazm, 300 years earlier, lived in Islamic Spain and promoted a literal interpretation of the Qur’an.) Georgelas thus became an expert on “sharia law and the criteria for the caliphate.”
Together, he and Joya “were motivated to find a group that could implement sharia.” They lived in Damascus for some time but returned to the U.S. and he took a job in Dallas. But in 2006 he was arrested for hacking into AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, and spent three years in prison. By then, he was supporting al Qaeda and decrying the “U.S. war on Islam.” Joya, on the other hand, was becoming “more Americanized” but remained a loyal Muslim wife.
Out of jail and off probation by 2011, he wanted “to get out of the Dar al-Harb,” the “world of war,” and flee to the “other” part of the world — in classical Islamic geopolitics, The “Dar al-Islam.” So, says Joya, “to save me and the children we had to make hijrah to a Muslim country.” (The original hijrah, or “emigration,” was that of Muhammad and the early Muslims from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.)
They went to Egypt, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi. But then he was overthrown in a popular coup by General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi. Georgelas wanted to go to Sudan, she to Malaysia. But they “compromised” on Turkey. Istanbul proved too expensive, however, so he took the pregnant Joya and their three children to Gaziantep, near Syria. From there, he relocated them to the town of Azaz, which was run by ISIS.
Leaving Her Husband
John Georgelas became known as Yahya Abu Hassan, or Yahya al-Bahrumi, while part of ISIS. (See Graeme Wood’s excellent 2017 article for details on him.) Joya lasted there three weeks. She persuaded her now-jihadist husband to let her and the children (8, 4 and 18 months) go. Joya says that “because he came from an American family he treated me more nicely than women married to Arabs or Pakistanis.” So “the compassionate side of him let me take the kids and leave.”
Her husband dropped them off at the Turkish border, and the family eventually made it to Istanbul, then to the U.K. and finally Texas — thanks to John’s parents providing significant funds.
Her Children Are Christians Now
He remarried, perhaps twice, soon after she’d left, fathering at least two more children. Sometime in 2016 they stopped communicating, which they had done previously on Skype and Telegram — mainly for the kids’ sakes. Joya is unsure if he is alive, although some journalists have told her he is hiding out in Turkey. According to Wood, John “al-Bahrumi” had become a respected Islamic scholar, responsible for much of the content in ISIS publications and even perhaps rising to the rank of second-in-command of the organization.
Joya remarried and now lives across the street from John’s parents, in Plano, Texas. The children are Greek Orthodox, while she herself “went to a Unitarian church for a while, but it was full of hippies” so she “follows Jewish practices” but has not converted.
Why People Join ISIS
ISIS draws men and women for a variety of reasons, according to Joya. Some “to get a wife” (or wives). But it also attracts “pedophiles.” Remember, the founder of Islam “was into child marriage with women as young as 6 years old.” Muhammad married Aisha when she was that age, according to Islamic sources. He also had “all those wives” (as many as 15). “A lot of the young, naïve girls did not know what to expect. We were told we had to obey our husbands. A lot of these women went to Syria and got exploited — pimped out. Contract marriages till the husband died, then you went to the next guy.”
ISIS, she said, also gives “psychopaths who want to behead people” a rationale for doing so. (ISIS is not alone in this within Islam, however.)
Still, the main reason Muslims joined ISIS was the caliphate and its emphasis on jihad. Some she encountered also believed in the Mahdi, the Islamic messianic figure. (Eschatology was in fact a main driver of ISIS, certainly according to its online publications.)
Two Types of ISIS Members
ISIS members fell into two camps. The vast majority were Salafis, who aimed to imitate the “worthy ancestors” of Muhammad’s time. A small, but influential, minority were Zahiris — “externalists” or, literally, “literalists.” These, which included Joya’s ex-husband, believe the apparent meaning of a Qur’an or Hadith (saying of Muhammad) verse is the only one acceptable. They reject analogizing from such texts to find new applications, something even Salafis will do. But the two camps do agree vigorously on one major point: waging violent jihad. Joya maintains that Salafis are the worst of the two, however, and often told her husband “if I wanted to live under them, I’d go to Saudi Arabia.”
Specifically we discussed the case of Shemima Begum, another British Muslim woman who joined ISIS but is not being allowed back into the U.K. Joya did point out that “if a former bride discredits ISIS, she will be attacked.” Begum at last report was still living in a Syrian refugee camp. She may thus feel constrained to defend ISIS. But if someone like her were to be allowed back in to a Western country, how might she be deprogrammed? Joya says that such should be on probation for at least a decade while undergoing intensive education. This should include non-Muslim value systems, human rights, and in this country, the Constitution. ISIS supporters who claim to be rehabilitated must prove they can “question their own religion.”
And here is what I gleaned from Tania Joya, that no other interview with her will touch. “My understanding is if you’re properly ‘deradicalized,’ you’re not even going to want to be a Muslim, after understanding where Islam comes from.” Muhammad was “illiterate, but Muslims are taught that he was perfect. I probably have more knowledge of the world than he did.” She also agrees with the theory that Islam’s founder was an epileptic. Beyond that, Islam’s “Perfect Man” “was into child marriages with women as young as 6.
According to Islamic sources, Muhammad married Aisha when she was 6 and “consummated” the marriage when she was 9. And then there were “all those wives” Muhammad had — at least 15. The first Muslim was also “a warlord who took captives and sold slaves — and we’re commanded to live as he did?!”
Deradicalizing thus hinges on getting someone who believes in Muhammad to question whether such a person was “perfect,” and whether imitating him would be “good for humanity.”
Is It Possible to Be a Moderate Muslim?
The recent London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, had asked to participate in a deradicalization program. But, Joya emphasizes, “the problem with these is they just say to the person ‘you’re following the wrong interpretation of Islam.’” The failure of such programs has been known for some time.
But Joya goes much farther, into territory uncomfortable for most. She was adamant that considering the example of Muhammad and the teachings of both Quran and hadiths, there is no right interpretation of Islam. (I have been saying something similar for at least a decade, although I do think some Islamic sects are peaceful. See any number of posts on my website, this article, this more recent one, and my book Sects, Lies, and the Caliphate.)
I asked her, “Is it even possible to be a moderate Muslim?” Her response: “Yes, but only culturally. The people who want to ‘reform’ Islam say ‘we’re going to get out the violence and reject jihad and misogyny and homophobia and antisemitism.’ But then you have to go to the Qur’an and edit those out of that book.”
In addition, “there are so many hadiths, especially in the [collection of] al-Bukhari, that talk about how jihad is more valuable than prayer, and that you can’t have an ummah [community] without the caliphate.” A moderate Islam would just “have some holidays and that’s it.”
“Islam is just such a horrible ideology. I want to get a black dog.” Why? “Just because Muhammad was so afraid of them.”
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth; a history professor; and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS).