The Mother of Mohammed by Sally Neighbour: Book Note
Recently my husband and I watched the movie, Eye in the Sky. It’s about drones: English, American and Kenyan military and political figures are trying to kill some Al-Shabad leaders in Nairobi. The film raises two questions.
Most centrally, the film asks what is the permitted “collateral damage” (civilians killed in the course of the operation), and what if the civilians are children. The movie also raises the question of the whole morality of long-distance killing. I don’t know whether drone technology is really as sophisticated as the movie makes it appear, but the question of killing children certainly gets an airing, as the film focuses on a cute little girl about eight years old, who may or not be killed if the attack goes ahead.
In this film, one of the objectives of the attack is to kill a woman convert to Islam from the UK, who is implicated in suicide bombings. I wondered if this woman was modeled on an Australian named Robyn (later Rabiah) Hutchinson. This extraordinary person was a normal young woman in the 1970s, partying and smoking dope. Then she travelled to Indonesia and converted to a rather benign form of Indonesian Islam in order to marry. That marriage failed, and she then married another Indonesian adhering to a stricter form of Islam, this husband was later assumed to be one of the people behind the 2002 Bali bombing. After that marriage failed as well, she had a series of other husbands and eventually had five children. She also raised a grand-daughter.
Unsatisfied with life in Australia, Hutchinson took her younger children to Pakistan and later to Afghanistan, where she joined a compound of Islamists seemingly connected to Osama Bin Laden (who also, it seems, was considering marrying her at one point). She was admired in this community and although lacking medical training was put in charge of the compound hospital. She insisted that in conformity with the teachings of Islam, she be treated with respect by all males. Ordered to marry because single women should not live independently, she did so.
When the compound was being bombed, Hutchinson refused to leave until her husband ordered her to; she believed in the strict Islamic rule that women should obey their husbands. She escaped with her children to Iran and turned herself in to the Australian Embassy. Unlike her counterpart in the film, the government was eager to have her returned to Australia where she could be questioned, rather than killed or abandoned. When Sally Neighbour, the author of The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman’s Extraordinary Journey into Jihad (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) interviewed her, she was living in a suburb of Sydney, wearing a full burqah, seemingly under the strict eye of Australian security forces.
Psychologically, it appears that Hutchinson needed very strict moral guidelines and rules, which she found in Islam. Despite the fact that she spent almost her entire adult life married to and surrounded by violent Islamists of various sorts, she denied any responsibility whatsoever for their actions, insisting that she was a simple wife and mother. Politics did not interest her, she said. This is a standard women’s trope: wives and mothers are not expected to be aware of, interested in, or responsible for the actions of the men in their lives. According to Neighbour, “Rabiah’s view…was that the jihad against America was ‘Osama’s war.’ She had some sympathy for it, but regarded it as a quite separate undertaking from her own quest to help build an Islamic state.” (p. 251)
I think Hutchinson’s disingenuous claim that all she was doing was minding her own business was appallingly immoral, but women seem to get away with that more than men do. If we want equality, we have to be equally aware of the world around us and equally responsible to notice and remedy injustice and violence. In her early life Hutchinson was attracted to a romantic vision of jihad, but later in life, enmeshed as she was in violent groups, she chose to close her eyes and ears to what she witnessed. This assumes, of course, that she was telling Neighbour the truth, as opposed to adopting the woman’s role to cover her own criminal activities.
Hutchinson’s two oldest children had spent part of their childhoods in Australia, so when she brought them back there after one of her forays abroad, they broke with her and stayed (although her daughter turned over her own daughter to Hutchinson to raise). I wondered what happened to the other children, so I checked on-line. It appears that in 2014 one of her sons was fighting with a rebel group in Syria, and one of her daughters married a man implicated in terrorism and arrested in Sydney in 2005.
The Mother of Mohammed is a fast read, extremely interesting and also scary. I am not an expert on terrorism so I can’t offer any interesting academic insights into the book, but I do recommend it.