Judging by her website Maryam Jameelah was one of the chief ideologists of Jamaati Islami (Pakistani Party of Islam). Her books on the superiority of Islam over the West and articles in defense of Islamist values gained prominence among the Muslim conservatives around the world. The unerring and intransigent tone of Jameelah's writings is quite convincing. Her arguments are not easy to dismiss. Reading her articles, however, is as sad and chilling experience, as reading Mein Kampf. Except that MeinKampf was dispatched long time ago to the dustbin of History, while Islamist ideas continue to gain acceptance.
In her book, The Convert, Debora Baker recreated Jameelah's life from an archive she chanced upon in the reading room of Manuscripts and Archives Department of NY Public library. Leafing through the archive register Deborah Baker spotted a `...lonely Muslim name...' of Maryam Jameelah hidden among the many Christian and Jewish ones. Intrigued, she requested to examine the archive. What she uncovered, sorting through the boxes full of letters, drawings, published articles and books, was a trough of human misery, the real life `...agony of unquiet soul...'
Maryam Jameelah was born Margaret (Peggy) Marcus in 1934 in America of Reform-Jewish parentage. A talented, but "difficult child" who, according to her mother, "wouldn't shut up", she grew up without friends. Peggy turned the life of her parents and everybody else who happened to fall into her orbit, into sheer hell. After years of dedicated attempts to satisfy the needs of their special child, Peggy's parents had to surrender her to a mental institution, were she spent close to two years. Her diagnosis was schizophrenia.
Interest in the Arab lore and, later, in the Muslim culture started when Peggy was ten years old. Immersion into Islam came much later. In her article `Why I Embraced Islam', she vividly described how her search for new identity brought her to Islam. But there was another motive. The unbearable misery and loneliness she suffered in the mental institution culminated in a vow to convert to Islam upon the release from asylum. She converted in 1961, taking the name Maryam Jameelah.
Unable to find a meaningful job in New-York, Jameelah, being a prolific and gifted pamphleteer, easily found foreign Muslim magazines willing to publish her articles in support of Islamist ideas. She initiated and carried on extensive correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and political functionaries. One of them was no less than Mawlana Abul Ala Mowdudi, the founder and chief ideologue of Islam revivalist movement Jamaati Islami. Familiar with Jameelah articles, he was impressed by the fervor of her ideas. At Jameelah's request, Mowdudi invited her to live with his family in Lahore with an aim to instruct her in the etiquette of Muslim family life. He soon understood his mistake. Jameelah turned the life of his family upside down as she did to her parents. The rest of Jameelah's story, which includes time spent in Pakistani asylum, is not less exciting.
The Convert is based on letters Deborah Baker selected from Jameelah's archive. Twenty-thirty pages long, they were heavily abbreviated and rewritten by her in order to make them more intriguing and readable than they, apparently, are. The letters are accompanied by stories of Deborah Baker's own adventures undertaken to investigate the real Jameelah. Being well versed in Islam, Baker explains Jameelah's religious beliefs, some tenets of Islam, social norms in modern Muslim society and Islamist politics. Both parts of the book are nicely interlaced resulting in a compelling story.
The weaker part of the book is in Baker's own uncritical approach, even sympathy to Jameelah's anti-Judaistic and anti-American positions. Too forgiving to Jameelah, Deborha Baker concentrated on the story of her suffering much more than on the harm that monomaniacal apostate caused to the task of peace and reconciliation between peoples. Sympathy to misery of the misfit from New York was extended to her extremist views.
The appeal of Myriam Jameelah dimmed in recent years. The extremist Islam found new powerful voices to call for Jihad. But the story of a convert from New-York, who so vividly articulated the basis for Muslim Rejection of the West, is a unique story of suspense. As Jewish proverb has it: Whom God wants to punish he makes crazy. But who in the end was punished, the Muslims - by gaining fanatical Jameelah, or the Jews - by loosing crazy Peggy? The Convert might have an answer.