A Convert's Tale of Exile and Extremism

New biography traces an unlikely path to fundamentalism

Highlights from biographer Deborah Baker's talk in Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2011. (10 min., 14 sec.)

MUMBAI, November 26, 2011 — In the right hands, one convert’s life can tell us a lot about broad questions of identity, culture, and the so-called “clash of civilizations.”

This was demonstrated at an Asia Society India Centre programme with Deborah Baker around her new biography The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. The Convert recounts the life of an American girl brought up in a Jewish household, Margaret Marcus, who moved to Pakistan in the 1960s and converted to Islam to become Maryam Jameelah.

Shahid Amin, Professor of History at the University of Delhi, joined Baker in conversation about the book.

Baker explained how Maryam Jameelah became a powerful Islamic ideologue who articulated radical Islam’s objections against Western civilization and against American culture in particular. She became a source of information about the depth of depravity of Western culture and society, as she believed it to be.

Among other questions, the talk probed how Jameelah came to reject the society and culture that she was brought up in, and the personality of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, who is widely considered a major contributor to the intellectual foundations of militant Islam and who also hosted Jameelah at his house in Lahore.

In the course of writing and researching The Convert, Baker eventually traveled to Pakistan, where she encountered Jameelah in person. "Meeting her was a profound shock," Baker admitted, explaining that the woman she met bore little relation to the one she'd imagined from reading Jameelah's writing.

Watch the above video for highlights from Baker's discussion.

Presented in partnership with Project 88