DALLAS – At first glance, it seemed an unlikely venue to hear about Islamic State, but it was perhaps entirely appropriate to assemble at a Jewish synagogue named for peace to hear what could have been described as an episode of Married to the Mob, Middle East.
Some 300 people gathered at Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas, on a Sunday afternoon to hear Tania Joya’s candid and revealing description of her life in Syria as the wife of one of the most senior – and notorious – leaders of the ISIS terrorist organization.
Husband Yahya al-Bahrumi – previously known as “John” – was more than an ISIS leader: he was one of the core founders and the first or second in rank among Americans who have enlisted in the terror corps.
Among Temple Shalom congregants who chose not to attend, the event was also an issue. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley told The Media Line that he had “received flack” from a number of members, which he explained was a manifestation of the “fear of the unknown.” He said it is “challenging to accept the idea that someone with Tania’s background would be embraced” by the community. After all, he posited, “They don’t know Tania and they were taught in various forms not to like them, not to trust them, whatever their religion is, they are afraid of them.” Paley pointed critically at his clerical colleagues for enforcing beliefs that lead to “a walled standoff.” He recited the frequent refrain, “Peace doesn’t come between friends, you must make peace with your enemies.”
Joya used her time on the pulpit to review with more than a little bitterness her negative experiences with Islam at various stages of her life, from her upbringing to her marriage to al-Bahrumi and the almost unbearable suffering of her life with al-Bahrumi and their children in Syria. It was, however, when the floor was opened to questions that some of the most poignant moments ensued. Asked by an audience member about the reaction of al-Bahrumi’s American family to his “loss” as he relocated to Syria, Joya surprised many when she said they are happy to have “lost one [son] and gained another three” referring to her children.
“We don’t understand what happened to John, but we’re making it work and we’re making it a happy environment for the children.”
More than focusing on the intimate stories of life with a volunteer-for-murder-and-mayhem, Joya pressed the argument that most Islamic people are “peaceful, good people.” It apparently struck a chord with the predominantly Jewish audience, a number of whom felt compelled to reiterate the point to The Media Line. Mae Sobel, for instance, said, “I have Muslim friends and they are proud Americans who are for religious liberty and for freedom. They suffer greatly when they hear comments saying that the Muslim religion causes all these problems.”
Sobel also told of a Muslim friend who chose not to come and hear Joya after she read an article about her in a local newspaper and decided the event would cast Islam in a negative light. It did.
SITTING FOR an exclusive interview with The Media Line in her Dallas apartment later that evening, Joya filled in the gaps left over from the afternoon event. She does not believe that Islam is a real, true religion. Rather, “it was something formulated by the environment that Mohammed was in, his ideas having been taken from Judaism, Christianity and Arab paganism.”
Events actually brought Joya to her level of radicalization before al-Bahrumi. She saw an experiential kinship with Mohammad, the man she described as “the 25-year old orphan [who] suffered from epilepsy at a time with no diagnosis to explain his condition” and whose spouse was 15 years older than he “and much wealthier.” She spoke of one who convinced Mohammed that “he was the next prophet. I was manipulated in the exact same way Mohammed was,” Joya explained. “Anyone can be manipulated if they don’t have the right values – humanism, secularism, justice and equality.”
Joya was born into a Bangladeshi family that had no value for daughters.
“I’m the fourth out of five unwanted daughters. My dad was caught molesting young women and my mom spent her life bailing him out. In the 1980s and 1990s, girls served their parents and that was our role.”
Joya’s shared suffering with Mohammed peaked with the September 11 attacks, which she said changed her life and her perception of American foreign policy and instilled an unmistakable bitterness toward Saudi Arabia, whose propaganda, she asserts, “brainwashed the Muslim community” while “millions of casualties were being caused by attacks on “seven Muslim-majority nations.”
As Stop the War protests in London failed, Joya recounts despair and the belief that “Jihadism is the only way for Muslims to end their suffering.”
Al-Bahrumi, meanwhile, had a serious injury at the age of 11 which according to Joya’s narrative, left him a disillusioned Greek Orthodox youth feeling inadequate – “not tall enough, not athletic enough and not motivated enough to please his parents.” Introduced to drugs by friends and to Islam by singer Cat Stevens at the age of 16, al-Bahrumi liked Islam’s monotheism and Jesus as a prophet, not as a god.” Joya paints the portrait of a bright thinker saddled with self-doubt and the need to prove himself – and a computer mastermind with an ear for languages.
At the age of 18, al-Bahrumi left home, converted to Islam and surfaced in Damascus, Syria. About that time, al-Bahrumi met Joya online and pursued an email romance. Marriage followed quickly on al-Bahrumi’s arrival in London, pressed along by Islam’s ban on intimacy before being wed.
Joya describes the quick arrival of children and the family’s travel from country to country, because once discovered in an enemy nation, Islam decreed you move on.
Joya noted that Islam also decreed her to be al-Bahrumi’s property – with no reproductive or divorce rights. Considerable frustration between the two led to a self-described challenging existence. While living in Dallas, al-Bahrumi shared his computer expertise with Jihadist propaganda sites until he was arrested for hacking the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.
While he was serving three years in prison, Joya’s bond with her son Michael grew to the point where any relationship with his father upon his release was impossible. al-Bahrumi’s solution, as explained by Joya, was to force her to have another child so he would have one who loved him.
Meanwhile, love was absent from the home while physical fighting grew to be commonplace. According to Joya, the question was whether his threats to kill her or her threats to kill herself would manifest first.
THE FAMILY survived and in September 2011 moved to Cairo, Egypt. Decidedly opposed to the move, Joya said it took a hefty bribe – promises of a Mediterranean villa with a maid for her and nanny for the children – to entice her to make the transition. Yet, even that wasn’t enough and al-Bahrumi played mind games with her, convincing Joya the 2009 economic turndown was leading the US into a civil war. As Joya describes it, there was no doubt who was convinced: al-Bahrumi spent virtually all of his waking hours gathering militias while keeping his wife and children locked in their home after confiscating sharp implements out of fear Joya would kill herself.
Al-Bahrumi married Joya’s closest friend Nadia in 2010 while Joya was still married and became pregnant by him. It was a not a legal, but religious marriage, which he claimed he ended, but Joya says they stayed in contact.
During their time in Egypt, Joya openly taunted al-Bahrumi about his religious beliefs and Islam’s teachings, but clung to her hope she would, indeed, be allowed to exchange her “painful” life on earth for the promised eternal bliss.
Joya spoke of the trip to Syria in 2013 when al-Bahrumi “tricked” her into bringing the children into the dangerous war zone. They took up residence in a bombed-out villa where the children fell ill with stomach viruses within days of their arrival. Disturbed by her way of dressing in pants, a Bosnian wife of a fighter called her a “seducer” and a “walking sin,” presaging a move to a Syrian home where she was welcomed.
Joy a noted that the most extreme within the enclave were those recruited from outside of Syria. She blames Saudi Arabia for teaching them to be “misogynistic, Jacobean and abusive.” And she spoke bitterly of forced pregnancy and abuse: mental and physical. All that sustained her was the hope of taking the children and fleeing from al-Bahrumi.
Not only Joya, but al-Bahrumi, too, realized she needed him only when she was pregnant. Joya told The Media Line that al-Bahrumi retaliated for her distancing herself from him by impregnating her, an act she sees as being intended to “subdue her into codependency.” She mothered four children with him.
“I spent most of my days in Syria sobbing on the floor. I wasn’t stable. How could you be when you have someone who is a dictator over you and threatening to kill you?” She concluded, “Death is better than this life… even if I go to Hell, it’s worth it.”
“In Syria, the local vigilante group would pick up my eight-year old, taking him to a training camp and brainwashing them with their Islamic ideology that music and culture is ‘Haram.’ My son was not in Syria long enough, but other young boys were trained to become fighters.
All the time in Syria, Joya begged to be placed in a mental institution.
“I was slitting my wrists and my children would see me do it. My children would copy me and try to slit their wrists, too. I felt terrible, like I had failed as a mother. Children will always try to be like a parent,” she lamented.
THE MOMENT to leave Syria finally came when al-Bahrumi and Joya took the children, hitched a ride with a van filled with sheepskins that dropped the family – present and pregnant – to within a kilometer or so of the border with Turkey. That final distance sounded like much more as Joya told of gunfire aimed at them from Syria and how, with the help of foreigners, the children were handed through a hole in the fence while bullets whizzed by. But the family’s father turned back into the gunfire, leaving the family for the last time.
Asked why al-Bahrumi let her go, Joya said, “I don’t think he wanted to see me die. I was in such a fragile state. If I had stayed, I would have been killed by ISIS. I complied with the authorities, handing over a trove of intelligence.”
Al-Bahrumi continued to correspond with Joya online, although he did marry a younger divorced Syrian woman. He sought Joya’s advice on articles he wrote for Dabiq, the ISIS online magazine established in 2014. He was sending articles without permission because, Joya said, “he always liked my input and I felt privileged to hand them over to the authorities.”
Joya and al-Bahrumi continued to correspond until March 2015 when Graeme Wood published an article titled “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic magazine. ISIS ended any correspondence at that point.
Thanks to a Turkish man on a motorcycle who helped the beleaguered family, Joya and the children made it to safety and shortly thereafter, to a new life in Texas. Recently, she learned that al-Bahrumi was killed in October 2017. That news came through a New York Times reporter interviewing an ISIS member who worked with al-Bahrumi in media propaganda.
Now a self-described atheist, Joya laments, “You have to be miserable in order to deserve a place in the afterlife” if you are a Muslim. She also says the most challenging part of Islam is that you can’t be a real Muslim and participate in democracy.”
Now the children live with their grandparents during the week and their mother on weekends, allowing Joya the time to focus on activism against religious dogma and to protect youth from joining groups that lead to radicalism.”
Joya is now married to a man that she met on Match.com. She expresses her gratitude for a second chance, but the bitterness is evident as she avers the need to make Islam “a dead religion” and to encourage “good education” in order to “protect us from church and Islam.”
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