Last Monday, I had 60 followers on Twitter. Today, I have more than 4,300. Not to brag or anything, but that’s more than Benjamin Wittes; more than Bobby Chesney; more than Jack Goldsmith; more than my boss, Daniel Byman. But here’s the problem: A healthy number of them are Islamic extremists, including no small number of supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A lot of them live in Saudi Arabia.
And some of them want to marry me.
The reason is a single tweet.
Early last week, the hashtag “#MuslimApologies” began trending on Twitter. The hashtag was a tongue-in-cheek response to those—such as right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham—who, in the wake of the beheadings of Westerners by ISIS, have questioned why Muslims have not been more vocal about denouncing terrorism carried out in the name of Islam (except that many have). Tired of constantly being asked to apologize for the acts of a few vile individuals who twist Islam to justify their barbarism, Muslims on Twitter decided to take a humorous stand—by apologizing for everything: the Twilight saga, World Wars I and II, that Pluto is no longer a planet, and, my personal favorite, that Mufasa had to die in The Lion King. Some also used the hashtag to sarcastically apologize for the important contributions Islamic culture has made to the world, from algebra to coffee to the camera obscura.
Of course, I wanted to get in on the fun. After tweeting my sarcastic apology for the terrible ending of the television show LOST, I decided to tweet something a little more serious: a 140-character summary of my conversion story:
If you were to pass me on the street, you would never suspect I’m a Muslim: I don’t wear hijab. I have platinum blonde hair and blue eyes. And I am heavily tattooed. I grew up in Texas and was raised Southern Baptist. I use the word “y’all” a lot—and not ironically. But I am Muslim. I also speak Arabic and hold a Master’s degree in International Security with a focus on terrorism and the Middle East. Several years ago, I realized that although I had long studied, analyzed, and written about Islamic political theory and how jihadist ideologues like Osama bin Laden use the Qur’an to justify their heinous acts of violence, I had never actually read the Qur’an. So I read it—and what I found in its pages changed my life. I found answers to questions about faith and belief and morality that had been plaguing me since my youth. I found the connection to God I thought I had lost. And three years ago, I converted to Islam.
Just to be clear: I detest the twisted interpretations of Islam espoused by the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS just as much today as I did before I converted—in fact, probably more so, since now I see it not only as a sick bastardization of a beautiful religion, but a sick bastardization of my beautiful religion. When I read the Qur’an, I find a God who is beneficent, who is merciful, and who cherishes mankind. I find a religion that encourages independent thought, compassion for humanity, and social justice. The jihadis claim to love these same things about Islam, but have somehow decided that the best way to share God’s message of mercy and compassion with the world is to blow up mosques and behead humanitarian aid workers. Great plan, guys.
After sending my tweet, I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my humble little tweet had been retweeted numerous times and I had picked up dozens of new followers. Several people—almost all Muslims—had responded expressing their happiness for me and welcoming me to Islam. So that was nice. I also got a few trolls, of course: people telling me I was brainwashed, trying to convince me that the CIA created ISIS, or asking me if I had engaged in female genital mutilation yet. That was less nice, but to be expected; it is Twitter, after all. Then things took an unexpected turn. My tweet went viral—at last check, it had been retweeted more than 11,300 times—and I soon began to notice a disturbing trend: of the thousands of people who were retweeting and following me, many of them had the black flag of ISIS as their Twitter profile photos. Others had pictures of themselves holding swords, standing in front of the black ISIS flag. Uh-oh.
الله اكبر خرج اهل مسكنة مسقط راس ابو ريان للمطالبة بالغاز ورفضوا مطالبة الدولة الاسلامية بالخروج http://t.co/6fXwmQDEDx— الباشق الأشهب (@jcJl_slgJ) January 6, 2014
Then the Saudis showed up: men whose profile pictures showed them in traditional Saudi dress (sometimes behind the wheel of a swanky SUV or insanely expensive sports car) started replying to my tweet and asking to speak to me in private. One guy told me how beautiful I would look in hijab (in other words, how beautiful I would look once I covered myself up and stopped looking like an infidel). Another just straight up asked me to marry him.
@jenn_ruth Will u marry me ? :)— طم (@Tanakah77) October 1, 2014
Then I got this:
So I’m famous. In Saudi Arabia. Great.
Not that I have anything against Saudis, of course. I’ve known plenty of perfectly lovely Saudis, and I would be making the same mistake as American Islamophobes if I painted all Saudis as Islamic fundamentalists. But there is no denying that something is rotten in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The ruling al-Sauds have given a lot of power and influence to hardline Islamic fundamentalists within their society in order to secure their rule. Among the results of this dubious bargain is that Saudi-funded Salafi-Wahhabi madrassas around the world preach hate and the Saudi state has beheaded far more people in the last several months than ISIS has—for crimes ranging from adultery to apostasy to “sorcery.” So it’s still a little disconcerting that I’ve suddenly become a big hit in Saudi Arabia. And then it got even weirder. A friend of mine, Aaron Y. Zelin, who works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and runs the fabulous website Jihadology, emailed me to let me know that my conversion-story tweet was being used as propaganda by Salafis in Arabic-language social media circles. He sent me this:
No, I did not blur my face out to maintain my anonymity. The person who tweeted that did it. You know you’re dealing with some serious Islamic hardliners when they blur out your face to protect Islamic modesty. It’s also interesting that they chose to make it blurry rather than to black it out entirely—I suppose they did that so you could still tell that I was a blonde, white American girl. The holy grail of Muslim converts—so to speak.
Around the same time, I made a dumb move that probably contributed to my growing terrorist fandom.
I was sitting at a stoplight in Dupont Circle when I happened to look up and notice some pro-ISIS graffiti on the side of an electrical box. I quickly grabbed my cell phone and snapped a picture. And then I tweeted it:
N St. & Connecticut Ave. in D.C. It says Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar ISIS pic.twitter.com/yg86wemgNU— Jennifer Williams (@jenn_ruth) September 24, 2014
Ok, this may not have been exactly the right move at this particular moment in my ascending Twitter fame, but keep in mind I am a terrorism researcher and this is pro-ISIS graffiti in Arabic in the heart of Washington, D.C. I naturally felt that people need to see this. My fellow counterterrorism researchers need to see this. Hell, the FBI needs to see this. Call me naïve, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that this tweet might be construed by the pro-ISIS folks on Twitter who were already excited by my conversion tweet as an endorsement of ISIS. But that’s exactly how it was construed. I quickly posted a follow-up tweet:
JUST SO WE'RE CLEAR: The tweet w/the pic of ISIS graffiti WAS NOT MEANT TO EXPRESS MY SUPPORT OF ISIS. Can't believe I even have to say that— Jennifer Williams (@jenn_ruth) September 24, 2014
That should clear things up. Right?
You know all those articles (some better than others) that have sprung up lately about how ISIS is this social media juggernaut that is remarkably adept at spreading their propaganda online? Well it turns out that you don’t become a propaganda juggernaut by conscientiously vetting your sources or fact-checking. Who knew?
So it doesn’t matter that I also happen to tweet things in support of LGBT rights, post YouTube videos of The Clash, or actively try to get the “#No2ISIS” hashtag trending. All that matters are the tweet about becoming Muslim and the tweet with the picture of pro-ISIS graffiti.
Here’s the thing: it’s clear that my tweet about becoming Muslim struck a nerve with a lot of Muslims, both here in America and in the broader Muslim world. Non-Muslims sometimes don’t realize how much hatred and negativity gets thrown at Muslims and how utterly soul crushing it can be to have to defend yourself and your beliefs on a daily basis, and it’s really nice to see someone saying something positive about Islam.
At the same time, though, it’s precisely the actions of ISIS and their followers and the words of intolerance emanating from the Salafi camp that provoke this reaction against Muslims. And I, for one, do not appreciate having my conversion story used to attract more people to a repugnant ideology that spawns suicide bombings and beheadings.
I also don’t appreciate that having attracted the Twitter following that I have, I may never be able to get on an airplane again. I suppose it’s best to just chalk the whole thing up to the random weirdness of Twitter. I’m sure in a few more days this will slow down and I’ll once again recede into obscurity in the Saudi-Salafi-jihadi Twitterverse.
But you should still definitely follow me. I’m at @jenn_ruth. Unless you’re a terrorist, that is—in which case, try reading the Qur’an instead of Twitter. It changed my life for the better. It might do the same for you if you take the time to really understand what it says.