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Just sharing – Book review "The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman’s Extraordinary Journey into Jihad"

An unusual story of a woman Jihadist

Bambang Wisudo , Contributor , Jakarta | Sun, 11/01/2009 11:44 AM | Bookmark

What makes an Australian beach bunny become a radical involved in the Jihad movement, and directly associate with the inner circle of the most dangerous international terrorist network?

In her book The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman’s Extraordinary Journey into Jihad, Australian investigative journalist Sally Neighbour shares the tale of an Australian convert teenager who later married a Javanese Muslim, transformed into a true believer, became involved in Jamaah Islamiyah activities in Indonesia, and went to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with her four children for the jihad. She then married Osama bin Laden’s military strategist.

In her writing, Neighbour copes with some controversies and sensitive issues about religion including the convert’s critics about Christianity and Catholicism. All of these sensitivities and controversies are the main strength of the book.

She traces the woman’s passage to jihad and writes the jihadist’s view explicitly. This stand certainly would raise the question whether the writer, as a journalist, was trapped into becoming a spokeswoman for a suspected terrorist, facilitating in spreading the radical’s views or whether she could keep a distance and maintain her objectivity. This is a serious ethical dilemma that should be considered by every journalist. And Neighbour clearly declares her stand.

“They are her views, not mine, but I have chosen to present them as they are, and not to judge her for them. That I leave to readers. Some readers may find me too sympathetic. If I seem so, it is because I respect her right to hold beliefs and opinions that are alien to mine, and admire her tenacity in doing so,” Neighbour wrote in her prologue.

Neighbour’s The Mother of Mohammed is a beautiful non-fiction story about transformation of a woman into a radical activist in the Jihad movement. The book was written in narrative journalism style enabling us to read it as a novel. Neighbour tried to reveal all details surrounding the character’s family, personality, and views by interviewing the subject’s friends, former husbands, and family members she could trace in Australia and Indonesia.

This book is a drama about an extraordinary journey of an Australian woman who dedicated most of her life to jihad. Particularly for Indonesian readers, this book is fascinating because we are familiar with some names of the characters and places mentioned in the book.

Neighbour started her book conventionally, almost plainly, by exploring the family backgrounds of the character, Robyn Hutchinson, who later used the Islamic name Rabiah. Robyn grew as a wild child from a poor and broken home family in Mudgee, New South Wales. Her mother was secular but she let Robyn join Presbyterian Sunday school.

She was kicked out of the school when she was caught gobbling glue. She then converted to Catholicism and became a loyal devotee until she lost her faith and declared herself as a Muslim in her late adolescence.

However, she was awakened as a Muslim after being annoyed by a loud morning prayer call when she was sleeping in her acquaintance’s house at Kebayoran Baru Jakarta.

In Jakarta, she worked as an English teacher at IEC, hung out with radio station Prambors’ boys, practiced Islamic prayer, and then married a party boy and a drug addict from a Javanese family she met in Bali. But her marriage was a nightmare. She was left by her husband when she delivered her second son Mohammed.

She lived in poverty that she could not afford even to buy powdered milk for her baby. This desperate situation forced her to return to Australia. Not knowing where to go, Rabiah came to Australia’s Muslim heartland in Lakemba, Sydney.

There she started wearing hijab. Later she Islamized her name to Rabiah and in a short amount of time she transformed into a true believer.

Rabiah returned to Indonesia in the early 1980s and reconciled with her husband. However she was soon separated again after her husband refused to become a “true” Muslim. Rabiah made a living by teaching English. She learned Islam by herself by reading Islamic literature, including Indonesian translations of Wahabis’ readings.

Her “uncommon” attire made her get in touch with usrah (group of Muslim individuals) and soon she became a celebrity in the clandestine Islamic student movements in Jakarta in the early 1980s. These activities brought her to the outskirt of Solo, Central Java, to learn Islam directly from Ustadz Abu bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar.

She taught English at pesantren Al-Mukmin, Ngruki and became closed friends with Ba’asyir and Sungkar. Rabiah was forced to return to Australia when Soeharto’s regime was clearing out Islamist movement in Indonesia, leading to Ba’asyir and Sungkar running away to Malaysia.

She went to Afghan border to join the global jihad movement in the Pakistan-Afghan border in 1990. Although she endured primitive conditions with very limited facilities to survive, Rabiah lived happily.

There she found her meaningful life by providing education and health services for women and children in her community. She became a jihad celebrity known as Umm (Mother) Mohammed Australie.

Her presence in the jihadist compound was heard by Osama, who silently supported her activities. Rabiah then married a senior Osama’s military strategist Abu Walid as his second wife. She got her status as an “honorary doctor”. She was proposed to lead a woman’s hospital built in Kabul but this dream never come true because the US bombarded Taliban and al-Qaeda compounds in Afghanistan and its borders soon after the 9/11 attack. Rabiah fled across Iranian borders and became a fugitive until she surrendered to Australian embassy.

Through the eyes of Rabiah, Neighbour touches the atrocity of war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Soon after US President George W Bush declared war, tons of bombs dropped into al-Qaeda strongholds. She fled with her children by a taxi to Iranian border, hid in the rubble without enough water and food, to avoid the indiscriminative attack.

“They were shooting women and children in the back from Apache helicopters while they were running – they were purposely killing women and children. And all in the name of *you’re with us or against us’. I just couldn’t comprehend that people who were supposedly the leaders of the free world and who set themselves up as champions of what is right and good in this world would commit such acts – and use the excuse that we had committed atrocities,” Rabiah said.

Rabiah now lives in Australia under the surveillance of Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Is Rabiah a terrorist? At the end of the book Neighbour makes her own conclusions about Rabiah’s engagement in the terrorism network. She admitted that Rabiah has extensive links with Islamic extremists and supports some of their activities.

She is associated with Ahel al Sunna wal Jamaah Association (ASJA) and directly associated with senior members of Jamaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda. However Neighbour claimed that there is no evidence that Rabiah would participate in or support and prepare for acts of politically motivated violence.

She also denied that Rabiah is “likely to engage in conduct that might prejudice the security of Australia or foreign country”.

What we can learn from this book is that we must not hastily judge someone as a terrorist although he or she involves in certain activities in their network. It is not valid to judge that someone involves in terrorism network only because he or she become a member of Islamic recital or religious study groups.

These critical questions are sometimes ignored by journalists in covering terrorism. Last but not least, we have to fight against terrorism and eliminate all of its cells but we have to respect freedom of faith and respect the rights of the suspects against prejudice because only by respecting human dignity can we win in the fight against terrorism and break the cycle of violence.

The writer is a journalist who lives in Pamulang, Southern Tangerang.

The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman’s Extraordinary Journey into Jihad Sally Neighbour
Melbourne University Press, 2009

About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at


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