Former first lady of the terror group, Tania Joya’s temple appearance is not without controversy
[Dallas] At first glance it seemed an unlikely venue to hear about the Islamic State, but it was perhaps entirely appropriate to assemble at a Jewish temple 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.” Rabbi Paley pointed critically at his clerical colleagues for enforcing beliefs that lead to “a walled standoff.” He recited the frequent refrain that “Peace doesn’t come between friends, you must make peace with your enemies.”
Tania 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 John and the almost unbearable suffering of her life with John 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 John’s American family to his “loss” as he relocated to Syria, Tania surprised many when she said they are happy to have “lost one [son] and gained another three” referring to John and Tania’s 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, Tania 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 Tania 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, Tania 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 Tania to her level of radicalization before John. Tania saw an experiential kinship with the man she described as “the 25-year old orphan [who] suffered from epilepsy in a time with no diagnosis to explain his condition” and whose spouse was fifteen years older than he “and much wealthier.” And the one who convinced Mohammed that “he was the next prophet.
“I was manipulated in the exact same way Mohammed was,” Tania explained. “Anyone can be manipulated if they don’t have the right values – humanism, secularism, justice and equality.”
Tania 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 80s and 90s girls served their parents and that was our role.”
Tania’s shared suffering with Mohammed peaked with the September 11th attacks which she said changed her life and her perception of American foreign policy and 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, Tania recounts despair and the belief that “Jihadism is the only way for Muslims to end their suffering.”
John, meanwhile, had a serious injury at the age of 11 which according to Tania’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, John liked Islam’s monotheism and Jesus as a prophet, not as a god.” Tania 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, John left home, converted to Islam and surfaced in Damascus, Syria. About that time John met Tania on-line and pursued an email romance. Marriage followed quickly on Yahya’s arrival in London, pressed along by Islam’s ban on intimacy before being wed.
Tania describes the quick arrival of children and the family’s travel from country-to-country because once discovered as an enemy nation, Islam decreed you move on.
Tania noted that Islam also decreed herself to be John-Yahya’s property – with no reproductive or divorce rights. But considerable frustration between the two led to a self-described challenging existence. While living in Dallas, John 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, Tania’s bond with son Michael grew to the point where any relationship with his father upon his release was impossible. John’s solution, as explained by Tania, 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 Tania 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, Tania 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 John played mind games with her, convincing Tania the 2009 economic turndown was leading the U.S. into a civil war. As Tania describes it, there was no doubt who was convinced: John 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 Tania would kill herself.
John married Tania’s closet friend Nadia in 2010 while Tanya was still married and became pregnant by John. It was a not a legal but religious marriage, which John claimed he ended, but Tania says they stayed in contact.
During their time in Egypt, Tania openly taunted John 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.
Tania spoke of the trip to Syria in 2013 when John “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.
Tania 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 John.
Not only Tania, but John, too, realized she needed him only when she was pregnant. Tania told The Media Line that John 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 John.
According to Tania, “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 that, “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 8-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, Tania 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 Yahya-John and Tania took the children, hitched a ride with a van filled with sheep skins that dropped the family – present and pregnant – to within a mile of the border with Turkey. That final mile sounded like much more as Tania 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 John let her go, Tania 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.”
John continued to correspond with Tania on-line, although he did marry a younger divorced Syrian woman. He sought Tania’s advice on articles he wrote for Dabiq, the ISIS on-line magazine established in 2014. He was sending articles without permission because, Tania said, “he always liked my input and I felt privileged to hand them over to the authorities.”
Tania and John continued to correspond until March 2015 when Graeme Wood published an article entitled What ISIS Really Wants in Atlantic magazine. ISIS ended any correspondence at that point.
Thanks to a Turkish man on a motorcycle who helped the beleaguered family, Tania and the children made it to safety and shortly thereafter, to a new life in Texas. Tania has not been in touch and is not certain what happened to John but she tells the children he’s dead. [see Editor’s note below]
Now a self-described atheist, Tania laments that, “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 Tania the time to focus on activism against religious dogma and to protect youth from joining groups that lead to radicalism.”
Tania is now married to Craig, whom 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.”
[Editor’s note: At press time, Tania told The Media Line that she has just learned that John was killed in October 2017. News came through a New York times reporter interviewing an ISIS member who worked with John in media propaganda.]