Tragically, Sinead O’Connor is dead at 56. Many of the obituaries of Irish protest singer have been oddly thin, and have ignored key moments in her life. One was her contretemps with Israeli extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir, now the country’s Minister of National Security. She later became fiercely critical of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Another was her conversion to Islam in 2018.
O’Connor maintained to Dr. Phil that she was an abused child, the victim of her mother, Johanna O’Grady: “She ran a torture chamber. My earliest memory, she’s telling me I shouldn’t have been born. She didn’t want me … She was a person who took delight, would smile in hurting you.”
She ran away from home when she was 13. She was later caught shoplifting and had to spend 8 months in a home for fallen women, which she remembered as a horrific experience. When she was 18 her mother died in a car accident, leaving Sinead forever unable to work through that difficult relationship, which haunted her.
Dylan inspired her to take up music. She came to prominence with her 1987 punk-rock hit in the UK, “Mandinka.”
Her breakout song was a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U” in 1990, a song about the depth of loss, in which she genuinely wept at the end of the video. Tom Eames explains that it stayed at the top of the US charts for four weeks in 1990.
She was becoming a pop star, but it wasn’t what she wanted. She said she was a punk, a protest singer. She insisted on shocking her fans. Issy Ronald explains that as an abused child herself, she was sensitive to the stories in the back pages of the Irish newspapers on victims of priest child abuse, and grew more and more furious about it. When she was invited to perform on Saturday Night Live in 1992, she sang Bob Marley’s “War” a capella, and ended by tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul, whom she blamed for having declined to confront the pedophilia crisis in the Church. She shouted “Fight the real enemy!”
I remember watching that performance and wondering what in the world was going on. I didn’t become aware of the priest pedophilia issue until much later.
Ironically, Ms. O’Connor wrote in her memoir, Rememberings that she probably became a musician because, as a woman, she was barred from becoming a priest. Her spiritual yearning, visible throughout her life, was not squelched by the patriarchy and abuse of major religious institutions. She continued to seek the transcendent truth, but outside such frameworks.
She battled her own demons, including bipolar disorder, and had difficulty maintaining lasting relationships. She was a deeply lonely person who kept seeking intimacy and failing to find it. She had four failed marriages, one lasting just a week.
As someone who felt oppressed herself, she sympathized with both the Jews and the Palestinians. Daniel Hilton at Middle East Eye explains that she agreed to do a concert in Jerusalem in 1997 for a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who were campaigning for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of Israel and Palestine. This was when the Oslo Peace Accords had created an expectation that there would be a Palestinian state, before far right Likud politician Binyamin Netanyahu derailed the agreement.
An Israeli extremist group, the Ideological Front, made death threats against Ms. O’Connor, who cancelled the concert. One of the activists threatening to kill her was Itamar Ben-Gvir, whom Netanyahu made minister of national security this winter. Ben-Gvir boasted, “Due to us she is not arriving.” He added, “We are calling the pressure we put on her … a success,” according to AP at the time. As always, Ben-Gvir and his fellow violent extremists were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They delivered the death threat to the British embassy. Ms. O’Connor was Irish.
Ms. O’Connor said, “I cannot put in danger the lives of my two children, my musicians and my technicians, so I have decided to cancel.”
She then wrote an open letter to Ben-Gvir, her would-be murderer. She said, “God does not reward those who bring terror to children of the world, So you have succeeded in nothing but your soul’s failure.”
Well, God may not reward them, but Netanyahu will put them in his Cabinet.
She became increasingly concerned about the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli military rule and in 2014 she declined to play in Israel. She told an Irish music magazine, “Let’s just say that, on a human level, nobody with any sanity, including myself, would have anything but sympathy for the Palestinian plight. There’s not a sane person on earth who in any way sanctions what the f*** the Israeli authorities are doing,”
In 2018 she announced that she had converted to Islam, tweeting, “This is to announce that I am proud to have become a Muslim. This is the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian‘s journey. All scripture study leads to Islam. Which makes all other scriptures redundant.”
She also praised the beauty of the Qur’an, saying, “Listen to Qur’an recitation… it goes straight to your soul… I find it powerful to hear. What I love is to listen to the beautiful recitations in Arabic and then hear the spoken English. The Arabic recitation has to be listened to.”
I concur, and remember the warm feelings I got from studying the Qur’an in Arabic in Cairo back in 1975.
Khaled Baydoun noted that few obituaries featured pictures of O’Connor, who privately took the name Shuhada Sadaqat, in hijab:
On the other hand, she was an LGBTQ+ ally, and once wore a rainbow hijab. And to be fair, she didn’t always wear a Muslim veil after her conversion. She wrote in her memoir that it wasn’t really possible for her to perform her music in one.
I hope she wrote more about what Islam meant to her in private diaries and correspondence, which will come to light. As with everything in her life, her take on it will have been brave, original and full of deep ethical insight.
Those who want to know more about Islam and the Qur’an, which clearly held attractions for O’Connor, can consult my book,
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate