“I am happy to have spent time in Guantanamo,” said one detainee. “Allah was testing my ‘deen’ (faith). When else would have I have five years away from all responsibilities, when the only thing I had was my Quran, and I could read it and learn Arabic and mental discipline?”
Terry Holdbrooks Jr. was a prison guard for the detainees of Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. holding tank for military prisoners on the southeastern point of Cuba. As he has mentioned in his story of conversion which he shared at the Huntsville Islamic Center in Huntsville Saturday night, May 25, 2013; the Guantanamo Bay was a detention center where human rights were not least implemented.
Terrorists Against Terrorism
In Guantanamo Bay Holdbrooks has been a keen observer of the Muslim detainees as what he has been taught in as the instruction about these so-called terrorists have been different from what he was observing. They were regular in reading their Qurans, keeping up the daily schedule of compulsory prayers and never discouraged under the atrocious situation they were in.
He was also appointed for the duty of escorting the detainees for interrogation and returning them to their cells. He was well aware about the stress and torture they underwent in these repeated questioning and was surprised and inquisitive to know the detainees still were able to smile.
He had a question to the detainees how can they believe in a God who cares about them and it was the reply that made him contemplate. They regarded the detention as an opportunity where they can spend their whole day reading and understanding the Quran, an opportunity to spend their time praying to their lord.
With the long night shifts he was assigned to he got to know individually the detainees and was able to get into long conversations with them about the common topic of interests shared among them like, ethics, philosophy, history, religion etc. He also got to realise that the detainees held the belief the 9/11 attack was violating the Islamic principles.
“Here, I had all the freedom in the world, and I’m miserable,” Holdbrooks said. “They have nothing, and they’re happy – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something’s going on.”
Terry Holdbrooks Jr. has grown up with parents who were drug addicts and dumped at 7 on his grandparents. By 18, he was a hippie kid graduating high school and in love for sex, drugs and tattoos, decorating from his shoulders to wrist and his ear lobes stretched.
Right after 9/11 Holdbrooks walked into Army recruiters officer in Arizona, saying he wanted to saying he wanted to join the Army, go kill people and get paid for it and was denied a chance. It was on his fourth visit he was given a chance to take the aptitude test and was recognised worth the recruitment.
Expecting the bonus he signed up for military police and his unit was transferred to the Guantanamo, the sergeant detoured him through New York.
“Remember what Muslims did to us,” the sergeant told the soldiers. “Remember who you’re protecting.”
Obviously Holdbrooks arrived at the seared base expecting killers and all he found were innocent doctors, taxi drivers, professors. Being an antagonistic, questioning and independent person he found it suspicious seeing a 12 year old terrorist and another 70 year old dying from tuberculosis, his suspicions turned a different direction.
“You start thinking, ‘Was I lied to?’” Holdbrooks said.
Holdbrooks made use of his leisure time to search about Islam and learn it online. He was given his own copy of the Quran by a prisoner, a former chef from England.
From his teens Holdbrooks has been studying other religions as Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism but did not find the answer for the miseries he was going through and renounced religion.
Spending three nights in reading Quran he found a religious text that met his criteria of logic.
“It made sense from beginning to end,” Holdbrooks said. “It doesn’t contradict itself. There’s no magic. It’s just a simple instruction manual for living.”
After three months of intense study he wanted to embrace Islam and when he conveyed his idea to one of the detainees, the man had a ‘No’ as the straight answer. When Holdbrooks demanded the reason he explained him embracing Islam means he had to change his way of life. Quit drugs. Quit drinking. Stop profanity. Stop getting nay tattoos and expect changes in everything – wife, family, job, government – everything.
Holdbrooks prepared himself for the change and advanced towards Islam and learning and accepting its principles. He found a discipline and peace of mind he had never found before.
It was on December, 2003 he declared his faith among a gathering of detainees. He read a card in Arabic and also English translation.
“I knew I’d finally said it right when their faces lit up,” Holdbrooks said.
After the Gitmo, when he was back in states he has lost grip of his life style and discipline. He was honorably discharged early, for “generalised personality disorder,” which Holdbrooks wonder would have been an influenced decision because of his new faith. He divorced his wife and began to eradicate his memories of Guantanamo through drinking.
“But you can’t drink away things like that,” Holdbrooks said.
By the end of 2008, he found himself wondering, “When was I happy?” The answer, he realised, surprised him: When he was in Guantanamo – because there he was being a good Muslim.
It was from 2009 Holdbrooks was able to be clean and follow his faith as per its rules, fasting not just in Ramadan but in several days a week. He met a Muslim nurse at mosque and married her. He spends most weekends traveling with the Muslim Legal Fund of America to tell his story and to encourage Muslims to become involved in pushing for policy changes.
He is a part of the small but growing community of former Gitmo guards calling for the closure of the camp. Holdbrooks along with Khalil Meek, a co-founder and executive director of the Texas-based Muslims Legal Fund of America, are raising fund for non-profit civil rights organisation, that helps for American Muslims citizens who are accused of vague crimes or placed on no-fly lists and other restrictions under the increasingly broad “anti-terrorism” provisions.
Than raising funds he is more focused on stirring Americans into actions, which was a reason behind his writing of “Traitor?” a self published account of his experience.
“I tell this story and I wrote the book so idiot-simple that anyone could read and understand that the existence of Guantanamo is something to be ashamed of,” Holdbrooks said. “I just want to share information with people in depth and then let them make up their mind.”
“I may have become a Muslim, but I am not a traitor.”
Holdbrooks also has a message for the Muslims community.
That true Muslim faith can be found among American Muslims who live a life as an example of Islam unlike the tyranny and extremists of the most majority-Muslim nations.
“You can’t be afraid to be a Muslim in public,” Holdbrooks said. “Tell your neighbors you’re Muslim. Invite them into your home. Invite them to visit the masjid to see our secret bomb factories.”
“If it’s time to pray – pray. The whole world is an acceptable place to pray.”