“Do your own time.” This was the advice a prisoner told me on my first day in prison in August 2004.
Chris was serving a 12 year sentence for armed robbery. Along with these words he gave me several other words of advice that would prove to be crucial during the next 11 years that I would spend in prison.
I have described my first day in prison and my conversation with Chris in the book that I am currently writing about my experience.
The meaning of this advice was: do not get involved in other people’s disputes and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated to take sides otherwise your prison time will be harder.
Two years later Chris’s words echoed through my mind when I was transferred to the segregation units of prisons around the country because I allowed myself to be dragged into a dispute that I had nothing to do with.
“I should have listened to Chris,” I thought.
The 1990s was a strange decade for the British Muslim community. On the one hand, there were no anti-terrorism raids, no Prevent and no being harassed at airports.
Those were the days when the word “Jihad” was not synonymous with terrorism.
Yet at the same time the Muslim community in and around Europe was being attacked in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo.
One would have thought that the Muslim community in Britain would have used this time to unite, progress and grow.
Instead, we allowed ourselves to love and hate each other based on the political agendas of foreign governments.
Muslim groups were at each other’s throats.From heckling at each other’s events to creating books and leaflets (this was before social media existed) attacking each other. Heated debates and arguments that frequently spilled over into violence.
It would be unfair to single out one particular group: most groups were guilty of this.
And what were they fighting about? Intricacies of belief and rituals that Muslim scholars had been debating each other about for centuries.
The political stances of countries which most of the disputers could probably not even locate on a map.
Whether to support or reject a scholar in a foreign country whose name most of the disputers could probably not even pronounce properly.
What is common to all these reasons was that the vast majority of these reasons held absolutely no relevance to the personal or collective affairs of Muslims in Britain.
But what is odd is that the disputers thought that these were the most important things concerning them, as this story demonstrates…
In 1995 a young Kenyan Muslim man’s nose was broken by the Afro-Caribbean Muslim convert “bouncer” outside a south London mosque because the former was distributing leaflets criticising the ruler of a Middle Eastern country thousands of miles away.
The sad thing is that there were no winners in that incident. Only victims.
The Kenyan man was a victim of an intolerant physical attack.
And the bouncer who broke his nose in defence of the goverment of a foreign country which he had probably never even visited, later left Islam and returned to a life on the streets.
At the time the neighbourhood’s Muslim community was plagued with drug abuse, mental health problems and domestic violence in which bones of both women and children were broken.
The bouncer had converted to Islam to better himself. He used to attend lectures at his local mosque that were delivered by visiting Muslim clerics sponsored by foreign governments to further the political agenda of those governments.
Instead of the clerics teaching the congregation how to better themselves and their community, their focus was on ritual technicalities, which group was deviant and which foreign government needs to be supported.
In other words, the mandate given to the visiting clerics by their paymasters was to busy Britain’s Muslim community with petty disputes so that they did not have any time to focus on the big picture.
It wasn’t a secret, hidden conspiracy. It was happening in public, out in the open.
The bouncer no doubt thought that he was protecting Islam by breaking the Kenyan’s nose. But was he protecting Islam or the agenda of a foreign government?
Unsurprisingly, the bouncer left Islam a few years after this incident. Perhaps because he never got from his local community what he was looking for?
My final year in prison, 2014-2015, was spent in an American federal prison at the top of a mountain in Pennsylvania.
There were hundreds of Muslim prisoners there, predominantly from the local big city of Philadelphia.
When I arrived there, I found most of the “devout” Muslims in that prison involved in gambling, renting out pornographic magazines and drug peddling.
Yet the subject of almost all the sermons, classes and lectures being delivered by the Muslim prisoner representatives was about grave worship, the wearing of amulets and the academic nuances of credal technicalities.
The Muslim prisoner representatives were good people, prisoners who had realised their error in coming to prison and were trying to turn their lives around. In time they became some of the best friends I made at that prison.
One day I asked one of them how many American Muslims in Philadelphia engage in grave worship. He replied, “None.”
Then I asked him how many American Muslims in Philadelphia were engaged in the use or trade of drugs. “A large number,” he replied.
I was trying to convince him that there were more pressing issues that he needed to address than issues that had no relevance to improving his community. To his credit, he listened and began to change the subject matter of his sermons and lectures.
One of the signs of a sincere person is that he is never too proud to admit where he is wrong, or to change his ways if he finds out that he was in the wrong.
“Do your own time.”
This advice is more important today than ever.
Today it is not just noses that are being broken, but young Muslim men are losing their lives on streets, battlefields or prison without actually understanding why, or for whom, they are doing this.
We need to protect our community and the future of our children from being used as political pawns by any government, local or foreign, who do not have our best interests at heart. They only have their agendas at heart.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
We have to ask ourselves what is the world that we want our children to live in. And then we have to work to create that world.
How do you feel that the Muslim community today is different to the Muslim community in the 1990s, whether in Britain or in your own country? Share your thoughts below.
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