by Douglas Kelly (a MuslimMatters.org exclusive)ab01

On February 28, 2006, when more than a dozen federal agents in body-armor broke down my door, pointed automatic weapons in my face and arrested me for making fake documents on my computer, it was the first time in my life I would spend the night behind bars.

It was not the first time, however, that adrenaline-pumped police officers aimed their guns at me even though I had no weapon, no record and no argument.  When I was 20 years old I was an NASD Series-7 registered stockbroker, a full-time college student at night, and the proud owner of a $5,000, bottom-of-the-line, used Porsche.  It was my first car-and my worst nightmare.  When I wasn’t getting it pulled into the shop, probably because I needed an overhaul, I was getting pulled over, hauled out at gunpoint, and searched without probable cause.  Sometimes it was because I was a kid with a sportscar going a little too fast.  Most of the time it was for no reason at all.  The reason I know this is because when the cops finished interrogating me, sobriety testing me and searching for drugs and guns I never had, the slew of tickets they wrote me would almost always get dismissed in traffic court.  That is, if I could get the day off work to go to traffic court.

Now here I was in federal criminal court, ordered held without bond because I had an alias.  An alias I created out of desperation, when my license got suspended from thousands of dollars in tickets I couldn’t pay…and my credit was ruined from thousands in student loans that came due when I dropped out of school.  Because I had managed to obtain a real driver’s license with documents I made using Photoshop®, the judge called me “a danger to society.”  This despite the fact that I hadn’t stolen anyone’s identity, hadn’t stolen any money and had only used my made-up name to drive, establish credit and buy real estate.  At the time of my arrest, I had a perfect driving record, excellent credit, and was current on five different mortgages.  While it was ultimately ruled that there was no victim, no fine and no restitution to pay, the price I paid for my crime was the forfeiture of over a million dollars in assets and 18 months in the minimum-security camp at Otisville, NY.

I learned everything I knew about establishing credit, buying real estate and even reinventing my identity from books I had read.  So I was not surprised to learn that the Bureau of Prisons had decided, shortly after 9/11, that the way to prevent the “violent radicalization” of inmates was to decide what books they could or could not read.  From the Roman Empire to African-American Slavery to Nazi Germany to modern-day North Korea, those who would control the minds of the masses have long considered a book to be a deadly weapon.

Of course, in instituting such a policy the Bureau couldn’t legally single out any one religion.  Hence the Prison Chapel Library Project:  a plan to limit the number of books that federal inmates of all religions could have in their libraries to a list of 150 titles, per religion, that the government considered “acceptable.”  Any book in a prison chapel library that was not on the “approved” list was to be removed and possibly even destroyed.

Because I was denied bond, my first several months of incarceration were in anything but a country club.  Pretrial detention meant 23-hour lockdown, with only one hour a day to exercise, shower, watch TV or go to the law library.  To read something besides law books, one had to order them from the publisher.  With neither a book catalog nor enough money in my commissary account for even a magazine subscription, ordering my own reading material was not an option.  Then one day the brother in the lower bunk gave me a copy of Forty Hadith.

I read, “”Young man, I shall teach you some words [of advice]:  Be mindful of Allah, and Allah will protect you.  Be mindful of Allah, and you will find Him in front of you.  If you ask, ask of Allah; if you seek help, seek help of Allah.  Know that if the nation were to gather together to benefit you with anything, it would benefit you only with something that Allah had already prescribed for you, and that if they were to gather together to harm you with anything, they would harm you only with something Allah had already prescribed for you.  The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.”

Coincidentally, the day I read in that same book, “That the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress and that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute herdsman competing in constructing lofty buildings,” the inmate TV was tuned to Jerry Springer, where the guests were teenage girls who defied and cursed their weeping but capitulating mothers.  Following this was a program about the large number of poor farmers emigrating from South Asia to Dubai to become construction workers on projects like the “World’s Largest Hotel” and the “World’s Tallest Building.”

And once I read, “A man came to the prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, direct me to an act which, if I do it, [will cause] Allah to love me and people to love me.’  He said, ‘Renounce the world and Allah will love you, and renounce what people possess and people will love you,'” I finally began to understand what I needed to do.

I don’t know how many federal inmates committed despicable acts of terrorism because they were “radicalized” to hate Americans by what they read in prison, but I lost count of the number of times I was terrorized by angry men with guns and badges who hated me even though I was American.  And I’ve never even owned a gun.  Does anyone know how many unarmed Americans who look like me have been terrorized, persecuted, even killed, by the forces of hate right here in America?

Those forces have been trying all my life to instill in me a fear of man instead of God.  And it was not until I had to face my worst fear-being in trouble with the law-that I realized that there was no one to turn to for help but God.  There was no one’s punishment I needed to fear more than God’s.  According to this small, simple book from 1400 years ago, whatever benefit or harm was coming to me was already written in my Book of Life, and I was at once inspired to read every book I could find from not only the Messenger but also the Author of those moving words.

I had grown up in a non-religious household, and every practice of faith I had been exposed to over the years involved, in one way or another, the worship of man.  Finally, here was knowledge that spoke to my own logic and reason, with clear proofs addressing what I had always asked about, but had never gotten a straight answer to:  If God was the Creator of everything in the universe, why couldn’t we appeal directly to Him for our needs and wants?

By the time I got sentenced and shipped off to the camp at Otisville, I had read the English Translation of the Meaning of the Holy Qur’an from cover to cover; learned how to offer the daily prayers and fast for Ramadan; and had testified before a room full of witnesses that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is His servant and messenger.  No one recruited me, “radicalized” me or talked me into submission to the One True God.  What I read just simply made sense.

When I arrived at Otisville, the Prison Chapel Library Project had not yet been implemented.  Although the conference-room-sized chapel only contained two shelves with books on Islam (as opposed to at least eight full bookcases of Judaic texts and three of Christian), I was free to devour everything they had.  The more I read, of not only Qur’an and Hadith, but authors like Abul ala Maududi and Ahmed Deedat, the more logical and reasonable Islam became.  Nothing I read in any way incited me to violence, but instead made me realize that people who were taught to fear Muslims were no less misguided than the people who were deceived into suicide attacks against innocents.  It was the lack of knowledge that was the root of all the evil on both sides of the so-called “war on terror.”  I even read a hadith that said that the man who commits suicide will spend eternity in hellfire, killing himself over and over the same way.

The Qur’an states, “Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land-it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed, there came to them Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidence, and signs, even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression unjustly and exceeding beyond the limits set by Allah by committing the major sins) in the land!”  (5:32)

There were only a handful of Muslim brothers at the camp, and I believe it was no less than God’s mercy that my time at Otisville coincided with that of the very young brother who became our Imam.  He told me that before I arrived, they had “fallen off” in their practice of Islam, but from that point on he led us in Friday Prayers, where he demonstrated an amazing knowledge of the Qur’an and the Arabic language.  The only Jihad his sermons ever talked about was the daily battle that every one of us must fight within ourselves against our own sins and shortcomings.

The Prison Chapel Library Project included an April 2004 Department of Justice review which suggested that federal prisons monitor worship areas and chapel classrooms, reduce inmate-led religious services and consider constant staff monitoring of inmate-led services.  I remember at one of the jails where I was held on the way to Otisville, a CO sat in on Jum’aa service and ordered us to do the prayers and even the call to prayer in English.  But at Otisville, if there was any monitoring at all, we never saw it.

Just like the frustrated traffic cops who wrote me hundreds of dollars in tickets when they realized I never had any drugs or weapons in my car, the final act of the Prison Chapel Library Project most likely came out of the frustration of years of monitoring Muslim inmates failing to turn up any terrorists.

On Memorial Day, 2007, we were all called back to our bunks around mid-morning, but it wasn’t for a routine headcount or weather emergency.  When they finally cleared us and I went to the chapel for Dhuhr prayer, I saw huge gaps on nearly all the bookcase shelves, and the two shelves for Islam were empty but for a Qur’an and two (of four) volumes of Sunan Abu Dawud.  It looked like a bookstore that had been robbed.  Our Chaplain, and that of every federal prison in the nation, had been ordered to go through their chapel libraries with garbage bags and remove every book that wasn’t on the government’s short list of books they had screened and approved for inmates to read.

The Bureau’s policy reminded me of that of ancient Rome a few centuries after Jesus (alaihi salaam).  The Nicene Council of 325 A.D. was convened by the Roman Emperor, Constantine The Great, arguably the most powerful man on earth at the time.  Emperor Constantine ordered his Council to compile a collection of sacred writings, out of the hundreds of texts in circulation at the time, that would become the official Canon of the new state religion, Christianity.  All the books that were “approved” by the Council would become The Bible.  All the books they rejected were ordered to be destroyed, and anyone in possession of them executed.

Most up-in-arms about the book removal was Otisville’s Jewish community, several of whom were Orthodox and spent most of their time in the chapel reading.  They actually lost the largest number of books in the removal.  Within days, an inmate who happened to have graduated from my same high school a year before I did approached me with news of their planned action.  He told me they were prepared to file suit against the Bureau of Prisons, but there was just one problem.  They needed a representative of each of the largest affected religious groups to be the plaintiffs.  They had convinced a Christian inmate, a college professor, to come on board along with a Jewish inmate who happened to be a Rabbi.  But they quickly realized that no action would be taken seriously without a member of the camp’s Muslim community.  As none of the brothers I prayed with was interested in participating, my high school alum put it bluntly, “We need a Muslim, or there’s no lawsuit.”

My brothers wisely cautioned that I should think twice before allowing myself to be manipulated by the other groups, but after carefully (and prayerfully) considering the end result, and making du’a to Allah (subhana wa t’ala) for guidance, I went in.  My concern was for all the incarcerated brothers and sisters in federal prisons who would be far less able to study their deen if the Bureau succeeded; as well as those who, like me, were lost in this dunya and might never have gotten that one book that would open their mind, for the first time, to the Right Path.

We filed for injunctive relief against the Bureau’s policy, and on the morning of June 9, 2007, the other two plaintiffs and I went into the Camp Administrator’s office and testified by phone in a teleconference hearing before US District Court Judge Laura T. Swain that our First Amendment rights were being violated.  That day, the Associated Press picked up the story and I read our testimony in the next day’s USA Today.

The Bureau tried to argue the fact that inmates could order their own books and bypass the chapel libraries, but like I discovered my first week behind bars, ordering books required three things:  (1) knowing what books to buy, (2) the mailing addresses (and order forms) of the publishers to order them from, and (3) plenty of money.  It doesn’t take a scholar to figure out how many inmates would go without if this were the only way to get the books they needed.

As expected, our initial motion to stop the book removal was rejected on the grounds that we had not exhausted every possible administrative remedy.  However, the administrators, at the Bureau in general and our camp in particular, thwarted our every effort to resolve the problem through “normal” channels.  Then the Jews made a few phone calls.

One influential inmate was able to get his contacts at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to represent us, pro-bono, in a class-action lawsuit.  As the story got national attention, very powerful Jewish and Christian organizations, including Evangelical groups with national prison ministries and Members of Congress in their corner, got involved in condemning the book ban.  During several of the visits from our team at Paul, Weiss, I was asked if I knew of any Muslim organizations who could be contacted.  But because I had reverted to Islam after I was already incarcerated, I didn’t even have an Imam I could call.

Part of the pressure on the Bureau came from the wide media coverage of the story.  It was mentioned on Fox News, CNN and NPR, as well as newspapers around the country that carried the original AP release.  That September, New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein offered to interview the three of us by phone.  The Jewish inmate had been released to a halfway house, and the Christian inmate objected to prison staff monitoring the phone call and declined to be interviewed.  So I ended up being the only one.

While the article she wrote was factually accurate, Ms. Goodstein reported only a fraction of my answers to her questions.  I tried to convey to her how the Bureau’s actions disproportionately affected Muslims because we had so few books to begin with.  I am a living example of someone who discovered Islam from books in a prison chapel library.  While I learned the motions of the prayers from the first Muslim brothers I prayed with, I learned the words from books and pamphlets.  I learned the Arabic from the Transliteration of the Meaning of the Holy Qur’an.  And I learned what Islam is all about from authors like Maududi and Deedat who make references to the Bible as well as known science.  While other religious groups at the camp had visits and services from Priests, Rabbis and Pastors, we never had an Imam from the outside to come and speak to us.  Were it not for those books, I doubt I would have been able to adequately understand the entirely new and complete way of life that Islam represents.

The Qur’an states, “Indeed in their stories, there is a lesson for men of understanding.  It (the Qur’an) is not a forged statement but a confirmation of (Allah’s existing Books) which were before it [i.e. the Taurat (Torah), the Injeel (Gospel) and other Scriptures of Allah] and a detailed explanation of everything and a guide and a Mercy for the people who believe.”  (12:111)

Mere weeks before my release, the Bureau relented and the chaplains of all the federal prisons were ordered to return the books they had taken from the chapel libraries.  I give all the credit and the praise to Allah (subhana wa t’ala) for the victory, I ask His forgiveness if I in any way made a show of sadaqa in conveying this story, and I ask His blessing for the brother who made it all possible by giving me Forty Hadith.  If I said anything wrong, it is from myself; if I said anything good, it is from Allah (subhana wa t’ala).  La haula wa la quwwata illa billah.

www.nytimes.com/2007/09/21/us/21prison.html
www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-10-prison-book-ban_N.htm

About the Author: Douglas Kelly is a former retail stockbroker, life insurance general agent and financial/legal document specialist.  He is currently a student at Baruch College in New York, pursuing independent study in Islamic Finance.  He expects to complete his first book, I Tried To Enter Heaven With a Fake ID, by early 2010, inshaAllah.