My beloved 12 year old daughter asked me to share my story with you. I am having a difficult time deciding what to write and from which point to start. Perhaps I should begin from the present and work my way back to the past.
I’ve been in prison for 12 years now. I received a Life Sentence after pleading guilty to being one of the ringleaders in the “Toronto 18” terror plot. Thankfully, no one was physically hurt. I was 20 then, I am almost 33 now. In pre-trial custody, I was deemed a radical threat to the inmate population and so I was involuntarily placed in solitary confinement for 3 years. After receiving my sentence, I was once again considered a radical threat and sent to Canada’s only Super Max prison (usually, you have to kill or stab someone inside to be sent there). I spent 6 difficult years there before finally getting transferred to Millhaven Max, where I currently reside.
Based on what you just read, it is easy to imagine me as a tough, violent, angry man with a threatening demeanor. The truth is that I am the exact opposite of that image.
Guilty, I am. Radicalized, I was. Yet I still find my entire situation incredibly surreal. I often go back in time in order to retrace my steps and figure out how I ended up here. Every time I engage in this exercise, I find a young man who was caught up in a perfect storm of internal and external influences. The inevitability of it all is what I find most remarkable.
After any major terrorist attack, there is usually a fierce debate about what makes individuals susceptible to radical ideologies, (unfortunately, this rarely occurs when the perpetrators are non-Muslims – e.g. Right Wing extremists in the U.S). If I had a noose around my neck and the only thing that could save my life was the answer to this apparently dumbfounding question, then I would have to say it is the emotional state of feeling utterly worthless.
I have always felt worthless. I still struggle with this feeling to this day. Perhaps I feel this way because I carry within me a strong inner critic that has been ripping me apart since childhood. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I have always felt like an outsider. You see, even though I am a citizen of this country, I have never felt Canadian. That is because ever since I arrived here as a 12-year-old-boy, in my mind, to be a real Canadian, you had to be white.
Prior to immigrating here, I lived in my mother’s country of birth; Cyprus. There too, I felt like an outsider, since I was keenly aware that my Arab features automatically disqualified me from claiming to be Cypriot.
Prior to that, I lived in Saudi Arabia where native citizens are infamous for looking down upon all non-Saudis. I still remember the words of a Saudi boy who referred to us Palestinians as “Phalas-Teezi”, (a hybrid word that combines “Palestinian” with the Arabic word for “ass”). The sad fact that I was sexually molested while living there could have only intensified my inner feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.
Even in Jordan, my own country of birth, I never considered myself Jordanian since I belonged to a family that originally came to Jordan as refugees after losing their land to the Israeli Occupation.
Many of you have probably wondered why the Muslim world has produced so many radicalized individuals in the modern era. Blaming Islam for it is incredibly simplistic, if not absolutely wrong. When I look at what the people of that region have been going through for over 100 years, I am actually surprised that there aren’t more radicals, not less. I can’t imagine how utterly worthless many of them are made to feel. The culprits are foreign and local governments who systematically strip the people of their dignity.
What happens to a street vendor who can’t sell his fruits without having to pay a bribe to a policeman?
What happens to a young man or woman who just graduated from university, but can’t find suitable employment because all the jobs have been given to those with special connections?
What happens to a people who have no say whatsoever in how their governments are run, and are treated like cattle, if not worse?
What happens to a people who have to live under the deadly shadows of drones?
What happens to a person who witnesses their entire family get wiped out by a “precise” missile strike?
Desperate for belonging to a people in my teen-age years, these are the only people I ever felt I belonged to, and as they radicalized, I radicalized with them. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and its resulting massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis represented the crossing of the Radical Rubicon for me. You can pretty much draw a straight line from there to my arrest in 2006.
How does it feel to be radical? You feel worthy, righteous, and heroic. You see yourself as a savior of your people. Your mind is obsessed with the injustices that they are suffering from, and that’s all you wish to talk about. You see the world in strictly black and white terms. Deep inside, you suspect that there may be other colours, which subconsciously drives you to engage in constant re-enforcement of your beliefs. It is said that those who are the most dogmatic are usually the least certain. A vivid depiction of this internal struggle is that of a boy who is perpetually fortifying the walls of a sand castle he built too closely to the waves.
When I arrived at the Special Handling Unit, (Canada’s Super Max), I was willing to give change a chance for the sake of my family, but unfortunately, the administrators were unresponsive. Feeling rejected once again intensified my radical state, and I in fact, I became more extreme in the SHU than I ever was outside. I adopted a standoffish attitude towards the administrators and refused meeting my parole officer for many years.
This state of affairs continued until ISIS declared its Caliphate, and news of its atrocities began streaming in. Prior to ISIS, whenever innocent people were killed, I would simple tell myself that it was “collateral damage” if those killed were non-Muslims, or a “mistake” if they were Muslims. Every atrocity committed by ISIS was like a tsunami that would violently demolish my sand castle, and leave no trace of it behind. Yet, I kept frantically rushing back to rebuild it.
Eventually, the hideousness of this group led me to periods of depression that followed every massacre. At the time, I did not see my radical ideology as separate from my religion and this caused me to fear that abandoning it would lead to abandoning my faith. I also feared confronting the reality that I may have thrown my whole life away and brought so much suffering upon my family for no good cause.
Holding on became harder and harder, until it finally became impossible and I simply had to let go out of sheer disillusionment. What followed was not a free fall into a dark abyss of disbelief, but rather a surprising spiritual ascent that is best captured in a poem I wrote called “Servant of the Ever-Merciful”.
If you are not as beautiful as the sun
When it spread it’s light upon the face of lands and seas
If you do not glow as the full moon does
In the midst of darkness
Illuminating the way for life’s travelers
If you are not as graceful as the lofty Clouds
Spreading shade over life’s scorched inhabitants
Raining water upon their parched lips
Bringing life to their dead lands
Then I am afraid
You have misunderstood
What it means to be
A servant of God
I felt liberated to finally be able to see the world in its true colours. This feeling only intensified as I slowly took the shackles off, one by one. This process began a few years ago and continues to this day.
How do I view my experience? Despite its hardships and painful losses, I see it as a blessing. Sometimes I tell myself that I am acquiring a PHD in Life Studies from the University of the Incarcerated. I live a very meaningful life despite living behind bars, and I am incredibly optimistic about my future. To God I am ever grateful for all of this.
I ask the Canadian public to forgive me for betraying their trust and welcoming arms.
I ask the Muslim community to forgive me for causing them so much apprehension by helping to cast them under a dark cloud of suspicion.
I ask my dear parents to forgive me for breaking their hearts.
I ask my brother and sister to forgive me for causing them so much stress and sadness.
I ask my ex-wife, whose loss I never recovered from, to forgive me for abandoning her and devastating her in such a way.
I ask her entire family to forgive me for turning their lives upside down.
I ask all the young men who became involved because of me to forgive me for everything.
I ask their families for forgiveness as well.
Last but not least, I ask my beloved daughter to forgive me for leaving her without a father. Princess, when I see you in my dreams I hold you in my arms and weep, and weep, and weep ‘till I awake. Beloved, knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time to be with you, I would be there in a heartbeat. But grieve no more, for I once heard that “the Truth shall set you free”…
Now I know that what I heard is true.