The matters of the heart (and mind); emotions, faith, guidance, spiritual awakening – are mysterious and amazing. Whoever is led to Allah, that person is truly blessed because that means that Allah has chosen that person.
Only Allah has definite knowledge, but I think I can say that our brother in Islam, Terry Colin Holdbrooks Jr, was one of those lucky ones. He was chosen by Allah, in the most unusual and unlikely of circumstances.
Holdbrooks hadn’t really grown up in a religious environment. He graduated from high school and started taking college classes. He still didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do in life, until he heard a TV advertisement.
“Be the best that you can be!” said the advertisement for recruiting young men and women to the US army.
Overcome by a sense of patriotism, he realized that is what he wanted. He wanted to be the best. He wanted to be all that he could be.
The first time he went to the recruiter’s office to enlist in the US Army, the recruiters sent him away. Maybe because of the large areas of his body that were covered in tattoos, or his body piercings, or his blue hair, he seemed like not the greatest candidate for the US Army.
His second and third visits to the office, documents in hand, also ended in rejection.
By his fourth visit, he wore a long sleeved shirt to cover up his tattoos, removed the piercings, and shaved off his blue hair. Finally the recruiter agreed to at least let him take the test called ASVAB, armed services vocational aptitude battery.
Unexpectedly, Holdbrooks scored a very high score on the test. The recruiter invited him back to the office to discuss career options with the US Army.
By August 2002, Terry Holdbrooks Jr joined the army and began his training as a military police officer.
In May 2002, Holdbrooks found out that he was going to Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The US Army prepared their men before going down to Guantanamo. Holdbrooks and his fellow soldiers were told what to expect about the Muslim prison inmates. Every day during training, the same message was shoved in the soldiers’ minds: “The prisoners in Guantanamo are the worst of the worst. They are terrorists. They are Al-Qaeda and Taliban. They hate you. They hate everything American. They hate democracy and freedom. They are not men, they are animals. They hate you and they hate everything you stand for. Remember 9/11 and all the innocent American civilians that died that day. Islam did this. Muslims did this. Remember they want to kill you. Do not feel any sympathy or compassion.”
The propaganda worked. The soldiers flew on the plane to Guantanamo, their hearts heavy with animosity, hatred, and dread towards Muslims.
After arriving in Guantanamo, Holdbrooks was shocked. What he saw was distinctly different from what he was told. Among the 780 detainees, there were two 13-year-old kids, there was a man in his late seventies, and no – they were not savage brutes. They were Muslim men, from 46 different countries, speaking 18 different languages. Most of them were held without even knowing the allegations against them. The evidence was not enough to indict them so they were just locked up in Guantanamo, tortured and dehumanized.
Slowly and painfully, the layers of lies began to peel away, and Holdbrooks came closer and closer to the truth and to the faith.
In my writing I will spare you the gory and repulsive details of the living conditions and the way that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay were treated. Holdbrooks witnessed the horrendous abuse of the detainees. To break the prisoners’ spirits, sometimes the guards would take away the Holy Qur’an from the men; it was stepped on, or torn, or thrown on the ground.
The scenes and sounds of torture of the detainees became too much to bear for Holdbrooks. He began having doubts, questioning himself. “Is this the army that I signed up for?” “Is this being the best of the best?” “Is this what my country stands up for?” “Is this how we Americans behave?” “Does this make my country proud?”
Holdbrooks was unhappy, miserable. Every day after his shift at the prison, he would go home and drink compulsively, to numb himself, to sleep at night, to help him escape the guilt, shame, and misery that he felt. But he just kept feeling worse.
He started noticing things. The detainees were in shackles, were beaten, deprived of almost every human right and privilege, yet they were able to wake up and pray. They prayed in the morning, at noon, again in the afternoon, in the evening, and they woke up again at night to pray. They washed themselves before each prayer. They prayed to God. They prayed sometimes in unison, and sometimes alone. They truly believed that God cared about them. For those men who were lucky enough to still have the Holy Qur’an with them, they read. They smiled, they were soft-spoken. Their speech was not vulgar. They did not drink, they did not eat pork.
This confused Holdbrooks. There must be something more to Islam, something that the US Army did not tell him.
He thought to himself, “How could they still have the faith, the strength, and the inner peace to pray to God? Why did they pray? Why didn’t I have that happiness? Why didn’t I have that peace? I want that.”
When he asked the detainees why they were still hanging on to their faith even though they were probably in the worst imaginable situation a person could be in, they responded, “It is only Allah testing our deen, testing our faith. We can endure this.”
What did the concept of deen really mean?
Holdbrooks began taking chances. When he was shifting prisoners from their cell to interrogation rooms, or when bringing them food; he began to talk to them. He had so many questions to ask. Those who knew English answered his questions. The midnight shift was when he could feed his hunger to learn about Islam. Sitting on the floor on the outside of the cell door, he talked to one particular prisoner for hours, Ahmed Errachidi.
After reading more about Islam and reading the Holy Qur’an, Holdbrooks starting changing his lifestyle. He was not ready to become Muslim yet, but he took small steps towards Islam. He stopped drinking a bottle of vodka every night. He stopped eating pork. He cut down on smoking. He stopped keeping bad company. He stopped listening to angry music. He spent his time studying and reading. It was miraculous how much happier and healthier he felt.
On December 29th, 2003, just outside Errachidi’s cell, Holdbrooks pronounced the shahada, the proclamation that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger. Holdbrooks became Muslim.
As for Errachidi, a report in The Guardian stated that before his capture, he had lived in Britain for 18 years, working as a chef, and spent five and a half years in Guantanamo accused of attending al-Qaida training camps. (He was later released and cleared of any wrongdoing.)
Around the end of 2004, Holdbrooks was honorably discharged from the army, with no accurate explanation.
When Holdbrooks returned to the US, he suffered from the horrific memories of Guantanamo. He faltered through a period of drinking again, but then he found his way back on track. He is learning, and he is leading the life of a Muslim. He went back to school and earned a degree in sociology from Arizona State University. He has become a public voice in the movement to close Guantanamo Bay, he is an advocator of human rights, and he travels the country speaking to Muslim youth at mosques and Islamic centers.