By Hanna Rahman –
“These detainees were simply living Islam,” says Terry Holdbrooks.
Holdbrooks, a former Guantánamo Bay prison guard, decided to convert to Islam during his time in Guantánamo. He shared his story during an Islam Awareness Week event hosted by the Muslim Students Association of Arizona State University. About 40 people attended Holdbrooks’ speech.
Holdbrooks was a prison guard at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp from June 2003 to 2004. His work with detainees is what led him to accept Islam after a prisoner, Ahmed Errachidi, gave him an English translation of the Qur’an.
“This is the first time that I have read a religious text and it makes complete sense. Hands down. There is no magic, no mysticism, and no nonsense. It’s like an instruction manual for living,” said Holdbrooks, recalling his initial reading.
The conditions at Guantánamo, Holdbrooks said, taught him a lot about human spirit and resiliency.
“When I think about the idea of simply being a human, and being human to other humans, that did not happen too much down there, sadly. Many of the guards lacked humanity,” said Holdbrooks, who was born in 1983 and grew up in the Phoenix area.
He noted that the detainees often had troubling pasts themselves. “Many of [the detainees] who I spoke with told me who they were before GTMO, and that was a person to not be proud of in many circumstances,” he said.
This served as a lesson for Holdbrooks as well. He began to recognize just how much, and how often a person can change. “I have seen myself grow better, worse and better again. I suppose, if I could stretch for something positive, it would be that despite the awful conditions that we may have all encountered, many of us were able to persevere, and that is an indication that we are never given more than we can handle, as it says in the Qur’an,” said Holdbrooks.
Hearing Holdbrooks’ story gave one attendee a renewed appreciation for the impact that tolerance and acceptance could have on someone’s life. “I really value that even though Terry was a U.S. Army guard, he was still open-minded to who he met. He has compassion and understood that the connection with God was the key to happiness,” said Wasiba Rahman, 18, of Tempe.
Attendees not only had the opportunity to hear Holdbrooks’ story and perspective on the faith but also learned about the history of Guantánamo Bay.
“I liked how it gave me a different perspective on Islam. I also learned the history of this country and the big role Guantánamo Bay has had,” said Michael Ames, 21, of Phoenix.
Holdbrooks’ story is one filled with unusual characters, unforgettable memories and personal challenges. After what he saw and learned at his time at Guantánamo, Holdbrooks said it is dedication to personal beliefs that gets people through even the most daunting of experiences.
“I remind myself often about how my life could be, and how thankful I am and I tell Allah that I love Him for giving me Islam and this experience. I have to keep my dedication to my faith strong or it will fall away quickly, and as for my personal convictions, I have few, but the few I have are very strong,” said Holdbrooks.