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Two young political prisoners Omar and Layla describe how they found freedom behind bars through Islam. This text is taken from the foreword of When Only God Can See: The Faith of Muslim Political Prisoners by Walaa Quisay and Asim Qureshi.


‘What does it mean to come of age in confinement?’ We, Omar and Layla, crossed the threshold of adulthood within the confining walls of the prison complexes in Guantanamo Bay and Egypt. Omar endured the distinction of being the youngest inmate in Guantanamo at just 15, and Layla, too was often the youngest in the cell, first being arrested in Egypt at 13, then again at 15 and 18. Asim and Walaa suggested we use this question as our starting point; but as we wield our pens our story feels less like the story of youth betrayed. Our story is one of finding freedom in God’s power despite the control of the prison. Therefore, the question is not just what it means to come to age in confinement but to do so under His watchful Eye:

Put him into a chest, then put it into the river. The river will wash it ashore, and he will be taken by ‘Pharaoh,’ an enemy of Mine and his.’ And I endeared you with love from Me ‘O Moses’ so that you would be brought up under My ‘watchful’ Eye (20:39).

At the age of 15 when I, Omar, was taken to Guantanamo everything physical was stripped away from me. I was lost in an ocean in every sense. I had to hold on to something that couldn’t be taken away from me. My only hope; Islam. Holding on to Islam was pure survival. I still don’t know why. It just was. As years passed, and I grew older, I started reflecting on what couldn’t be taken away from me. What is this hope, why is it hope, and is it truly hope?

Before Guantánamo – this is an embarrassing admission – I had a bit of an inferiority complex as I desired a world that could be found in the West. Prison broke that inferiority complex towards the West and the white man. I was right there in prison – the core on which this society was built – a system of law but empty of morality. I could see that this elaborate system had a rotten core. For the longest time, the Qur’an was the only thing we had for comfort, that and each other as prisoners. I would read Surah Yusuf, and it was complete. Everything was laid out – from the start, the progression, and how it ended. I would read,

And they cried, ‘Could it be that you are Yusuf?’ He said, ‘I am Yusuf. This is my brother. God has been gracious to us: God does not deny anyone who is mindful of God and steadfast in adversity the rewards of those who do good’ (12:90).

The story is one hardship after another, but this verse is such a promise of hope. I found myself among the strongest men in Guantanamo’s cages, but it was the humanity of Islam that struck me most. It was for this reason that I came to choose Islam. It does not criticise a person for being weak. It does not belittle someone for their brokenness. It was a strange conclusion to reach that it was okay to be human in the most dehumanising place. I do not know how I would have felt if I had been in Layla’s place and was imprisoned by other Muslims.

While Omar had been captured unlawfully by America, my experience in Egypt has led me to the conclusion that even if there were no political prisoners, the injustice that even guilty people face in prison should be enough to collapse this institution. These are tyrants who administer oppression. I can never forget one of my cellmates, who killed her husband. She was beaten, stripped, and sexually assaulted in interrogation. The world needs to rethink the very notion of imprisonment, judgement, and punishment. Every time I was detained, I learned something new. I always found the psyche of soldiers and the guards to be an enigma. They had a warped view of God, women and law. The officer who electrocuted me and prevented me from praying believed he did this in the name of Islam. I was a threat to Islam. Some of them would apologise to us when they’d put us in handcuffs. They would say, ‘I am sorry, my daughter, but I am only following orders.’ My emotions would be a mix of anger and pity. My brother, submit your resignation. How can you sleep with this burden? Every night, you go home and lay your head on a pillow knowing that you locked innocent people in a cell. It was as if they were too afraid to listen to their own hearts, too afraid to carry the burden of their injustice.

Layla, you write of the apology of those who knew they oppressed you, and it takes me back to words used by the Pakistani officers, with beards down to their navels in open displays of piety, that would use the word majburi – that they wanted those of us who were sold to the Americans to grant them forgiveness because they were coerced. Perhaps they were asking for our forgiveness because they were fully aware God can see all they do – and they placed the burden of their guilt on us.

The title of this book When Only God Can See is fitting – it speaks to our collective experience as young people caught in a system of incarceration that were so far from one another geographically, but so intimately tied to a global malignancy of injustice. Prisons are terrible places. They serve little purpose other than to dehumanise and destroy, and were it not our certainty that God can see and control all that takes place, we would not have been able to take meaning from our experience in the way that we have. God’s control of our affairs does not detract from the violence of these institutions, and so we must work together to end the daily indignities and torture that define modern-day prisons.

(Layla al-Azhari is a pseudonym)

When Only God Can See: The Faith of Muslim Political Prisoners by Walaa Quisay and Asim Qureshi will be published on 20th April. You can pre-order your copy now.