When he joined the military to pay for his college tuition as an undergraduate, Terry Holdbrooks didn’t expect to walk away with a newfound Muslim faith.
Holdbrooks said in a talk Friday at the Islamic Center of Bloomington that his experience as a military police officer helping run the prison at Guantanamo Bay led him to alcoholism and suicidal thoughts. But it also led him to Islam.
“I’d sworn off religion, never wanted anything to do with it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that there was a God who cared about what was happening in the world. But now, I am Muslim.”
In his two weeks of military police officer training, Holdbrooks said he wasn’t taught anything about Islam until he was taken to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.
There, he said he was offered a narrow-minded perspective of Muslims. He was told to never be complacent in dealing with Muslims.
“They hate you because you have freedom,” his officer told him. “They hate you because you have democracy. They wake up in the morning wanting to spill your blood.”
Holdbrooks was told to never forget what Islam had done to them at ground zero. And he believed them.
That is, until he experienced life as an officer at Guantanamo Bay.
There, Holdbrooks said he saw Muslim men beaten and tortured every day. Once, he said officers were told to wake prisoners up and move them from cell to cell every twenty minutes, keeping them awake for days until they passed questioning.
Another time, a man was not allowed to shower for five days. The Muslim prisoners were also often prevented from praying.
After just a few months at the prison, Holdbrooks said he and many of his fellow military police officers had turned to alcohol to curb suicidal thoughts.
“I didn’t want to wake up,” he said. “And I didn’t want to torture people.”
So he went to some higher-ranked officers.
“Sir, with all due respect, I’m thinking about killing myself,” he said to them.
He said they told him it would get easier with time. But it didn’t.
Holdbrooks said he was miserable, but he saw prisoners laughing and talking to one another despite their situation. He said he couldn’t understand what they had to be happy about, so he asked.
Time after time, prisoners responded saying Allah was just testing them.
“The people I was torturing and abusing daily valued their faith the same as they valued breathing,” he said.
Afterward, Holdbrooks said a detainee tried to hand him a Quran. At first he hesitated, but he then he took it and read it in four days.
“I saw the calm, the peace, the tranquility they had, and I wanted that,” he said. “So I decided to take Islam on a test drive.”
Soon thereafter Holdbrooks said he saw changes in his life. He quit drinking. He quit smoking. He began studying the Quran. And while before he never wanted anything to do with religion, he began to believe in God.
Holdbrooks said he wants to protect Muslims in the United States so they don’t face the same hardships of the Muslims he met at Guantanamo Bay. As a result, Holdbrooks supports the Muslim Legal Fund of America, an organization meant to defend Muslims against injustices in the courtroom.
He said progress is possible when you have law and education. But without it, minorities are powerless, he said.
“If you do not receive legal rights in this country, you don’t exist,” he said.
Holdbrooks said he hopes to assert the existence of Muslims and ensure they receive the same rights and protections as any other American. Despite recent setbacks due to the current political climate, he said seeing people attend his talks at Islamic Centers around the country gives him hope that people are listening.
By hearing Holdbrooks’ story, attendee Fatima Ahmed said she learned the importance of being open to different groups. She said she also realized transcendental power of faith.
“I took away just that you can find faith anywhere, even in the worst situations,” she said.
Zuheir Khlaif , Islamic Center executive board member and attendee, said understanding Holdbrooks’ experience gave him a new hope.
“It shows we can change the negative thoughts and ideas of others to have a good view of Muslims,” he said.
For Khlaif, changing the negative views of others involves communicating with the community and displaying the diverse faces of Islam, including Holdbrooks’.
Holdbrooks said such progress is within reach.
“Every minority aside from white Protestant males have been where Muslims are now,” he said. “It shows that we can make progress.”