It’s not everyday that a white English convert embraces Islam, travels to the Muslim world to learn Arabic and to explore his new found religion, and then gets illegally imprisoned for four years.
In this interview with Dilly Hussain, Ian Nisbet – who has recently published a book – “Changing Ideas: A story of a Muslim Convert” – tells us about his years of hardship and then ease.
DH: Ian, tell us briefly how you came to Islam and what attracted you to it?
IN: I had long felt that the oppression in world needed a solution, but the problem was finding it. Poverty, racism, Apartheid were all common themes in the 1980s when I was at school. I started to read about different ideas of how to solve such well-entrenched human problems, but never could I answer why any of these should be the “right” solution.
I had read Malcolm X’s autobiography where he also wanted a solution, then finally became a Muslim at the end of his life. I learned that Islam meant submission to Allah, so I decided that this was what I was looking for. It wasn’t easy though – I wanted to find out about Islam, but didn’t really know how. I went to a mosque, but was told that I could sit with the kids to memorise Qur’an, but other than that they could not help me.
On the way out, I met a young man coming in to pray. He asked me what I was doing, so I told him. He responded with a smile “good luck”, and then he went off to pray. I wasn’t exactly being helped into the deen. I saw a book called “Introduction to Islam” so I bought it and started to absorb its details.
Alhamdulillah, there were some Muslims at my university who were inviting people to Islam. A man called Farhan wrote a leaflet explaining that Islamic belief was the only stable basis for unity, as he knew that some racist Los Angeles gangsters were coming that day to preach unity against the “white oppressor.”
I was not made to feel welcome at that meeting, but on the way out Farhan and I started a long discussion, which five weeks later led me to say the shahadah. The next Friday, I went to jum’aa and was shocked to find that 14 of my class mates were there as well – all wanting to say salaam and give me a hug. I had to ask them “where were you lot while I was looking for Islam for the past two years?” Sadly, if I went to the pub, they came along too, not drinking, but just because of the peer pressure. If only they could have even told me that they were Muslims.
DH: What led you to settle in Egypt?
IN: I went to Egypt in 2001 with my wife and baby son to learn Arabic. It was a great place to live and study as the people are very attached to the Quran and Islam. I started working there to fund my studies.
DH: Please describe the circumstances in which you were arrested and the charges brought against you?
IN: On the night of 1 April 2002, I was just about to go sleep, when a loud banging and continuous ringing of the doorbell prevented that. I found about 15 armed policemen lining the hallway and stairway, together with two plain clothes men and a Special Forces officer. All the policemen were carrying rifles, and some had grenades. They asked for Medhat, whom I had never heard of, so I told them. They asked me who I was at the door and demanded to see identification.
I told them to wait while I got my passport. My Arabic was very poor at the time, but I could hear them saying “he’s got a beard in the picture”, which the other agreed with so they said that they were coming in. I was taken to a building which I later discovered was the State Security headquarters for Egypt, al-Gihaz.
The charge was propagating the ideas of a group set up not in accordance with the constitution which calls for the regime to be replaced by an Islamic Khilafah. The judge finally decided to throw out the original charge and convict all 26 of us, including two British citizens, for being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, instead – he said that this was a favour to us as the sentences would be less.
DH: How were you treated in Egyptian prison and were you tortured?
IN: As we pulled into the courtyard we were blindfolded and led down some steps into a reception area. We joined a queue of others and were told to put our hands on the shoulders of the one in front. We filed to a desk, were asked our names, hand-cuffed, then led individually to cells. I was put into mine, told that I was number 26 then pushed down onto the concrete shelf that served as a bed. It had a disgustingly dirty thin mattress on it. I was told to sleep “Nim!”, then the door banged closed behind me.
Throughout those first days I would hear the regular screams from down the hall. They started on the evening of my first night there, continued throughout the night then died down by the morning, until the next evening. It was another way for me to guess the time of day. The screams seemed far away, but their reality was very close, as I could hear the numbers being called, then a door opening, then the screams starting again shortly afterwards.
This may go on for half an hour or so, before another number was called out. The place was like a factory, a conveyor belt of torture. I could hear one man’s name called an awful lot. He was called Shareef, and I was afraid that it was a friend of mine from the village, also called Shareef.
The screams were blood-curdling. Grown men’s high pitch screams preceded by a buzzing and crackling sound. They would sometimes shout some words, but I couldn’t understand them. I imagined that they had a machine which a person was strapped into, and then the voltage was applied to produce the screams I could hear. The reality was much cruder, as I discovered from conversations with prisoners more than a year later.
During my own interrogation a man flew into a rage screaming at me in unintelligible Egyptian, I feel sure that he was spitting while speaking. He pushed me against the wall. He started to punch me and poke me in the body and face. I was still blindfolded and cuffed. He taunted me as he saw the shock on my face. He was screaming on in Egyptian, but I had no idea what he was saying.
He threw a glass on the floor where it smashed at my feet. He then dragged me onto the floor forcing me to kneel in front of him while he sat on the wooden chair. He asked me in a calmer voice where my wife and son were? “Fayn zugtuk wa ibnuk?” Did I know that she was safe? I could just understand the Arabic, but I clearly saw what he was saying. He carried on threatening my family, then returned me to my seat.
There are a lot of torture stories from Egypt. My own ordeal is almost nothing compared to what I was forced to witness and what happened to other people I met.
I was moved to a normal prison after nearly a week, which then became my home for the next four years. The trial took two years to conclude, which was an absolute joke. The only evidence was the “confessions” of defendants extracted under torture and a parade of lying state security officers claiming that we all volunteered 40 page confessions in the half hour van ride to the police station!
DH: Did any human rights organizations in the UK raise awareness about your imprisonment?
IN: Our families in the UK started a media campaign to raise awareness of our case. A number of lawyers and MPs became very supportive of us, as it was clearly a case of mistreatment of people imprisoned for their political ideas. Amnesty International adopted us as prisoners of conscience. The only people in fact who were unsupportive were the British government themselves. Tony Blair accepted three free holidays with Hosni Mubarak while we were there, just to rub it in our faces I presume.
DH: Under what circumstances were you released?
IN: All three Britons were released on 1 March 2006 after 3 years and 11 months, which was just two months after the three-quarter sentence. The Egyptians who were also given five year sentences ended up spending eight years altogether in prison. This was considered short, as most of the prisoners we met spent well over ten years without even being charged.
The irony of all this was that the State Security building al-Gihaz was ransacked by demonstrators during the Egyptian revolution. Now Hosni Mubarak himself is in the same prison complex, while his son is in the very same cell that I was in for two years!
DH: I believe you wrote a book whilst you were in prison, which was in two parts now compiled in one. Could you tell us what motivated you to write and what the book is about?
IN: I wrote the book while still inside the prison. It was actually a letter to my son, explaining why I became a Muslim, as I wasn’t sure what the future held and whether he would ever know me properly as a father. I also wrote about the time in Mubarak’s prison as I wanted to expose what really happens in such places and for British people to know what kind of dictators our government is happy to deal with. I released them separately at first, but now I have combined them in a single book “Changing Ideas: A story of a Muslim Convert“.
DH: What are the main lessons you learnt while in prison and what advice can you give to Muslims who have been detained illegally in foreign prisons?
IN: Alhamdulillah, I went to Egypt to study Arabic and Islam and this is what I was able to do in prison, much better than I ever could on the outside. I met amazing people who taught me about the language, the Qur’an and hadith of Rasul Allah (saw). Life slows down in a prison, so you have a lot of time on your hands. When you come out again you become overwhelmed by the speed of daily life outside. Prison teaches you to be patient and to rely on Allah alone, no matter how the officers would like you to think otherwise. I’d say that all prisoners should use the time to read Qur’an, reflect on its meanings and their own ideas, as there will unlikely be such an opportunity again.
Ian Nisbet’s book Changing ideas: A story of a Muslim convert can be purchased online:
You can follow Dilly Hussain on Twitter @DillyHussain88