As we enter upon 2018 I wanted to share a few reflections on what a magnificent year 2017 was and how much good came out of it.
This year I visited several countries around the world as well as going to different parts of the United Kingdom.
Having returned home from prison in mid-2015, it is only this year that I began to feel that my feet are finally standing on the ground again.
So here goes, my list of five great things that happened in 2017…
1.One man has succeeded in uniting the world
Yes, you got it: Donald Trump. I cannot remember in living memory a time when the other permanent members of the UN Security Council voted against the United States. Even Britain.
I cannot remember, not in my lifetime anyway, when a serving British Prime Minister dared to criticise the president of the USA.
So something good is definitely happening in the world. All the good people in the world are gathering together against those spreading and promoting hatred, fear and division.
As surely as the night and day, nations rise and fall. This is the tradition of history and this is the tradition of Allah.
2. The response of the British people to three terrorist attacks in Britain this year
This year was a very difficult year for Britain. The Grenfell Tower fire, three terrorist attacks in Manchester, Finsbury Park and London Bridge, losing our way over Brexit…
But the response of the British people this year was different to previous years.
Normally, a terrorist attack carried out by Muslims leads to an upsurge in hate crime against Muslims, led by the politicians and the press.
This year, however, things were different.
You had the usual pigs heads thrown into a few mosques and the hijabs pulled off by cowards but nothing of the sort that we have experienced in recent years.
For once, there seems to be a sense of realisation in both the politicians and the law enforcement authorities that self-serving statements attacking Islam and Muslims over the actions of a few ignorant Muslims actually embolden the ignorant ones instead of beating them down.
For the first time, politicians were quick to label as a “terrorist attack” the Finsbury Park Mosque attack, in which a man drove a van into Muslim worshippers in Ramadan.
I personally attended a Ramadan fast-opening event outside Finsbury Park mosque and was surprised by the thousands of goodwill messages left by the community on the walls around the mosque.
Words usually do not mean much, but as the example of Donald Trump shows, when they are spoken by the leadership, they have consequences.
A responsible leader unites his or her nation. An ignorant leader spreads hatred, fear and division.
The tide is definitely turning, even for the gutter press, as my next point demonstrates.
3. The British people are finally taking a stand against the tabloid hate-papers who spread hate while claiming to speak up for the “silent majority”
During the last twelve months, a campaign known as “Stop Funding Hate” has spread beyond all expectations until it is beginning to hit the hate-papers where it hurts.
Stop Funding Hate simply asks ordinary citizens to lobby big British brands and companies to stop advertising with hate-papers that are spreading hatred against foreigners, Muslims and migrants.
A few minutes of your time makes a difference to the whole country. The link is at the bottom.
4. The Muslim ummah is more united today than at any other time in recent history
I can certainly testify to this, given the thousands of people who I have met this year up and down Britain and in several other countries around the world that I visited this year.
Of course, we still have our haters and deviant police, but they are in the minority and hardly anyone listens to them.
Just like the world needed Trump to unite it, the Muslim ummah needs these haters to unite everyone else.
5. The emergence of Turkey as an icon for the Muslim world
Yes, I have several disagreements with some of Turkey’s policies but there is no doubt that in recent years Turkey has left all other Muslim countries behind in making a stand for justice.
While the world was issuing condemnations about the massacre of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Turkish President Erdogan immediately sent a delegation to Bangladesh offering to cover all the costs if Bangladesh was to open its borders to the fleeing refugees.
These were not empty words. Six years on, Turkey continues to host nearly one million Syrian refugees, paying for their meals, accommodation, education and even providing jobs for them.
And soon after the US announced its unilateral decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, Turkey responded in kind and announced that it too would open its embassy in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian half of the city.
Proof of Turkey’s emergence as a regional superpower comes in the failed July 2016 coup attempt to overthrow the government of President Erdogan.
The undemocratic coup attempt was supported by most of the world until the Turkish people were able to take their country back.
As 2018 begins, this is an exciting time to be alive. The world is changing for the better. Good is becoming stronger and evil is becoming weaker. The future is bright.
A young lady wrote to me last week asking if I might write something about this topic. Let’s call her Khadijah.
Khadijah explained how her husband was a nice man but her in-laws and their relatives had tormented her until her heart was full of hatred and bitterness towards them.
She said that she was brought up by her own parents to be forgiving and forbearing towards all people, to forgive those who had wronged her.
She had tried that for a while but the level of the torment, sustained over many years, was such that it had and has affected her mentally as a person and she finds it difficult to move on.
Alas, this is not the first time I’ve heard of situations such as this. A relative of mine went through something similar.
People who know my story often tell me how remarkable it is that I have forgiven the police officers who tortured me in 2003 and left me with 73 injuries from head to toe.
I say to these people,
“Who said I have forgiven them? They never apologised to me and in fact, they have shown no remorse so I have not forgiven them. However, I have no desire to take revenge against them and hence I have not allowed myself to be shackled to them.”
Not wishing to take revenge on someone and forgiving them are two different things.
In my case, I have left the matter to Allah. He will give me justice at a time and in a way that He considers best.
If He has told me, “This is My Department, you don’t worry about it, you just live your life,” then why should I kill myself with pain?
The worst thing to say to someone who has been wronged is, “Forgive them, let it go. Forgive and forget.”
All they have to say to you is, “Well, it’s easy for you to say that when you have not gone through what I have gone through.”
“You haven’t been physically and psychologically tormented for years by your husband’s mother.”
“You haven’t been stripped naked and tortured by police officers who jeered and mocked you and your religion.”
“You haven’t lost all your life savings by someone you trusted who defrauded you.”
Allah says in the Quran:
“And if you take retribution, then take retribution equal to the amount that you were harmed. But if you are patient then verily that is better for those who are patient.” [16:126]
“Allah does not like the public mention of evil except in the case of one who was wronged. And Allah is All-Hearing and All-Knowing.” [4:148]
There are two things we learn from these two verses.
Firstly, injustice is a very serious matter in the sight of Allah.
Secondly, the wronged person has a choice whether to forgive or not, but he is under no obligation to do so.
The Prophets Moses and Noah prayed for the destruction of their people while the Prophets Abraham and Muhammad, peace be upon them all, asked Allah to forgive them.
No God orders His servants to bear injustice and not do anything about it. Those who claim that somehow God commands His servants to be passive in the face of injustice, lie against God.
The important point is that the choice of whether or not or if or when to forgive, lies with the wronged person, not anyone else.
In other words, no-one can tell or pressure you to forgive someone who has done wrong to you. It is entirely your choice.
There then arises the question of holding bitterness in one’s heart. When you hold bitterness in your heart towards someone who has wronged you, you shackle yourself to them.
Again, no-one can tell you if or when to cleanse your heart of bitterness towards someone who has wronged you. It is entirely your choice.
When people ask me why I don’t hold any anger, hatred or bitterness towards those who were wrong to me, I tell them that although I have not forgiven them, it takes energy to hate and be bitter and I have no desire to waste my energy doing that.
After 11 years in shackles, I have no desire to spend the rest of my life shackled to those who were wrong to me. Instead, I want to get back at my tormentors by living well.
As George Herbert once said, “Living well is the best revenge.”
I used to judge people based on their outer appearance. Until it happened to me. And then I didn’t like it one bit.
I used to think every white man with a shaved head and tattoos was a racist. Perhaps I might be forgiven for thinking that way.
Growing up in 80s Britain, the racist 80s, those who called me “Paki” were… you guessed it, shaved head white men with tattoos.
When it comes to Islam, most ignorant Muslims judge everyone else except themselves. I was no different.
I would judge other Muslims based on their outward appearance. I would consider a man with a long beard, in traditional clothing, with “inshallah” “mashallah” flowing out of his mouth, a righteous person.
I would consider every woman in a hijab or niqab to be devout and of good character.
I wouldn’t think much of others because I was quick to form a judgement about them, even though I did not know a thing about them.
During the 1980s US-backed anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad, Saudi Arabian Airlines offered a 50% discount to any Saudi citizen or resident wishing to travel to Pakistan for the purposes of waging Jihad against invading Soviet troops.
Yes, those were the days, some might say. Today, false death cults have hijacked the concept of Jihad and turned it into something alien to Islam.
A Saudi friend once shared with me an anecdote of something that happened to him. During the late 1980s, he was travelling to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia with 100kg of items for the Afghan freedom fighters. It was food, batteries, torches, items like that.
The luggage allowance was still 20kg. While checking in at the airport he began to search for the official who appeared to him to be the most devout, with a view to getting the luggage through without having to pay excess baggage charges.
He spotted an airline official with a big beard, a prominent mark of prostration on his forehead, trousers above his ankles and a “tasbeeh” “rosary bead” in his hand.
My friend approached him and explained the problem to him. Wrong decision.
The “devout” official began to rile off excuses, saying that the Government had ordered that every single kilogram has to be paid for in full. The official gave a receipt to my friend and asked him to pay it at a certain counter.
When he arrived at that counter, he found a young Saudi Airlines official. Clean shaved except for a moustache, a packet of cigarettes showing from his chest pocket. He did not look religious in the least.
The young man looked left and right as if it see if anyone was listening. He then whispered to my friend, “Is this all charity?” My friend nodded to say yes.
“I’m really sorry that I have to charge you because the other official gave you this receipt, but I’m only going to charge for you for 5kg, not 80kg excess baggage,” the young man whispered. “I’m so sorry I can’t do more than that.”
My friend was surprised. What happened next was even more surprising.
The young man went into an office and another airline official, also clean shaven and smelling of cigarettes, came out to my friend.
“Are all these things for charity, to help the Afghans?” he asked. “Are you yourself going there?”
My friend said yes. The official then glanced to see that no-one was looking, took out a 500 riyal note (equivalent to say £200 in those days) from his pocket and discreetly put it into my friends’s hand.
“Please give this to charity on my behalf when you get there,” he said.
My friend later told me that he felt ashamed that he had allowed himself to judge those officials based on their outer appearance alone. It was as if Allah wanted to teach him a lesson, that He alone has the right to judge people.
I had similar experiences during the 11 years I spent in prison.
Some of the best prison officers I met in both British and American prisons, the ones who were kindest to me, were… shaved head white men with tattoos.
And some of the people who treated me the worst in prison were clean-cut, well-spoken men in suits, with no tattoos.
A hijab wearing “Muslim” female lawyer, together with a hijab-wearing “Muslim” female psychologist fought hard on behalf of the UK Prison Service to keep me and other Muslim detainees in isolation.
Meanwhile, a Jewish (yes, Jewish) lawyer fought hard on my behalf to try and prevent this from happening.
We lost the case and I eventually remained in isolation for a total of six years.
Of course, many of the people who campaigned for me for years were also hijab-wearing Muslim women.
It was uniformed police officers who violently tortured and assaulted me in 2003. And it was another uniformed police officer who offered me water and later testified in court in my favour, saying my handcuff injuries were the worst he had seen in his 35-year long career.
Most Muslim paedophiles and rapists that I saw in prison had long beards and white skullcaps. But then many of the people in my community who campaigned for me for years also had long beards and white skullcaps.
The rat who made up false allegations against me as a result of which I spent 11 years in prison was… a hafiz of Quran, student of knowledge, Arabic-speaker, teacher and Imam, with a beard and traditional clothing.
And the person who fought day and night for two years to defend me against this “hafiz” rat’s allegations was a short-skirted fashionable young white American woman lawyer.
After my experience I am now hesitant to judge other people. Not only can looks be deceiving, they actually are deceiving and don’t say anything about the person.
“Do unto others what you want done unto yourself,” is known as The Bible’s golden rule. Or, put another way, “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto yourself.”
“Can I have your passport please,” the man asked me.
The bearded man in his 30s was wearing a white thowb (one-piece Arabian robe) and a white turban. Since he was not in uniform I got the impression that he was a senior airport official.
I was at the back of a long line of a group of young, athletic British men and women.
The cropped hair of the men and their body language made me suspect that they were off-duty military personnel.
We had all come on the same Qatari Airways flight from London and we were waiting to go through passport control to enter Doha.
I handed over my passport to the official and he ushered me to follow him. As I walked I noticed the eyes of the servicemen and women on me.
I was thinking that perhaps I was going to be taken into a room to be questioned. It was the late 1990s and being stopped at airports was not as common as it is now.
I followed the official to the passport control booth at the front of the line.
Before the next serviceman stepped forward to the booth, the official raised his palm as if to signal the serviceman to stop.
The official then gave my passport to the passport control clerk and asked him to stamp my passport.
The clerk obeyed this order without question and within a minute he returned my passport to me.
“Do you have any luggage?” the official asked me. I told him yes so he walked with me to the baggage collection area. He brought a trolley for me and waited for my suitcase to arrive.
OK, he is a customs guy and he wants to check my suitcase, I thought to myself.
While we were waiting for my luggage to arrive he asked me if this was my first visit to Qatar. Yes. Whether I had a comfortable flight. Yes. Whether I needed anything. No.
Whether someone was coming to pick me up at the airport. Yes. A friend. Whether I had a place to stay in Doha. Yes. He was talking to me not as an official investigating a traveller, but as a host welcoming a guest.
My suitcase came and he went to lift it from the carousel. I tried to stop him but he insisted. He lifted the suitcase onto my trolley and then we walked through customs.
Unsurprisingly, no one at customs even looked towards us, let alone stop us.
After we cleared customs, the official again asked me if I was sure that I had a ride and a place to stay. If not, he could arrange one for me.
I politely thanked him for his offer and reassured him that my friend would be waiting for me.
As I greeted the official and left to walk towards the exit, he smiled and said to me, “Welcome to Qatar.”
This story happened some 20 years ago. The official never told me his name and he didn’t give me his contact details, but he left me with a positive impression of Qatar and Qataris on my first visit to their country.
My two week stay in Qatar reinforced to me that the people of this land are good people with honorable values.
In the 20 years since this incident happened, I have told this story to people I have met in different countries around the world.
I have told it prisoners from China, Latin America, Africa and Europe.
The fact that I still remember and share it is proof in itself of the positive impact that it had on me.
Whenever anyone asks me about one of the most welcoming countries in the world that I have visited, I tell them this story.
By way of contrast, hundreds of thousands of foreigners visit Britain each year. More often that not they meet grumpy officials at the airport who are suspicious of why this “bloody foreigner” has come to Britain.
What is even stranger that the many of these grumpy officials forget that they too were bloody foreigners themselves not too long ago.
Unsurprisingly, these bloody foreigners will not be recommending Britain to their friends and family as a place to visit and spend their money. Who will lose out? Yes, you guessed, it. Ordinary Britons lose out.
In the years after 9/11 I saw an influx of undergraduate and postgraduate students arrive from the wealthy Arabian Gulf countries to study at the university in London where I used to work before I was imprisoned.
These guys lived in expensive apartments in central London and drove sports cars. They spent lots of money every week that benefited the British economy.
There was a large group of these students from one particular Gulf country. I asked one of the postgraduates where he and his friends had studied their bachelors (first) degree. He replied, “America.”
I then asked him why they had come to London to study for their PhD. Were the universities in Britain better than those in America?
“Not in a million years,” he laughed.
So why on earth did they come to Britain for their PhDs and not stay in America?
“Because of what happened to Abdul-Aziz,” he said.
Abdul-Aziz was a friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin, from their country, who was studying for his PhD in America.
Months after 9/11 and weeks before he completed his PhD, Abdul-Aziz’s home was raided and ransacked in California. He was arrested and detained in an immigration facility on suspicion of being a terrorist.
He was then deported back to his country, along with his wife and young children.
“We don’t want to happen to us what happened to Abdul-Aziz,” the student told me. “That’s why we have come here to study and have stopped going to America.”
So that one incident with Abdul-Aziz cost the US economy perhaps millions of dollars in lost income that students from one particular city in the Arabian Gulf might have spent had they studied their PhDs in America.
We only get one chance to give a first impression of ourselves and whatever or whoever we represent, whether it is our religion, race, gender, country, profession or business.
Just like a negative first impression far outlasts our own memory, a positive first impression also far outlasts our own memory.
Read some more anecdotes of experiences that foreign visitors to the UK have every day at visadreams.com, an exciting new blog launched this week by an immigration solicitor based in London whom I know very well.