September 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Islam on the inside

By Mahmood Fazal

Queensland’s first Muslim prison chaplain has first-hand experience of the system

Behind a chain-link fence in Logan City, Brisbane, a man with fading tribal tattoos waxes a doorless Torana. He raises his Great Northern stubby and, revealing a mouthful of silver and missing parts, calls out, “Robbie Sevens!”

These days, Robert “Sevens” Maestracci goes by the name Hamza. His hulking figure is bent and buckled into a dainty eco-friendly Yaris, and he reluctantly waves back as though this was not his street and he doesn’t really know the guy.

“We’ve got train stations, McDonald’s and buses, but in my heart I see [Logan City] becoming the next Auburn,” Hamza says, right hand stroking a well-oiled sunnah beard. “In Auburn, there’s halal shops everywhere.” He begins to talk faster. “That’s how I see this place turning, because it’s still affordable, there’s a lot of vacant businesses, and it could become really multicultural, a great place to eat.” He sports a look familiar to anyone who knows prison culture: stick’n’poke tattoos, shaved legs, a stern but inquisitive expression that erupts into maniacal laughter, and an Everlast T-shirt tucked into jogging shorts that expose the waistband-knot.

From the boot of his car, Hamza takes a long brown sheet with gold detail, which unfurls into a long thawb. He slides into it, pulls on a fluorescent pair of prison-chic Asics Kayano trainers, and then rummages around the back seat for “the important things”: his bum bag and Versace sunglasses.

The boy who would become Hamza was raised between Brisbane, New Jersey and New York. His parents were divorced and he tailed his mother. She soon became frustrated with the self-destructive behaviour that led him to work as a bouncer in nightclubs across Fortitude Valley, and would take him to the closest Catholic church, encouraging him to pray and seek forgiveness because he was “lost and on the wrong path”. Soon after he was released from prison in 2007, having served time for drug-related offences, he found a new path.

Having converted to Islam, Hamza met leaders of the Muslim community at a barbecue organised by Mirways Sayed, who was looking to form an Islamic outreach group. A Pashtun who migrated from Afghanistan in the 1970s, Sayed stands six feet tall, sports a long mullet, and wears a long leather coat and a fistful of rings. (It was Sayed who gave Maestracci the name Hamza, after the paternal uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, a fierce warrior who provoked his enemies in battle by decorating himself in ostrich feathers.) In 2012, Sayed founded Ummah United with the hope of rehabilitating at-risk teens who were radicalised, addicted to drugs, active in street gangs or members of outlaw motorcycle clubs. Sayed’s recruitment strategy was both inspired and risky: he exploited the aggressive aesthetic of the maligned biker, incorporating black-and-white jackets with sprawling Koranic text and scimitar swords. He also banned computers at the centre, because it was “loneliness and the internet’s backyard jihadis” that fuelled radicalisation.

In order to be accepted by young teenagers in an area like Logan City, notorious for its high crime rate, Ummah United first had to win their trust. Its leaders promised they would never cooperate with the police or the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Problems began flaring up when radical preacher Musa Cerantonio gave a lecture at Ummah United’s centre, and authorities linked a number of jihadis fighting in Syria to the organisation.

Despite this, Ummah United grew rapidly, attracting members from the Pacific Islander community in Logan, as well as bikies from across Brisbane such as infamous Bandidos Leonard David Toalei and Brett “Kaos” Pechey.

In 2014, Hamza was arrested in a series of high-profile counterterrorism raids that also targeted Omar Succarieh and Agim Kruezi (both were later found guilty of foreign incursion charges). The media published images of Hamza under the headline “Banker for Terrorists” because he had been charged for “dealing with funds that may become an instrument of crime under the foreign incursions act”. There was no evidence against Hamza and he was cleared of all charges, but his image remains tainted. He continues to be harassed, including by friends and family, for supposedly being an Islamic poster child.

Hamza observed, especially from how he was represented in the press, that ambiguity was one of the reasons Muslims were being misunderstood. Consequently, he decided to become more transparent by working with the authorities. Hamza and others splintered off from Ummah United to continue their social work with the Islamic Council of Queensland, the representative body for Muslim organisations across the state.

These days Hamza’s adhan (call-to-prayer) ringtone blares regularly and he spends his time advising prisoners, assisting underage migrants with housing, and tranquillising street violence between Muslim gangs. However, it is prison reform that has absorbed his life over the past three years. In the Queensland prison system only Christian inmates have had access to a chaplaincy program, and Hamza has been lobbying corrective services to provide prisoners of all faiths with equal religious rights.

“There are boys in jail right now who would jump at the opportunity to hear a different side of things,” says Bogdan, an ex-prisoner who has dropped in to Hamza’s house for a cup of tea (mint, with four tablespoons of sugar – a jailhouse delicacy). “[Christianity] is forced on people because they’ve got no other avenues, no other points of view,” he continues. “I’d call Hamza and he’d write down some surahs [chapters of the Koran] in a letter.”

Hamza zips out to attend the court sentencing of his best friend, Omar Succarieh, who faced foreign incursion charges for funnelling US$43,700 to Nusra Front, a faction of Al Qaeda at the time. Two of Succarieh’s brothers have been connected to fighting for Nusra Front in Syria. Having spent 90 days in solitary confinement, Succarieh appears frail in the dock, his smile forced and his beard dishevelled.

“Even if they are convicted of the worst crimes imaginable,” says Hamza, “everyone in prison deserves equal rights. It wasn’t the psych programs or being told when I could go to the toilet that made me a better person, it was faith – and all inmates should be given a shot to redeem themselves.”

Hamza continues to be frustrated by Muslim inmates being unwilling to come forward about incidents of assault or discrimination. He cites accounts of prisoners being banned from praying together, and of a female prisoner being denied a hijab and a prayer mat. (There were reports that, on the eve of Ramadan, other female prisoners made her a veil and stood with her in the canteen as she recited a Koranic prayer with an Aussie twang.)

Kadir, a 25-year-old ex-prisoner and friend of Hamza, tells a story about a fellow inmate. “[He] was praying during muster once, he was finishing his dua when we were evacuated. He was bloodied all over by six or seven officers. They told me, ‘Either eat the pork with the other people or enjoy your quinoa salad and beans.’ We’ve got no one we can trust, that we can complain to.”

Underlining incidents such as these is the lack of access that Muslim inmates have to external support such as pastoral care. In June, however, the combined efforts of the Islamic Council of Queensland, the prisoners and Hamza paid off. The new corrective services commissioner, Peter Martin, approved a three-month pilot chaplaincy program across Queensland and, in a radical gesture of good faith, granted Hamza access to prisons as a chaplain. This was not about prisoners praying together; it was about reviving hope for marginalised young Muslims in the system.

Soon afterwards, during Ramadan, Hamza strutted – the way he used to assert prowess on the prison yards – into Southern Queensland Correctional Centre. This time, however, he came with religious authority. Guards took his fingerprints and tapped him down but only as protocol; they were working towards the same goal.

The Friday sermon was a quiet retelling of Hamza’s triumph. “I saw a lot of familiar faces. Dave [ Toalei] started crying and, you know, I had a bit of a cry as well.” Hamza’s voice begins to break. “It’s so hard to see brothers you love in that situation. But it’s so good to see them, together in prayer.”

Mahmood Fazal

Mahmood Fazal is a writer and a filmmaker.

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