Ahmed Kilani, sporting a kufi cap and collarless button-up shirt, is on the phone outside his favourite cafe in La Perouse in south-east Sydney. The idyllic seaside is a stark contrast to where he spends his days as a chaplain, consoling inmates and countering extremist doctrines of convicted terrorists in Goulburn’s “supermax” prison.
Depending on the situation, Kilani either struts with the confidence of a jailbird or glides with the grace of a new-age mystic. He talks with the patient piety of faith, in language riddled with Western Sydney suburban larrikinisms. “My chaplaincy is like intellectual boxing,” he says. “You have to be sharp with your hit-backs and can’t give them a hint that you’re scared.”
Last year, he was called to an emergency in a juvenile prison. An 18-year-old inmate who was facing terrorism charges was on a hunger strike, and demanding to be taken to Goulburn supermax (colloquially referred to as “supermosque”). When Kilani arrived at the prison, the 18-year-old asked him to explain a hadith in which the Prophet Mohammad says, “I am like a traveller, who takes a rest under a tree in the shade and then goes on his way.”
Kilani explained to the young prisoner, “When things are so confusing … like the times we are living in today, it’s better to withdraw and consider.” The stale glow from supermax’s LED lights is a world apart from the shade of a tree. Kilani asked the young prisoner, “Do you really think supermax is some utopian Islamic island?” The prisoner withdrew his request for transfer.
“They call me the terrorist whisperer,” he explains.
The threat of terrorism from within Islam is largely fuelled by Salafi-Jihadism, a politicised version of Salafism that emphasises active expression of beliefs within the community over personal observance. Salafists believe in a revivalist branch of Sunni Islam, which seeks to purify modern Islam of any practices that deviate from the 7th-century teachings of the Prophet Mohammad and al-salaf al-sālih, the first three generations of Muslims.
In the New South Wales prison system, almost every Muslim prisoner is seduced by this puritanical rendition of the Islamic faith because of its political nature, violent ideology and reductive jurisprudence (halal and haram). “The Salafists have this arrogance that they have a better understanding of the truth – only they understand Haqq.” Kilani recounts an interaction with a Salafi-Jihadist inmate of Goulburn supermax, who is nicknamed the Sheikh of the Prisons. “I asked him, ‘What do you think of these ignorant young Muslims engaging in terrorism?’ He said, ‘They need to find a sheikh so they aren’t misguided.’ So I asked, ‘Who’s your sheikh?’ He said, ‘I don’t have a sheikh – God gave me a gift.’”
Kilani’s voice softens. “But I always said some white supremacist guy is going to make our Muslim prisoners look like boy scouts.”
It came with the 17-minute pixelated stream of a massacre that began at Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. It would be the last time 50 Muslims heard their call to prayer. The images were the real-life incarnation of Muslim Massacre, a shoot ’em up computer game where the objective is to “wipe out the Muslim race”. The developer of the free game, a Brisbane man named Eric Vaughn, defended it as “fun and funny”.
The Christchurch terrorist’s social media posts were riddled with meta jokes and irony. He prepared for the massacre as though, in his mind, it was a Shakespearean comedy – before breaking the fourth wall and enacting an unfathomable tragedy.
When photos from the phones of survivors began circulating on social media – the stains of blood on the carpets, victims’ cars in the parking lot, sandals on the shoe racks – Kilani announced on Facebook that he would be flying to Christchurch because he had a strong urge to offer more than just online status updates. “Tomorrow the process of preparing and burying the thus far 50 victims begins,” he wrote. “The Muslim community is not equipped to deal with a large scale of deaths at once and I am willing to assist.”
Kilani was raised in a house that was deeply committed to the Muslim community. “There were always people staying at my parents’ house,” he says. “A man released from jail, women divorcees suffering from domestic violence.” Kilani’s father started one of the first Islamic Saturday schools, Kogarah’s Arabic Ethnic School, and his brother is a police officer who has served in the Western suburbs for more than 20 years.
After boarding a 1am flight from Sydney to Christchurch, Kilani realised he wasn’t alone on his mission. “There were a lot of Muslims. I saw the imam of the Turkish Gallipoli mosque on the plane. He had oversized luggage.” The imam was carrying a suitcase full of kafan, the white shrouds used in Muslim burials.
The following morning, Kilani rushed to the hospital to console the remaining victims and their families. He met a Turkish man named Mustafa Boztas who had visible stitches in his hands. He had smashed a window to create an escape route during the massacre. But before fleeing, Boztas had seen a wounded 16-year-old, Hamza Mustafa, struggling on the floor. Amid the gunshots, Boztas attempted CPR. As he pumped his hands against Mustafa’s chest, the boy bled from the shoulder and neck.
Kilani’s voice begins to tremble. “[Boztas] tried to hold the blood in and give him mouth to mouth,” he says. Mustafa died. In his hand Boztas discovered an iPhone that was on a call. “Mustafa had made a final call to his mother … [Boztas] said to her on the phone, ‘Come and get your son, he’s dead. Come and get your son, he’s dead.’”
Boztas was shot in the side as he fled, wounding him in the liver.
Day after day, on three hours’ sleep, Kilani would walk the nightmarish halls of the hospital, consoling the families and the victims. His training as a disaster recovery chaplain was centred on providing relief to people who had survived bushfires. But this situation was nothing like that. It was like being in combat. “A Syrian man who had only been here for six months with his family to escape the war zone – he kept crying and saying, ‘I wish I was dead. I wish I was a shahid. They jumped on me to save me.’”
The Arabic word shahid translates to witness, as the word martyr does in the New Testament. In Islam, a shahid is someone who is killed while on the path to Allah. “These people are all victims but also heroes. Islamically they are martyrs.” There are schools of jurisprudence that claim the bodies of martyrs must be shrouded in white cloth, in the state in which they died, and without ghusl – the traditional bathing rites – because their blood was witness to their martyrdom.
“There was a lot of discussion about how we were going to bury the martyrs. Is it going to be in a mass grave or are we going to give them individual burials? Are we going to give them ghusl, or shroud them and bury them as they are?”
A group of Islamic scholars in Christchurch decided that the martyrs should receive the ritual purification.
Around midnight, the night before the funerals, Kilani decided to perform his first ghusl on a martyr in Christchurch. He drove to prepare the body of Mohammad Omar Faruk, a 36-year-old Bangladeshi welder who was working in New Zealand and had suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
“They put the gloves on me and an apron. I walked into this cold room and there was a body lying there on a steel table with wheels. I helped wash him. It was like performing the wudu wash before prayer. It was very gentle. Even though he had passed on, we wanted to show our respect and care.”
Kilani has one more story to tell. “When they were carrying the first bodies, Hamza Mustafa and his father, Khaled, I walked in with the families. I was standing in the first row as they were mourning.” The pallbearers intoned “La illaha illalah [there is no god, but God]”.
“As the bodies [were] moved toward the grave, a Salafi sheikh from Sydney cried out toward the pallbearers, ‘The sunnah [the way of the Prophet] is silence! The sunnah is silence!’ The people in the crowds around the body joined the pallbearers in their chanting, ‘La illaha illalah’, drowning him out.”
For many, it was the first time they had witnessed the ummah – the community – come together and silence a Salafist.
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