Hamza’s Mis­sion

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - by Mah­mood Fazal

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 high­pro­file 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

“Even if they are con­victed of the worst crimes imag­in­able,” says Hamza, “ev­ery­one in prison de­serves equal rights.”

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.”

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