The Sunday Express today begins an investigative series on the spread of Muslim organisations in Trinidad and Tobago
perceived to be militant and perpetrators of crime.
We begin with a visit to the Carapo mosque, an arm of the Mucurapo based Jamaat-al-
Muslimeen which staged a bloody attempted coup in 1990.
The halfway-constructed white one-storey mosque in Carapo is synonymous with the growth of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen in that community.
In 2000, the Arima-based Jamaat prayed in the open greens, before constructing a wooden and galvanise iron building and has now laid the foundation for a superior mosque.
Likewise, the Jamaat’s numbers have burgeoned beyond its Mucurapo base.
About 250 Muslims are affiliated to the Carapo mosque.
Imam Hassan Ali, who has a distinctive orange-beard, said people come to them every day wanting to join the religion.
What makes the growth of the Jamaat in Carapo interesting is the compositions of their followers—most of them are former prisoners or criminals.
It’s a fact openly acknowledged by Hassan Ali.
“What we have is what we would like to say is the dregs of the society. The dropouts. They drop out of studies. They don’t want to study anything. They don’t want to read,” he said.
“Young people coming out of prison are coming to Islam. We didn’t call them or select them. They come,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Express last Friday.
The Sunday Express asked: But why would prisoners approach the Jamaat and not any of the other Islam-based organisations?
Ali, 63, considered: “Some come here. Some go all over the place and end up here. Our primary issue is to teach Islam and set the Islamic example. We say re-habilitation because people come, they are addicted to marijuana, they addicted to nicotine, alcohol, addicted to sex. We have to teach Islamic principles and prayer. We are not given credit for that.”
But the strength and composition of his followers have caused concern within the country’s national security apparatus. It has led to frequent police patrols and a temporary post outside Carapo.
Given the leniency with joining the Jamaat, it’s an easy target for people looking for a base, he said.
He explained that any individual who wants to be part of the Jamaat undergoes interrogation by him on their crimes and whether there’s conflict with anyone.
He said people come to him and beg them to take their children.
“Families cannot manage. In the vicinity, there are parents who cannot manage. The fathers are not there taking care of the children. We are like the village that raised a child based on Islam,” he said.
But residents of Carapo tell another story. The Sunday Express spoke to several residents who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal. They say the outsiders that have come into the community and started squatting have brought dangerous elements. They feel the mosque is the centre of criminals and criminal activity in their community.
Crime, they say, has destroyed Carapo.
But Ali explained that crime has always been a problem.
“The area has always had crime. They not fair. There are individuals among us who would do a thing or two behind your back and we hold them accountable for it once we find out. We don’t always find out,” he said.
Sunday Express: “So you’re running your own justice system here?”
Hassan Ali: “Be careful about running my own justice system because it is the truth but it will be taken out of context.
Sunday Express: “What would you call it?”
Hassan Ali: “That’s what you call it but I have to be careful saying it.”
He elaborated: “If you’re a habitual break-in thief and I talk to you once, two or three times I will give you strokes. If somebody come and tell me about this brother needs to investigate and we know is you, I will give you strokes. I will not force you to take it. We have never forced anybody to do that. They take it because they love the feeling of family. You understand what am saying?”
During the interview, a white mini-van pulled up with children. Ali explained that they are the children of his followers but they are sent weekly to a boarding school named Madrasa in Barrackpore.
This, he said, is done to keep them away from the environment.
The Sunday Express challenged Ali on whether the media had gotten it entirely wrong about him, the masjid and the entire area?
“I want to be fair. I want to be fair. They have,” he answered.
In explanation he said: “You can’t blame us for everything in Arima and environs. I don’t support no pushing of no drugs. You can’t do that here. Everybody here could build, labourers that kind of thing. So much so that if you have a drug block across there, it means you can buy a weapon or two, I will have to run you from there. You have a drug block there and I see you and the police good and I see you getting power. Power means you’re starting to rent or buy cars. You will have ammunition. I hear you fire one shot. I had to go and tell you I don’t want that around here. Only because I will get the blame. The community will get the blame.”
He said it has happened before which has given birth to his reputation as a militant.
“They see me as a militant and yes I am but I don’t really have to fight this society,” he said.
Sunday Express: “Militant in what way?’
Hassan Ali: “Well as in will take up arms against the state? Or would want to have arms? I really should because the police don’t protect and serve me. I am telling you the truth. We’re talking. I should. Because my son was killed. I dare to go and reason conflicts between the people on the ground. When a shooting takes place between so-called elements they like to call gang members…I have to be concerned.”
Sunday Express: “Should the public be afraid of you?”
Hassan Ali: “ Me? If you’re evil, yes. If you’re evil, I will be in your face but then what will I do? I am not perfect. I will want to tell you the truth.”
Sunday Express: “Is this arm of the Jamaat a serious threat to national security?
Hassan Ali: “Garbage. Ludicrous. That is dangerous. The speculation and the rumours. We are here. Come and watch what we do.”
Sunday Express: “”You’re not accumulating arms to have another coup?”
Hassan Ali: “Coup to do what? It can’t be called a coup. I have no permission to talk about this but look at the cause (referring to the 1990 attempted coup). The people were provoked. If you push my head down in a bucket of water, I going to push away your hand. That is the same type of provocation which is taking place here on the conduct of some police officers.”
Sunday Express: “Do you have arms?”
Hassan Ali: “Yes these (and lifts his two arms). Nah.”
Sunday Express: “Do you have a gun licence?”
Hassan Ali: “Me, I should have a gun. I should have one. I too bogged down with domestic activities to do that.”
At the masjid, he explained that the group is “learning how to come to order around here. We aren’t there yet.”
—To be continued