Interview with Victoria Trull of the ICT’s Prison Program

Victoria Trull, courtesy of the ICT

By Amer Taleb

Victoria Trull heads the Islamic Center of Tucson’s Prison Program. She’s also an immigration and criminal law attorney.

Give me an overview of the Prison Program?

There are two major parts to it. Number one is providing religious services to Muslim inmates across Arizona, it means a lot to them because so many have never had contact with a Muslim outside of prison. The 2nd part deals with helping them integrate into the Muslim community upon leaving prison.

What are the common fears of a prisoner?

Violence. It’s a horrible reality and they deal with an unbelievable amount of stress daily. Also, a lot of these guys are serving very long sentences, they’re separated from their families and when they do get out, it’s hard to live a normal life.

The Department of Corrections is punitive, not rehabilitative. So when you’ve served your time, they leave you on the side of the road and all they say is, “You’re done. Bye.”

What are the additional challenges prisoners face for being Muslim?

One prisoner wrote us saying that the prison is too dirty for him to pray in. So he gets on the ground, grabs something to clean with and excessively scrubs the area he wants to pray on. They also have a lot questions, but no one to answer them. One man asked us in his letter, “I’m Hispanic, can I be Muslim?” They just don’t know. Ramadan is another big challenge for them because many times a prison won’t accommodate them by letting them eat when they need to.

What do the prisoners ask for in their letters?

Religious advice or materials. A lot of times they just want to correspond with another Muslim. Their family relationships are already strained because they’re in prison. Add on top of that the fact that they’ve converted to Islam, and it can severely further that rift.

And Qurans. They ask a lot for Qurans.

How hard is it to get a Quran?

Very. If we just send it to them personally, without making them pay for it, the Quran will get confiscated. One of our main goals is to get more Qurans into the prison libraries and into the hands of chaplains, it’ll make accessing them much easier. Based on the letters we get asking for Qurans, I’m assuming not many masjids (mosques) around Arizona are sending them.

How do you help them once they’ve left prison?

Many have no identification, money or place to go. No family or friends, and they have a felony on their record. We have a few mentors to help them get accustomed and make a connection to the community. Hopefully it prevents a relapse.

How many prisoners do you work with?

60-75 since I got involved in the summer of 2011. Some will write us weekly, and others we only hear from once. Arizona is a prison state. The last number I was given was from November 2010, it said about 2,000 prisoners were registered as Muslims in the state.

Who’s a typical Muslim prisoner?

The majority of them are African American, and Islam is one of the fastest growing religions within the Arizona prison system. They have a huge need. Unfortunately, I was told that the Arizona Department of Corrections is not getting the assistance it needs from local mosques. A lot of the Muslim prisoners just sit in their cells all day, stuck wondering why their community forgot them.

How welcoming has Tucson’s Muslim community been to ex-prisoners?

Historically, the community has not been welcoming. Most ex-prisoners that have stuck around to tell me about it, say they don’t feel welcome at all. That’s why we’re trying to get volunteers to serve as mentors to help them get acclimated and feel like there’s something here for them.

What’s the cause of the unwelcome feelings?

I can only speculate. It could be because of racial bias’, cultural divides or the stigma of being an ex-felon.

How do you convince people to get to know an ex-prisoner and give them a second chance?

I tell them that this person is coming in saying “I’ve come to Islam, I’m a new person.” They need to be judged based on the responsibility they take for their past actions as well as their future intentions.

Let’s look at the Prophet Yusef. He was accused of rape, but would anyone of us say “We don’t want to be around him”? No. We can’t judge based solely on the past. If someone decides they want to be a Muslim and they come to the masjid and take the effort to be a better person, and perhaps give back to the community, like advising the youth not to repeat their mistakes, then Alhamdu Lilah (Thank God).

How can people help the Prison Program?

Everything from donating a book to money helps out a lot. Volunteering once a month would be huge. If not, we still appreciate the moral support. Just remember that every little bit helps, writing especially.

We’ll send the leader of a unit a copy of the Tucson Minaret, it’ll get passed around the entire unit and they’ll write back telling us what they thought of it. We get a lot of feedback.

Anything else you’d like to tell the Tucson Muslim community?

Please contact me if you have any questions. There’s a huge need and it’s our duty as a community to help other Muslims and people searching for Islam to offer them our support. These people are very needy. We don’t want them to relapse as they’re transitioning to Islam because they felt that the Muslim community rejected them. They’re not just a bunch of thugs and bad people.

Appreciate the fact that they’re reaching out to Allah and to us. We’re all human beings, and in an instant, you could be in the same position they’re trying so hard to escape.


Q&A with Ahmed Shehata, Team Leader of the ICT’s Membership Committee

By Amer Taleb

The Islamic Center of Tucson’s Membership Committee is comprised of 15 “youth”, it’s their job to process the applications of people who want to become members of the ICT. The membership drive started on March 7th and ends March 23rd. They accept applications 7 days a week, between Maghrib and Isha prayer, and on Friday’s after Jummua prayer as well. Team leader Ahmed Shehata gave us the details.

Tucson Minaret: What do people need to become a member of the ICT?

Ahmed Shehata: A state issued ID, proof of residency in Tucson and a $20 application fee. That’s all it takes.

TM: According to the ICT’s constitution, none of those are requirements. How can you enforce that?

AS: The proposal with the rules was handed down to us. We have no knowledge of what transpired to form the proposal. Our job is just to make sure that it’s implemented.

TM: Even if those requirements were in the constitution, this community is filled with hundreds of refugees that can’t comply with them. Can you comment on the wisdom of the rules?

AS: I can’t.

TM: If all you do is take orders, what’s the significance of having the “youth” run the drive?

AS: The logic was that the youth are not mired in all the political drama we have going on. The main reason was for their neutrality.

TM: How many people have you rejected because they didn’t have all the requirements?

AS: As far as I know, we have not rejected anybody. In some cases, we might not have been able to add someone immediately because they didn’t bring everything with them that they needed. Initially, we didn’t do a very good job of announcing what the requirements were. But we’re improving on that and now, I think most people now know what they need.

TM: Have any of the ICT’s board members tried to influence you?

AS: No. We’re completely independent from them.

TM: What happens after you turn in your application?

AS: You get a receipt and an application number so we can match your record with your receipt.

TM: Anything else?

AS: We didn’t do a very good job of getting the information out initially, but we’re learning along the way. Please sign up and encourage other people to do so. We hope to get good feedback from the community and help them in anyway we can.

Call the ICT at 520-624-3233.

Contact Amer Taleb at

Q&A with Ibrahim Yusuf Naseeb, Al-Faruuq Center of Tucson co-founder

 Newly opened Al-Faruuq Center of Tucson. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

Maybe the first of it’s kind locally, Al-Faruuq Center of Tucson just opened at 4460 East Pima.

Co-founder Ibrahim Yusuf Naseeb said the city’s Somali population is growing, but their connection to Somalia is fading. With an emphasis on Somali ‘culture’, Naseeb said the institution will help Tucson’s Somali children remember their roots to a country that’s been torn apart in a 20 year civil war.

Tucson Minaret: Why was the center opened?

Ibrahim Yusuf Naseeb: It’s a response to the needs of Tucson’s Somali community. Many of the refugee children come to Tucson and they forget Somali, now they only speak English. We want the kids to maintain their Somali language and culture. And by ‘culture’, I mean a certain way of learning. For example, there’s a specific way we teach the Quran. And in a few years Insha Allah (God willing) we’re expecting to have several hufaddh (person who’s memorized the entire Quran) coming from this center.

The center is also open to women, men and we’ll help them learn the Quran, Islamic Studies and gain an appreciation for who the Prophet Muhammad was.

TM: Doesn’t the Weekend School already do those things for children?

IN: Yes, but there are some big differences. The Weekend School is only open on Sunday, we’re going to have three days for the children. Another reason is that the Weekend School doesn’t have enough instructors to teach the children Somali.

I want to make this clear, we are an addition to the Weekend School, we are not competing with anyone. Besides, the goal for both schools is the same: We want to benefit the Muslim community and I hope both of us can work together.

TM: Give me an example to illustrate why the Somali community needs this center?

IN: One of the Somali elder’s told me he doesn’t even know al-fatiha (short chapter of Quran), and he can’t teach his children the Quran. It’s sad. He’s almost 50, and he doesn’t even know al-fatiha. In other parts of the U.S., cities are having problems with Somali gangs. We don’t need that in Tucson. We can prevent many of those problems with this center.

Inside the center. (Photo by Amer Taleb)

TM: Is the center open to everyone?

IN: The name says Al-Faruuq. If it was only for Somali’s, we’d call it the Somali Center. It’s open to everyone and we won’t only speak Somali. English, Arabic, Spanish – we welcome everybody.

TM: How many people do you expect to attend weekly?

IN: There’s roughly 6-700 Somali’s in Tucson. I think the majority of them will use the center at least once a week.

TM: Where did you get the money for the center?

IN: There are 4 people paying the monthly $1,000 rent out of pocket. Right now, we’re not getting any monetary donations. We just submitted the paperwork to the state to be a recognized non-profit, so we can’t accept donations yet. But eventually we’ll able to.

TM: How can people help you in the meantime?

IN: Again, we can’t accept monetary donations yet, but people can send a check for the rent directly to the owner. We also need volunteers, blackboards, Quran’s, notebooks, pencils….. we’re very happy to accept any type of support.

TM: Has the Islamic Center of Tucson been supporting you?

IN: They’ve been very supportive. They even paid the first month’s rent.

TM: When will the center be open and will you use it for Friday Prayers (Jummua)?

IN: We’re open 7 days a week. Monday and Tuesday for the women, Wednesday and Thursday for men and the rest of the week is for the children. And we won’t be using this place for Jummua. I’m against that. We want people to maintain a strong connection with the ICT. Al-farooq is only for memorizing Quran, Hadith and teaching people their religion.

MSA hosting Seerat Al-Rasul

Photo: Amro Hamed, vice president of the Muslim Students Association chapter at the University of Arizona. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

The Islamic Center of Tucson’s annual Seerat Al-Rasul event starts tonight at 6:30 p.m., the Muslim Students Association organized the program. Amro Hamed, the MSA’s vice president, gave us the details.

Tucson Minaret: What’s the point of Seerat Al-Rasul and what does the event consist of?

Amro Hamed: The term is Arabic and it’s a reference to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. We want people to know who the Prophet was, how he lived and learn more about Islam in the process. And it’s a good way for the community to get together. We’re going to have skits, nasheed (Islamic ‘music’), Quran recitations and a lecture from Dr. Scott Lucas. Should be a lot of fun.

TM: How many people are you expecting?

AH: 300-400.

TM: I’m sure all of them are wondering, what’s on the menu?

AH: Haha. A lot of good stuff. Rice, salad and the meat is zabeeha (animal slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines).

TM: Did you kill the cow?

AH: Yea, a lot of us did. We had to get the cow…

TM: Whoa…I’m sure the details are interesting but that’s for a whole different Q&A. Is there a specific audience you’re expecting to attend Seerat Al-Rasul?

AH: Well, the majority will probably be younger kids. But the event offers a lot and hopefully there’ll be a lot of diversity in the age groups.

TM: The program starts at 6:30 p.m., what time does it end?

AH: We don’t have a deadline. People can stay as long as they’d like.

TM: Last question, what part of the event are you looking forward to the most?

AH: Seeing the smiles on everybody’s faces, having the community get together and knowing that they had a good time and hopefully they learn a lot too.

A Conversation with Sameer Islam, MSA Da’wa coordinator

Sameer Islam, in black, speaks at a Muslim Students Association meeting last year. He is the group’s “Da’wa” coordinator, an Arabic term related to Islamic preaching. (Amer Taleb)

By Amer Taleb

Last fall, more than 20 Muslim students joined the University of Arizona’s Muslim Students Association. The UA-funded club connects the campus’ Muslim students, encourages them to improve their community and strengthens their Islamic identity. We spoke with Sameer Islam, a UA pharmacy graduate student and the club’s Da’wa coordinator (Islamic preaching), about the MSA’s fall 2011 experiences and their plans are for the spring.

Tucson Minaret: 3 words, describe the fall semester.

Sameer Islam: Challenging. Blessing. Successful.

TM: At the beginning of last year, some of your members were talking about disbanding the MSA because of a lack of involvement. You’ve come a long way.

SI: Alhamdulilah (Arabic for “praise be to God”), we coordinated Eid Al-Adha and the Eid picnic, held a few Da’wa tables on campus and our Tucson Meet Yourself booth was a success, someone even converted at the event. The student involvement this semester was tremendous and it says a lot about our commitment to boosting the Tucson Muslim community.

TM: How about the areas you need to improve on?

SI: Haha. There’s always room for improvement and Insha’Allah (God willing) we’ll be more consistent next semester. Although our unity was solid, I expect it to become even stronger. We’d also like to have more members, but even more important is getting people that are committed. We want active members.

TM: How much support did you get from the Islamic Center of Tucson and the Muslim community?

SI: A lot. It’s based on their feedback that I feel like we’re having a positive impact on the community and I hope we can continue to do that.

TM: How does the Muslim community benefit from supporting the MSA?

SI: We’re the future leaders of this community and their support is vital to our success. We’re an alternative to the negative things many of the Muslim youth are involved in. The MSA is part of this community, not a separate entity. I hope people see the MSA’s benefits and recognize what we can do with their support. We have so much potential.

Movies in the Masjid – Q&A with ICT President Jamil Anouti

Amer Taleb/Students in the expansion area

By Amer Taleb

The Islamic Center of Tucson recently began showing movies on Friday and Saturday nights after Isha Prayer. Jamil Anouti, ICT President, spoke about the purpose of showing the films.

What’s the purpose of showing movies in the Masjid?

To give the youth something to do on Friday and Saturday nights when there’s nothing to do in Tucson except party or club. We’re giving them a halal option to take their minds off of what’s going on out there. That expansion room is for students. I want to make it a student lounge, a place where they can always go. Having movies, discussion groups…it makes it feel like a safe place.

When are the films shown?

Friday and Saturday and I’m pushing for documentary Thursday. There’s a show called the Little Mosque on the Prairie that I want to show during the week.

How many movies have you shown?

Just the Star Wars trilogy as an icebreaker. We’re going to show Malcolm X, Inception, Rissalah and Islamic documentaries. During the pinnacle of Islamic civilization, arts flourished and I think we’re seeing a resurgence of that in the media. It’s important that kids know we have a tradition beyond what they think we have. There’s a great movie called Fordson and Insha Allah we want to screen that here.

You have everything from Inception to Rissalah, there doesn’t seem to be a focus on a genre. What are the requirements you have before showing a movie?

We see if it’s appropriate for the Masjid. It’s mainly PG and educational movies.

Do you expect attendance to pick up?

Absolutely. A lot of people told me they’d start coming. Success is even one person coming and avoiding something haram. These films are a preventative action. There’s so much haram out there, even something small like showing a movie gets friendships and bonds going between the Muslim community. This is just the stepping stone to the other projects I’d like to bring to the Masjid.

The ICT has a reputation of starting projects and not finishing them, how will you prevent that from happening here?

That’s one of the biggest reasons people don’t come, our reputation. Me being here, making it my personal project and not handing it off to anyone, I’m going to see it to the end Insha Allah. If it fails, it won’t because of lack of effort.

How can people contact you if they have suggestions or requests? We’re still taking requests from the community for what movies they want to see. We’d love to screen movies made by the youth and highlight the creative side of our community. With this new expansion room, there’s a lot of stuff we can do. If you know how to sew and you think we should be teaching that, we’ll help you set it up.

Anything else?

I always give an explanation as to why we’ve selected a film before we show it. I’ve gotten a lot of support from the community and I hope they continue to have faith in me. You can’t judge it if you never come, stop by and check it out for yourself.

Q&A with Dr. Scott Lucas, Acting Director in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.

By Amer Taleb

1. What religion, if any, did you follow before Islam? How and why did you decide to convert?

I grew up in a very liberal protestant environment. My journey to Islam is a long story. The short version would be that after studying some Arabic and being introduced to the Quran in college, I became really engaged. Then I studied in Yemen for a semester. I was there during Ramadan and it was the first time I had seen anything like what every Muslim knows Ramadan to be. The more I saw the more I realized I believed in the teachings of the Quran and Islam. I wanted something that would bring me closer to God and a way to express gratitude for everything I’ve been blessed with. After college I went back to Yemen a second time, was introduced to a wonderful teacher and the time was right for me to embrace Islam. Alhamdulilah.

2. Since 9/11 many Muslims Americans (or Western Muslims) have tried to distance themselves from Muslims around the world involved in wars and conflicts. People have found the need to identity themselves as “moderate.” What are your thoughts on that?

People referring to themselves as “moderate Muslims” is a reactionary response to the situation we live in. And sometimes a prudent one because the general assumption is that Muslims are extremists. Muslims have to put people at ease, I guess. I don’t know if that convinces people, it certainly sounds better than “extremist Muslim.” It’s a reaction to a very tense political climate.

As far distancing ourselves from Muslims killing civilians, there is no need for a debate on that issue. Islam is crystal clear on not harming, much less killing innocent people. Now, if all we do is condemn Muslims in public, that is not very helpful. Sometimes it seems like all we do is apologize. We need to focus on how we’re contributing to society and how we can continue to do that. We’re making tremendous contributions to America. But you never hear about them because we’re only invited to speak on the news when something bad happens.

3. How and where do you see the future of Islam in America?

I think it’s in Muslim institutions, not just mosques, being built in America. For lack of a better word, “seminaries” or somewhere where you can train imams. That is a massive problem that we have in this country. Very few imams have been trained to understand and handle America, which is not the easiest thing to deal with. If these institutions develop and more Muslims become trained imams, the future is actually very bright.

4. How can the Islamic Center of Tucson do more to help the Muslim’s in the state prison system? Would you like to tell them anything?

That is a challenge and to be honest, I wish I knew more about this situation. The least we can do is respond to their letters, and that is the bare minimum. I don’t know much about the how the ICT handles that, but ideally you’d have a group of people that could visit them and offer classes in the prisons regularly. I’d imagine it’s very difficult volunteer work so you definitely need committed people.

There are a fair number of brothers and sisters behind bars that are not getting the type of outreach and support they deserve. I don’t know if we can pay someone to handle that, but generally it’s easier to hold people accountable when you pay them.

If they’re reading this, I’d like to tell them that Insha Allah we’ll get our act together. The worst thing about promises is when they don’t get fulfilled. The weakest form of faith is feeling it in your heart, so we should all at least do that. I guess we have a sister who’s taking the initiative (Victoria Trull), but the community in general is not meeting their responsibilities, me included. Many people are aware of that and some of use are even ashamed, and we should be. Maybe by you asking me that question, we’ll get more people involved to help. After I read Jamil’s interview, I almost wanted to start doing stuff again.

5. What’s your opinion about voicing criticisms and concerns over Facebook?

There’s a rich tradition of criticism in Islam, it’s not some Western innovation. In Islam, there’s been ruthless and polite criticism and I tend to prefer the polite kind. If there’s no criticism, nothing changes and nothing gets better. But if it’s ruthless, that can sometimes make the situation worse. There has to be a place where people can voice their opinions and feel like they have a say in solving problems. Yelling, making a scene or writing in ALL-CAPS is not productive. There has to be some form of communication between the elders and the young folk. Facebook is definitely better than the angry bulk emails I used to get. As long as it’s constructive and respectful, there is nothing wrong with voicing criticism on Facebook. Offering actual solutions is helpful too. It’s easy to point out problems, but coming up with answers is extremely valuable and what we need.

6. What would you like to see happen during Ramadan in the ICT?

It’s a beautiful time because there’s so many people in the Masjid.  I hope we can put our differences behind us for at least this month, remember that we’re all in the same religion together and be extra polite. If we can have good adab (manners, etiquette) for this month, maybe we can carry it over for the rest of the year as well.