Home   About   Contact Us  

Selma Cook

Accepting Islam

cerruBefore accepting Islam four years ago, Cerie Bullivant (now known as Kaleem), with family roots from Ireland, was working as a bar man in a night club. “I was party- oriented at that time of my life; just having fun and going out,” he remembers. Growing up in London’s East End, he found religion intellectually interesting but until he learned about Islam, he had not been motivated spiritually. In his early twenties he met a friend who had become a Muslim. They talked about religion and he was soon convinced of the comprehensive nature of Islam. He recalls, “For me, realizing that Islam was more than just a one-day-a-week religion was great. It was something that could develop a good character. I saw the mercy of Islam.”


Since becoming a Muslim many of his friends distanced themselves from him. He says, “Some of my old friends moved away from me; I didn’t move away from them. They couldn’t accept that we were friends but I wouldn’t be going down to the pub. They couldn’t see beyond the shallow aspects of what makes a person.” Bullivant’s openness and desire to help others, led him to make plans to travel abroad. This ended up being a major mistake. It was not too long until Bullivant came head to head with British authorities.


Plans to Travel Abroad

He recalls, “I was on my way to Syria to learn Arabic and help orphans. I’d heard that Syria is one of the best places to learn the language. I’d also been told that in Syria I could teach English and sustain myself financially but I never got there.” Making many allegations, police kept him in custody at Heathrow airport for nine hours. This set off a series of events that would last for the next two years. He was eventually put under control orders and even went to prison for some months before finally being acquitted. All that happened to him was based on suspicion.


The first time Bullivant and his friends were stopped they were questioned for about nine hours at Heathrow airport. He was told to go into another small room where someone from MI5 started asking him the same questions again. Bullivant was told that they had taken him and his friends away from the flight in order to protect them, as the Syrian authorities had said they were going to detain them. He further warned Bullivant that he should not travel anywhere that might be misconstrued. They asked why he was going to Syria when it was a well- known staging post for people going into Iraq. Bullivant explained that he was not going to fight but to learn Arabic. He then asked if there was a list of ‘do’s and don’ts countries’ and the officer just said he should use his common sense – hence, Bullivant chose Bangladesh. Wrong again!

“I was accused of being involved in terrorist activity. At that time, I was dressed like a regular guy and was even clean-shaven. What happened is that one of my Mum’s friends was drunk one night and phoned up an anonymous hotline and said that her friend’s son was going to travel and that she thinks there might be something behind it.” Based on the statement of a drunken woman, Bullivant felt the full weight of the anti-terrorism act and ended up on control orders that deeply affected his life. Until now, although he has been cleared of all charges, the evidence and allegations remain secret. “I can’t even see my file,” he says.

Despite the injustice and mistreatment from the British legal system, Bullivant remains optimistic and says he is still able to integrate into British society. “My mother always taught me to be accepting and Islam taught me not to let dislike for something make you be unjust.”


Bullivant sees Islam as a ‘live and let live religion’ but within bounds. “With all things there are limits. People have spat on me when I was walking down the street, especially when I came out of prison. They recognized me from the newspapers and television and had made up their minds about me. But I was able to move past all this. However, if I saw someone attacking a woman, I wouldn’t just let that go. There are limits. One of the beautiful things about Islam is that it protects everyone from oppression,” says Bullivant.


Why Control Order?            

British authorities took it for granted that Bullivant was a threat to national security. He was accused of being involved in Islamic extremist activity. The authorities also said that he was likely to go to Iraq because he was on his way to Syria. This was considered to be a staging post to carry out operations or fight coalition troops.


The fact that he was going to Syria to learn Arabic and get involved in charity work was not taken into consideration. He and a few other Muslims were immediately placed on a control order. Bullivant recalls, “At first, I thought the authorities would find out that there isn’t any problem and that I wasn’t going to do anything.” When he was finally given his passport back, nothing else was said, so he and some of his friends made plans to go to Bangladesh. His friend’s family owned an orphanage there and he decided to go and help out. “Unfortunately, security services assessed that I was entering Bangladesh as a way to get into Pakistan. They forgot that there is this land mass in between, called India!”

Ironically, Bullivant had chosen Bangladesh because he believed it was out of the way and would not be considered a known forwarding post. However, British authorities still insisted it was a staging post. He comments, “I think that by this stage, had I chosen to go to France, they would have said it was a staging post.”

Anti-Terrorism Act
The law that was used to detain Bullivant was Section 5 of the 2005 Terrorism Act. This act allows authorities to use secret evidence and to place virtually any restriction they want on the accused. At first, it is purely a rubber stamp by a judge and is based on vague reasonable grounds for suspicion that the individual may be involved in terrorism.

Bullivant believes that the control order he was under was one of the most relaxed. He comments, “I think that is because, at the time, my control order and the others with me were the first British citizens to be placed under such conditions. I also think that I was the first convert to Islam to be placed under a control order. The restrictions for me were signing in everyday at the police station, forced residence, admitting entry to police officers at any time, and no traveling, passports or documentation. Those restrictions lasted for about eight months at which point they added even more which included me not being able to work or be educated.” In his mid-twenties, this was a very difficult time of Bullivant’s life.

Bullivant believes that control orders are a good tool for the government because it means they can take away every single part of a person’s life one piece at a time. He comments, “It is just my mum and I – at first I couldn’t tell her about the order but when she did find out, the police would often search the house from top to bottom; at times the police would tell her blatant untruths about me based on so-called evidence they had. They trying to drive a wedge between us in the hope she may give up some information.”

Broken Marriage
Bullivant was married at the time. As soon as the authorities found this out they would search his wife’s house on a regular basis. They would go into the bedrooms while the sisters were not fully covered. He remembers, “My wife was originally born in Iraq and left there because of the oppression her family had faced. Then she was forced to leave the UK because of the exact same oppression. To be honest, that is one of the things that plays on my conscience the most, the fact that, because of me, because of this, her family and even her younger sisters who were in school and starting to get settled had to uproot their lives and start over again in a new country.”

Dropping Out of University
The control order also affected Bullivant’s education. “I was not able to continue with my nursing degree. They would not change my signing in times. These times were originally between 9am and 11am and I wanted them changed to the evening so that I could go to university and come back in the evening but they refused. That means I would have to get up in the morning, sign in at the police station and make my way to university which was on the other side of London at South Bank University. It forced me to be late on a number of occasions. When you are doing a nursing degree, punctuality is extremely important because if you are late for your shift, people may die.”

All this forced Bullivant to leave his course and all these pressures together contributed to him being under increasing strain. He says, “I lost a lot of weight and was not coping well mentally. Later the doctors said that it was a reactive depressive episode which I guess is what later led to me absconding.”

On the Run

In a state of depression, Bullivant could not see any future in Britain with the control orders and the life he was being forced to live. When the case went to the Old Bailey, one of the liaison officers said that he felt it would have been good for Bullivant to get a job, as the control order completely dominated his life. Bullivant recalls, “The irony is that I could not get a job without Home Office permission and I would have to find an employer who would not mind the Home Office calling him and asking if he knew I was a terrorist!” In one moment, there seemed to be an opportunity to escape, and Bullivant took it. It was not the best decision he had ever made, but it was a decision that should be considered within the context that it was taken.

Bullivant comments, “About five weeks after I absconded, I decided to return. In The beginning I had an anonymity order, so I was not expecting a big press reaction to my disappearance. The government however lifted the anonymity order without consulting my solicitors, and within a day I was one of the most wanted men in Britain! My friends and I were the lead item on both the 6 and 10 o’clock news and on the front page of every national newspaper. I could see on the news that the press had camped outside my mum’s front door and to be honest I was concerned about my mum’s health and I also realized that I was not solving the problem, only running away from it.”

By that time, the precedent had already been set. “The police had given up being nice a long time ago, especially SO15. When I came back it was exactly what I expected – long sessions of interviews. My solicitor helped me prepare a statement, and then I was sent to prison. Initially I was sent to Wandsworth and after that I was sent to Belmarsh,” says Bullivant.

Bullivant found that in Belmarsh, there are two sets of rules: the really strict rules which only apply to Muslims, and the relaxed rules which apply to everyone else. The clearest example of this was during the month of Ramadan. Bullivant and a friend were praying in a cell. Some officers came in and told the brother that Bullivant was praying with to get out saying that he was not allowed to be there. The brother who was leading the prayer continued reciting and ignored them. One of the large officers actually came into the cell to grab him but was held back by one of the other officers. The officers reported the two men for spending time in the same cell. Bullivant recalls, “…but the thing is that for non-Muslim prisoners, you would see seven or eight of them sitting together, smoking drugs and generally doing whatever they wanted but it was a problem for two Muslims to be praying together in the middle of their holy month.”

On Trial
Bullivant was tried on whether or not he was a terrorist and there was also a trial for absconding. The jury was asked to assess whether his absconding had been legitimate with a reasonable excuse or a criminal one. They were told that they had to accept that he was a terrorist because the control order itself was not allowed to be questioned. He entered the court room already branded as a terrorist and was not allowed to defend himself. He comments, “Thank God that we won an impossible case! I had previously spoken to my solicitor and asked him what my chances were, and he said that he really did not know what would happen. By the will of Allah, we won!”

However, when he was released, he was placed under an even stricter control order. Interestingly though, the High Court judge in his second case said clearly that it was foolish to place him under a stricter control order considering the reason he had run away in the first place. The judge commented, “Surely you are giving him a stronger excuse to run away next time!”

The next control order only lasted a few months because Bullivant and his lawyers managed to have it overturned in the High Court. Bullivant comments, “We were excluded from more than half the trial while they examined secret evidence behind closed doors. The government said it had secret evidence that I was involved in plots and they discussed this evidence for three days without my presence or that of my solicitor. Even after all that and two years of various types of detention, they could not prove that I was involved in any form of terrorist plot. They could not even prove reasonable grounds of suspicion which is a low threshold of proof.”

It became obvious to Bullivant that he was actually trying to prove his innocence, rather than the authorities trying to prove his guilt. Having been involved in the system for a long period of time, Bullivant found out a lot more about control orders and SIAC and how many cases there are. “There are people in prison on trial cases where the evidence is so flimsy or whimsical that it is unbelievable. For example they might say something like, we think that you knew about something that might take place before it happened, and that will be the extent of the evidence,” says Bullivant.

Guilty by Association
Nowadays, many people are considered guilty, simply because of association. Bullivant comments, “It shocks me that in our free and just society that we can have secret hearings and secret trials for people, some of whom have come to this country to escape injustice; now they face systems akin to those countries from which they escaped. We might not use physical torture ourselves but I saw cases of people in Belmarsh who had been tortured in countries abroad with the knowledge and approval of the British security services.”

Sadly, Bullivant believes that the government no longer has a high moral basis because of the way they are handling such cases. He comments, “The other day I went to pick up my mother from the airport as she had come back from holiday and as soon as I entered the airport the police came up to me and did a ‘random security check’. We were there for about two and half hours as the police searched us, searched our car, took swabs from the car, all under the Terrorism Act. They were with me when I went into the arrivals lounge to pick up my mum as she came through with her bags, so they saw that I had genuinely come to receive her with her friend. I am now being harassed everywhere I go.”

Final Comments
Bullivant is not the only person in the UK to be undergoing this kind of stress and injustice. He comments, “One thing I will say – although I am very happy about proving my innocence, there are so many people who are still going through this and they need help and support. We should try to help and support them. They are the most desperate people in our society.”





Muslims making
a Difference