On first meeting her, there appears to be nothing unusual about Sue Webster. She’s 37 years old, lives in Birmingham, England, teaches in a local secondary school and has a 2-year-old daughter, Hadiya. She attends Six Ways Baptist Church in Erdington and lives in a normal house in a normal street in the neighborhood.
But included in this routine is a daily phone call to her husband, who is in prison on the other side of the world.
Sue hasn’t seen her husband, Abdullah William Webster, a Muslim soldier in the U.S. Army, since he was sentenced by court martial to 14 months imprisonment last June. He was found guilty of failing to obey commands from his superior and missing his brigade’s movements.
And yet Sue and many others, including Amnesty International, maintain that his only crime has been to stand up for his religious beliefs.
“The reaction in the courtroom was sheer shock,” said Sue, “Given the complimentary remarks about his conduct, no one expected a sentence at all.”
She went through different emotions in a matter of minutes. “My feelings were just disbelief, which then translated into deep sorrow, betrayal, astonishment and finally, when I realized that this was the last time I was going to see my husband, it was anger.”
Abdullah served in the Army for 19 years, including stints in Bosnia and Korea. He registered a conscientious objection to participating in the war in Iraq, after consultation with Muslim scholars led him to the conclusion that this war was illegal.
He was advised by his superiors that this would be refused, on the grounds that he wasn’t objecting to all wars, but just this one, and so withdrew his application.
Later requests to be transferred to non-combative service, or even early retirement, were also refused.
When his unit was deployed to Iraq in February 2004, Abdullah felt he had no choice other than to refuse. Immediately after his sentence, Abdullah was held in the U.S. base in Mannheim, Germany.
He was moved in the third week in September to Fort Lewis in Washington, but Sue received no word from the Army. For nearly two months she heard nothing from or about him.
Sue could only guess whether he was dead or alive. “That was a very low period,” she says.
At the time the headlines were filled with the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. “I thought, ‘If that’s what’s happening to civilians, what’s going to happen to my husband who, effectively, signed any kind of civil rights away by being a soldier?’ It was horrific–your mind just ran away with you. It was the worst time.”
Since January, Sue and Hadiya have had a 20-minute phone call with Abdullah every day. Most of it is taken up by Hadiya. The phone rings while I am there and it becomes obvious why this is. “Daddy,” she says, clutching the oversized receiver with both hands, jumping up and down and beaming down the phone.
“She keeps him going, he ends every call by saying, ‘I’m one day closer to seeing you guys,'” says Sue. Sue usually takes the last few minutes of the call, and they talk about each other’s days. It’s every day chit-chat, often concerned with practicalities.
According to Sue, life for Abdullah is routine and dull. He gets up, eats, reads a lot of books–psychology and sociology mainly–and watches the occasional film with the other detainees.
Since Amnesty got involved, he has received many letters of support from people he has never met. One man from the Isle of Wight wrote to tell him how it was snowing where he was; another woman rang Sue to offer a place to stay in Washington when he is released.
“He can’t comprehend the generosity and support of people,” she says.
Even on release, which could be as soon as the first week in May on good behavior, life looks pretty bleak for Abdullah. As he has been dishonorably discharged from the Army he will have no pension, no home and limited chances of getting a job as he is a convicted felon.
And yet there is nothing which invites pity in the way Sue tells the story. She is stoical and matter of fact. Any residual anger she had has been channeled positively, and she’s turned into something of a political campaigner. She has spoken at a rally with Rose Gentle, the mother of British soldier Gordon Gentle, who was killed in Iraq, and is helping Abdullah to prepare his appeal hearing.
“I’ve said to him that I expect nothing less than a complete reversal of the sentence,” she says. “He’s had nearly 20 years of service, he was just over 12 months away from retirement, he offered to resign and they wouldn’t accept his resignation. I want an honorable discharge, as opposed to a dishonorable discharge, and immediate release, just so that he has a fighting chance then to settle down with his family.”
But it’s unlikely, she says. “The reality is that for pride reasons, [leaders of] his unit have a reputation to protect and so they show no mercy to what they basically consider to be a traitor.”
Sue is forthcoming and unapologetic with her views on the way Muslims in the Army are treated.
“I personally feel that there is a degree of anti-Muslim feeling within that organization,” she says. “I think there’s a degree of ignorance in terms of people not fully understanding what it means to be a Muslim.”
And similarly about the war in Iraq: “In a military family environment you start to see people not as numbers or soldiers but as somebody’s husband, son or grandson. You want that war to be worth it, because those same people that you develop an affection for may not come back. You can’t justify this war at all; it was based on a lie and that’s why I object to it so much.”
So how has she coped? For Sue, there is one answer only–Jesus Christ. “That’s been the only way to redress the natural feelings of anger, the natural feelings of despair and the natural feelings of hopelessness,” she says. “Having the Lord to lean on means that he literally lifts that heaviness from you. It’s so unfair, you just can’t believe that this could occur in the 21st century. The only thing you can do is to surrender it to God.”
This is a moving story, as good as any novel. It’s about war, about principles, about campaigning and about justice. It’s also a story about people, about a family divided, and about love. But above all, it’s a story about faith.
In the name of faith, Abdullah took a difficult decision with quite horrific consequences. Would he do it all again? Absolutely.
“He has no regrets, he felt that this was essentially a commandment from God and he couldn’t be swayed,” says Sue.
She says his faith has been strengthened through this experience. “If you have to make a decision between your faith and a secular job it strengthens you because you’ve chosen right, you’ve chosen God, or your perception of God.”
The fact that Sue and Abdullah are of different faiths–choices made before they were married–is not without its problems. But Sue says that her faith has been challenged by his conviction in a positive way.
“I really do admire him,” she says. “I learn a lot from him as a Christian. He really made me ask myself, ‘What would I be prepared to do for Christ?'”
Every day Sue gets up, goes to work, comes home, cooks for Hadiya and spends a few minutes speaking to her incarcerated husband on the phone. And amazingly she does it with a smile on her face.
“It’s through the grace of God,” she says. “I’m strong at any other time, except when I consider what the Lord has done for me. That’s when I well up.”
She quotes James 1:2-4 which says, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” For the Websters, it seems, there was never a truer word.
Ruth Dickinson in an intern for the Baptist Times in Didcot, England. This story appears in the current issue.