"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
May 27, 2014
Witness for Truth: Tito Momen's My Name Used to be Muhammed
by Imo Eshiet

The book literally fell into my hands. After sacrament meeting two Sundays ago, a ward member friend visited and handed it to me. It was a gift to me from someone he had met in Utah. Since I had never met this person I decided I would reward the goodwill by reading the book cover to cover.

In between the remaining two meetings, it was all I could do to contain my curiosity about the book. Soon as I started thumbing through it, I found myself connecting inexorably with the powerful resonances chiming on every page of the narrative.

I share the same nationality and faith with its author, and at a different connect, some of his experiences. Much of the action, characters and setting of the story take place in Nigeria. It is a part of Nigeria frozen in strong unreasonable conventions. In this part of the country anyone who does not hold the same religious beliefs with the rest is exposed to extremes of intolerance and violence.

An as-told-to story narrated by Tito Momen and written by Jeff Benedict, the book ought to be a good resource for understanding how such terror groups like the Northern Nigerian Boko Haram are inspired by years of concerted religious brainwashing. The book exposes how Islamic fundamentalists enforce their worldview by indoctrination and physical assault.

It is a story of bigotry and witch-hunt. It is the story of the humiliation of womanhood in a space loaded with male prejudice, injustice, inequality, and hate. It is also a story of faith, persecution, endurance, love, betrayal and forgiveness.

Woven into its tapestry is a journey motif, a search for truth, but unknown to the narrator every bit of his harrowing experience is a step from dim light to greater illumination.

It is therefore a story of how the true God works in mysterious ways to proclaim his light and truth. It is a story of His enduring mercy and presence in the lives of those who sincerely seek Him. It is the story of the clash of cultures and of visions.

In this narrative we find the plan of happiness breaking through formidable walls in unexpected ways and fulfilling the prophecy that in this dispensation the restored gospel shall be heard by every nation, tongue and kindred.

Like its expansive themes, the setting is so wide-ranging it spans West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

The story begins in a poorly lighted and constricting room in a dusty and arid Nguru town in Northern Nigeria. The furnishing is austere: “A single bulb at the end of an electrical cable dangling from a ceiling illuminated the concrete floor and the scarce furniture in my room: a crude wooden wardrobe and a rickety wooden chair under a matching table with a kerosene lamp and a Qur’an on it.”

This awkward but tellingly dramatic setting succinctly foreshadows the ingrained stiffness and nastiness of the way of life played out in the narrative. Coming early in the story, it prepares the reader against the shocking, hard, and narrow life in which the young narrator is raised and against which he rebels.

The controlling metaphor in the story is the market scene where bee sting causes a stampede leading to the death of several humans and animals. In this market the only shade from the desert sun is a big tree where bees are nesting. Men and animals take shelter under this tree.

A perfume hawker lets customers try out his ware here. The fragrance provokes a ghastly bee attack and the market is thrown into tumult. The correlation is obvious. A religion that adherents claim stands for peace on the surface actually wins over converts by coercion, terror and brutality.

At age five, the narrator is routinely yanked out of bed by an abusive father early at dawn for morning worship at the local mosque. He is anointed “the chosen one” by his polygamous father to become an Islamic scholar and cleric, much to the jealousy of his older half brethren.

At six he is compelled to copy by hand and to memorize the entire Qu’ran. He’s robbed of his childhood, for to play is to be distracted by “the evil one.” For drawing images that the young narrator is quite gifted at doing, he is beaten blue-black by his hardly-at-home businessman father. The mother backhands him just as frequently. For attending a movie, he faces a “tribunal.”

His 14-year-old sister is married off to a man she had never met and who is more than twice her age. For all these excesses, the young man begins to secretly resent the father.

Against the mother’s counsel he is sent to Syria to study to become an Islamic cleric. At a stopover in Egypt, he notices and is repulsed by the hypocrisy and inconsistency in the practice of Islam. In Syria, he is again beaten up by his instructor for attending a movie. He returns the favor and is expelled from school.

Back home the sorely traumatized boy is considered such a disappointment that he narrowly escapes being murdered by the father for bringing family honor into disrepute.

He is again sent off, this time to Egypt to complete his Islamic studies. Here his revulsion at the inflexible lifestyle and religion chosen for him by his father comes full cycle. Far from the domineering influence of the father, he begins to embrace the Western life considered evil by devotees of Islam.

He drinks, smokes, spruces his wardrobe with Western shirts and pants, and worse becomes a DJ at a clubhouse. He keeps a journal that he foolishly turns in to his dissertation supervisor. This, along with his betrayal by a girl he had loved, leads once again to another expulsion from school.

Meanwhile, noticing a profound change in the life of a friend who was a regular customer at the club he served as DJ, he becomes curious and desires to know more about the wholesome development. This introduces him to Mormonism, which his friend had embraced. The new association opens his eyes to the lies he had lived since childhood and he seeks a belonging to the Church.

After surmounting legal obstacles to his baptism to his new faith, he eventual becomes a member of the Church. His conversion makes him the target of virulent persecution. He goes underground for a while before some friends help him to acquire a new identity and smuggle him out of Egypt.

He leaves for Spain, but is betrayed so that the immigrations there repatriate him back to Egypt where he is falsely charged for drug smuggling and jailed for life. In Nigeria his father on hearing about the son’s rejection of Islam renounces him and the mother commits suicide.

In prison he is tortured by fundamentalists and perverts, but his faith endures though his health breaks down. He tries to reach members of his new faith but is frustrated because his letters never get to them since they had moved from the last address he knew.

Eventually he re-establishes contact with his new friends, who rally to his support. He is also reached by Church headquarters and his faith is bolstered. Eventually this modern day Job receives reprieve. Before he is set free a judge asks him if he had to live his life all over again if he would make the same decision that led to his imprisonment. The judge is stumped when he answers in the affirmative.

The judge, however, sets him free on the condition that le leaves Egypt that same day. His friends are able to get him out to Egypt, where members of the Church help to rehabilitate him. In Ghana, he hears his father is dying and he visits home where the old man on his deathbed is not only reconciled to the son but accepts the son’s new faith as well.

Though it ends abruptly, the narrative is spellbinding and models the spiritual strength needed to endure life to the end. It comments on the strength of character that trials confer on those who look to the Savior with an eye single to His glory.

In the words of its narrator, the narrative shed(s) light on the suffering of “countless … victims of religious persecution.” For those who take the freedom of expression and of worship for granted, this story would cause them to truly appreciate the liberty they enjoy.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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