• Robbie Maestracci features in the new SBS documentary series 'The Mosque Next Door'. (Image: SBS)
Robbie Maestracci gave up a life of crime when he converted to Islam five years ago. He shares his story with SBS.
By
Robbie Maestracci, Presented by
Nicola Heath

27 Oct 2017 - 1:32 PM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2017 - 9:40 AM

I was born in Brisbane in 1981. When I was seven we moved to America. My parents had split up and dad was running hotels in Noumea and New Caledonia. Mum had some friends in the States and we went over for a vacation. She found work and one year led to two, and she eventually got remarried.

We lived between New York and New Jersey. It was amazing – like what you see on TV. The kids were all running amok. It was a lot of fun, but the wrong kind of fun.

Religion was part of my life growing up. I can remember mum encouraging me to pray when I was a boy. She used to take me to church – sometimes we’d go to a Catholic church, sometimes we’d go to a Pentecostal. But as soon as I was old enough not to go, I didn’t. I can’t recall praying or thinking about anything beyond the here and now as a young man.

Religion was part of my life growing up. I can remember mum encouraging me to pray when I was a boy.

We moved back to Australia when I was 16. Mum didn’t say so at the time but I think part of the reason we came back was me. I was on the wrong path with the kids I was hanging around. Mum told me we were coming here to Australia for a vacation. It turns out it was a one-way ticket but she figured that was the only way to get me out of there.

"I was lost, I was doing bad things."

I moped around for a few years. I was really depressed because I wanted to go back to the States with my friends. I tried to go to school here but the system was completely different. Within six months of enrolling I dropped out.

I got a job doing door-to-door marketing – the sort of thing you jump into after school with no experience. Later I worked at a bank and at Centrelink – they were good jobs. But recreational drug use was always in the background. I’d go out and party on the weekends. The thing about that is, from what I’ve observed, recreational drugs stay in the background until something happens in your life, and they don’t become so recreational or occasional any more.

That’s what happened with me. I was married young at 22. I was using drugs throughout my marriage and when my marriage ended, I went into a nosedive. I’d felt like I’d failed at conventional life. I didn’t deal with it well and I turned to drugs and crime.

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It was a bad time. I was lost, I was doing bad things. I was a typical crim, involved in anything that was drug-related. I wasn’t living a good life. I wasn’t happy with myself.

In 2007, I was sentenced to 10 months in prison for drug-related offences. To be honest, it was really good for me at the time. I wasn’t very healthy at all. I was staying up for two or three nights at a time, sometimes more, partying and not eating well, so when I got locked up it was good to have food and sleep and get healthy again. Jail opened my eyes. It wasn’t anywhere as bad as I thought it would be, but it’s not a goal you set yourself to end up there. It’s not a wonderful place or anything.

When I got out, I got straight back into it. I didn’t even pause. There wasn’t even a moment that I wasn’t running amok, doing the same things with the same people.

Changing old habits

But somewhere along the way, doing all these bad things, I became more interested in my spiritual self – who I was as a person and my character. I realised I had become the worst version of myself.

I started changing old habits, being honest with myself and other people. I started going to a Baptist church down on the Gold Coast and got involved in feeding needy people in the area. We’d cook up a lunch on Thursdays. Doing things like that made me realise that it wasn’t that hard to change – I could change.

It felt good to surround myself with nice religious people who were doing good things, as opposed to [the] people [I knew] with no religion who were doing really bad things to each other – selling drugs, or harming each other for drugs or money. It was light compared to total darkness.

Somewhere along the way, doing all these bad things, I became more interested in my spiritual self – who I was as a person and my character.

I believed in God but theologically I didn’t feel satisfied with Christianity. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to read the Koran and to go to a mosque. One day, when I was having a really bad day, I felt like I needed to reach out to someone. I found a phone number for a cab driver named Mohammed who I’d met a couple of weeks earlier. I called him and asked if I could go to the mosque with him. He asked me why, and I said, ‘Look, I need guidance, I need help’, so he picked me up and took me there that evening. And that was it. I spoke with one of the imams and I watched the brothers pray and had this total feeling of serenity within myself. It was that feeling of coming home, of belonging.

"It changed my entire life."

I gave my Shahādah, the testament of faith, that night, and everything changed. I no longer had this desire to use drugs, and I’ve been clean now for five years. It changed my entire life. It gave me the means and the rules and the path to follow to achieve what I’d set out to achieve a year before I converted, which was to strive to become the best version of myself. When you’re doing that on your own with no rules to follow, it can be a tough process.

Part of the appeal of Islam was the strength of character of the Muslim people that I’d met. The fact that they didn’t use drugs and drink at all was something that really appealed to me. It was the polar opposite of how I’d been living my life and seemed to require such strength of character. As a young man, I was always drawn towards strength.

It was not just a good system [for me] to follow. I agree with all the theology – I do believe that the Koran is the last Book of Revelations. I now have a renewed interest in the Bible and the books that came before it because, from our point of view, I know that there is truth in these documents, whereas before, as a loose Christian, I don’t know that I had any belief in them at all.

I’d say 99 per cent of the people in my life were supportive and happy. No one thought I could change. Whether they agree with the theology or not, they are certainly happy with the results it had in my life.

Three months after I converted my mum converted as well. She has been a massive supporter of anything positive I do in my life but in this instance, she also believes as I believe, and therefore she practices as I do.

Four years ago, I moved from the Gold Coast to Brisbane. Slacks Creek is my local mosque but I used to spend a lot of time at the mosque at Holland Park. I learnt a lot from the imam there. It’s the same as most mosques, everyone’s supportive of each other and friendly.

The good with the bad

I’ve been called a terrorist. It’s like water off a duck’s back for me, but if it’s directed at someone who I’d consider vulnerable, it makes me angry. It amuses me in a way – I’m a blue-eyed Aussie bloke with a Southern Cross tattoo, and to be discriminated against for the first time in my life is an interesting feeling. It’s a weird feeling to have someone hate you, not because of anything you’ve done to them, or anything about you, other than what you believe. They hate you without knowing you.

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I now work in community outreach. I literally reach out and look for people who need help in the community. Rather than sitting back and saying ‘If you need something, call us’, I tend to go out and speak to people and let them know what I do and offer my help.

Predominately, it’s kids with legal issues – giving them advice about how to get a solicitor or encouraging them to follow their bail conditions so they don’t re-offend and end up in jail.

At the end of the day, we don’t want our young brothers occupying the correctional centres. We want them to live good lives. 

The Mosque Next Door begins Wednesday 8 November, 8.40pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand

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