The perils of ‘flying while Muslim’

Homa Khaleeli

ON March 26 this year, Hasan Aldewachi was on his way back from a science conference in Vienna, and looking forward to seeing his family. As he took his seat on the flight to Gatwick, he sent his wife a text message to let her know the plane was delayed. A woman sitting across the aisle got up and left her seat. Moments later the police arrived. The Iraqi-born Sheffield Hallam student was asked to leave the plane and held for four hours. After his phone was confiscated, he was left at the airport with no onward ticket or refund. The reason? His message was in Arabic.
Aldewachi’s story is just one example of the dangers of what has become known as “flying while Muslim”; the tongue-in-cheek term for the discrimination many Muslim passengers feel they have faced at airports since 9/11. It can range from extra questions from airport staff, to formal searches by police, to secondary security screenings and visa problems when visiting America. Sometimes it feels like every Muslim has a tale to tell.
Two weeks ago, a Muslim couple celebrating their wedding anniversary were removed from a flight from France to the US. A crew member allegedly complained that Nazia Ali, 34, who wears a headscarf, was using her phone, and her husband Faisal was sweating. The flight attendant allegedly also complained that the couple used the word “Allah”. The airline in question subsequently said it was “deeply committed to treating all of our customers with respect”. Other examples this summer include NHS mental-health worker Faizah Shaheen who was on her way back from her honeymoon when she was detained and questioned by police under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. Cabin crew on her outbound flight said they had spotted her reading a book about Syria. Shaheen said she was left in tears by the experience. Thomson airlines said: “Our crew are trained to report any concerns they may have as a precaution.”
The stories that hit the headlines are often those similar to Aldewachi’s or Shaheen’s – where normal behaviour by Muslim passengers is seen as suspicious. More prevalent, but less reported, are the day-to-day stories of innocent passengers who feel they are under suspicion solely because of their religion. Equality and civil liberties groups warn that the net is now being thrown so wide that it is stigmatising and alienating thousands of Muslims. This, many argue, could make our time in air less safe by sowing seeds of division.
Aldewachi, who has lived in the UK since 2010, is still shaken by his experience. “Everyone was looking at me and assuming I had done something wrong. This is not vigilance. This is stereotyping,” he says. He has received no apology from the Austrian police – and says that apart from being told that a female passenger had reported seeing “something related to Isis” – he was given no further explanation. The biomedical scientist finally received an apology and refund from easyJet after his story was reported in a newspaper. When I asked family and friends for their experiences of “flying while Muslim” the stories came thick and fast. A friend recounted being prevented from boarding and questioned by security officials. A Guardian editor was stopped and questioned four out of the seven times he travelled to the US, including being asked about attending training camps in the Middle East. A relative of mine, who lives in UK, and has both US and UK passports, is stopped on “80% of my trips to, or within, the US – and I travel there about five or six times a year”.
Hugh Handeyside, from the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], explains that repeatedly having “SSSS” (secondary security screening selection) printed on your boarding pass is a “strong indication” your name has made it to a subset of the US government’s sprawling terrorism watchlist. Sometimes it is enough to have a name similar to someone who is on the list. Campaigners say few Muslims are willing to complain officially about their treatment at airports. The stigma of being accused of being a terrorist, even if the accusations are unwarranted, can be enough to silence many. Others fear a backlash from the authorities.
One politician trying to discover the scale of the problem is the MP Stella Creasy. She has been asking questions about US Homeland Security issues after a family of 11 from her Walthamstow constituency were stopped at the airport as they made their way to Disneyland. The family lost $13,340 by missing their flights, which they were told would not be refunded. The trauma is, of course, impossible to quantify. “Their Esta visa was revoked. The kids were crying. They had to give back everything they had bought from duty free – it was horrible. Why not tell them before they get to the airport?”
Philip Baum, author of Violence in the Skies, says racial profiling is unhelpful, but says there should be more behavioural analysis at airports than we have currently. “Even if an attack is being carried out under ISIS or al-Qaeda that doesn’t mean it will be someone carrying it out who ‘looks’ Muslim. The classic case was the Anne Marie Murphy case in 1986, who was stopped from boarding a flight to Tel Aviv – of 1986. She was white, female and pregnant – not a stereotypical image of a terrorist.” Murphy was found to be unwittingly carrying explosives in her luggage – placed there by her Jordanian fiancé, Nezar Hindawi, who was jailed for 45 years.
Baum suggests that the widespread belief that Muslims will be targeted could in turn change their behaviour. “There is a lot of paranoia and sometimes people can be affected by that – they act suspiciously because they think they will be picked on.” While the fear of terrorism at airports means that many people are willing to put up with more intrusive security procedures, the discriminatory experiences at airports that many Muslims recount risks creating divisions and resentment. For Bonino the consequences are clear. “Grievance based jihadi propaganda can use things like this. When you want Muslims to work with the authorities to counter violent extremism on the ground, it’s not helpful for people to think they are targeted by authorities themselves.” — Courtesy: The Guardian

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