By Khaled Diab
If you are or look like a Muslim or Arab, whatever you do, do not read, sweat or speak Arabic when flying.
Tuesday 30 August 2016
Choosing what to read on a flight is always a dilemma. Too short and you're left kicking your heels. Too complicated and you may not be able to focus.
However, if you happen to be a Muslim or an Arab, or to look like one, you also need to factor in the potential alarm or panic your fellow passengers or crew might experience upon catching sight of your choice of reading material.
This is what Brit Faizah Shaheen discovered to her chagrin. Upon returning to the UK from her honeymoon, she was detained by police who interrogated her about the book she had been reading on her outbound flight, which a crew member had reported as “suspicious”.
And what was the terrifying book in which Shaheen was immersed? Was it perhaps The Management of Savagery, which guides ISIS's butchery and barbarity? Maybe it was Sayyid Qutb's takfiri classics in which he reinvents the concept of Islamic holy war to make it offensive rather than defensive, a sort of Jihad Unbound?
Nope, it was a book, in English, about Syrian art. What exactly the flight attendant found suspicious about this title is unclear. Perhaps (s)he suspected that Shaheen had turned terrorism into a fine art. It is possible that (s)he believed this was the latest cunning Islamist plot to destroy the West: by artistically deconstructing it.
Unsurprisingly, Shaheen has decided to throw the book – legally – at the airline and the police (I may have been tempted to throw it physically). “The whole experience left me feeling disappointed and angry,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian.
Ironically, Shaheen, who appears to be secular and as far away from a radical jihadist as it is possible to be, is a psychotherapist with the NHS. Her job is to help prevent the radicalisation of British Muslims with mental health issues, something that is likely to put a price on her head in terrorist circles.
If someone like Shaheen can be detained for nothing more than the religion she wears lightly, imagine what life must be like for conservative Muslim travellers who are guilty of nothing beyond being pious.
And Shaheen's story is not an isolated one. Caught between Donald Trump and other far-right demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic, on the one hand, and jihadist terrorists, on the other, not to mention the increasingly shrill and hysterical public discourse, the past couple of years have seen a huge spike in ludicrous and distressful incidents – a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘flying while Muslim'.
Flying for Arabs and Muslims is certainly no amusement park – literally for the British Muslim family which lost $13,340 in missed flights when they were detained on their way to DisneyLand.
Perceived offences for detention, interrogation and ejection from flights include speaking or texting in Arabic, using the word “Allah” while sweating, being nervous, complaining about being thirsty, or somehow vaguely making someone else feel unsafe. That is my personal favourite. Being a tall brown guy with a stubble/beard, I run the risk when I fly of being kicked off my flight because I make some bigot's heart race a little faster.
Beards too can be a hair-raising – or razing – experience. Even non-Muslim hipsters with beards have fallen victim to this kind of hair-ism, as have non-Muslim economists practising the terrifying ancient Muslim art of Algebra. After a fellow passenger allegedly deemed he looked “Arabic [sic] and scary”, Mark French was ordered to shave his stubble or not be allowed to board the flight.
Similarly, a Pole of Armenian origin, i.e. a Christian, was barred twice from boarding a flight after a woman complained that he “looked like a terrorist” – whatever that means.
We must bear in mind that such ludicrous incidents are still relatively rare, and that is why they capture headlines. However, they appear to be increasing in frequency, as are the less sexy but more common security and background checks, fuelled by mounting public apprehension and sweeping anti-terror legislation introduced in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Although greater vigilance was required, some governments exploited public fear to push overly draconian regulations.
And this kind of ethnic profiling and the farcical behaviour it engenders occurred regularly in the aftermath of the mass killing in America. I recall how, in 2003, I was interrogated at the US embassy in Brussels about whether I'd been a toddler soldier in Gadaffi's army, because of the accident of having been born in Tripoli while my parents were working there.
On arrival in Washington DC, I was taken to a dingy backroom where I spent hours waiting and divulging personal details I had long since forgotten and which I found to be an enormous intrusion on my privacy.
At Israel's Ben Gurion airport, traditionally the world capital of racial profiling, I have received some of the best “VIP” treatment I have ever known, including welcoming parties outside the plane, interrogations, long waits, special massages and the searching of the vehicles I come in at the airport perimeter – though the system has improved somewhat and become less intrusive recently.
However, times are a-changing and race- and religion-based paranoia is going global, with a number of Western countries following Israel's lead. A Palestinian-American friend of mine who is an international aid worker must now wait every time he enters the States until they've carried out a full background check, after having endured the highest security level, a six, in Tel Aviv, which involves the minute inspection of every item of baggage.
Naturally, it is in everyone's interest, including that of Muslims, who are disproportionately the victims of Islamist terrorism, to exercise vigilance. But there is a huge difference between being vigilant and being vigilante – and we are drifting perilously close to the latter.
Such discriminatory practices and social stigmatisation could also help push the emotionally vulnerable, who are preyed on by preachers of hate, into the hands of jihadist recruiters. “In my field of work, I recognise that some individuals have been made vulnerable due to factors such as a sense of injustice, peer pressure, negative media and a lack of a sense of belonging,” Shaheen pointed out in her Guardian piece. “Being victimised due to a mistake can have such a negative impact that it could lead to higher potential risk of radicalisation.”
And the prevention of radicalisation is far more effective than trying to cure it. That is why we need to tackle the Islamophobic narratives which tarnish and distort the image of peaceful Muslims, who make up the majority of the hundreds of millions who belong to this global faith, leading to public hysteria.
We also need to curb the excessive powers of security services and police, not grant them even more arbitrary leeway, because this hurts not only Muslims but is an invasion of everyone's privacy and right to dignity.
These are dark, frightening times we live in. However, paranoia and stigmatisation will not bring us to the light, but will only prolong the night.
This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 August 2016.