From Vigilance to Vigilantism: The Perils of Flying While Muslim

The increasing incidents of Muslims and Arabs – or even those who vaguely resemble them – being kicked off planes or reported to authorities for absurd reasons are signs of race- and religion-based paranoia gone global.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab
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Security at the German airport Cologne/Bonn's Terminal 1, May 30, 2016.
Security at the German airport Cologne/Bonn's Terminal 1, May 30, 2016.Credit: Marius Becker, AP
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

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 the crew might experience upon catching sight of your choice of reading material.

This is what a British Muslim woman, Faizah Shaheen, discovered to her chagrin upon returning to the U.K. from her honeymoon in Turkey. Police detained Shaheen under the country’s counter-terrorism laws and interrogated her about the book she had been reading on her outbound flight, which a crewmember had reported as “suspicious.”

What was the terrifying book Shaheen was immersed in? Was it “The Management of Savagery,” which guides ISIS 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 that the publisher describes as “a celebration of a people determined to reclaim their dignity, freedom and self-expression.” What exactly the flight attendant found suspicious about the book’s title, “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline,” 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 this week for the Guardian.

Ironically, Shaheen, who appears to be secular and as far from a radical jihadist as it is possible to be, is a psychotherapist with the U.K.’s National Health Service, and helps prevent the radicalization of British Muslims with mental health issues, something that might put a price on her head in terrorist circles.

If someone like Shaheen can be detained for nothing more than her presumed religious affiliation, which she wears lightly, in any case, imagine what life must be like for devout 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 similarly distressful incidents that, combined, have been dubbed “Flying while Muslim.”

One British family lost $13,340 in missed flights when they were detained for no apparent reason, with Homeland Security refusing to provide any explanations for why they were refused boarding their way to DisneyLand. Other perceived offenses 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 favorite.

Being a tall brown guy with a stubble/beard, I run the risk of being kicked off flights because I make some bigot’s heart beat a little faster. 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.

We must bear in mind that such absurd incidents remain the exception rather than the rule, and that is why they capture headlines. However, they appear to be increasing in frequency, fuelled by mounting public apprehension and sweeping anti-terror legislation introduced in the wake of the September 11, 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 behavior it engenders occurred regularly in the aftermath of the mass killing in America. I recall how, in 2003, I was interrogated at the U.S. embassy in Brussels about whether I’d been a toddler soldier in Gadhafi’s army — simply because I was born in Tripoli while my parents were working there.

But it didn’t end there. On arrival in Washington D.C., I was taken to a dingy back room where I spent hours waiting and divulging personal details I had long since forgotten and that I found to be an enormous invasion of my privacy.

At Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport, traditionally the world capital of racial profiling, I have received “VIP” treatment, including welcoming parties outside the plane, interrogations, long waits, special massages and searches of the vehicles that bring me to the airport – though I feel the system has improved, at least for me, 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 for a full background check every time he enters the States — and this is after having endured the highest security level in Tel Aviv, involving 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 vigilance and vigilantism – and we are drifting perilously close to the latter.

Such discriminatory practices and social stigmatization 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 recognize 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 victimized due to a mistake can have such a negative impact that it could lead to higher potential risk of radicalization.”

And the prevention of radicalization is far more effective than trying to cure it. That is why we urgently need to tackle the Islamophobic narratives that tarnish and distort the image of peaceful Muslims, who make up the majority of the hundreds of millions belonging to this global faith, and dampen the public hysteria.

We also need to curtail the excessive powers of security services and police, not grant them even more arbitrary leeway. This hurts not only Muslims; it is an invasion of everyone’s privacy and right to dignity.

Yes, these are dark, frightening times we live in — but paranoia and stigmatization will not bring us to the light.

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer living in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.”

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