Doncaster (South Yorkshire, England): A British Muslim, who works at the National Health Service (NHS), was detained at a UK airport and questioned under terror laws after a cabin crew member at Thomson Airways spotted her reading a Syrian culture book on board, according to media reports.
Faizah Shaheen, the victim of yet another Islamophobia incident, works at the NHS in Leeds to help prevent teenage mental health patients from becoming radicalized. She was returning after honeymoon in Marmaris, Turkey, when she was stopped by South Yorkshire Police at Doncaster airport on 25 July.
She was pulled over because a Thomson Airways crew member on her outbound flight a fortnight earlier had reported her for suspicious behaviour.
“I was asked what I do. I told them I work as a child and adolescent mental health services practitioner for the NHS,” said the 27-year-old.
“Ironically, part of my job is working on anti-radicalization and assessing vulnerable young people with mental health problems are at risk of being radicalized. I said that to the police. I’m actually part of trying to fight radicalization and breaking the stereotypes,” she added.
Narrating the incident, she said, “I was completely innocent I was made to feel like a culprit. I was queuing at passport control and saw police staring at me. I just got through passport control and then two police officers approached me and took me aside and asked me to show my passport again.”
“I asked what was going on and they said I had been reported due to a book I was reading and was to be questioned under the Terrorism Act. I became very angry and upset,” she continued.
“I couldn’t understand how reading a book could cause people to suspect me like this. I told the police that I didn’t think it was right or acceptable", she said.
Shaheen was given an information leaflet explaining that Schedule 7 legislation is used by police to determine whether a person appears to be or has been involved in terrorism. Police officers questioned her for 15 minutes.
“It was a very hurtful experience to go through. I fight for different causes and then to be victimized and experience this first-hand and made me realize how bad it is. Instead of reminiscing about our honeymoon, I am left talking about this experience. I do question if whether it would be different if it was someone who wasn’t Muslim,” she said.
The book that Shaheen was reading, Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, by Malu Halasa is a collection of essays, short stories, poems, songs, cartoons and photographs from Syrian authors and artists. It has won an English PEN award.
Shaheen bought it after it was recommended to her at Bradford literature festival in May. She said she was left angry and in tears by the experience – and with a feeling she had been discriminated because of her faith. She said she now intends to make formal complaints against the police and Thomson Airways.
Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, said the airline had overreacted.
“In the current climate people are worried. But there is always a balance to be struck in circumstances of this kind. We want the public to report suspicious activity,” he said.
“Reasonable people would not regard reading a book on Syria on its own, without any other concerns, as warranting the questioning of an individual. Thomson Airways should accept that a mistake was made and apologize to the woman concerned. I am sure if they had done so there would have been a better understanding of the entire situation,” he added.
A Thomson Airways spokesperson said its crew are compelled to report any concerns as a precaution, but it understood Shaheen’s frustration.
The spokesperson said in a statement, “Our crew undergo general safety and security awareness training on a regular basis. As part of this, they are encouraged to be vigilant and share any information or questions with the relevant authorities",
"We appreciate that in this instance Shaheen may have felt that over caution had been exercised. However, like all airlines, our crew are trained to report any concerns they may have as a precaution", he added.