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EasyJet kicks Muslims off flight for 'looking at phones'

Special Branch told the three siblings they were singled out because they were women who wore hijabs
Easyjet officials had escorted the three siblings off the plane by claiming there was a 'seat mix-up' (AFP)

Three British Muslims have claimed that they were hauled off a plane and questioned by Special Branch after a passenger told crew they were reading Arabic texts “related" to the Islamic State (IS) group on their phone. 

The three siblings, Maryam, Sakina, and Ali Dharas, all from London, told Middle East Eye on Tuesday that they were pulled off the Italy-bound plane from Stansted last week and questioned by operatives from the Special Branch, the counter-terrorism wing of Essex police, after a female passenger allegedly singled them out for reading Arabic text related to IS.

Two of the sisters wear a hijab, but neither them nor their brother speak Arabic, they told Middle East Eye.

Despite this, the Dhara siblings say they were surrounded by armed police guards and questioned for over an hour on the tarmac directly outside the plane about whether they were reading phrases saying “Allah-hu-akbar,” God is great in Arabic, or any “ISIS [IS] text”.

The EasyJet flight ended up being delayed by more than an hour following the complaint, although the siblings were eventually allowed to board.

Essex Police confirmed to MEE that they were contacted after "reports of concerns were made about the behaviour of three people who were looking at their mobile phones".

"Officers at the airport spoke to them and examined their phones with their consent," police said in a statement. "They were quickly able to establish that no offences had been committed and the women boarded their flight. We are satisfied the call was of good intent."

According to a Facebook status written by Maryam Dhara, the youngest of the three siblings, the three were questioned about what mosque they attended and whether they spoke English despite being British citizens.

Maryam, a gap year student, told MEE that security operatives asked her to show them her phone, including her recent WhatsApp conversations and her personal twitter feed.

“I showed the WhatsApp conversations I was having with my family and the timestamps of when the conversations took place,” Maryam told MEE, while stressing that the texts had nothing to do with Islam.

“Me and my dad had been having a WhatsApp conversation about which left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn resembles in terms of policies.”

Maryam also posted on Facebook on Monday that none of the siblings were “reading the Quran or any Arabic text on our phones”.

“The experience was just a shock and also concerning because since when was saying God is great tantamount to terrorism,” she wrote.

Prior to being taken off the plane, a hostess from EasyJet had told the siblings to leave their seat because of a “seat mix-up,” Maryam said.

“My brother had asked if only one of us can address the mix-up, but the hostess insisted that all three of us would [have to] get up.

“After this we were then escorted to the exit where we could see armed police waiting for us on the tarmac,” Maryam added.

During the interrogation, Maryam’s elder sister, Sakina, was taken aside and asked about her travel history, especially her visa stamps from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which Maryam claims she got while volunteering with orphaned Iraqi children who had lost their parents after the IS group swept through swathes of Iraq and Syria.  

After the interrogation, the sisters allege that Special Branch officers asked them both whether it was common to face discrimination in the UK because of their hijabs.

Maryam also told MEE that an EasyJet official told the siblings upon their return to the UK that the airline will not be making an official apology as the incident was “not the airline’s fault”. The Dhara siblings say that this is not enough and that they plan to boycott the low-cost British airline.

Easyjet in a statement to MEE confirmed that concerns were raised by a passenger during the boarding of a flight about three passengers boarding the plane. In its statement it said: 

"EasyJet can confirm that, following concerns raised by a passenger during the boarding of flight EZY3249 from London Stansted to Naples on 17 August 2016, a member of ground staff requested the assistance of the police who took the decision to talk to three passengers at the bottom of the aircraft steps, before departure."

The airline also said that "the police then confirmed to the Captain that the passengers were cleared to complete their journey and they reboarded the aircraft and the flight departed to Naples."  

It also "apologised for the inconvenience caused by the incident" and reiterated that the "safety and security of its passengers is its highest priority which means that if a security concern is raised we will always investigate it as a precautionary measure."

The incident is only the latest in a string of airline controversies surrounding Muslims who say they were falsely targeted and either stopped from boarding or ejected from planes.

A female Muslim NHS worker was detained and questioned at a UK airport under terror laws earlier this month after a cabin crew member spotted her reading a book on Syrian culture.

Described as the “flying under Muslim” phenomena, many Muslims took to social media to express their anger and frustration.

Incidences where Muslims have been asked to leave a flight range from having a beard to asking for a can of coke to “looking like a terrorist”.

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