I asked Muslims what it's like to travel these days. Here's what they told me
I have lived in four countries on three continents, so needless to say I’ve done my fair share of flying. But the more I fly, the more I come to dread airports. And by dread, I mean the onset of acute anxiety for the entire 24 hours prior to my departure.
Rather than imagine how distressing the airport must be for a Muslim or Arab, I tweeted asking travellers to share their experiences
The airport experience has become as gut wrenching as a trip to the dentist, but unlike a root canal, there is no anesthesia to numb the emotional distress that comes when you traverse multiple security checkpoints and interrogative border control officials.
As soon as I step foot inside the terminal, my head swims with all kind of anxiety-inducing thoughts: from worrying there’s something in my luggage that shouldn’t be to imagining the Turkish prison scenes in the 1978 cinematic classic Midnight Express.
Yes, 99 percent of the distress I experience in an airport occurs entirely inside my own head. I’m a middle-aged white guy with a distinctively sounding European name accompanied with an Australian passport.
So I can only imagine how distressing and traumatic the airport experience must be for a Muslim or Arab whose name sounds like those who have carried out “jihadist” attacks in the West these past dozen or so years, and whose airport distress occurs mostly as a result of what is inside someone else’s head (airport security officials).
But rather than imagine the Muslim airport story, I posted a tweet thread asking for Muslim travellers to share their experiences. The thread read, “Dear Muslims, Do you change your behavior/dress/habits when traveling thru airports? If so, how?
"Do you feel stripped of your national identity, your Muslim identity put first by authorities? Any negative experiences you’ve had with airport authorities as a result of your actual or perceived Muslim identity?”
The replies ranged from making light of a bad situation to narrating the dark reality faced by nearly traveller with a Muslim-like appearance or sounding name
More than 400 Muslim Twitter users replied, each sharing their personal experiences and anecdotes. The replies ranged from making light of a bad situation to narrating the dark reality faced by nearly every traveller with a Muslim-like appearance or sounding name.
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Arizona, joked, “I try to uplift the flight attendants – with positive affirmations, like: “Great job on the Ann Coulter thing."
Hafsa Quraishi, a hijab-wearing student at Florida South University, recounted, “Once I was crying at the Italy airport and a huge group of police officers approached me and thought that I was about to set off a bomb, no lie.”
In a separate tweet, Quraishi said airport officials “put their hands inside my underwear at the Canada airport”. (In a direct message to the author, Quarishi clarified the Italy airport to be Rome, and the Canadian airport to be Toronto.)
'Selected every single time'
Many spoke to the idea of being treated as the “dangerous other,” mocking the idea they were “randomly selected” for extra security screening.
Nouri Sadar, a British Muslim filmmaker, said he’d been “randomly selected every single time for a second search” on every one of his 15 flights from London to the US. “Not sure what they expect to find,” he tweeted.
'I almost always wear a Princeton sweatshirt in airports. As a hijabi, I feel safer by aligning myself with a well-known institution'
- Sarah Qari, Pakistani-American journalist
Many more people who responded reported feeling constrained in how they can act and dress within the airport terminal. Muslim men reported shaving their beards before flying, and Muslim women reported removing their hijab until passing through security.
Several claimed to avoid speaking Arabic within earshot of fellow passengers or airport officials, while others said they try to hide their Muslim identity by intentionally dressing in a Western sympathetic manner.
“I almost always wear a Princeton sweatshirt in airports. As a hijabi, I feel safer by aligning myself with a well-known institution,” replied Sarah Qari, a Pakistani American journalist.
One University of Bath study into the policing of airport spaces and Muslim experiences found that British Muslim passengers experience distress the moment they enter the airport.
Once there, according to the study, they are categorised in terms of their Muslim identity only, which precludes and denies their national identity “as well as a range of other valued identities which they saw as being compatible with being a ‘good British citizen’ (e.g. as law abiding, respectable, and moderate)".
Azmia Magane, an American-Muslim journalist, spoke to this point when she replied, “There’s this exceedingly stupid idea that you can’t be American and also be Muslim.”
Insult to intelligence
Upon seeing the tweet thread I started, Cerie Bullivant, a human rights campaigner with Cage UK, called me to explain the harrowing and disturbing experience he and his young family were forced to endure on the first day of Ramadan this year.
Taking the car ferry from Dover to the European mainland to visit their family in The Netherlands, Bullivant, along with his pregnant wife and two young sons, age one and three respectively, were pulled aside by a Kent police patrol, and their car searched.
Despite finding nothing of interest or suspicion, Bullivant said his family were taken to the police station, interrogated and held in a cell for more than four hours before being finally cleared to continue on their journey.
When I asked Bullivant about the line of questioning he endured, he told me that Kent police officers’ questions were an “insult to common intelligence,” adding they asked him what mosque he prayed at, his thoughts on Sharia, and whether or not he supported the Manchester attack.
“How will my kids view their country as future adults if being held in a cell without charge for four hours at a time becomes routine for them throughout their young lives?”
Hugh Handeyside, an executive with the American Civil Liberties Union, remarked: “We can’t underestimate how stigmatising and unpleasant it is to have to go through this every single time – to have everyone looking at you and thinking you are a terrorist.”
Schedule 7 stops
When Bullivant's treatment was raised with the Home Office, a spokesperson said they did not routinely comment on individual cases, adding: “It is vital that the police have the powers they need to keep this country safe from the threat posed by people who wish to do us harm. Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000, which is used by counter-terrorism police at UK ports to determine whether individuals are involved in terrorism, is one of these."
But for British Muslims, the controversial counter-terrorism Schedule 7 legislation make airports especially risky environments.
Under this law, all airport passengers forfeit their right to remain silent or request an attorney, allowing authorities to stop-and-search and detain anyone entering or exiting the UK for up to six hours and without grounds for suspicion.
Moreover, authorities have the right to demand access to your laptop and cell phone during the period of detainment.
Between 2009 and 2010, as many as 85,000 transiting passengers were searched and detained under this legislation, although this figure has dropped since to 19,355 last year, according to Home Office figures.
However, while the measures were supposed to be non-discriminatory, a 2011 Durham University study said Schedule 7 has the "single most negative impact on Muslims". In 2017, Home Office figures showed more than 88 percent of detained travellers were minorities or from an ethnic group that was otherwise "not stated".
The Home Office spokesperson denied Schedule 7 was unfairly targeting Muslims. “The former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, said in a recent annual report that there is no evidence to suggest the power is being used in a racially discriminatory manner,” he said.
But many Muslims say the stop has become a matter of routine during their travels.
A vulnerable place
In other words, when a Muslim enters a British airport, he or she forfeits all legal and constitutional rights, thus making themselves vulnerable to the whim, prejudices, and biases of airport security personnel.
Effectively, every additional minute spent in a UK airport is an additional minute of vulnerability and risk for Muslims, and it’s for this reason, Bullivant says, he uses “military like efficiency” to get in and out of the airport as quickly as possible.
He doesn’t check-in luggage because that means waiting in a check-in line at departure and a baggage carrousel at arrival, and he places all personal contents in a single pocket to speed up walking through the security x-ray checkpoint.
Since 9/11, airports have become increasingly geared to identify two kinds of travelers: those who are non-Muslim and those who are. The former are categorised into “trusted” and the latter “suspicious”, with “fast processing lanes for the former group, and new barricades for the latter.”
Since 2014, the Islamic State (IS) has propagated the message that Muslims don’t belong in the West. It would appear our international ports of entry and exit are doing their very best to confirm exactly that.
- CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.