Flying whilst Muslim


It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me, that was back in 2014. This time, however, it was different. Someone in the security establishment had decided it was time to upgrade my membership of the “Schedule 7” club from associate to plenary – with all its attendant perks and benefits.

As a child I always looked upon airports as a place of excitement and as a metaphor for aspiration – the aspiration that one day instead of greeting or saying farewell to relatives I would be there to board a plane to one of the many countries I used to gaze at on my bedroom map of the world. Even as an adult, the anticipation of flying still provoked a certain frisson of excitement in me every time I entered an airport terminal. Sadly, all that changed one evening a few months ago. Now anxiety and resentment are the emotions I associate with travelling abroad.

It was late summer and I was returning from a few days break in a major Western European capital. I’d gone on my own with no pre-planned itinerary and with no plans to meet anybody. At the airport on the way out I’d purchased a guide book thinking to pick out a few interesting attractions. It was a pretty unremarkable excursion and not something I’d have expected to trigger the attention of the counter terrorism command – I mean not like I was travelling to the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan four weeks after ISIS had attempted to advance upon it, was it? And if they hadn’t stopped me then then what were the odds on them doing so over a short break in Western Europe?

Upon arrival at immigration control I slid my passport into the automatic gate’s reader anticipating no more than a few seconds delay before the glass doors shot me a mechanical salute, welcoming me back into Blighty. Except they didn’t. “Seek assistance” it said on the screen. I was gestured to a manned desk where the immigration officer’s passport reader must also have produced a similar message as after several alternating glances between me and his screen and the hurried scribbling of notes he beckoned over a nearby policeman passing me into his “care”. It was very late – early morning in fact – and I was tired and just wanted to get home and get to bed. I steeled myself, anticipating the usual assortment of silly questions. I quickly mulled the best response to “do you support ISIS?” (as I recall it was a toss up between affected disgust and blinkered indifference with the latter winning out).

Within seconds of taking me into a bare, incommodious room and having confirmed that this was indeed a Schedule 7 stop, they (the officer had quickly been joined by a female colleague) informed me that they had the legal power to search my phone and that I would have to hand over the pin code to unlock it. I, of course, was aware of their powers under the statute, but barring my trip to Erbil four years previously I had never anticipated being subjected to them. I mean for all the complaining of civil liberty groups and the human rights brigade surely it was the case that the police only target those genuinely up to no good? I was soon to be disabused of this misconception.

Schedule 7 requires for its exercise no grounds for suspicion. There is a complete lack of transparency and oversight and no ability to question, review or challenge the basis upon which you are selected for “screening” and subsequently detained.  Is it completely random? Somehow, I doubt it – people of Pakistani ethnicity are some 51 times more likely than their white compatriots to be questioned. Is it intelligence lead – I’m sure on occasions it is. Is it, for the most part, a trawling operation to build as many profiles of young to middle aged Muslims (i.e. the ‘problem demographic’) as possible? I’m now convinced that it is.

We live in a digital age. Even for those of us not addicted to social media and chat applications examining our phones and its contents will likely reveal an intimate portrait of who we are and how we think. We use our phones to take notes, to conduct business, to argue and debate, to store and share images and videos – some of a mortifyingly personal nature. Put simply: our mobile phone is a digital reflection of our inner self. In a recent Indiana Court of Appeals ruling on whether a defendant was justified in her refusal to unlock her phone for inspection by the police, Judge Paul Mathias in her eloquent summing up of the majority opinion stated:

“A modern smartphone, with its central purpose of connecting its owner to the Internet and its ability to store and share incredible amounts of information in ‘the Cloud’ of online storage, is truly as close as modern technology allows us to come to a device that contains all of its owner’s conscious thoughts, and many of his or her unconscious thoughts, as well. So, when the State seeks to compel a person to unlock a smartphone so that it may search the phone without limitations, the privacy implications are enormous and, arguably, unique.”

To download and examine someone’s smartphone, therefore, is to subject them to a “digital strip search”. An act far more invasive and damaging than stripping them of their attire. The humiliation resulting from the temporary loss of dignity of a physical examination fades with time. The cognisance that persons unknown have permanent access to your personal interactions, to your cerebral ruminations as transcribed on your phone is something that is much harder to get over. Your sense of self has been violated. Permanently. Though I wouldn’t want to cheapen the trauma of rape there is perhaps a parallel to be drawn here with the sense of loss of self-agency many victims of this vicious crime report.

It should surely stand to reason then that such gross intrusions by the state should only be warranted where there are reasonable, objective grounds to suspect someone of participation in terrorism related activity. To wield this legal scalpel indiscriminately over an entire minority group based upon a sense of collective responsibility and in the tentative expectation that something of interest might be gleaned is to sacrifice the rights and freedoms accumulated through centuries of bitter struggle to the idol of ‘national security’. Precious little actionable intelligence about terrorist plots is gleaned from Schedule 7 interrogations (“examinations”). Those who are engaged in terrorist activities are well aware that their electronic devices can be examined at the ports of entry or departure and will take the necessary precautions to avoid being caught in possession of incriminating material. Schedule 7 is a power primed for misuse and abuse and serves both to alienate further a community already feeling under siege as well as to reinforce the narrative of the terrorists it’s supposedly targeted against.

But I digress. As my phone was being examined – the contents no doubt downloaded for later, more detailed scrutiny – I was subjected to an unremitting interrogation covering everything from my personal finances to my religious and political beliefs. What did I do for a living? Who did I work for? How much did I earn? Was I a religious man? Which mosque did I pray in? What did I think of ISIS? I did ask at some point why I had been chosen for such treatment; what was it that I had done to warrant such intrusive questioning? Perhaps I had associated with certain individuals who were on the radar of the counter terrorism command or maybe I had previously been asked to cooperate with the security services – neither response resonated with me although the latter I found interesting if not a little disconcerting. Was I to take it therefore that refusal to spy for MI5 results in Schedule 7 harassment? As it happens I have never been asked to “cooperate with” (aka “spy for”) the security services (and lads, if you’re reading this and feeling tempted to pop the question then let me pre-empt you with an unequivocal Foxtrot Oscar) but even had I would a rejection be legitimate grounds to subject me to such humiliating treatment – absent any genuine intelligence of my involvement in terrorism or espionage?

After around one hour and forty minutes I had my phone, passport and credit cards handed back to me and told I was free to go. The officer assured me the images and videos they’d viewed had been deleted. Call me cynical but something told me he wasn’t being straight with me. And how did all this leave me feeling? In that immediate moment, fearful. As someone who writes about “controversial” subjects and who espouses what the state has adjudged “extremist” beliefs I often engage in private discussions that have the propensity to be (wilfully or otherwise) misconstrued by the uninformed observer. Someone unacquainted with the context, tone or the personal dynamic of the interlocutors or indeed with the idiom being employed is liable to misinterpret what is being said. I was only too aware of cases where innocent Muslims have been charged (and often convicted) for what amounted to nothing more than outbursts of adolescent bravado. I have never engaged in, aided or abetted or otherwise encouraged acts of terrorism yet I feel as if the state is breathing down my neck. In the days immediately after my detention I was gripped by what can only be described as extreme paranoia. Was I under surveillance? Who was listening in on my conversations? Every time I looked at my phone I felt somehow it was looking back at me. What would happen next? Thankfully, and in no small part due to the intervention of certain individuals who I shan’t name here, this sensation soon passed. But it was quickly replaced with anger and resentment.

Since that fateful evening I have travelled to Europe once more and again, albeit with a far lesser degree of intrusiveness, was subject to Schedule 7 stops (on the way out and upon return). I’m now left wondering for how long this will continue – at what point will the authorities determine that I am not in fact a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism? Who is in charge of all this, who do I appeal to in order to cleanse my name from “the list”? Am I permanently lost now in some Kafkaesque phantasmagoria blindly groping for a non-existent exit door? Or maybe “they” know already of my innocence but in their infinite wisdom have determined that people who promulgate “problematic” views are in need of some corrective harassment? Perhaps we’ve already crossed that Rubicon that hitherto demarcated the sacred territory of free thought and expression?

Quite how we arrived at this state of affairs will go down as one of the enduring mysteries of the early 21st century. As a child studying the rise of Nazism I often wondered why the totalitarian intentions of Hitler and his acolytes weren’t obvious to the German people in the early 1930s. Why would a society willingly surrender their rights and freedoms to a cohort of despotic thugs? As a wise man once said, for evil to succeed it simply requires good men to do nothing. Apathy tinctured with a false sense of immunity – the cosy supposition that any ensuing nastiness would remain focused on select despised minority groups – was the catalyst for the Third Reich. Sadly, as seems is always the case, we have learned nothing from the lessons of the past. The last decade has seen us sleep walk into a culture of mass surveillance and thought policing with barely a murmur of dissent. From the Counter Terrorism and Security Act that placed the Stasi-esque PREVENT policy on a statutory footing to The Investigatory Powers Act (‘The Snoopers Charter’) that legalised the bulk interception and retention of internet metadata, down to the ubiquitous CCTV cameras monitoring our every movement; Britain has become a nation under surveillance. Orwell would have wept. Or perhaps smiled sardonically.

For my part I refuse to be cowed. I will continue to speak my mind. To speak out against injustice. And to exercise my right to travel in pursuit of my lawful aims.

I wish to mention the invaluable assistance I have received from the ngo, CAGE (formerly Cageprisoners) and specifically their International Director, Muhammad Rabbani (pictured above) – who last year was convicted of wilfully obstructing a Schedule 7 examination. His principled decision to protect the sources of an ongoing investigation into serious human rights abuses, stands as an exemplum of resistance to structural injustice.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Yousuf says:

    This has happened so often to me, and to people I know, when crossing the US-Canada border into the US. Last time the guy threatened to impound my phone for 30 days if I didn’t give the password. I was like, sure go ahead haha. He didn’t do it though.

    But when crossing into Canada, the Canadian border agents are super nice, they just ask a few questions at the booth and never send you in for secondary questioning

  2. Omar says:

    May Allah reward u for this post akhi.

    I got stopped again in da Summer but liek u say, I didnt take my main fone so there was nuthin they cud do lol. I got offered a leaflet lol. No1 spoke to me until I’d got thru passport control tho but then the walki-talkie men came up to me. tbh, fully expecting thos harassment every time I travel. This was at heathrow btw.

    Sharin ur post if u dont mind

  3. Lenna says:

    I’m sorry this happened to you. 😦

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