Speaker’s Corner: Flying while Muslim – Abdul-Azim Ahmed

By Myriam Francois|February 19, 2016|Speaker's Corner|0 comments

Flying while Muslim

by Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Have you heard the one about the Muslim at the airport? “Muslim while flying” jokes have gone from being cutting edge political commentary, to trope, to cliché in the last few decades. I groaned out loud when I heard plans of a ‘Citizen Khan Goes to America’. But while airport jokes are beginning to feel dated, international travel remains a site of discrimination and exclusion for not just British Muslims, but even those presumed to look like they might be Muslim.


In recent months, a number of cases of Muslims being denied flights or escorted off planes have come to light. Most recently, Zabir Ali was told to leave a plane en route to his honeymoon, which followed the high profile case of Imam Ajmal Masroor being denied a US visa in the same week as Mohammad Tariq Mahmood was denied entry to the US with his family. The racialization of Muslims means that isn’t just those who profess Islam as their religion who are subject to stringent and discriminatory practices. Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia was barred from flying after he refused to remove his turban. When flights are made, interrogations are commonplace, such as that reported by Amreet Surana, or that described by Hanna Yusuf.


None of this is entirely new. Cases of Muslims, or those presumed to be Muslim, being subject to arbitrary checks and discriminatory barring can be found dating back years, and there are plenty that don’t make the news. Within my admittedly small circle of friends, I know dozens who have faced some level of discrimination at airports.


What it tells us is that Muslims remain a suspect community. In the days following 9/11, the fear was predominantly about terrorist attacks. More recently, the implicit guilt of supporting, and potentially joining, the Islamic State, is the dominant theme. Despite their being no clear signs of radicalisation or extremism, or perhaps because of it, a Muslim identity is often taken to be enough of a warning sign.

The ubiquity of airport checks also tells us that this isn’t simply the odd case of discrimination, but something that is structural, arguably even a tacit policy. Professor Anthony Glees, Director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence has suggested ‘Muslim passengers should be prepared to give security at airports more detailed explanations of why and where they are flying’, claiming that profiling at airports was ‘obvious and rational’. It seems flight services, airport security and governments in Europe and the United States are in agreement with Professor Glees statements.


In the British context, there is also the concerning lack of response from the British government. British citizens, Muslim and otherwise, are routinely subjected to indignant and discriminatory stops, searches and bars. This occurs both abroad and in the United Kingdom itself, and the UK government has taken no steps to record the data on the stops, let alone the address the issue. It wasn’t long ago that Cameron made a tacit call for loyalty from British Muslims, contending that ‘because if you walk our streets, learn in our schools, benefit from our society, you sign up to our values: freedom; tolerance; responsibility; loyalty’. Citizenship of course works two ways, and the British government could do more to show loyalty to their citizens when it comes to the discrimination faced at airports.


Perhaps the most significant, and most disheartening, thing that the prevalence of discrimination faced by British Muslims at airports tell us, is that not much has changed since 9/11. There is no better understanding of radicalisation and extremism, Muslims are still guilty by association, there are no improved forms of security, and there is no desire by the British government to address the abuse of the rights of their own citizens.


Abdul-Azim Ahmed is a PhD student at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University. He is also Editor of On Religion, a current affairs magazine with a focus on religion and theology.

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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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