Over a month ago, a security officer reduced me to tears at Heathrow airport when I was stopped under Schedule 7 of Terrorism Act 2000. In most cases, such treatment would be unacceptable. However, when the person at the receiving end is a Muslim, it becomes something that is expected.
Unjust treatment towards Muslims has become so common that something must be seriously wrong with anyone who speaks out against it. Although it is the responsibility of security officials to treat all citizens fairly, the normalisation of everyday Islamophobia is also a result of the overbearing silence from the Muslim community.
I found the experience itself to be truly traumatic. The sense of rejection that I felt left me questioning everything about my European Muslim identity. What I found to be even more troubling was that I was expected to simply accept such treatment as the reality of my life as a Muslim. Before speaking out, a number of people, mainly Muslims, advised me to keep quiet and let it go. It became apparent that British Muslims are afraid to speak out against intolerance.
The reason for my treatment at Heathrow airport was because I am a young woman with a hijab, which equates to being a “potential jihadi bride”, according to a security staff member.
The sense of rejection triggered by such statements can lead to devastating consequences. As concluded by Kenan Malik, academic author who focuses on multiculturalism and race, “what draws most jihadists to Syria […] is a search for belongingness and respect.”
When those in a position of power deprive youth of basic respect, it’s difficult for young people to feel a strong sense of belongingness. This type of alienation can be challenged in its tracks by stressing the fact that such comments are unacceptable.
The response to my article in The Independent revealed that people fail to make a distinction between mainstream Muslims and extremists. Most people are mistakenly convinced that the average Muslim tolerates or even endorses extremism. This is why they see nothing wrong with a Muslim being treated in an unjust way, since they “look like terrorists”. While security services do have to take certain measures to protect us all, it seems counterproductive to subject someone to humiliating treatment on the sole basis of her appearance.
Schedule 7 clearly states that a person’s perceived ethnic background or religion must not be used as the only reason for questioning someone. The majority of peace-loving Muslims are aware that they are often singled-out on the basis of their appearance. However, a very small number of those would actively speak out against this sort of religious profiling. We can all envisage the outcry that would come of other religious communities if they were subjected to the same treatment. So why is it that Muslims have accepted this treatment as the harsh reality of their lives?
A Muslim person who demands their right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty is labelled as “too sensitive”. This is unsurprising, considering the very small number of Muslim voices who speak out against intolerance. The only way we can stop everyday Islamophobia is by actively speaking out against it. Passivity towards intolerance will only normalise intolerant attitudes.
It is also important that we encourage interfaith dialogue. We cannot effectively communicate with others if we do not understand their viewpoint. By being active in interfaith communication, we can understand the perspective of others, while diminishing negative stereotypes of Muslims. Faith groups will achieve a lot more by talking to each other, instead of talking about the other.
Being subjected to unfair treatment in my home country was a truly unpleasant experience. But I hope that by sharing my story, British Muslims will be reminded that their voices are valued. And it is up to us to speak out and remind people that everyday Islamophobia exists. If we leave it to someone else to speak for us then, sadly, we are in no position to complain when that someone conveniently omits parts of our narrative.