Skip to main content

British Muslim held by anti-terrorism police for reading Syrian art book

Faizah Shaheen, who works on anti-radicalisation in NHS, to complain against police and holiday firm which reported her after honeymoon
Faizah Shaheen says she's part of the fight against radicalisation and breaking stereotypes (Facebook)

A British Muslim returning from her honeymoon was questioned by police at an airport under terrorism legislation after airline staff reported her for reading a book about Syrian culture.

Syria Speaks has won high praise and several awards (Saqi Books)

Faizah Shaheen, 27, who says she works with mental health patients to prevent radicalisation, was returning from her honeymoon in Marmaris, Turkey, when she was stopped by a police officer at Doncaster airport last month, The Independent reported.

The website said that she was briefly detained by officers from South Yorkshire Police on 25 July after a member of Thomson Airways cabin crew on her outbound flight a fortnight earlier had reported her for suspicious behaviour.

Shaheen, who told the website she worked for the NHS, said she was questioned for 15 minutes under Schedle 7 of the Terrorism Act after she was spotted reading Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, an award-winning book edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud.

The book, which has been supported by Arts Council England and the Danish Centre for Culture and Development among others, is a collection of essays, short stories, poems, songs, cartoons and photographs from Syrian authors and artists. It has earned strong reviews and praise, including from the Times Literary Supplement, the writer AL Kennedy and the musician Brian Eno.

'Would this have happened if I was not a Muslim?'

Shaheen, from Leeds, told The Independent: “I was completely innocent – I was made to feel like a culprit. I was queuing at passport control and saw police staring at me. I just got through passport control and then two police officers approached me and took me aside and asked me to show my passport again.

“I asked what was going on and they said I had been reported due to a book I was reading and was to be questioned under the Terrorism Act.

“I became very angry and upset. I couldn’t understand how reading a book could cause people to suspect me like this. I told the police that I didn’t think it was right or acceptable.”

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, said Thomson Airways should accept it had made a “mistake".

He said: "Reasonable people would not regard reading a book on Syria on its own, without any other concerns, as warranting the questioning of an individual. Thomson Airways should accept that a mistake was made and apologise to the woman concerned. I am sure if they had done so there would have been a better understanding of the entire situation.”

'Thomson Airways should accept that a mistake was made and apologise to the woman concerned'

Shaheen said she now plans to make formal complaints against the police and Thomson Airways. “Ironically, a part of my job role is working on anti-radicalisation and assessing vulnerable young people with mental health problems [who] are at risk of being radicalised. I said that to the police. I’m actually part of trying to fight radicalisation and breaking the stereotypes.

She said: “I do question if whether it would be different if it was someone who wasn’t Muslim.”

A spokesman for Thomson Airways said: “Our crew undergo general safety and security awareness training on a regular basis. As part of this they are encouraged to be vigilant and share any information or questions with the relevant authorities.

“We appreciate that in this instance Ms Shaheen may have felt that overcaution had been exercised. However, like all airlines, our crew are trained to report any concerns they may have as a precaution.“

A spokeswoman for South Yorkshire Police said: “On 25 July, 2016, officers from South Yorkshire Police stopped and examined a woman under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 at Doncaster Airport.

“She was not arrested, she was held for 15 minutes and was subsequently released.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.