Haworth. A cobbled, charming timepiece village, shunted, deep into the Yorkshire Moors. Setting off in the car with my daughters, I suspect we will soon risk stares as we (Anglo-Hijabis) join, almost uniquely, ‘white’ hiking families, on secluded walks, in the North of England .
We arrive outside Ye Olde Apothecary, on the sweetly named ‘main street’ in a gloomy dusk. It is the antithesis of Disney’s glitzy namesake. An unchanged 19th century row of shops and taverns, tapering into a forbidding, grey, hillside. There is no music pumping from cars, no pub sounds – there are almost no vehicles. The silence beneath the ancient church makes us whisper as we unload our bags.
Dragging them up a winding, staircase, a disembodied, voice floats down to us.
The accent is rather proper, with no trace of heritage from warmer climes. A gentleman in his fifties, smart casual, with a kind smile, emerges from the shadows, repeating his salamat, and taking our heaviest things.
‘You’re all more than welcome here ladies. Your faith is respected and you will, I hope,inshaAllah, be more than comfortable throughout your stay.’
I mutter Allahu Akbar, under my breath, in gratitude. Here, in the midst of an English winter countryside, Allah The Merciful, has sent us a sympathetic greeting.
‘Yes Allahu Akbar indeed, that means God is Great if I remember correctly’ continues the B&B owner, Nick. Who, tells us jovially, of his decade in the Middle East, as a business man.
Taking our bags up around winding corridors, to our room, he is a bastion of Islamic manners in an English colonels exterior. Not that I am seeking to take manners away from the English people. Indeed often it seems that many folk on this tiny island, practice in their daily lives, more of the Prophet (SAWS)‘s manners, than this generation of his ummah.
Nick’s excellent adab( politeness) reminds my children and I of the importance of extending an excellent greeting to strangers and travelers – whatever their faith.
The following days are a blissful, face stinging, hale-sodden hike across glorious Moorland. Marching our way determinedly through the heather and gorse (the inspiration for Emily Brontes Wuthering Heights) we make Thikr. Thanking God for making the environment so variable from place to place. My children’s best moment of all comes when, trying to fly a kite in heavy rain (why?) I slip into a vast puddle whose smell is an unpleasant reminder of the sheep all around.
It is a beautiful trip. No comments from hikers on our hijabs. Smiles all the way from fellow travelers at the guest house.
Muslim travelers and security measures
On arriving home, the news comes, that my colleague at Cage, Moazzam Begg, has been arrested. Cage, formerly ‘Cage Prisoner’ is a UK charity dedicated to representing victims of injustice. It has international recognition for challenging illicit rendition, drone strikes and the increasing misuse of ‘anti terror’ laws to harass Muslims for normative behavior.
I watch in silence as the news anchor says that despite Moazzam having co-ordinated his aid-related trips to Syria with the UK authorities, that he has been detained (and later charged) with Syria-related terror offenses.
‘You won’t be arrested, will you Mummy?’ Asks Alex.
I assure my eldest daughter that only those who really make a difference get such special attention. Men and women of courage and bravery such as Moazzam.
As a mere writer, I am of no interest to the authorities.
48 hours later, I am feeling rather differently, as (yet again) I am randomly selected for a full bag search before boarding a flight to Chicago. Wearing hijab means getting used to such things. The way to observe Islamic adab (good manners) in this situation, is to be patient and polite. I try to do this, as the young woman on the freezing plane gangplank, checks down to the seams of my hand luggage. A non Muslim lady behind me has been also randomly selected. She is not as used as I am to the unwanted attention. After five minutes, she stamps her feet, sighing with fury. After ten, she slams a fist on a wall in frustration.
I feel sorry for her anxiety.
Changing planes at Chicago, en route to Texas, something new. At the check in counter the attendant prints my ticket with a ‘wow’ and a curious glance my way. The letters ‘SSSS’ have been printed on my ticket stub.
‘I have never seen that before’ she says shaking her head in wonder. She doesn’t even know (quite) what it means.
I can guess.
Secondary Security Screening Selection, known by its acronym SSSS, is a US airport security measure which selects passengers for additional inspection. The list of people liable to this additional harassment contained, according to agency sources, 14,000 names, in December 2009. Today the number will be far higher.
In practice, this means that at the passport check, before security screening, I am met by a Transportation Security Administration or TSA agent. I am directed, in the line, all eyes on me, towards the full body scanner. Putting on my brightest smile I go through and prepare for the usual pat down and bag check. There’s more.
Aside from the full body, between the legs, over the torso, across the hijab pat down. I note that the seams and internal pockets of my luggage are of more interest than usual. Several times swabs are taken of various sections (explosive checks). The female TSA agent watching over me swabs my hands with something hot, which makes me jump.
‘Don’t worry it’s just out the machine that’s why its warm’. I’m told.
Normally after security checks, I am simply waved off at the end, with ‘you’re all done ma’am’. This time a senior agent calls me to ‘wait’ whilst ‘paperwork’ is completed about the check.
Paperwork about me.
For security agencies.
Second class citizens
The response from civil liberties groups about the infringement of privacy rights and potential for racial or ethnical discrimination of these checks, has been way too quiet, for way too long. How can tens of thousands of – by far greater numbers – Muslim – travelers be treated this way day in day out? We feel monitored, harassed, accused by an unknown judge and a partial, invisible jury, every time we move from city to city or country to country.
Suddenly without explanation – or apology – our journeys for leisure or work, have become harder than the same travel for other members of society. Is this okay? No. Passengers like me, pre-selected for secondary screening, can’t print out boarding passes at home or check in curbside or at kiosks. We have to check-in at counters where additional verification is performed by airline staff.
Then, with a stare, we will have the damning letters SSSS (all capitals) printed on our boarding pass. As a signal – that invisible authorities want us to know that they know we know that they know we may know (or usually not) someone who they suspect may know something (or usually not) related to security issues.
For this nonsense we have become second class citizens, unequal, disrespected.
CAGE has been campaigning against the War on Terror for more than a decade. Today, its website is one of the leading resources documenting the abuse of due process and the erosion of the rule of law in the context of the utterly discredited, War on Terror. Cage’s new report ‘Prevent’, brilliantly and clearly lays out the cradle-to-grave policies, which persecute and intimidate Muslims in the UK. The aim of these government policies has to be the silencing of political debate and dissent – even in our own homes between family members.
My two journeys, to the USA and the English countryside, shed light on a divide that western governments are trying desperately to bridge.
The divide between the nature of a general public who still largely resist the push to see an entire faith group as ‘suspicious’ and a government who wants them to do just that. British people and millions of Americans, are resisting the government inspired, media flamed, urge to fear Muslims per se.
Our interactions in the work place, the school gates, in restaurants and public transport, show us to be vastly different from the terrifying ‘extremist’ imagery of government reports, legislation or fire and brimstone hack reporting.
Men and women who have lived amongst Muslims for work, like Nick, our host in Yorkshire, refute with their beautiful manners and kind words, the fear that is being fostered, that non Muslims hate us blindly.
Government agencies may pull us out of lines at airports and customs terminals, tacitly hoping to create a climate of fear. The real discomfort they have is that they are failing to do so.
Even as millions of other Muslims experience these daily harassments, so more and more others are accepting Islam.
Allah SWT is the Best Planner.
Moazzem Begg, faces yet another challenge to his freedom. It is up to us, his brothers and sisters, to reach out to the wider community. To call for all who care for freedom to support a man who has both continually and transparently fought against injustice.
Injustice, which includes the sly practice of putting Muslims on ‘lists.’ Lists that make travel a humiliating test, lists that have our phones and emails monitored. Lists that point drones towards villages, homes and even schools in far-flung places.
Lists – which once your name is on them – you have no legal way of finding out why it has been put there – or how to have it removed.
First published: November 2014.