Woman detained for reading a book

Yesterday a British woman, Faizah Shaheen, was detained and questioned due to reading a book. A muslim psychotherapist was on a return flight after her honeymoon to Turkey and happened to be reading, the award-winning book, ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline’. A collection of essays, short stories, cartoons, illustrations, and photographs from emerging Syrian artists and writers.

Thomson Airways were ‘concerned’ and reported Shaheen to the police who, under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, detained and questioned her in relation to the book. The police need no reason to stop, detain, and question under this law. The decision, by police, to go ahead and question her for reading a book is highly worrying. It is a book, anyone can read any book they please without suspicion and this right should be defended. Of course the police can make two defences, 1: the book had nothing to do with it, or 2. their job is to be extremely vigilant in airports. The first is unlikely and the second true. A catch-22 in fact, if they don’t question her then who do they question when concerns are raised with them by flight attendants but if they do question her it is bound to be nothing and over a book seems a over reach of powers. The police were not in the wrong but should still issue a statement about books not being relevant concerns to raise in relation to terrorism.

The blame is solely with Thomson Airways staff who thought a middle eastern women who happened to be reading a book about Syria was cause for concern. In what world is the book someone is reading ever a reason to report that person. Thomson Airways’ statement is telling “… crew are trained to report any concerns they may have as a precaution.” Clearly their training is either far too scaremongering or completely ignore basic rights of citizens for their staff to believe a book is cause for concern. Thomson Airways have also refused to apologise for the gross incompetence of their staff in this instance.

No one should ever have their liberty suspended, even for a second, simply for reading a book.

This is not the first instance of a person being detained for reading a book. Last year, Umar Farooq, a postgrad student at Staffordshire University, was questioned by his university after concerns were raised about him. The ‘concerns’ were raised after he was seen reading a book entitled ‘Terrorism Studies’. Oddly, this was on his reading list for his Masters degree in Terrorism, Crime, and Global Security. He had been reading it in the university library but an official had seen the book and heard a subsequent conversation that ‘raised too many red flags’. What those red flags were we do not know but likely they were innocuous and the official overzealous.

Farooq was question by university staff in accordance to guidelines on preventing extremism. Staffordshire University issued an apology to Farooq 3 months after the incident following an internal investigation and criticised the governments guidelines on preventing extremism especially within an academic environment where anything is free to be investigated and discussed.

What is worrying is both cases involve books that are completely innocuous and the person raising ‘concerns’ is clearly associating very select words automatically with terrible acts. To see a book titled ‘Syria Speaks’ and think terrorist takes a serious bound of logic. Even more so with the book ‘Terrorism Studies’ which is quite clearly academic in nature.

That anybody could be questioned in relation to their literature habits is disturbing and in direct contrast with the liberal principles that embody Europe and a question that should need to be even thought about keeps rearing its head it my mind. Would they have been questioned if they were not middle eastern?



English PEN condemns detention of reader under Terrorism Act



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