British Muslim woman detained under terror laws after cabin crew report her reading Syrian art book on plane

Exclusive: Airline urged to apologise after honeymooner 'made to feel like a culprit'

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The Independent Online

A Muslim NHS worker was detained at a UK airport and questioned under terror laws after a cabin crew member spotted her reading a Syrian culture book on board her honeymoon flight.

Faizah Shaheen, who helps prevent teenage mental health patients from becoming radicalised, was returning from honeymoon in Marmaris, Turkey, when she was stopped by South Yorkshire Police at Doncaster Airport on 25 July. 

The 27-year-old was pulled over because a Thomson Airways cabin crew member on her outbound flight a fortnight earlier had reported her for suspicious behaviour.

Police officers questioned her for 15 minutes under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act and told her the suspicions related to the holiday book she had been reading – Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline.

The award-winning book by Malu Halasa is a collection of essays, short stories, poems, songs, cartoons and photographs from Syrian authors and artists. 

Ms Shaheen, from Leeds, said she was left angry and in tears by the experience – and with a feeling she had been discriminated because of her faith.

She said she now intends to make formal complaints against the police and Thomson Airways.

Video shows Muslim family kicked off flight (April 2016)

She said: “I was completely innocent – I was made to feel like a culprit.”

Recalling the incident, she said: “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. 

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Faizah Shaheen works in the NHS helping to prevent vulnerable teenagers from being radicalised

“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.”

She was given an information leaflet explaining that Schedule 7 legislation is used by police to determine whether a person appears to be or has been involved in terrorism.

“I was asked what I do,” she said. “I told them I work as a child and adolescent mental health services practitioner for the NHS. 

“Ironically, a part of my job role is working on anti-radicalisation and assessing vulnerable young people with mental health problems 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.

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Labour MP Keith Vaz has called on Thomson Airways to apologise (Getty)

“It was a very hurtful experience to go through,” she said. “I fight for different causes and then to be victimised and experience this first-hand and made me realise how bad it is.

“Instead of reminiscing about our honeymoon I am left talking about this experience. 

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

The book she was reading was the winner of an English PEN award. Ms Shaheen bought it after it was recommended to her at Bradford literature festival in May.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, said the airline had overreacted.

He said: “In the current climate people are worried. But there is always a balance to be struck in circumstances of this kind. We want the public to report suspicious activity. 

"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.”

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The award-winning 'Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline' by Malu Halasa

Thomson Airways said its crew are compelled to report any concerns as a precaution, but it understood Ms Shaheen’s frustration.

A spokesman said in a statement: “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.”

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