UK Politics

Flying While Asian

Following the recent case in which two Asian men were ordered off a flight from Malaga to Manchester after protests from other passengers, yesterday’s Independent carried the story of a British Muslim pilot being told to leave a flight from Manchester to Newark, and then being questioned by armed police:

Mr Ashraf, 28, a British Pakistani who was returning to his job as a pilot for one of Continental’s partner airlines in the US, will lodge a formal complaint with Continental Airlines, with whom he was travelling, as well as with the US authorities. Mr Ashraf said: “I was a standby passenger and I’d been told I could travel at 9am that morning. I’d gone through the same stringent security as every other passenger. I was patted down twice and my hand luggage was checked”. He added: “I’d got my boarding pass and got on the plane on business class. The aircraft’s doors had closed and it got pushed back from the gates. Then we sat away from the gates for an hour. I must have fallen asleep because I was woken up by a Continental employee who wanted to have a word with me.

“I got out of my seat and noticed the aircraft door was open and the stairs had been moved back to the door. The stewardess told me there were no standby employees allowed to fly that day, but I was sure there were other standby passengers on board the plane. I was demoralised and I had to walk down the stairs, which was really humiliating”. He was then approached by two armed police officers who interrogated him. Mr Ashraf said the officers asked him if he knew why the US government wanted him off the flight. He was forced to go back to his family home in Wales and paid £800 for an alternative Virgin flight two days later.

It’s not absolutely, unquestionably 100% certain that it was Mr Ashraf’s racial profile that prevented him from flying – the article adds that since 9/11 every British flight to the US has to provide a list in of all passengers travelling, and that “a source” said that Mr Ashraf’s name was not on the list of passengers leaving for Newark that day – but it seems to fit a recent pattern, with the Independent listing other similar cases, including:

  • an incident where two British women on a flight from Spain to the UK complained about flying with a bearded Muslim, even though the man had been security checked twice.
  • Dr Ahmed Farooq, a Muslim radiologist from Winnipeg, Canada, who was escorted off a United Airlines flight in Denver last week after reciting prayers that were regarded as suspicious by passengers.

    In all these cases, note that it wasn’t the co-passengers who were invited to leave the plane, and note also that the passengers who were ordered to leave their flights had already successfully passed through whatever security measures were in place. Johann Hari wrote recently that it makes sense to “screen an elderly Chinese woman for suicide-bombs with the same vigour as a young Asian man”, because in the long term it “holds back hundreds of borderline young Muslim men from tipping over into alienation and sympathy for jihadism”. I’m not convinced by this at all – or at least not so certain that being a young Asian man should be entirely discounted as a factor in attempting to determine the likelihood of whether someone may or may not be a potential terrorist – but at the moment it seems that we have a climate where to be Asian, or Muslim, and on an aeroplane, means that one is automatically the subject of suspicion, even after having been searched and one’s luggage checked. Not only is this wrong in itself, the likely effect is of placing a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims, instead of between ordinary Muslims and jihadis. I’m flying to Milan in a week and a half. If someone’s acting really, really suspiciously then I’ll raise the alarm. Being Asian and having a beard doesn’t qualify.