UK Woman Who Faced Police Questioning Over Book Wants Independent Investigation

syriaspeaksA British Muslim woman who was detained and questioned at a Yorkshire airport last year for reading a book about Syrian art and culture is still pushing for an independent investigation into the incident. Despite ample evidence that South Yorkshire Police racially profiled Faizah Shaheen, though, the national police watchdog organization insists that the local police force can impartially investigate itself.

On an outbound Thomson Airways flight to Turkey for her honeymoon last July, Shaheen was reading the book Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. Despite the subtitle, an airline employee thought it was a “Syrian phrasebook” and reported her to authorities in both Turkey and the UK, apparently suspecting she might be passing through Turkey to join ISIS. When the flight arrived in Turkey, Shaheen was the only passenger pulled aside by airport staff for a “random check” of her papers, although she did not yet realize that her reading material was the reason for suspicion.

The truth became clear when Shaheen and her husband returned to the UK via Doncaster Sheffield Airport. There she was again detained and questioned, this time by two officers of the South Yorkshire Police citing Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. Shaheen was allowed to go free after less than half an hour, but she was left shaken by the experience of being detained in her own country based on an airline employee’s suspicion of what she chose to read.

With help from Liberty, the UK equivalent of the ACLU, Shaheen is demanding that the Independent Police Complaints Commission conduct an independent investigation into the matter. So far the IPCC maintains that the investigation “should be carried out locally by the [South Yorkshire Police] force” without any oversight, but says that Shaheen can appeal to the IPCC if she is dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation.

Shaheen and Liberty, on the other hand, say that the problem is not limited to one police force, pointing to the apparently overbroad use of Schedule 7 powers across the country. Out of 18,000 people detained or questioned under Schedule 7 in the past year, only 1530 ultimately roused enough suspicion to be held for more than an hour. Meanwhile, extremists who had been reported by fellow Muslims somehow still flew under the radar and went on to carry out terrorist attacks. Shaheen feels this points to systemic dysfunction that warrants a broad and independent investigation of police procedures:

It infuriates me sometimes when I watch the news and notice the Manchester incident, the London incident, where the individuals were alerted to the counterterrorism police several times because clearly they were a threat with their ideology that they were so open about – and that was missed. And then they’re wasting resources when it comes to someone like me who’s reading a book. It just makes no sense to me where they’re going wrong. Where’s the sense of proportion?

Syria Speaks, the book in question, is also available in the U.S. and includes cartoons by Ali Ferzat and the residents of Kafranbel, as well as art by Youssef Abdelke and numerous essays, poems and other writings by Syrians about the civil war that has devastated their country since 2011.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.