The Independent reported today that a British NHS worker, Faizah Shaheen, was detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act on 25 July, following suspicions about the book she was reading. Ms Shaheen was reading the PEN-supported anthology Syria Speaks on her honeymoon flight with Thomson Airways. A member of the cabin crew reported her for suspicious behaviour on her outbound flight to Turkey and Ms Shaheen was questioned under Schedule 7 for 15 minutes on her return to the UK.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said:
Thomson Airways should be highly embarrassed about this gross act of misjudgment. The current culture of anxiety around extremism now means that even our reading material has become grounds for suspicion of terrorist activity. The freedom to read any book, no matter the subject, is a fundamental cornerstone of our liberty. No one should ever be detained or questioned by the police on the basis of the literature they’re reading.
Syria Speaks is one of the most remarkable books to have been published since the uprising in Syria in 2011. It gives an illuminating insight into Syrian culture, celebrating the undaunted spirit of the Syrian people. It’s highly ironic, and deeply disturbing, that possessing a work that showcases one of the few remaining areas of freedom for the Syrians, the creative space, should lead to the detention of a British Muslim citizen.
This case also highlights the continuing problem of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, under which the police can detain individuals without grounds of suspicion of involvement in terrorism or other criminal activities. It is overdue for reform.
Syria Speaks was edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud and published by Saqi Books in 2014. Brian Eno described it as ‘An extraordinary collection, revealing a dynamic and exciting culture in painful transition – a culture where artists are really making a difference … you need to read this book.’ It was supported by a grant from English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme.
Lynn Gaspard, publisher and managing director, Saqi Books, said:
Syria Speaks represents everything Saqi Books, as a Middle East interest publisher, has sought to champion over the years: it celebrates freedom of expression and creativity in the face of horror and regression. Syria Speaks won support from the Prince Claus Fund for Art and Culture in Amsterdam, CKU, the British Council, the Arts Council, English PEN and the Arab British Centre, among others. It received glowing reviews and endorsements from Brian Eno and AL Kennedy, who described it as ‘a wise, courageous, imaginative and beautiful response to all that is ugly in human behaviour.
I am in this business because I passionately believe in the power of words to affect change. However, our government seems to have taken the old adage ‘the word is mightier than the sword’ a bit too literally. We have to do our outmost to ensure that books are protected from censorship, and that readers are protected from harassment. Faizah Shaheen should not have been singled out for reading Syria Speaks – if Faizah gets in touch I would be happy to invite her to our bookshop in West London and offer her any of our titles.
Zaher Omareen, co-editor, Syria Speaks said:
This despicable incident reflects the deep and widespread misunderstanding towards Syria today. It shows how far stereotypes influence our cities under the otherwise understandable security and terror concerns. Judging individuals and even taking measures against them based on their race, their looks, their language, or the printed words they carry is unacceptable and unjustifiable.
It was enough to carry a book which includes the word ‘Syria’ in its title for its owner to be under suspicion as a potential terrorist. I would like to remind the people and the government that Syria must not be reduced to the politicised and power-constructed sound bites carrying simplistic messages of violence and horror. This systematic misrepresentation distorts the common humanistic meaning which we all hold against oppression and tyranny across the world. Syria is no exception. It is a country desperate to heal and find peace, in order to become more culturally enriched and enlightened than ever, thanks to its numerous artists and cultural thinkers who are represented in a modest sample in my seemingly notorious book, Syria Speaks. Syria is not an accusation. And we, the Syrians, must not be constantly under suspicion.
The UK government speaks of integration, tolerance, and understanding the ‘other’. This is indeed a pressing and inevitable process for a democratic, modern, and multi-cultural society. However, it can never happen without reading about the other, not through outlets of mainstream misrepresentation, but through the words of the other. This is a right we should take for granted in a democracy and must not need to defend it.
I stand in solidarity with Faiza Shaheen who faced this humiliating situation because she carried a book on Syria. We must learn from this incident to make sure that no one faces similarly hideous situations in the future.
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act is a broad power to stop, search and detain individuals at ports, airports and international rail stations. It can be used without any grounds of suspicion that the individual is engaged in terrorism – or any other criminal activity. It has long been criticised by human rights groups.
David Miranda was held under Schedule 7 and his journalistic materials seized in 2013. His legal challenge (in which English PEN intervened as a third party) was partially successful at the Court of Appeal in January, when the court ruled that Schedule 7 was incompatible with Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights if used in respect of journalistic material or information.
According to Liberty, in 2010/11, 45 per cent of those detained under Schedule 7 were Asian; 21 per cent were black; and only eight per cent were white. Recent research suggests Asian passengers are 42 times more likely to be stopped under Schedule 7 than their white counterparts.