The Fear of My Language

The Fear of My Language

I stare at the big bold Arabic writing on my phone screen. Suddenly, a woman’s voice rings in my ear. I feel my heart rate quicken, blocking out all the sounds around me save for my breath, which raggedly moves in and out of my mouth at almost gasping intervals. I look up.

“Sorry?” I say.

“Can you please put your seatbelt on? The plane will take flight in a few minutes.”

I draw a massive breath of relief, quickly nod with a smile and do as she says. I thought someone must have reported me for being a supporter of ISIS or a terrorist.

*

For a whole month before my trip to Bali, my mum hammered my head with prayers to recite before the plane took flight. In Islam, these prayers are called duas, and there are certain ones Muslims recite for safety when travelling. Mum had sent me all of them to read off my phone prior to take off. Excited as I was to be on my first solo overseas holiday, the idea of being let loose into the wide-open world made me nervous. Once I made it through customs, though, I finally relaxed – until I got on the plane and opened the prayers to read.

In April of 2016, 26-year-old Khairuldeen Mackzoomi was kicked of a Southwest Airlines flight because someone heard him speaking Arabic. The university student was on the phone to his uncle in Baghdad when another passenger was frightened by his language. After he was led off the plane, Mackzoomi had his genital area searched by airport security in front of other travellers.

“The way they searched me and the dogs, the officers, people were watching me and the humiliation made me so afraid,” he said.

Just four months later, Maryam, Ali and Sakina Dharas, all aged between 19 and 24, were approached by a cabin crew member on an easyJet flight from London to Naples. The woman asked them to accompany her off the aircraft without an explanation. As it turned out, a couple had accused the siblings of reading “ISIS material” after incorrectly claiming they had seen Arabic text on the young British Muslims’ phones. The trio were questioned for an hour by armed officers, in front of passengers. According to Maryam, in reality, they “had nothing remotely Arabic related”, and only speak English due to having been born in north-west London.

“We were asked, ‘Have you had any Arabic on your phone? Have you been reading the Quran?’ We don’t even speak Arabic, we don’t know Arabic, we’re not even Arabs,” she said.

Although the siblings were let back to their seats, the officers said that further background checks would be made when the plane landed, and more officers would be waiting if evidence was found. Maryam and Sakina, both wear headscarves and have Indian heritage, so they believe it was racial profiling.

These are just two of many such incidents that have occurred in the last few years, so I knew I wouldn’t be the first Muslim to be kicked off a plane for reading Arabic.

*

As I read the last few words of prayer, the plane prepares to take off. My lungs settle back down and my heart slows. I am safe.

But if someone had reported me based on an assumption, what would have happened?

Arabic is the sixth-most spoken language in the world. It is also the language widely spoken by groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, who have increasingly been made media celebrities since 9/11. When the phrase “Allahu Akbar” is yelled by someone right before a terrorist attack, like what happened at the Berlin Christmas Markets in 2016, we are naturally going to feel scared when we hear someone on the street saying those words. And when images of terrorist groups clutching signs written in Arabic adorn our news and social media feeds, we are obviously going to associate the script with extremism.

But instead of fostering peace and understanding, and making a distinction between Arabic-speaking terrorists and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, western media and political leaders tend to just generate fear. And when they do so, they just cause hate and division, playing right into the hands of the terrorists they are claiming to counter.

When people are forced to fear for their safety when they do something as simple as speak or read a language other than English, then we as society have a big problem. Just because someone is Arabic speaking not mean they are an ISIS supporter. Rather than harbouring suspicions or hurling accusations, the next time you see a person chatting in Arabic or pouring over some Arabic text, maybe start a conversation with them. Things are not always as they seem. The first step to understanding is asking. When you get an answer, you learn, and it is with this knowledge that we as humans can develop an open mind. A simple conversation can unify any division.

Cover by the author