Thompson Airways, Syria Speaks and Thoughtcrime

My colleague Jo Glanville was on the Victoria Derbyshire programme last Friday, condemning the treatment of Faizah Shaheen by Thompson Airways.

Faizah Shaheen and Joanna Gosling
Faizah Shaheen (pictured) and Jo Glanville were interviewed by Joanna Gosling on the BBC Victoria Derbshire Programme. You can watch the interview on the BBC iPlayer until 19 August 2017.
Last year, Faizah was reported to counter-terrorism police by Thompson Airways staff after she was seen reading Syria Speaks, a book about the art and culture that has persisted in Syria despite the hideous civil war that has ravaged the country.

Some viewers watching the programme were extremely dismissive of Faizah’s complaint and the wider freedom of expression concerns that Jo Glanville raised.

There were many responses of this kind and they are beguiling in their simplicity. So they deserve an answer.

First, it is now well known that the security services missed several opportunities to stop Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber. They did not properly follow up on reports from his mosque that he had been espousing violence. Clearly, the security services are already overloaded and under-resourced. Detaining someone merely because they were reading a book is not a good use of their time. The police are not questioning honeymooners in order to stop terrorists. They are questioning honeymooners instead of stopping terrorists.

Second, the fact that Ms Shaheen was ‘only’ stopped and questioned for half-an-hour is cited as a reason why the detention was acceptable. But this only raises the question of how long would the detention have to last before it became unacceptable? 45 minutes? An hour? Two hours? 42 days? I take a binary view on this point: either detaining someone for questioning is justified or it is not. The time spent being interrogated is secondary.

Third, the time spent in detention, however short, created a palpable fear and genuine distress. In October, Faizah spoke at length about this to Deutsche Welle (I also spoke on the programme). The questioning under Schedule 7 was demeaning and has a profound effect on those subjected to it. And it leaves a lasting fear—in the mind of the person who actually experienced it, but also on anyone from a similar background.

A recent video from the United States demonstrates the end point of these supposedly minor detentions: a population that is suspicious and scared of the security services.

The fourth reason why the detention of Faizah Shaheen is outrageous is that it establishes Reading A Book as an acceptable reason to call the police, and for citizens to inform and denounce on each other. Causing the people to turn on one another through suspicion or just vindictiveness is a classic tactic in the playbook of illiberal governments. Anjan Sundaram’s Bad News: Last Journalists In A Dictatorship eloquently sets out how the government has turned the people into informants on one another. Trivial acts can trigger suspicion and harassment. Society breaks down and only the Government remains.

Things are worse in Pakistan, where feuds between neighbours result in accusations of blasphemy and the threat of execution.

If we do not take a stand at so-called ‘trivial’ violations of freedom of expression, then more people will be reported to the police by citizens who want to get someone into trouble. And more people will ‘play it safe’ by avoiding books like Syria Speaks or anything that engages with the Arabic and Muslim world.

These are all pragmatic reasons why we should resist even minor affronts to the freedom to read. But we should also remember the fundamental moral case against the detention of Faizah Shaheen. To detain and question someone because they are reading a book is to condone the idea of thoughtcrime. As Jo Glanville said during the BBC interview

… freedom of expression means the freedom to read as well as the freedom to write. And you would expect in a free society, in an open society, that we can read whatever we like in our homes, on public transport, anywhere. And that what we are reading should never be used as evidence of some kind of criminal intent.

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