Why reader Faizah Shaheen’s detention should outrage us all

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At a time of great turbulence and uncertainty in many parts of the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of alarming news stories flooding our airwaves, newspapers and screens. Nevertheless, yesterday I came across a story that shocked me profoundly.

According to the Independent, Faizah Shaheen, a British Muslim woman, was detained at a UK airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act after an air steward reported her for suspicious behaviour last month.

And the suspicious behaviour in question? The 27-year-old National Health Service worker had been reading Syria Speaks, an award-winning art and culture anthology showcasing the work of more than 50 writers and artists challenging violence in their war-torn nation.

Far from an extremist text promoting radicalisation, the book had actually been supported by English PEN, the charity on whose translation funding panel I often sit. Yet, because an air steward thought it suspicious, Shaheen returned from her honeymoon to face 15 minutes of distressing questions from UK police.

This may not sound like much in the face of the extreme hardships and atrocities affecting many others around the globe. However, it points to something deeply disturbing and intimately connected to the cruelty being inflicted on millions by extremists, despots and inhumane policies.

As I discovered during my quest, a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.

To do this, people need to be able to read without looking over their shoulders, without fear of penalties or reprimands. When a person picks up a book, their focus should be on whether they will enjoy it and what they might get from it, on how it could broaden their horizons, rather than on how being associated with it might limit or threaten them.

Without this freedom, the world shrinks and fragments. Frightened to venture beyond the bounds of sanctioned subject matter, we find ourselves locked in an echo chamber, where the same ideas and perspectives reverberate at us time and again, and the Other becomes ever more inscrutable and strange.

Living in that sort of bubble, our appreciation of the humanity, complexity and dignity of those who do not conform to our mores quickly dulls and fades. And when that happens, discrimination, violence and persecution of those others ceases to seem unacceptable, because they are increasingly hard to imagine as people at all.

That is why Faizah Shaheen’s detention enrages me and should enrage all those who value and believe in the free circulation of literature. That is why I join English PEN in condemning what happened. Because, on a fundamental level, the cruellest things human beings do to one another stem from precisely this: preventing people sharing ideas and stories.

Picture by Konrad Förstner on Flickr.com.

13 responses

  1. Hey there, I reblogged your post with the following words:
    I was truly shocked when I read this. How can somebody get detained for reading a book about Syrian artists showing their view on their war-torn nation on an airplane? I neither accept nor understand this narrow-mindedness.

  2. “a sure way to increase our understanding and appreciation of one another’s humanity – and thereby to promote peace – is to share our stories. By imagining the world through other people’s eyes in the extraordinary way that stories enable us to do, we enlarge and enrich our vision, and become better able to respect, value and talk meaningfully with one another.” Absolutely. Wasn’t aware that a woman could be arrested for reading a book if her choice in our times, its like reliving the Nazi past. Thank you for sharing her story. Is she safe now?

      • Yes, of course it undoubtedly is awful. Thank God she had a friend like you that understood that it is awful even it be for only for a minute, and cared enough to take action and write about it. Not everyone is that discerning or sensitive or mindful of what is right and what isn’t.

  3. The world was tribal in the beginning and it is still tribal in 2016. Go to any football match to hear the tribal cries or watch the Olympic games with its multitude of coloured flags. We all move in an inner family tribe which we favour over all outsiders the next layer is the friend extended tribe and finally the nation. In times of plenty and peace we tolerate strangers even partially accept them but when our tribes are perceived to be threatened we act accordingly. What we call civilisation is a thin veneer a suitable label we like to wear when it suits us. Those who try to enter Europe in rickety boats are the rich migrants who have money and can make an escape millions of helpless are left behind its called survival of the fittest and it works throughout the world.

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