TRAVELERS ARE JITTERY AFTER AIR PLOT ARRESTS
At an airport in Spain, a terrified 12-year-old girl began crying and pointing at two passengers, both Muslim college students, fueling a panic that led to their removal from the plane. A West Virginia airport terminal was evacuated when officials wrongly suspected that luggage belonging to a woman of Pakistani descent contained liquid explosives. A Muslim doctor was escorted off a United Airlines flight in Denver after passengers became suspicious when he recited prayers.
A growing number of these kinds of incidents in recent days suggest how jittery and suspicious air travelers have become. Since British police announced earlier this month that they had broken up an alleged plot by young British Muslims to bomb jetliners flying from Britain to the United States, passengers and pilots are reporting high anxiety in the skies.
Some say the feeling is an understandable response to extraordinarily unsettling events involving airplanes, beginning with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But many Muslims — and even Sikhs and other non-Muslim people who appear Asian — say they are suffering for doing nothing more than “TWA: traveling while Asian.”
“They were looking at us like we were going to blow them up,” said Sohail Ashraf, 22, a student at the University of Manchester and one of the two men, both British, removed from the plane in Malaga, Spain. Ashraf, who was returning from a quick break after exams, said armed security agents escorted him off the Monarch Airlines flight to Manchester, England.
“When people see brown skin they get scared,” Ashraf, who was born in Britain and has Pakistani roots, said in an interview.
Ashraf said he fit the ethnic profile of many of the suspects arrested earlier this month in the airline bomb plot. But that, he said, doesn’t make him guilty: “I hate terrorists.”
Ashraf said an elderly woman sitting next to him on the plane started staring intently at him when he began speaking to his friend, Khurram Zeb, 22, in Urdu. “She even started questioning me — like how long I was in Malaga, and when I said, ‘One day,’ she clearly thought that was weird,” he said.
Other passengers reported that the students, who were wearing jeans and light jackets, and not the shorts and beach attire of most of the passengers, stood out and seemed suspicious. After the 12-year-old girl started crying and pointing at them, Ashraf said, “10 people came toward our seats and stared at us in a bad way.”
An airport official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the atmosphere on the plane was so “nasty” that the men, even though they had cleared security and were actually “sweet,” had to be asked to leave the plane because passengers were leading a mutiny.
“It’s right that people are on guard,” said Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. But he said that “security action must be intelligence-led, not appearance-led.”