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Cricket – ideal therapy for airlines that fear their passengers

August 9, 2016
Moeen-Ali 2

Moeen Ali, English Cricketer

Enough of this nonsense. The flight crews and passengers of airlines that have arbitrarily got Muslim passengers chucked off flights because they “felt uncomfortable” at the sight of people sweating, writing mathematical formulae, reading books about Syria, texting in Arabic and referring to Allah in conversation should gather in London in two days’ time.

There they will see a cricket match between England and Pakistan.

If the recent international in Birmingham is anything to go by, they will witness men with long beards and Pakistani national dress sitting happily alongside white guys dressed as bananas, as bishops and yes, even as crusaders. They will see Moeen Ali, a guy with a long beard, proudly wearing England colours, playing his heart out and embracing his colleagues. The same guy who won the man of the match award for his magnificent batting in the game just finished. They will see young kids in Pakistani colours cheering their team, but applauding the English team with equal enthusiasm. And why not? Strange as it may seem, you can be English without forgetting your foreign heritage.

They will learn that you can be devout without being a terrorist. That appearance is not a reliable predictor of behaviour. And that the 50,000 spectators in Birmingham may have differences in religious belief and social norms, but are united in the love of a game that was born in England and exported to most corners of its former empire, not least to the Asian subcontinent.

If they can’t make it to London, they should come with me to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, and join me in a taxi driven by a native of Peshawar – a stone’s throw from the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and listen to the inevitable conversation about cricket – the smiles, the jokes and the sense of something shared.

Or they should go with me to Bahrain, and meet friends of mine who will introduce them to imams, and take them to Ramadan gatherings where the Quran is recited. Friend who don’t have a violent bone in their bodies, who care far more for their fellow human beings, I sense, than many of the pampered, timorous, “uncomfortable” customers of Western airlines.

A couple of weeks ago, John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, made the point that feelings rather than facts are dominating the current US election campaign. I feel unsafe, and therefore I am unsafe, no matter that the facts suggest otherwise. Which explains why the Muslim couple who were allegedly sweating in the heat in Paris were kicked off their flight to the US. A flight safety issue, said the pilot.

We need to get real. Islam is not going away. Muslims are not going away. Forgive me for the oft-repeated liberal sermon, but we may be in the middle of a surge of terrorist attacks in Europe, but that does not make the millions of people – who may be dressed in a distinctive way, who may have long beards, who may speak the world’s fifth most popular language, and who may read books and newspapers in a script unreadable to most fellow passengers – potential terrorists.

And yes, 9/11 may have cast a long shadow over aviation, but do all the mind-numbing security checks at international airports count for nothing? And the pre-checks, the no-fly lists, the data crunching by the NSA and GCHQ? The enhanced cockpit security? The threat recognition training given to airline staff and airport security employees? Are all of these safeguards to be disregarded just because a passenger “feels uncomfortable”?

I suppose I find this nervousness hard to empathise with because I fly to, from and between Muslim countries on a regular basis. What to me is normal behaviour would cause some passengers to reach for a double dose of Prozac.

What I find unsettling is not someone in the next seat reading the Quran. It’s people  – and I’m not just talking about passengers, by the way – exercising their God-given right to get drunk before boarding an aircraft. And aircraft with bits falling off the interior, where the seats don’t work properly, and whose external paintwork is peeling. Aircrew so rotund that they can barely get through the aisles without banging into passengers on their way, or flight attendants who look as though they’ve just been recruited from a model agency. Flights that are delayed for hours because some “minor problem” that needs to be fixed.

Facts will tell you that terrorism is way down the list of causes of aviation fatalities. They will also tell you that in America far more people are killed by accidental shootings in an average year than terrorists. Even in Europe, your chances of succumbing to a terrorist attack are infinitesimal.

But as we have discovered yet again in this year of toxic elections and referenda, feelings count more than facts. And when feelings – fear, prejudice, hatred – are directed towards minorities, then those minorities will become embattled and bitter. In the case of Muslims, a sense of siege increases the likelihood that they will turn in on themselves and fall for the seductive narrative of the extremists.

What’s to be done? In the short term, Western airlines could help by training their staff to tell the difference between threatening behaviour and non-Western cultural norms. That, for example, when someone says “Allah” –  a word that appears in virtually every second sentence spoken by a devout Muslim – they are not about to commit an atrocity. Even “Allahu Akbar” is not necessary the prelude to a suicide bombing. I have a friend who uses those words when admiring a magnificent plate of fish in a restaurant. Because in his view, God is indeed great to have provided him with such a feast.

They could recruit a few Captain Fatimas to fly their aircraft, and guys called Mohammed to dish out the meals. They could learn how to calm nervous passengers by taking them to one side and assuring them the person next to them is not necessarily a terrorist just because they’re speaking in Arabic before take-off. If they see someone reading a book on Syria, they could engage them in conversation, as in “that’s an interesting-looking book – what’s it about?”

It seems pretty obvious that most of the incidents on aircraft arise from miscommunications – people misreading body language, misinterpreting conversations – and jumping to the wrong conclusions. The fact that in each of the well-publicised recent cases where Muslims have been chucked off aircraft, the travellers are subsequently deemed to be no threat, bears this out.

So better training in the art of communication – and particularly listening skills – would help. Airlines have decades of experience in calming nervous passengers. Is it too much to ask that they learn to deal with irrational fear of Muslim passengers? As many pundits have pointed out over the past couple of years, we are in the grip of a hysteria born of fear and ignorance. Airline staff are clearly as likely to succumb to irrational behaviour as anyone else.

Perhaps that ignorance could be mitigated if pilots and flight attendants working for Western airlines were given training on Islam, its principles and observance, as well as cultural beliefs and practices prevalent in the Muslim world. After all, is it not good business to know your customers?

Muslim passengers also need to be aware of behaviour to avoid in order not to trigger extreme reactions. But they do not deserve to be publicly humiliated by their names and seat locations being called out on the intercom, and being told that they are being watched, as happened on a recent flight in the United States.

As the Guardian pointed out in The perils of “flying while Muslim”, it’s not just Muslims who are on the radar. Just about anyone with a dark skin has an increased chance of being singled out for special attention. And if I – a white, middle-aged traveller with a very British accent  –  more than once came in for close attention from airport security staff in the US in the years following 9/11, presumably by virtue of my passport having lots of visas from Middle Eastern countries, what chance has some poor innocent who “looks like a terrorist”?

Ultimately, the fear of “the other” can only be countered by the societies in which we live. Responsible politicians, religious leaders, civil servants and teachers can play their part. And of course it’s a given that political solutions in the battlegrounds of the Middle East will go a long way towards reducing ideologically-motivated terrorism.

Until then, those of us in England who love our national sport could do far worse than to try and convert America and continental Europe to the joys of cricket, in all its multi-ethnic, multi-faith glory.


From → Middle East, Sport, Travel, UK, USA

  1. So true, subhanaAllah….beautifully articulated😊

  2. I love your pieces, Mr Royston, especially anything to do with cricket and what it represents. I particularly enjoyed your post about the English in Sri Lanka – my good friend was there and had the good sense to not become a lobster! Watching the English team abroad is a brilliant experience and it’s amazing how ‘we’ outnumber the locals and all done with great humour. Cricket does this.
    The current series in the West Indies is a prime example of locals and visitors having a great time with no aggro anywhere to be seen.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you so Nigel. It was my first experience watching England abroad, so I guess I chose well in terms of our performance. Presumably you’re in the Caribbean at the moment. Cricket in W Indies is great fun, though I’ve only watched local matches. Let’s hope our batters pull their socks up in Antigua! Best, Steve

  3. Thanks for the reply, Steve. No, not away this time, sadly. Suffering from lack of sunshine and vitamin D – Cornwall’s been lacking in proper winter weather. No sun. No snow. No mist. No fog. Antigua (where I was once married) is very appealing but funds don’t allow!
    Regards, Nigel

    • Shame. Never mind – spring’s not far away, and Cornwall’s lovely in that time of year, is it not? S

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