Muslim leaders yesterday spoke of their dismay after a passenger mutiny in which several British families refused to travel on a plane with two Asian men.
The men were forced to leave the flight after fellow passengers wrongly suspected them of being terrorists. Several people on board flight ZB 613 from Malaga to Manchester demanded their removal.
Cabin crew informed Spanish authorities and the men were ordered off the Monarch Airlines flight and questioned by police for several hours. They were eventually cleared and put on an alternative flight.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the incident demonstrated the “the high level of suspicion that ordinary Muslims are often being unfairly subjected to” and said that many Muslims were being treated as if they were “guilty unless proven innocent”.
Similar incidents in which people of Asian or Middle Eastern appearances have been targeted by fellow passengers have been reported on pilots’ and cabin crews’ websites, including one in which two British women with young children on a flight from Spain apparently complained about a bearded Muslim man – even though he was security checked twice before boarding the plane.
Mr Bari said he hoped it would not lead to a growing culture of targeting Muslims. “While it is of course sensible for all of us to be vigilant, it is not sensible to pick on Muslims simply because they happen to dress differently or appear to be speaking to each other in Arabic,” he said.
The plane bound from Malaga, which had 150 passengers on board, was due to take off at around 3am, last Wednesday, but was delayed by around three hours after three families refused to enter the Airbus 320 aircraft unless the men were removed, and a further two families with children left the plane in protest.
Heath Schofield, an industrial chemical salesman from Cheshire, who was travelling with his wife and two daughters, Emily, 15, and Isobel, 12, said some passengers had become alarmed by the men’s appearance. “We were coming back to Britain with a load of people in flipflops and shorts but the two men were wearing jumpers and leather jackets,” he said.
His wife, Jo Schofield, a college lecturer, said there was a “pin-drop’s silence” when the men entered the cabin, and that theywere eventually led off by police, with their heads bowed, as people watched in silence. She said suspicion was aroused after a passenger had earlier claimed to have heard them say something alarming in Arabic.
She said she was “frightened” by how quickly people’s attitudes had changed and was worried for the future. “For years we have put a lot of time and effort as a society into making Britain culturally diverse and politically correct with equal opportunities and now people are changing their opinions.People are becoming frightened and are judging and labelling people,” Mrs Schofield said.
Muslim community leaders in Manchester were outraged. Councillor Afzal Khan, a former lord mayor, described the incident as the “rule of the mob” and said that he was “disappointed” at the decision to eject the men from the flight
But a spokesman for Monarch defended their decision. “The captain was concerned about the security surrounding the two gentlemen on the aircraft and the decision was taken to remove them for further security checks.”