In July 2011, Sayyed Chowdury was on his way to Egypt to learn Arabic when he was stopped by plain-clothes security officers at Heathrow Airport and consequently interrogated for being a “potential terrorist”. Here is his story:
Me and another brother were on route to Egypt to study Arabic in Alexandria. Ever since I was a child, with the influence of my brother who also sought his studies in Arabic at Al Azhar University, I yearned to learn Arabic too.
The idea of understanding the divine words of Allah (swt) was something any Muslim aspires to. Little did I know that this dream was about to be shattered.
I hate the airport at the best of times, but this was something else, especially as my brother and I were so excited to go to Egypt. He’d even bought new smart luggage that he could travel with, but our excitement was soon quelled. My ordeal began after we checked into the airport and placed our hand luggage through the scanner. It was then a group of plain clothes security officers tapped our shoulders to get our attention.
I scanned them hoping to find a badge of authority but there was nothing. The officers separated us both and took my friend to another side whilst the other began questioning me in public. He told me that he had already sent someone to recover my main luggage from the depot, at this moment I knew something serious was about to happen.
I stood there in amazement. I thought to myself that I wore no kufi, thobe or had a Quran with me, hardly any form of “extreme” Islamic attire defined by western governments.
They began lifting my hand luggage aggressively and slammed it down on a counter. They unzipped it and rummaged through my belongings. Scores of people watched as I did, but sadness overtook me when I saw a gift my mother got me that rolled out and all I could do was stare helplessly, hoping it never got damaged. I felt like a refugee in my own country.
They eventually found what they were searching for. A reason to detain me under the suspicion of involvement in terrorism under the Terrorism act 2002 and my rights were read to me on the spot.
My worries worsened as they handed me a piece of paper, telling me to read and sign it. I asked myself, what did they find in my luggage? Am I being framed? What did I do? They’re lying.
After making me read my rights on a piece of paper, my eyes blurred, still shocked at what was happening, I politely asked them: “what is it I have done officers?” The officers looked at each other smugishly and replied “all would be told in due time Mr Chowdury”. I thought “what time is he talking about”, my flight is in two hours.
I still thought this was all a big joke, so innocently asked them “you guys are kidding me right?” They glared at me as I sat on the table next to my scattered belongings. So many different thoughts and unanswered questions were crossing my mind at this point.
I scrutinized myself thinking what image have I projected to them that made them put me through such an ordeal? I wore three quarter bottoms with trainers and a bright t-shirt. I therefore had no “overt” religious attire that displayed anything remotely to do with “terrorism” or “extremism”.
A woman approached the officers holding papers in her hand. She spoke quietly ensuring I could not hear what was being said. I tried examining these papers from a distance with no avail.
One of the officers approached me and said “Mr Chowdury, why are you going to Egypt?” I froze thinking is this a trick question? Why are they asking me this? I replied “I am going to see if Alexandria is a suitable place to study Arabic”. He then asked “so why is your friend Mr N***** suggesting otherwise?”
I thought why would my friend say otherwise? Do I accuse these officers of lying and cause more problems for us? So I answered “you must have heard him wrong officer, we were both hoping to study Arabic, that’s all”.
The officer was holding what looked like one of my folders that he had found in my hand luggage. I asked a little aggressively this time “why are you stopping us? I have my flight in two hours, what have I done wrong?” He ignored me and asked me yet another question, “Mr Chowdury, do not lie to us, we know exactly why you’re going to Egypt, just tell us the truth?”
Before I could respond, a different group of men approached me and told me to follow them. The group of men took my luggage and led me down a corridor into a remote office. I saw a table and three chairs chained and bolted to the ground, empty white walls with a recording device in front of me. Things seemed to be getting worse because I knew it was an interrogation room.
A different man and woman came in with a bundle of papers and my passport, and sat down in front of me. There was an eerie silence before the woman offered me a drink of water which I refused thinking they could possibly link my thirst with nervousness or guilt.
The man said: “You do not have the right to remain silent, if you do not answer our questions it maybe used against you in the future if convicted, and you can be detained for up to 90 days without trial.”
My whole world froze at that statement; I thought Allah (swt) has sent this is as a test for me but one I never imagined I’d face. I realised what was happening as it sunk in slowly. He told me to sign the paper and refusal to do so could result in further investigation and possible conviction.
I felt subdued and signed the paper. A part of me regretted this but at this point I just wanted this nightmare to finish.
I was interrogated for five hours in intervals. The “evidence” they had found was an essay I wrote when I was 15 for my PSHE class on nuclear disarmament and human rights.
This essay was in my national record of achievements folder and I didn’t even know. Whilst being interrogated, I was asked about jihad, Anjem Choudary, Shariah law, Al Qaida, the Mubarak regime, views about British soldiers and so forth.
With the help of Allah (swt), I remained calm though frightened inside. I kept thinking about the trials and tribulations of great scholars like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Ahmed and Ibn Taymiyya. I responded with hikmah, smiling whilst sticking to my principles about those specific topics, I found ways around answering them and didn’t give them a reason to doubt.
Eventually I was released, I missed my flight and my dream to study Arabic was destroyed.