Dr Asim Qureshi is the research director at advocacy group CAGE. You can follow him on Twitter @AsimCP.
On 27 July 2019, I was stopped at Heathrow Terminal 5 by British counter-terrorism police after almost two weeks of teaching abroad.
Almost immediately after disembarking my plane, I saw a queue of people waiting to have their passports checked by police. I had large headphones on and was listening to an audio telling of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘100 Years of Solitude’, not feeling any sense of threat, I proceeded to approach them with my headphones still on. The Asian officer checked my passport, flicked through it and motioned me to stand to follow him to one side.
As I followed him, I can’t deny that anxiety set in as I felt this was about to be a stop under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. I knew I had nothing to worry about, but it did not stop my body from increasing my heart rate considerably and pumping blood more quickly – it seemed my body didn’t like this one bit at all. I travel a great deal for work, and thumbing through all of my visas, the officer stated in a concerned way that I travelled a lot. I briefly explained that my work required this travel at which point he said he would like me to join him for a brief chat in another room. What annoyed me the most at this time, was that my elevated heart rate meant that I was tripping over my own words as my brain was redirecting resources to my body, when what I needed was to be able to think and respond cogently. It was a good reminder to me that encounters with the police are never without anxiety, for they seemingly have all the power.
I don’t think I was able to hide my annoyance at this and explained that I had a taxi waiting for me outside and this would be both inconvenient and costly. The officer tried to reassure me that it would not take long at all but that he would need any electronic devices on my person. I was already aware of the legislation and questioned first if I was being detained under schedule 7. The officer confirmed this was the case, but said I was not under arrest, but merely detained under the power. I said I would prefer not to hand over my devices, but the officer insisted that I must. At this point I wasn’t interested in playing games and then expressed that he should be clear and say that he was using the law to coerce my compliance. Immediately after taking my devices, they requested I give them my passwords, and again I made them confirm that this was not an optional request, but one they were choosing to coerce. I did not have any client sensitive data on my devices, and so I proceeded to hand over my iPad and iPhone.
The officers thanked me for my cooperation but saw from my face that I was in no mood to take their thanks with any seriousness. From this point until we entered the interrogation room, I merely responded in monosyllabic tones – I had no desire to engage in chit-chat about the weather or anything else mundane – they were not my friends.
Coercion is not “choice”
As soon as we entered the room, they asked how I would like to be referred to, Asim or Mr Qureshi. As you can well imagine, this was the perfect moment for me to use my recent doctorate and so I informed them that actually I would prefer Dr Qureshi from which point on was how they would refer to me. As they had taken my iPad and I had no writing materials, I requested a pen and paper which they swiftly provided, followed by me taking their badge numbers and writing down descriptions of them in large writing – eliciting a sly grin from the white officer:
One Asian officer, heavy build with rotund belly (now that I think about it, he looked a little like Roark Junior from ‘Sin City’).
The officers sat down to their order of business, explaining that they would need to read some papers to me that I would be required to sign, starting with the Notice of Detention. I signed the document knowing full well the consequence of refusing to do so. They then politely requested I sign a consent form to have my fingerprints, DNA and photographs taken, as well as have my bags checked.
I laughed aloud at this and said how was it possible for them to request my permission, when the two options I had was sign their form or be arrested for a terrorism offence? I explained that this was not a choice, but a matter of coercion through the law. They apologised and said they would need for me to sign the documents, at which point I did so.
After signing my coerced permission, one of the white officers apologised again and said that they were only doing their jobs. This phrase…changed absolutely everything for me. At that moment a calm descended on my brain and my heart that up until now had been feeling anxiety, and I went into a completely different state – I went into teaching mode:
“You know, there was a political theorist named Hannah Arendt that I think you should both look into. She became famous for writing a number of very important books, but the one most meaningful in this exchange of ours is called ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’. You may be familiar with the story of Adolf Eichmann – he was the Nazi captured by the Israelis and put on trial for his role in the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt sat through his trial and by the end wrote that what was so horrific for her, was not that there was some diabolical evil taking place in Nazi society, but that the evil was so banal. She termed it the ‘banality of evil’ because everyone simply got on with whatever unconscionable legislation told them to. When you say to me, that you are just doing your jobs in holding up a racist profiling law, I don’t just hear you, I hear the echoes of Nazism.”
I’ll be honest, I don’t think either of these men were expecting this. They looked at me a little dumbfounded before the Asian officer broke the silence by ‘explaining’ to me, which I guess in his mind was an extremely cogent argument, that they needed my DNA etc, just in case I was wanted as an axe murderer in Slovakia. As politely as they were talking to me, and to be fair they were both exceptionally polite men, I responded that with all due respect, out of all the men in the room, I was the least likely to ever kill or hurt another human being.
Treated like a criminal
As one officer left the room, I started to be put through the exceptionally humiliating process of having my fingerprints taken in a computer system. One by one he would press down on my digits, just to make sure they were perfectly taken. I was then photographed by the officer like a criminal, with him finally taking swabs from my mouth. The whole process was completely unnecessary, but speaks to how desperate they are to use their coercive power to take as much information as they can, using the moment of vulnerability when in no other circumstance of civic life would it be acceptable to take such information.
After this ended, my rucksack was searched. The officer began going through it remarking on how unbelievably well organised it was, to which I had to respond that it wasn’t really done for his benefit, but rather for my own. A moment of hilarity ensued as he removed the book I am currently reading, ‘Muslim women and white femininity’ by the Palestinian/Kuwaiti scholar Dr Haneen Shafeeq Ghabra. The officer could see all of my tabs that I had used to highlight interesting passages in the book, and could see his befuddlement as he sought to understand passages around intersectional feminism. The book was taken away and later I saw notes that copies had been made of my tabs. I wonder how this work will be logged against my file!
There was a brief break in the proceedings as a supervising officer came to check in on me and explain that he would be supervising the visit every two hours to ensure that procedures were being followed correctly. I told him the officers had been perfectly professional and polite and that I took no issue with their conduct, only the process. He explained that they would call my wife to let her know I was ok and I requested that I be permitted to make the call on speakerphone as it would help to allay her anxiety if she heard from me directly. The officer considered the matter for a moment and then said that as I had been courteous throughout the process, he would permit the call which I then made when the other officers returned.
As the interview began again. I asked them to confirm that they had not stopped me due to advanced intelligence, and the Asian officer explicitly stated on record that it had been a suspicionless stop, which I remarked was a profiling stop. He said that the extent of my travel in my passport had highlighted the need to ask further questions.
“Good Muslim” or “bad Muslim”?
The same officer then began immediately to ask me about my religion. I said Islam. He then asked me if I was a practising Muslim, and I confirmed that I was indeed practising my faith. He finally asked what type of Muslim I was, and this was where I refused to go any further. I stated that the legislation required them to investigate whether or not I appeared to be a person who is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation or acts of terrorism, and that I did not understand how my practise of Islam was relevant to their inquiry. The white officer then ‘police-splained’ to me how some people were concerned that interpretations of Islam might be linked to extremism, eliciting a wide-eyed and mouth opened response from me. I again said that this question wasn’t worth answering as it would not assist them in anyway as far as their investigations were concerned and that frankly it was exercising a racist pathology of my faith.
The interview was interrupted again as a white male and female officer came into the interrogation room in order to search my suitcase in complete silence. I began to smirk as I saw them pick up each piece of clothing and check it carefully for anything that might be hidden, including inside each pocket, collar and any other place where things could be concealed. I laughed on the inside as I thought how lucky they were to be checking the underwear of a Muslim who washes himself, otherwise I can’t imagine what kind of urine and faeces marks they might have to contend with!
I had been flicking through some other books while I had been abroad, and so the male officer picked out of my suitcase ‘When We Were Arabs’, ‘COINTELPRO’ and ‘Order of First Magnitude’, the latter two specifically about the FBI’s counter-intelligence programme. The books were studied carefully before notes being taken on them.
We’re not friends
When the check finally finished and they found nothing objectionable, the first two officers returned and restarted the interview. The questions this time focused on my views on domestic and foreign policy. Again, I gave them the same response that I was not interested at all in answering questions that had nothing to do with the specific line of questioning that the law allows. They changed track and tried to use the fact that I was well educated on these matters as a way of eliciting a response. I laughed and said they were making it out as if we were friends looking to have a casual chat. I reiterated that in the current form we were in, the choices I had were to answer or to go to prison – the latter of which I had no real desire to do.
I said this conversation was a vertical relationship, between those who had power and someone who had none, and therefore there was violence built into their questions.
I said that if they wanted they could read any of my published works on any of these matters, but were instead using the moment to coerce responses that could only ever be based on their terms, rather there be a discussion based on mutual trust and respect. I further explained that while I was able to articulate this myself, there would be many older and younger people who would not be able to express the anxiety they feel in such moments, and so it was unfair of them to use the power for these types of questions.
The Asian officer then changed track and asked me about the books I was carrying, in particular the ones on COINTELPRO. I said I was happy to explain that I worked in my life against racist police profiling policies, and a good example would be the very situation I was currently in, hence why it was important for me to study other examples. I then went on to explain the work I have previously written on in the context of rap music in the early 90s, and the way young black men were pathologised for the music they would listen to. I repeatedly used the word epistemology in order to explain how the very fundamental ways in which they had constructed threats, were based on racism, and that they were in fact making things more difficult for communities, rather than building long-term relationships of trust.
After three hours of being detained by these officers, I had my things finally returned to me. I asked the officers to confirm on the record that nothing had been installed onto my devices and that they had not cloned my devices in any way, they confirmed both things. I was then escorted out of the airport, where I left the officers by saying that if nothing else, they provided me some autoethnographic material to write about.