What should a typical Muslim male look like?

Why the Ryanair chief executive's suggestion that Muslim men be made to undergo more strenuous security checks at airports is impractical, racist and dangerous

United Arab Emirates - Dubai - August 2, 2010.

BUSINESS: Travelers go through a security check point at Dubai International Airport Terminal 2 in Dubai on Monday, August 2, 2010. Amy Leang/The National
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Last month, Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary suggested that Muslim men should be made to undergo more strenuous security checks at airports because potential terrorists will "generally be males of a Muslim persuasion". Unfortunate as the comment was, it was just as troubling that it came from someone who runs Europe's biggest airline, which even offers budget flights to Muslim-majority countries such as Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan.

Anyone who is Muslim or even looks Muslim – whatever that means – will tell you that air travel is already a fraught and distressing experience. There are reports of a disproportionate number of "random checks", often leading to missed flight connections. You will recall US President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban issued regarding travellers from certain Muslim-majority countries. And simply speaking Arabic or spuriously making others "uncomfortable" has led to Muslim passengers being targeted by crew, or removed from the flights. The experience is so pervasive that it has its own hashtag #FlyingWhileMuslim.

In addition to his comment, Mr O’Leary also complained that "you can’t say stuff, because it’s racism". But isn't scrutinising an entire group of people for being one particular thing the very definition of racism – in this case Islamophobia?

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary gestures during an AFP interview at A4E aviation summit in Brussels on March 3, 2020.   / AFP / Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD
Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary gestures during an interview in Brussels. AFP

Interestingly, it was as though he was acknowledging – albeit inadvertently – that what he said amounts to racism. He also claimed "you can't say stuff", although as chief executive of Europe's biggest airline whose comments appeared in The Times newspaper, the UK's newspaper of record, that is clearly not true.

What Mr O’Leary said is clearly problematic, because the path to institutionalising bigotry is paved with securing the supposed interests of a majority for which minorities should pay the price. In this case, already-vilified Muslim men should supposedly accept the situation wherein they are treated as potential terrorists to make other people feel safer.

But even if we are to leave aside the consequence of what he said, the proposal would simply not work.

For instance, what would "a male of a Muslim persuasion" look like? Would he resemble Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah or British actor Riz Ahmed? Or might he be closer to Yusuf Islam, the British singer more commonly known by his stage name Cat Stevens, or, perhaps, the famous American performer, Jermaine Jackson? For that matter, would he resemble any of the 900 million Muslim men from every culture, ethnicity and geography in the world?

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah reacts during the English FA Cup fifth round soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge stadium in London Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Ian Walton)
Would a stereotypical Muslim male look like Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, or Riz Ahmed, or Jermaine Jackson? AP Photo

If they are looking for stereotypical images – sporting a beard or wearing a small white cap and a long thobe – then airport security might be able to harass ordinary Muslim men with an identikit photo. But history has shown us that evil individuals who have carried out attacks on aeroplanes were dressed to slip under the radar.

Unfortunately, it is well-meaning individuals – including even public figures – who are constantly searched at airports. For instance, Riz Ahmed was once unable to attend an event marking the release of the Star Wars movie franchise because the US Department of Homeland Security prevented him from travelling. "It's really scary to be a Muslim right now, super scary," he said. Indeed, he is not alone in facing such issues.

To be fair to Mr O’Leary, he did make one interesting point about terrorists being largely single males who travelled on their own. "If you are travelling with a family of kids, on you go: the chance you are going to blow them all up is [expletive] zero,” he said. While this assertion might be true for the most part, the issue is with singling out Muslims, who are just as likely, often more so, to be victims of terrorism.

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 21: Riz Ahmed is seen at the "Mogul Mowgli" press conference during the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Riz Ahmed has complained about being racially profiled at airports. Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Comments to that effect encourage homogenisation and collective scrutiny that, aside from making intelligence gathering arguably more difficult, essentially props up the institution of racism. The public place is already hostile towards Muslim men, given the challenges they face while seeking jobs, mortgages and insurance. Even walking safely on the streets is not a guarantee.

Comments such as that of Mr O'Leary feed into the wider context of hatred and extremism. Specifically, they boost far-right extremism, which has increasingly become an issue in Europe and other parts of the world. In fact, his remarks came shortly after nine people were killed by a right-wing extremist in two shisha cafes in the German town of Hanau. It was also the same week when the muezzin of London Central Mosque was stabbed. Meanwhile, Delhi is still reeling from the worst communal riots in its history.

As those events suggest, things are hard enough for Muslims already.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World