There are plenty of stories about discrimination against Muslim — or more broadly, brown — people, particularly in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Aided by politicians spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric, violent hate crimes against Muslims have risen sharply in the past year.
For Jiva Akbor, one instance of discrimination on a flight she was on could have turned ugly. But as she later detailed in a Facebook post, it blossomed into an opportunity for bridging the gap between presumptions and reality.
Akbor was traveling from Glasgow to Spain, and her flight was grounded for some 40 minutes. Sitting next to a woman and her 11-year-old son, Akbor took the extra time to catch up on her messages on Whatsapp and found out that the Islamic group she was part of had their gear stolen from the car in London.
"HasbiAllahu la ilaaha illaahu alayhi tawakaltu may Allah make the day easy for you all!" she texted the group.
Akbor then wrote in her post:
The lady sat next to me asked if she could get out, thinking she wanted the toilet, I got up, let her out, and sat back down in my seat. A few moments later she returned and so I got up again and waited for her to take her seat. Only I looked at her face and she was in sheer panic, clearly flustered and didn't get into the seat immediately. I noticed the two (amazingly wonderful) air hostesses were stood behind her, also looking concerned. I smiled to them all and gestured towards the seat so that she could get in but she was hesitating. Then I heard one of the air hostesses say, "You can take your seat, ma'am," to her. But she stood there, with a look of fright on her face. I was confused. For a split second, I thought she had some health issue or something and about to have a panic attack. At that moment, she looked at me and said, 'I saw you write a text message and you wrote Allah on it.' My heart stopped. And I thought Oh Ma Goddd.
Akbor wrote that she realized the clearly terrified woman likely wanted to sit anywhere else besides next to her, and possibly even hoped that Akbor herself would be removed from the flight.
"The thought of all the other incidents recently that had been circulated of other Muslim passengers being judged and removed and heckled came flooding into my head. And the thought, my biggest fear (other than missing my flight altogether!) was playing out in front of my eyes. A solo Muslim lady traveller and this is actually happening," she wrote.
Thankfully, the flight attendants did no such thing and told the woman that she could leave the plane if she felt so strongly about not being there. Reluctantly, she sat back down, and Akbor seized the chance to open up a conversation with the woman and calm her down.
"It took her a few more moments, looking me square in the eye, whilst I fumbled telling her how the message was written [to] send well wishes to my colleagues who had a theft today. I quickly filled her in and told her that 'I'm just a regular Muslim girl traveling, on my way to tour Spain, I was born and bred in Greater Manchester, England and she has nothing to worry about being sat next to me,'" Akbor wrote.
"After about 15 mins of conversation, I could feel her calming down and starting to accept what I was telling her. I rubbed her arm and told her I am not a threat to her. I told her I believe in God and so naturally my conversations often make reference to Him and in written form that is expressed with the word 'Allah.' She went on to tell me she herself was a woman of religion too — Roman Catholic and we continued our conversation about our faiths."
Akbor wrote that the more they talked, the more she saw how regretful the woman was for what happened.
Hours into their conversation, the two of them were fast friends, Akbor wrote that she was even able to laugh at what had happened.
"I wanted to understand the mindset. I asked her, 'So you saw me writing the word 'Allah' and what was the exact thought in your head?' and she said, 'I just thought what if this was like the last message you're sending...' and I laughed, and with each laugh, she apologized. And so I told her, we all make mistakes. And we ALL do make mistakes. And whilst this very serious mistake of hers is literally what is making life difficult for the ordinary Muslim living in the world today, where there are some very very tragic, uncalled for and utterly devastating outcomes for some as a result...today she got lucky with sitting next to the chillest girl ever :), and so it's okay.
And in a message that applies to all those whose thoughts about Muslim people are woefully limited to some variation of "terrorist," Akbor wrote, "I encouraged her to take the time to converse with other Muslims, to not believe the scaremongering of politicians and media outlets out there in the world. And we both understood the real impact it can have on two ordinary folks sat next to each other for a few hours on a flight to Spain. I asked her to think for herself and always with the lens of humanity."
Her new friend even texted her when they were in Spain to wish her a good vacation:
You are a true inspiration and a lovely person.