Culture In Transit

Islamophobia: A Self-Inflicted Terror on a Plane

July 15, 2017

If you’ve seen “United 93” or any other terrorist movie, you would have an idea that someone screaming “Allaahu ‘Akbar” out of a nowhere could spell danger. Imagine my terror having had to hear those words before a flight towards the most Muslim of Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia. My body turned into jelly, I could not move. I didn’t want to move. Things had definitely gotten out of control. I wished to evaporate.

By definition, Islamophobia is the fear, hatred of, or prejudice against, the Islamic religion or Muslims generally, especially when seen as a geopolitical force or the source of terrorism.

June 3, 2011, on-board a Royal Brunei Airlines flight from Brunei to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I had the longest and most psychologically draining ten-hour flight of my life, all because of my wrong beliefs. I was so terrified, I would have fainted right on spot had anyone laid me a finger.

Truth be told, my acceptance of my current work here in Jeddah was born out of desperation. When I was looking for overseas employment then, I told myself I’d accept a job anywhere in the world but never would I step a foot in Saudi Arabia. Who would brave to work in a country where men are being beheaded for the simplest reasons like staring at a woman’s face? But look where I am now, still masticating the strict instructions I gave myself several years earlier. I would want to narrate the details in full but, in all Maz Kanata fashion, “it’s a good question for another time.”

So I was set on a one-way flight to Jeddah with a few hours stopover in Bandar Seri Begawan. The first leg of the flight was a breeze. I was seated between two ladies: a college student on her way to visit her mother in Brunei; and an older lady who kept feeding me with all her in-flight food (she’s “allergic to almost everything, even broccoli and carrots”). I was chatting left and right with whoever was awake. The final leg of the flight, on the other hand, was the source of my imaginary terror.

The stopover was actually bearable, too. I was able to easily avoid any trouble by keeping myself from conversations and avoiding too much roaming around. But the tension began to rise when the call for boarding was announced and we were directed to the waiting area. No, I did not possess anything to spell trouble at the immigration, but as soon as I saw the people I would be boarding with, cold flashes began rushing towards my spine, draining me of all my energy. You know that familiar feeling when you just realized an unavoidable trouble is coming your way? Think of that little child who, upon hearing his mother’s voice calling, cowers in a corner to avoid punishment for having broken an expensive vase. That exact feeling.

My estimate was that there was only less than five percent of us “regular” passengers in the waiting area. The rest were wearing distinct garbs suggestive of their being Muslims. Both men and women. I had to be in an aircraft thousands of miles above the ground with Muslims. FOR TEN FREAKING HOURS. In my mind, I was questioning the gods for having allowed me to be in that kind of situation. Had I made the wrong decision of accepting the job offer? What if I accidentally stared at one of them, or stepped on someone’s foot? Was I getting myself beheaded for that very reason?

I was staring at my feet the whole time to avoid unnecessary eye contact.

To make things worse, there were no English announcements in the paging system. Was I on the wrong flight? Was it time for boarding yet? I had no idea, and never in my life had I been that afraid to ask questions.

Fortunately, I got myself into the plane with the whole of me still intact. I was on a window seat, and since there weren’t too many passengers, the lady who was supposed to be seated on my side moved to a different area. It made me a bit calm. Until the pilot announced preparations for take-off and a prayer in Arabic was broadcast.

Allaahu ‘Akbar, Allaahu ‘Akbar, Allaahu ‘Akbar, Subhaanal-lathee sakhkhara lanaa haathaa wa maa kunnaa lahu muqrineen. Wa ‘innaa ‘ilaa Rabbinaa lamunqaliboon. Allaahumma ‘innaa nas’aluka fee safarinaa haathal-birrawattaqwaa, waminal-‘amalimaa tardhaa, Allaahumma hawwin ‘alaynaa safaranaa haathaa watwi ‘annaa bu’dahu, Allaahumma ‘Antas-saahibu fis-safari, walkhaleefatu fil-‘ahli, Allaahumma ‘innee ‘a’oothu bika min wa’thaa’is-safari, wa ka’aabanl-mandhari, wa soo’il-munqalabi fil-maaliwal’ahli.

‘Aa’iboona, taa’iboona, ‘aabidoona, Lirabbinaa haamidoon.

Dua for travelling

“Allaahu ‘Akbar.”

If you’ve seen “United 93” or any other terrorist movie, you would have an idea that someone screaming “Allaahu ‘Akbar” out of a nowhere could spell danger. Imagine my terror having had to hear those words before a flight towards the most Muslim of Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia. My body turned into jelly, I could not move. I didn’t want to move. Things had definitely gotten out of control. I wished to evaporate.

To avoid too much thinking, I slept most of the time during the flight. I didn’t even accept the in-flight meals I was offered. Also, I would usually collect in-flight magazines (yes, it is allowed) but this is one of the rare occasions that I did not care to grab one. In my book, that is totally not normal.

After ten grueling hours, I was able to land safely in Jeddah. And except for the time I thought I was the one being apprehended by the ground officers and had to stand unnecessarily under the scorching afternoon sun, there wasn’t any untoward incident between my time at the immigration and the arrival area. Never had I felt so relieved when I met the Filipino driver set to fetch me at the airport.

These all happened at a time when all I know about Saudi Arabia was the Gulf Wars, and that men were being stoned, flogged and beheaded all for looking at a woman’s face. That people were being framed up and punished for being falsely accused of illegal acts like stepping on a loose page of the Holy Quran. All of which wasn’t necessarily true, except for the previous wars.

It’s been six years now yet my head is still above my shoulders, I’m still alive. And during the span of those years, I have met, worked and hanged out with a lot of Muslims. Friends, colleagues, and strangers who made me realize that Muslims are not so different from everyone else. They’d crack jokes and laugh at the most mundane of things. They’d watch their favorite sports, cheer for the team they root for, and heckle the opposing teams as everyone else would. They’ll have opinions on politics and current events, and be as angry and sympathizing with news of wars, bombings, and terrorism. And most importantly, they’d be as respecting of your religion despite your being the least understanding. They are as human as everyone else. Sure, there are cases of bad eggs here and there but they will never represent the better majority.

Looking back at that experience made me realize how I had been so dumb, irrational, and completely uninformed. It was an experience I would never forget, and one that would always give me a silly smile. This is what ignorance does to people. Such a shame that we have too much misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and the Muslims in general. It was indeed a lesson I learned the strangest way.

To end this, I hope I was able to convey the message to everyone. Muslim does not automatically translate to terrorism. Muslims are not terrorists. Sure, some terrorists are Muslims, but they could have just been as confused. Muslims are God-fearing people. I may be Catholic but, if I am to be honest, I have gained a higher regard for most Muslims than most of the people of my own religion. I have openly expressed this in the past.

Islamophobia is such a lonely word. Everyone is so irrational.

  • Reply
    Shella Baltazar
    July 16, 2017 at 8:13 PM

    “They are as human as everyone else.” Yes, they are. My best friend is a Muslim and she is one of the most insightful people I’ve met. And I really hope people can see them more than the faith they believed in.

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      July 17, 2017 at 7:24 AM

      Thanks for commenting Shella. And to add to that, “Allaahu Akbar” actually means “Allah is the Most Great,” but the way the movies portray them, it kind of give the impression that the phrase is a signal to start causing terror.

  • Reply
    Helene Choo
    September 20, 2017 at 6:38 AM

    Amazing post! Shows a lot of tolerance and openness of mind from your side, which are the most important human qualities aside from kindness in my mind. If only all humans thought like you. Thanks for sharing, I completely agree with your perspective.

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      September 20, 2017 at 7:05 PM

      Thank you Helene. Understanding all of our diversities, I think, is the key.

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