What EasyJet's treatment of a Christian 'terrorist' says about race, fear and common sense

 Christian Laolu Opebiyi was removed from an Easyjet flight.Reuters

Last November I was on my way home from India. At Delhi airport I was in an interminable airport security queue. I noticed a bag hanging on one of the stanchions, apparently not belonging to anyone. The queue shuffled forwards a little, the bag stayed where it was.

A few minutes went by. I – and others – were looking at it uneasily. The obvious scenarios were playing through our heads. Were we, in fact, only feet away from a bomb that would blow us to pieces and spread bloody ruin through a crowded departure hall? After a titanic internal battle between the fear of dying and the uniquely British fear of making a fuss, I told a security guard. It was nothing, of course.

So I have rather more sympathy with the nervous EasyJet passenger who reported a Christian as a suspect terrorist when he saw a WhatsApp message about prayer on his phone than most people might.

For those who haven't followed this, Londoner Laolu Opebiyi, a Christian, was aboard a flight waiting to take off from Luton Airport to Amsterdam last Thursday when his neighbour saw a message from the ISI (Iron Sharpens Iron) prayer group and misread it as ISIS.

His accuser asked him, "What do you mean by prayer?" before walking to the cockpit and asking to leave the plane. Six other passengers also left. He was ordered off by security officials who questioned him and asked him if he was converting to Islam.

It's not unreasonable to be vigilant about terrorism. But there are two things here that are really worrying.

The first is this: we have to suspect that Opebiyi, originally from Nigeria, may have been targeted because of his race. The likelihood that I, for instance, a middle-aged white Brit, would have sparked a stampede for the plane doors with a message about prayer on my phone is vanishingly small. The identification of Islamic State supporters with particular ethnic groups is not only inaccurate – there are white British converts fighting with them – but it leads to the insidious demonization of whole sections of the population. When we are less likely to trust someone because of their colour, we have gone to a very bad place.

Secondly, this: the airline, and the police, appear to have wildly over-reacted. All that needed to happen was for a steward to see his phone and explain the message to the anxious passenger. If the passenger didn't choose to fly, that's his lookout. As it is, it's Laolu Opebiyi who has suffered embarrassment and inconvenience, and who has well-founded grounds for fearing he may now be on a terrorist watch-list. If I were him, I think I would be looking for rather substantial compensation, as well as a better apology from EasyJet than the one he actually got ("We would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused to the passenger", forsooth.)

Opebiyi told the Guardian: "If we keep on giving into this kind of bigotry and irrational fear, I dare say that the terrorists will have achieved their aim." That's exactly right. When fear makes us act irrationally and unjustly, we've lost something very valuable. But that is exactly what's happening.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods