By Dr. Aslam Abdullah
Every day, hundreds of passengers, mostly Muslims, returning from their countries of origin or arriving as tourists are held at various international airports across the U.S. for long hours of questioning by security staff for reasons best known to only Washington authorities.
Among those held are many US citizens, including some very prominent ones such as Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Dr. Ali Mazrui, Dr. Ahmadullah Siddiqi, etc., whose names and addresses and background information are all available in immigration and FBI files, yet they face the worst kind of questioning and humiliation by law enforcement agents.
This article is based on the accounts of several prominent and average Muslim Americans who recently returned to the US via London after visiting the Far East and Middle East.
During the last five years some of them had been invited by the president, or by governors of their states, or even by FBI personnel, to discuss matters of security. They were even given awards by various agencies for their commitment to peace and pluralism. Yet, upon their return they were treated like criminals or least as suspected terrorists. As soon as they stepped out of the plane, they were singled out and asked to cooperate with the officials. The language used by officials after singling them out was significant. â€œWe got him.â€
Inside the interrogation room, their handbags were searched. The searching agents made photocopies of all the business cards they had, duplicated the titles of the book they were bringing in, copied the pages of the Qur`an where they found bookmarks. Ironically, while searching the luggage, the agents were reported to be saying, that they donâ€™t like what they are doing and they thing it is wrong, but that they are â€œfollowing orders from Washington.â€
Some of them were apologetic. â€œI know not all Muslims are terrorists, but we have been asked to do that,â€ said one agent. â€œI donâ€™t agree with what is happening to you and many others like you, yet I have to do it, because I have a job to do,â€ said the other.
The two passengers were asked some very interesting questions.
â€œDid you meet any terrorists?â€ As if terrorists are roaming the streets of the Far East or the Middle East with â€œterroristâ€ banners on their foreheads.
â€œDid you distribute some funds to terrorists?â€ â€œWhom did you meet?â€ Give us their names and addresses?â€ â€œWhy did you meet them and what did you discuss?â€ â€œWhat was the nature of conference you attended if you attended any conference?â€ â€œDid any of your family members ever support any terrorist groups? If yes what is his name?â€ â€œHow much money did you spend?â€
â€œWhere did you stay in countries you visited?â€ â€œWhat are the addresses of contact persons of places you visited?â€
Based on the experiences of at least 100 passengers, all of them US citizens, the following investigative patterns emerge.
All of them were singled out because they were Muslims–or, in the case of those who names were not clearly Muslim, based on their ethnicity, dress or identifiably Muslim features. For instance, many were stopped because they had long beards, others were stopped because they were wearing scarfs, others were stopped because they were dressed in typical Middle Eastern dress.
The interviews were conducted by four to 10 people. The whole process of interviewing usually last between 3 to 8 hours, or even more. The interviews are held in very tense situations.
Most of the passengers arrive at US airports after a journey of perhaps 17 to 32 hoursâ€™ journey. Some return with families and bulky luggage including clothes or gifts for their relatives.
Almost all of them suffer from lack of sleep and rest and are incoherent in their responses. Many of them are very tense and fearful for discrimination and even detention. They all cooperate. Not many have reported any resistance to any question asked of them.
All of them feel humiliated and all of them feel that their religion, culture, nationality and ethnicity are subject to ridicule or suspicion. Even though 99 percent of them are allowed to leave, the scars of the social trauma do not leave them for days and–in the case of some–months. Among the 100 people who have suffered these traumatic experiences, some 60 percent have vowed not to make international journeys unless the situation improve.
Unfortunately, no one in the country is willing to question the relevance and usefulness of these practices in our fight on terror.
How many terrorists did our law enforcement agencies identify as a result of this questioning? How many leads did our law enforcement officers get from those Muslim American passengers who were held at airports? Indeed, the American public has a right to know the answers to these and other questions.
Apparently, all that is being done at airports or at international borders is fed into computers to prepare long reports about the so-called fight on terror.
The reports proudly inform the American people that thousands of suspects or potential witnesses were questioned successfully. The reports also say that based on the information received by agents, a realistic profile of terrorists or potential terrorists was successfully prepared.
These reports are done to justify the breaches of civil liberties that have become routine in America today.
The agents involved know full-well that the method they are using will not yield results.
How many times does a killer (there are about 675 people in this country who kill someone every week) inform public authorities before they commit their crime? How many times before it happens are their own family members aware of their intent? How many of those who go to church with them know before-hand what they are going to do?
There is something fundamentally wrong in the way our law enforcement agencies are conducting their preventive investigation. They appear to be more like the KGB or Gestapo, whose primary function was really to inspire fear and build a level of apprehension in the populace in order to subdue, intimidate, and control them–to prevent unrest by means of this fear rather than to prevent (as might happen in a free society) only those people truly likely to commit a harm or crime.
Perhaps this policy of intimidation creates more fear (dare I say â€˜terrorâ€™?) than the actions of the real terrorists.
They are wasting U.S. tax dollars, running roughshod over every governmental check and balance. They are misusing the constitutional provisions to misinform people about their efforts.
By engaging in these types of tactics, they are hiding their incompetence in fighting the war on terror.
We the citizens of this country have every right to question the strategy and tactics of our law enforcement agencies. Our congress and representatives must raise their voices on these issues.
As American Muslims, it is our duty to ask our respective representatives to hold congressional hearings on this unjust and unjustified profiling of Muslim Americans.
But our representatives will not intervene unless we become active and raise our concerns over the maltreatment that many of us have being undergoing.
Our organizations are quick to raise issues pertaining to beards and hijab, and this is correct. But so far they have failed to successfully lead a campaign seeking the restoration of the respect for the personal space of American Muslim citizens who travel.
Silence is complicity. We ask that CAIR, and the leadership of our community, especially those with relations with the government, do what they can to stop this useless harassment, which is demeaning to our persons and–even more deeply–to the values for which this proud country once stood.