Racial profiling in the US is so pervasive that it has affected virtually every Muslim living or visiting there. On August 16, there was the well-publicised case of Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s top star, who was subjected to invasive questioning for more than two hours when he arrived on a British Airways flight at Newark, New Jersey airport. Khan has not just millions but hundreds of millions of fans worldwide that are not confined to his native India. His fan base spreads across Pakistan, Afghanistan and indeed throughout the Middle East. He could not be farther from the profile of a terrorist, much less be a terrorist. His interest is in acting and dancing, behaviour the Americans want to encourage among Muslims worldwide away from serious stuff like praying, fasting and following other Islamic acts, like jihad.
So why did customs officials pull Khan over for intrusive questioning? His last name appeared on America’s rapidly expanding computer watch-list. Now this would include tens of millions of people, if not more, with the last name “Khan”. But how can the Americans know this; their knowledge of the world is so limited that many of them do not even know who their neighbours are. A survey conducted among university students a few years ago revealed some interesting facts about the state of knowledge of Americans. A full 38 percent of students answered France when asked to name the country that shares a border with the US. And the Americans do not even like the French because in 2003, then French presidentJacques Chirac had refused to send troops to join the US invasion of Iraq. With such lack of awareness, it is not surprising that the notoriously ignorant American border guards would make mistakes. Khan, of course, was let go after a few hours of questioning but not before the Indian consulate in New York intervened to explain that he was on a promotional tour of his film and that he had visited the US many times before. Besides, when he applied for a US visa in Delhi, he had provided his photograph, finger prints and other details about himself that should all have been on the computer record.
Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Cat Stevens, and his daughter were humiliated in 2004 while visiting the US. His problem was also his name —Islam. The Americans had a point there: “Islam” was invading their country and if the US was at war with Islam, two Islams landing on the peaceful shores of America posed a double threat. Something had to be done. Yusuf Islam’s plane was escorted by US air force planes and forced to park away from the terminal building. Both he and his daughter were taken off the plane for intrusive questioning and then put on a flight back to England. This has now been cleared up as was evident from Yusuf Islam’s tour of the US last May.
Even if one were charitable and excused overzealous border security officials at US airports for pulling visiting foreigners for extra questioning, what explanation is there for subjecting American citizens to such treatment? This is not confined to Muslims born elsewhere that later acquired American citizenship; even American born Muslims are subjected to these shakedowns each time they fly in and out of the country or even fly within the US. Take the example of Imam Abdul Alim Musa, a respected figure in the American Muslim community and Imam of Masjid al-Islam in Washington DC. He is not only subjected to intrusive questioning and searches when he returns home from a visit abroad, at the end of July he missed his flight to South Africa because he was detained at Atlanta airport for extended questioning. He was forced to spend the night at Atlanta airport and take a flight the following day. What is it necessary to subject a person to such questioning and intrusive searches? What precisely is it that US customs and immigration officials are looking for? Has Imam Musa ever, in the last 30 years, been found to have done anything illegal or is it merely because he is an outspoken Muslim who refuses to endorse Uncle Sam’s criminal behaviour worldwide?
Stories of Muslims being pulled off flights because some “white” passenger felt uncomfortable or did not like his or her looks are so numerous that it is difficult not to conclude that the policy of racial profiling has now infected “ordinary” Americans as well. When it comes to racial profiling, the Americans do not discriminate: Muslims can be of any background or age. The case of two Somali-American scholars at the Univer-sity of Minnesota is illustrative. The husband-wife team of Professors Abdi Samatar and Cawo Abdi has been subjected to repeated invasive questioning and searches while returning from travel abroad. Abdi Samatar is chair of Geography department at the University of Minnesota and his wife Cawo is professor of sociology. Since June, the husband and wife team has been pulled over six times at airports for extended questioning.
“He went through every little thing that was in my wallet, one by one,” Professor Samatar said, recalling the inspection of one customs officer. He sports a greying beard and wears bookish, gold-rimmed glasses. Despite the fact that he has frequently been called by the US State Department for consultations on Somali affairs and travels around the world for his research, these things seem not to matter. He says he is of interest to the government because of the kind of work he is doing. Since June, Professor Samatar has gone through four secondary searches, which he described as demeaning and humiliating. US customs officials have rummaged through his personal diary, his toiletries, his kid’s diaper bag, and academic papers on Somali pirates.
One officer took a keen interest in his papers, Professor Samatar said. The officer wanted to know why he was reading them. The professor said he was planning to write about the issue of Somali piracy. When the officer asked why he wanted to write such things, the professor responded: “We are scholars, and we write papers and books.” Luckily, the customs official did not ask: why do you write books, otherwise the already-harried professor would have been stuck at the airport for endless additional hours! Professor Samatar said the last time he was pulled aside for additional screening — upon returning to Minnesota from Sweden where he had attended a conference — he refused to answer the customs officer’s questions and was eventually released. Even university professor must sometime tire of questions put to them by ignorant US customs officials.
Professor Samatar and his wife are both US citizens with American passports. Last month, they were returning from South Africa on separate flights and were steered into a waiting room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. “We looked at each other, and we smiled, and we said, ‘OK, let’s see where this takes us,” recalled Professor Cawo Abdi. “It’s a very unpleasant experience to be interrogated for two or three hours when you have never committed a crime, when you are doing your job, and you of course care about the security of every American,” she said. “Being a citizen, I expect, and I have a right, for a certain level of protection, and I don’t feel like I’m treated like an American.”
With America’s involvement in Somalia — what place on earth is the US not involved in? — and the resentment felt by some Somali-Americans toward such policy, appears to have led to such aggressive behaviour by US customs officials against people of Somali origin. But this applies to others as well: Pakistanis, Afghans, and Arabs of many different countries. Pakistani officials, including cabinet ministers, presidential advisors and generals on official visits have been subjected to humiliating treatment upon arrival at US airports. Most Pakistani officials, however, accept such mistreatment because visiting the US is one “honour” they cannot pass. Others, like the two Somali-American professors want to air their concerns publicly to draw attention to the rude and crude behaviour of customs officials.
Both believe they are on some kind of government watch list. They also think that the birthplaces listed on their passports may have automatically triggered the extra scrutiny. Professor Cawo Abdi was born in Somalia; her husband was born in neighbouring Djibouti.
But US Customs and Border Protection officials insist they do not practice ethnic or religious profiling. The mountain of evidence points in the other direction. Somali students and residents in Minneapolis-St. Paul are now routinely stopped by federal investigators in shopping malls and even on university campuses for questioning.
Is there any other word for racial profiling?