The prescient American writer HL Mencken once noted: “People would rather feel safe than be free.” After witnessing the unjustified removal of a group of American Muslims from a domestic AirTran flight due to “security” concerns, it seem some Americans would readily jettison their fellow citizens’ civil liberties in exchange for a temporary and false sense of safety. Atif Irfan, a Muslim American and a tax lawyer, was removed from the plane on New Year’s Day, along with eight family members and a friend, after paranoid passengers misunderstood their benign conversation regarding the safest place to sit onboard.
An FBI agent entered shortly thereafter, escorted the family off the plane, and questioned Irfan over the incident. Even though the FBI cleared the group of any suspicious behaviour, the airline then refused to rebook the American Muslim family on another flight.
“The FBI agents actually cleared our names,” Inayet Sahin, Irfan’s sister-in-law, said later. “They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, ‘There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,’ and [AirTran] still refused.” AirTran later apologised.
For many Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Arab Americans, this episode highlights the increasing frustration and discrimination experienced when “FWB”: Flying while brown. In another widely publicised case in November 2006, six respected imams were unconstitutionally arrested and kicked off an US Airways plane after a fellow passenger complained about their violent, horrifically suspicious activity of pre-flight prayers.
I tell my friends that any time I’m depressed or lonely, I decide to go to the airport where instantly I’m lavished with meticulous attention and treated like a Hollywood celebrity. Rarely, have I and other ethnic undesirables been afforded such a loving reception. What’s not to love about the multiple Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents who “randomly” select you for special inspection? Or their curious, unbridled interest in asking you which mosques you frequent? Their desire to express their hospitality and love is so uncontainable that you’re treated to several physical pat-downs covering every inch of your body. This includes the thin, inner sewed linings of my pants, which I was told could potentially conceal bombs. Although my adolescent sense of humour prompted an immature comment upon hearing this, I thankfully exercised restraint.
We in the US are currently engaged in a “war on terror” and have certainly experienced terrorism and tragedy in the form of airline hijackings on 9/11. This, however, does not give a democratic and free country licence to be overwhelmed by fear of its own Muslim and Middle Eastern citizens, many of whom are our own peers and neighbours. If we kill our own freedoms at home, then what exactly are we fighting for abroad?
Even though many TSA regulations after 9/11 have ensured strengthened security, prejudicial measures specifically targeting “brown” Americans not only inflame our basest paranoia, they are also both ineffective and inefficient. What was the ultimate result of interrogating Irfan’s family based on a fellow passenger’s unwarranted fear? The flight was delayed two hours.
Perhaps we’ve grown more afraid of water than Muslims, since water bottles are no longer allowed through airport security. The result of such a brilliantly effective security measure? Federal inspectors placed a fake bomb in the same bag as a bottle of water, but when the TSA opened the bag, they took the water – and let the bomb on the plane! Inspectors were able to slip a bomb past the TSA five times out of every seven attempts.
Ultimately, this sort of prejudicial treatment of Muslim and Middle Eastern American citizens must be confronted as unbridled racism and fear-mongering. The level of ignorance regarding Islam and Muslims is so pervasive that 13% of Americans believed Obama was Muslim simply due to his Arabic name, and thereafter immediately harboured suspicions about his loyalty and intentions. The authors of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on the largest Gallup poll conducted of its kind, surveyed Americans in 2002, asking what they knew about the beliefs and opinions of Muslims around the world – 54% said they “knew nothing or not much”. When asked the same question in 2007, after blanket coverage of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and non-stop media reporting on Islam and the Middle East, 57% of Americans said they “knew nothing or not much.”
Due to this ignorance and lack of understanding of Muslims and Islam, many Americans incorrectly correlate their Muslim American neighbours with al-Qaida, the Taliban, ticking time bombs, terrorists, and anti-American radicals. Colin Powell of all people, an architect of two major wars against Iraq, denounced this poisonous rhetoric when he asked: “What if [Obama] is [a Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be president?”
Yet, sadly, some American travellers do believe something is wrong with being Muslim aboard a plane in America. If only the majority experienced the humiliation of being publicly inspected like a dangerous mammal in front of hundreds of strangers, or forcibly removed from planes based simply on their last name or their physical features, they would empathise with the thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans who have routinely been afforded such “random” treatment.
Ultimately, such behaviour is not only wrong but also fundamentally un-American, and we must take pause to ensure we never allow collective fear and anger to cloud our sense of fairness and justice. Let us recall a shameful episode from American history: Executive Order 9066, which allowed the forced relocation and internment of nearly 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during the second world war. Innocent men, women and children – citizens of the United States – were sent to “War Relocation Centers,” mistrusted, maligned and viewed as potential security threats simply because we were fighting Japan at that time.
Although Muslims and Arabs are the Morlocks and Boo Radleys of the day, perhaps Obama’s new generation of hope can make the ultimate, beneficial change in finally seeing them as fellow Americans. Or, at the very least, maybe allow them to board flights like everyone else.
WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/