4 Aug 2015

This is How a Muslim-American Journalist is Treated at the Airport

The story I am about to share is not an attempt to elicit sympathy, nor is it a rant to get my anger and frustration out. It’s something that is embarrassing to me and makes me uncomfortable to talk about. However, it must be shared for the purpose of informing people about the discrimination many U.S. citizens who happen to be from a Muslim background face on a regular basis.
As I was coming back from a vacation in London, I planned to fly internationally from Heathrow to Los Angeles.  As customary procedure, I went to the airline desk and attempted to check in. When the lady saw the name “Muhammad” on my passport, I was told to go to a special security table. I proceeded to go where she had directed me, and upon getting there, a man took out a large security device to jot down the answers to the questions he was about to ask me. He first asked the basics: “Why did you come here?” and, “Who did you stay with?” Then, he asked many seemingly arbitrary questions such as “Where did you eat here?” and “Where do you work, go to school, and what are you studying?” I answered all of his questions and he finally let me go.
I went back to the counter after telling the lady I went through security questioning. She had me confirm that I was not lying and that I had indeed gone to the security table. After having to convince her, I eventually pointed out the man who had surveyed me and she finally let me check in. I went on my way and proceeded to go through normal security and to my terminal, but before I had the chance to board the plane, I was again  taken outside my terminal alongside a woman who was wearing a hijab. My hands were wiped with a special chemical cloth. The excessive safety measures I had to undergo bugged me a little, but it was no big deal at that point in time. Little did I know what I was in store for once I arrived in Los Angeles at LAX.
Upon my arrival at LAX, I went through customs and—since I am an American citizen—I went to the line for residents. However, after I scanned my passport and went to the counter for a quick approval check, I was then told to go to the line for immigrants. Once more, it occurred to me immediately how strange this was, but I figured it was best for me to not ask questions in order to get through quickly and without further delay.
When I went through the immigrant customs, I was asked similar questions to what I was asked in England: “Where did you go to elementary school?” among others. Right when I thought I was done with customs and was ready to pickup my baggage and get out of the airport, two TSA agents came out of nowhere and stopped me. They asked me if I was going to get my luggage, to which I answered, “Yes.” They then took my passport and told me they needed to come with me to pick up my luggage. “Fine,” I thought, and went down to the baggage claim area to retrieve my bag while the two agents hovered behind me. After I got the luggage, they told me to come with them again—this time to a private  room.
As soon as we got there, they opened my suitcase and, one by one, threw out every article of clothing. They opened the bags I had packed, meticulously inspecting it all. After this, they asked me many—an estimated 20-30— more personal questions that really insulted me. “How did you afford this trip?” “Who did you associate and spend time with in this trip?” “How much is in your bank account?” “What do you do for a living?” I responded with the truth, that I am currently unemployed but I write from time to time for a news organization. I should not have said this.  They asked me which organization I worked for and upon hearing “the Anti-Media,” they went berserk.
One of the men then asked me what I write about and asked me how much money I receive per article. I was contemplating avoiding the question because it was intrusive and unnecessary, but realized for my safety I should answer bluntly. After this they mentioned that their records show that I had visited Pakistan 4 years ago and they asked me about what I did there and who I met. I was frustrated, but kept my composure until what happened next.
After I answered their questions, I was taken to a small closet-sized space. Irritated, insulted, and tired, I asked him why airport security was harassing me specifically, and he responded, “You traveled to the Middle East in the past 5 years and your name came up on our list for further inspection.” Then, he grabbed my waist, ripped off my belt, and began to strip search me, checking in places that are private and inappropriate—places that would make anyone uncomfortable. He then ordered me against the wall and told me to put my hands up in a triangle while he inspected me even further. When he told me to put my hands up, I angrily asked him the obvious question I had been reluctant to ask: “Why was he doing this to me?”—especially when there was no probably cause or evidence against me (the fourth amendment provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”). When I slightly adjusted my hands—as any normal person would feel uncomfortable in the situation I was in—he yelled at me, violently grabbed my hands, told me to “Shut the hell up.” He assured me  he was “Not going to say this again.”
After this humiliating process was finished, he put his hands in my shoes and felt for any suspicious items that  their security system could somehow not detect.  He then asked me more questions about my personal life. I was frustrated and didn’t know what was in store for me next. It didn’t seem to end. This whole process took over an hour. He finally made me sign a document of some sort, then took me outside and jotted down more info about my residence, proceeding to give me back my passport. I felt like not only a foreigner, but a criminal and second-class citizen in my own country. This is the country I was born in, where I was told to pledge allegiance and sing anthems about freedom and liberty for all. I couldn’t believe this happened to me. I don’t usually cry, but for once in a long time, I was close to tears. I felt violated and had never felt so awful to be from a Muslim background. It really messed with my head for the rest of the day.
What I had just experienced was a microcosm of what has happened in the past 14 years to innocent people from Muslim backgrounds. Then it dawned on me: I was being selfish and ungrateful considering  I was let out of the airport with some thread of dignity remaining—a luxury many other Muslim people are not given. I felt mentally tortured by the injustice I was subject to, but what about the detainees in Abu Ghraib prison that were tortured in ways unimaginable for extreme periods of time? A few of the types of torture they were subjected to include having their genitals electrocuted, being deprived of sleep, being stripped naked and gang raped by objects including guns and broomsticks, and being psychologically tortured to the point of going insane. Many families of these innocent victims never knew when they would—if ever—reunite with their loved ones, who in most cases were put in the prison without any corroborating evidence. They were detained solely based on hearsay or loose circumstantial proof.
Sure, I felt discriminated against and harassed for having a Middle Eastern or Muslim name, but what I experienced was just a taste of what tens of thousands of others went through—without a trial or any probable cause—as they were stolen from their families and thrown into Guantanamo. They were physically—even sexually—tortured for no reason other than being born to a Middle Eastern or Muslim family. I could not imagine being stolen from my loved ones and banished to a life of such despair—all based on mere suspicion.
Being groped so thoroughly (even in my private areas) was torture and was not something any U.S. citizen should have to face, especially when they are innocent. I am still in shock that this all happened to me, but I realized my distress was selfish after I compared myself to other Muslims and people from the Middle East that have been targeted for their religion and ethnicity following 9/11. If any of the detainees in Abu Ghraib were in my shoes, they’d call themselves lucky. It is alleged that these torture programs were put into place for “national security,” but studies show that they have strengthened the cause of terrorists around the world. These transgressions help them recruit other extremists. Most of those responsible for these war crimes aren’t facing any consequences  for what they have done.
Overall, my ordeal showed me I am quite fortunate compared to the horrors other innocent people have been subjected to for the sake of national insecurity.
As I sit here, I wonder what happened to the idea of following the constitution—and other fundamental documents— of this country. I question the entire “Land of the Free” mantra I was repeatedly told I was lucky to be a part of as a child. I wonder how vigorously the founding fathers are rolling over in their graves, knowing what America has become. Founding father James Madison warned about perpetual warfare being the biggest enemy to liberty. The majority of people often pay no attention to the sad reality that racism still exists—even though public perception is that it has been defeated. People who are are not affected by it often ignore it, but what happens when the second-class citizen suddenly becomes their race instead of mine?
The reality of it hurts, but as so many of us learned the hard way, the truth is far from fair.


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