Friday, January 2, 2009

Islamophobia 2009

And so the New Year begins with an all-too-familiar case of Islamophobia as nine Muslims are removed from an AirTran flight for making innocuous comments about the safest place on an aircraft.

The outrage at this eviction is tempered by the equivocation of the victims themselves. One of them, Atif Ifran, told CNN that he was “impressed with the professionalism” of the FBI agents who questioned him, a tribute to whatever sensitivity program of interrogation that the CIA waterboarders never received. From the airline that kicked them off? No apology, and no help with getting them to their destination besides refunding their tickets.

When I was a child, my family and I would travel often. I must have been 10 years old when my family became a victim of profiling. My father was forced to open our luggage at the ticket counter so they could rifle through our clothes and our underwear that we had spent so much time packing the night before. I watched helplessly as my father protested this treatment, and I felt embarrassed; I was not embarrassed at having our bags searched, but at the way my father was upset at the authority of the baggage-checkers. I knew that Arabs had been hijacking aircraft, and I felt that they were only doing the right thing.

Year after year, whenever my father and I traveled, I would witness his ordeal as he would be singled out of the scanning line and have to take off his shoes. And I came to accept that this would eventually be my fate as well. I learned to keep my mouth shut at customs lest I say the wrong thing, and let my father do the talking. As I grew older, I came to accept myself as a sort of second-class citizen in the airport. I became accustomed to getting “randomly screened.” It was a matter of procedure that my bags would be the ones searched through, delaying my return home from the airport. I knew well enough to wear shoes that could be put on and taken off with ease.

So after 9/11, traveling didn’t change as much for me as it did for everyone else. I would shake my head sadly as I watched person after person go through the same embarrassing rituals that my father and I went through. I saw women wearing shoes that had too many straps break down and cry when they weren’t moving fast enough. I saw airport security men and women adopt the “I-have-the-worst-job-in-the-world-and-I-get-to-do-it-all-over-again-tomorrow” stare. And I saw businessmen in suits with looks of outrage on their face as they opened up their briefcases. I even had strangers (not realizing my Arab heritage) vent to me while waiting to board the flight about their difficult times with security. And I thought, why are you all so pissy? I go through this all the time! It never occurred to me that no one deserved to be treated this way until after I joined the military.

So, can you equivocate racial profiling? Rather than unequivocally say no, I would like to offer these tips to paranoid travelers:

1) If you’re at the airport, and you see a Middle-Eastern man with a beard wearing Muslim clothing, don’t worry. Chances are he’s not going to do anything else to draw more attention to himself.
2) There have been more disruptions on aircraft caused by intoxicated people. Since most Muslims don’t drink, you’re more likely to have a smoother flight with Muslims onboard than not.
3) If you are selectively screened by airport security, remember that unless you’re a minority, be thankful that you probably won’t have to go through things like this every day. Minorities, unfortunately, do.

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