By Akbar Ahmed
To the well-known American maxim ‘driving while black,’ a more recent one has been added after 9/11, ‘flying while Muslim,’ as Muslim passengers on planes are now frequently targeted for speaking Arabic, wearing the hijab or merely looking ‘Middle Eastern.’
Professor Anila Daulatzai, a Pakistani-American, became a victim when on September 26, she boarded a flight in Baltimore, expecting to land in Los Angeles a few hours later to take care of her elderly father. After informing flight attendants of her non-life-threatening allergy to dogs, she seated herself in the back of the aircraft away from two dogs on the plane and prepared to grade her students’ papers. She was suddenly requested by the flight crew to provide medical documentation of her allergy, which she had already mentioned was not serious, and upon not being able to produce it, was told to exit the aircraft. When she refused, the police came and violently dragged her off the plane, as seen in a video of the incident that went viral. Following the incident, multiple charges were issued against her, including disorderly conduct and failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order.
Daulatzai’s lawyer, Arjun Sethi, classified the arrest as the confluence of sexism, racial profiling, and discrimination.
Formerly national legislative counsel for human rights and national security related affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union and presently Co-Chair of the American Bar Association’s National Committee on Homeland Security, Counterterrorism, and Treatment of Enemy Combatants, Arjun has spent most of his career focused on countering racial and religious profiling, advancing counterterrorism reform, and combating hate-motivated violence.
I first met Arjun, who has a Sikh background, a few years back following a talk I gave at the National Press Club launching my book, The Thistle and the Drone. After the programme, he came up to me and began discussing his civil and human rights work on behalf of not only Muslim Americans, but minorities throughout the US. I was impressed: He was fighting for justice within the system.
When I invited Arjun to speak before my World of Islam class at American University recently he made some core points related to the rise in hate-related incidents against Muslims since 9/11, noting they are trending at least five times higher than prior to the attacks. He said we are living in an ‘open season’ of prejudice against Muslims. Perpetual war in Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to prevailing negative attitudes, he argued, and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba stands as a testament to negative treatment of Muslims suspected of terrorist activities.
Arjun also spoke of police tactics that often serve to perpetuate discrimination. He shared how a team of Associated Press reporters revealed that covert domestic surveillance programs established in New York City following 9/11, for example, were explicitly designed to monitor Muslim citizens, representing an abandonment of rights to privacy that all Americans are entitled to enjoy. None of the surveillance was based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause, but instead solely based on identity. The surveillance did not result in a single conviction. These surveillance programs, he noted, have been complemented by watch lists. There are three types of watch lists administered by the Transportation Security Administration: a Terrorist Watch List of 2 million individuals suspected of terrorist activities; a Selectee List, which requires listed individuals to undergo enhanced screening measures before flying; and a No-Fly List of some 100,000, which forbids listed individuals from boarding an airplane. The consequences of these watch lists are serious.
Those listed may be unable to see their families or even apply for loans and employment. Listed individuals are generally considered too dangerous to fly, but not dangerous enough to be arrested, which keeps them in an uneasy limbo with broad consequences.
Arjun also discussed the efficacy of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, which are designed to target individuals who may become terrorists. These programs are a form of predictive policing, he explained, as they use an individual’s prior history to determine ‘threat scores’ and geographic analysis of criminal activity to assess potential ‘hot spots.’ Arjun believes these programs are based on abstract methods and junk science that ultimately serve as another mechanism for surveillance of Muslim citizens.
Arjun argued that the US government needs to begin addressing the structural racism, discrimination, and criminalisation that foster hate and violence against Muslims, who remain disproportionately targeted by American national security policy.
Arjun also pointed to media representations that encourage Islamophobia. He cited a Media Matters study conducted on three days of media reporting after the recent “Muslim ban.” Their findings revealed that of 176 guests on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, the three major broadcast news networks, only 14 guests were actual Muslims. Viewing the compassion he brings to his work, I could not but think of the wisdom of the founder of his faith, Guru Nanak, who famously said, “Those that have loved are those that have found God.” While Pakistan has somewhat of a reputation as encouraging religious intolerance, in fact, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, which I visited not long ago, is in Nankana Sahib, Pakistan, and I can report that it is spotlessly clean and tended with special reverence and affection by the local administration. Here in America, Arjun Sethi, is championing the great Guru’s message of humanity by fighting for the civil rights of Muslims and of all Americans.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)