A smile for a Muslim at the US airport
M. Serajul Islam
A niece recently placed a post on her Facebook that gladdened my heart. She was travelling through Nashville Airport in Tennessee, United States. While crossing the security line, a security agent surprised her. He smiled at her and in his deep southern accent said to her “Salam Walaikum”. My niece, born and brought up in Nashville, is a graduate of Yale and now doing her PhD in Vanderbilt. She wears the traditional hijab. Very surprised, she managed to respond with a smile and said “Walaikum asalam.” But there was more. The agent asked her thereafter “Kaifa halag?” My niece replied “Alhamdulillah, how are you?” and the agent responded “Alhamdulillah.”
My niece wrote of her Facebook that it was the first time she actually felt welcome at an US airport after 9/11 and closed her post in excitement with a bold “Thank you, Nashville.” Reading her posting, I recollected my own travel in US airports over the years since 9/11. My own experience has not been as pleasant as my niece’s; it has not been that bad either. But there are just too many of us followers of Islam who have had harrowing experiences at US airport simply because those who have been alleged to have carried out the 9/11 acts were Muslims. For years after 9/11, having a surname common with the accused 19 Arabs who are alleged to have been involved in 9/11 was an instant red card. A brother-in-law married to a white American was a victim for many years till the US authorities were able to straighten out their data base. His wife would see her husband regularly taken off the line and grilled for hours, sometimes even missing flights.
This brother-in-law is law abiding to a fault. His only “fault” apart from being a Muslim has been his surname. It is one common with a few of the accused in the 9/11 attacks. Another nephew who is a doctor who was born and educated in USA used to have similar harrowing experiences in US airports for the same reason; he too had the same surname “problem” as my brother-in-law. No one in charge of US security and intelligence was bothered or seemed to know that these Muslim surnames are like the surnames “Kim”, “Lee” and “Park” to the Koreans; hundreds of millions of Muslims and millions of Koreans share common surnames!. Those days when our relatives or other Muslims we knew related their experiences to us, we felt sad and upset but utterly helpless. We could do nothing except seek comfort in divine power. We wanted to feel the same way Jesus Christ felt when he had said “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Unfortunately, we were ordinary mortals.
There are a large number of Bangladeshis who have relatives in the States. Many have their sons and daughters who go there with legitimate visas. After 9/11, they have dreaded traveling to the States and once there, inside the country, because of the security officials at US airport. Many travelled, once in the States, large distances by road simply because they were afraid to travel by air for fear of the security officials at the US airports. To be fair again, like my own experiences at US airports, many Bangladeshi Muslims have travelled through US airports without any ill experiences. Nevertheless, many were always ill at ease, in fact fearful while travelling through US airports and they had good reasons for that.
Standing in line for security check up, we could not help feeling from the body language of the security and sometimes immigration officials a clear change when it came to checking or interviewing us and those who were not Muslims. We could feel clearly that we were being treated differently in a negative way. There is no question that after 9/11, the US Government and its agencies were within their rights to do whatever was necessary to ensure that there was no threat on the country from individuals/groups overseas who intended to enter the country for terrorist and subversive activities. However, to stop these individuals/groups, the United States and its agencies have ill treated millions whose intentions have been farthest from what they feared and suspected. Unfortunately, while subjecting millions for ill treatment, the US Government and its intelligence and security agencies did not care to take this into consideration.
Thus when the Boston marathon terror attacks took place; the Muslims in the United States were worried, concerned and angry like all citizens of the country. But there was one qualitative difference between the way the Muslim Americans were worried and the rest of America. Till it was revealed that the bombers were Chechnian Muslims, Muslims American were praying that they would not turn out to be Muslims because they knew if they were Muslims, the rest of America would turn to them with accusing fingers like they were accessories to the crime. In fact, after the Boston attacks, many Muslims stayed away from travelling through US airports to save themselves from the possible harassment that they feared after it was revealed that the bombers were indeed Muslims.
Nevertheless, things have changed a lot in USA as far as the unfortunate predicament of Muslims in America is concerned. Travelling in US airports with a Muslim tag is not a bad experience these days. The data base of those the authorities suspect have been streamlined and organized. Just having a surname common with the 9/11 terrorists is no longer a hassle. It is no longer a hassle travelling through US airports as a Muslim because of the improvements of technology and better and more trained security officials. One can sense this as a Muslim travelling in US airports these days; in fact we can feel this change . It is no longer a humiliating experience being at a US airport these days as a Muslim.
Unfortunately, it is not just the authorities that have unfairly subjected the Muslims as guilty for the acts of the few terrorists and ill treated them. The media in the United States have done worse and helped in developing Islamophobia and spreading it across the country. The action of the security official in Nashville may not be an isolated one; increasingly there are instances where it has become clear that the US authorities are trying to extend a hand to the Muslim community to undo the mistakes they made by holding it responsible for 9/11 crimes. A few weeks ago, I had written a piece in my column here about the US Attorney and the FBI official trying to work with the local Muslim community in Tennessee to deal with Islamophobia. Unfortunately, that effort failed as Islam-haters outnumbered the organizers and literally hooted the US officials out of the hall.
It is time for the US media to assist the authorities to handle the Islamophobia that they have helped to spread. A look at the growing Muslim community in US and North America will encourage them to do so as increasingly, the community is showing its yearnings to be recognized as law abiding US citizens who have no support or sympathy for the causes of the Islamic extremists. In Canada, the community helped law enforcing agencies stop a serious terror act in the making. In USA too, the community is likewise cooperating with law enforcing agencies against terrorism.
USA should revisit history and take lessons to correct its handling of the Muslims. After Pearl Harbor attack, USA had treated the Japanese community in the country as pariah, humiliating them publicly. In that case, there may have been some justification as Japan had declared war on the United States. In the Muslim case, the crimes for which they are on dock in USA have been committed by individuals and small groups with which the Muslims have no connection except they are believers of the same religion!
The writer is a retired career Ambassador