The ‘Randomness’ of Islamophobia at US airports

In June 2014, I traveled to Qatar to attend and present a paper at a conference focusing on Arab-US relations hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, right before heading to Granada, Spain, to teach a summer course on Muslims in the West from pre-1492 to the present. The conference was well attended and had academic, non-academic, and participants from across the Arab world, Europe and the United States.

While it would be worthwhile to write a summary of the conference proceedings, this article is not about the gathering itself but the journey back, which was very eventful as I came face to face with the ‘randomness’ of four largely printed SSSS on the face of my ticket. For those well acquainted with this procedure, it means you have been selected to ‘randomly’ be searched, given the necessary full-body pat down or “massage” as well as asked multiple questions at various moments by different people.

My initial alarm went off when I was unable to check-in online for my flights and was directed on the computer screen at the hotel to go to the counter at the airport in the morning as the ticket required special agent handling. Once at the Frankfurt airport in Germany, I was asked to accompany the agents and was subject to full body search, complete luggage check, computer and phone turned-on and off, questions about where I traveled, whom I met and what business I had in Qatar and Spain.

This process took sometime and I was close to being the last allowed to board the plane, even though I was one of the early arrivals at the airport. The agents responsible for the secondary screening and body search were nice throughout the process but made small talk referring to the places that I traveled to and the concern it raised, which they thought I surely would understand considering the circumstances. I did respond by confirming that I completely understood the ‘randomness’ of Islamophobia and the need for extra security measures for someone attending an academic conference on Arab-US relations.

The flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco took 11 hours and I arrived around 7:49pm but had already prepared myself mentally for the questions to come due to the four largely printed SSSS ‘randomly’ appearing on the face of my ticket. I was quick out of the plane and into the passport line. Sure enough, the process unfolded with a directive to go to another room at the end of the hall because I was ‘randomly’ selected for the extra special secondary screening.

I followed the instruction and headed to the room at the end of the hall and gave my passport and ticket to the agent who directed me to sit down and wait to be called back to the counter. I could only see a few Muslims in the room, a Pilipino man with his family (I do not know if he was a Muslim) and no one else ‘randomly’ selected for this honor of questioning upon landing in San Francisco airport. In this context, one gets a clearer image of the narrowly constructed security apparatus giving the impression of randomness but which in reality is laser focused on Muslims. Flying while Muslim is like driving or walking like Black in today’s America. How are the names selected and what constitute a threat that warrant such secondary screening?

After some time sitting and waiting, I was called-up to the counter and an interview soon got underway. I have to say part of me was laughing while the other was getting angry at the questions and the racist nature implied in each one. I was asked the same set of questions from the Frankfurt encounter then another line of interrogation began to unfold. “Did you meet any tribes on your travel?” I said, “Tribes like the fans of the 49ers or the Raider’s Nation?” I asked the person doing the interrogation, “what do you mean by tribes’ as I don’t know what you are talking about?” He responded, “you know what I mean by tribes.” I said, “no, I don’t know what you mean and when I met people on my travel I did not ask if they belonged to a tribe and what tribe it was. I attended an academic conference on Arab-US Relations held at the Doha’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, a Western company and they do not have an area on the registration for tribal affiliation or a tea-coffee time to meet the local tribes.”

After a back and forth on the tribe issue he asked “whether I visited any suspicious countries during my travel?” I asked if he could tell me what a suspicious country is so I can determine whether I did or did not undertake such a trip since the countries I visited did not identify themselves as such at the airport or when I got the passport stamped. His response was again “you know what I am asking!” I said, “no, I don’t know what you are talking about and need you to define what a suspicious country is then I can answer your question.” After a back and forth on this few times he decided to drop it and went to ask questions about my work, employment, University of California, Berkeley summer course etc. The process took a while and afterward I was directed to collect my luggage and head to the customs section, which I thought would be easy and straightforward but it was not the case.

With my luggage in hand, three custom officers directed me to place my bags on the counter and to step back so they could begin careful examination of all my items. They went ahead and searched it carefully examining each piece by hand and also took bomb swabs for tests. I thought this would be the end of it but I encountered another round of questioning in the same pattern experienced in the earlier two stops. This time the focus was more on the officers wanting names of people and my contacts on the ground in Qatar and Granada, Spain and my relationship to each.

I did ask if it was Qatar or Spain that was a suspicious country to cause all this careful examination! If Qatar were the suspicious country then why would it be the case considering the U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center are located in the country and I and other US citizens should have been warned about visiting the country in the first place and does this apply to all American civilians who work in and travel regularly to Doha!

What I experienced is the norm for many American Muslims traveling through US airports on international and some also when flying domestically. The ‘random’ selection process is intended to produce a virtual internment feeling in the American Muslim community and engender a certain level of fear that is then cultivated to produce cooperation on a variety of domestic and international policies.

More critically, the monitoring structure and the secondary screening is a form of racial profiling based on religion but is pushed and rationalized under the war on terrorism rubric, which has witnessed a massive abrogation of civil and human rights in the US and abroad. In a random unscientific poll of about 10 American Muslim leaders, each one of them said they faced the same ‘random’ screening at the airport and a few even upon returning from a State Department Public Diplomacy sponsored trip to the Muslim world. Thus, even when Muslims are working to support US soft power project in the Muslim world they are subject to this extra special treatment at the airport.

The challenge at this point is how to confront this security structure that has become normalized and developed a large bureaucratic infrastructure around it employing hundreds of thousands with billions allocated to sustain it. Muslims today are living in a security fish bowl and everything they do, be it at the individual or community levels, are being watched since they collectively have been identified as the ‘archetypal terrorist’ and all measures are accepted in defending the society from him/her.

We can ask today how it feels to be treated like a prisoner while being free: the randomness of Islamophobia at the airport is a case in point and the current ‘war on terrorism’ has managed to problematize and criminalize Muslims across the globe and treating all as guilty until proven innocent.