Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Listed while Muslim

Security photo from Fly Away Café.

These days, it is all too easy to think of the U.S. government's airport security and watch lists as a kind of joke. After all, the infamous "selectee list" has ballooned to some 900,000 names, "security" serves as an excuse for TSA inspectors to engage in non-consensual S&M, even federal air marshals find themselves listed and barred from flights, and school authorities use the threat of the list to scare unruly kids. People ask whether my partner and I are still on the list; I think not. If you can manage to cost the government money, you can get removed.

But for some people, getting listed by the U.S. government leads to ongoing harassment, perennial "lost" luggage when they fly, long questioning when they cross borders, and efforts to get them to express "dangerous" opinions.

Mustafa Malik is a Washington-based journalist who was born in India, practiced his trade in Pakistan, and whose opinion articles have appeared in such outlets as the Washington Post and the Austin-American Statesman. Today in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, he has catalogued what it is like to live "Under suspicion, American style." The consequences of making "the list" range from inconvenient to very threatening. Here are some instances from Malik's article.
  • "'I got my boarding pass from that machine but couldn't get my husband's!' Pat told a woman behind a Northwest Airlines desk. The clerk checked out my ticket in her computer and said, 'You're on the watch list, sir!' I had suspected that for five years."
  • "...federal agents could have learned about my meetings with some Muslim activists and academics from published articles in which I had quoted them. But they also quizzed me about those whom I had contacted by phone and e-mail but had not mentioned in any writings. I realized that my phone conversations and e-mails could have been intercepted."
  • "Homeland Security appears to have circulated my profile to airlines. This past March 31 I boarded a British Airways flight in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to return to Washington. A flight attendant handed me a lunch packet about 10 minutes before the lunch carts rolled in to serve lunch to everybody else. I asked her why she had served me before other passengers. She said mine was a 'Muslim meal,' meaning the meat was kosher. I said I did not request a kosher meal and asked how she knew that I was a Muslim. 'I also know,' she whispered, 'that you speak four languages!'"
  • "During my international flights, my luggage is held up, apparently for special scrutiny. Since 2003 I have flown out of the US four times. On every occasion my luggage arrived one to five days late."
  • "On my return to New York on June 17 I had to spend 20-25 minutes answering questions about where I went, whom I met, what I did, and more, while my companions breezed through without any hassle. I was the only Muslim among the group."
  • "There have also been discernible attempts to provoke me into criticizing Israel and America. Several suspicious characters have sought me out to discuss Palestine and Israel and Muslim militancy."
I think we can assume that if this list of some 8 million people the U.S. government might round up in a crisis really exists, Mr. Malik is on it.

And why is Mr. Malik the subject of so much government interest? He's pretty sure he knows:

A Homeland Security terrorism investigator visited me again. He asked me about some of my other Muslim contacts, and even though I had been writing about a variety of issues, he asked my views only on terrorism and Palestinian militant groups. I reiterated that the Palestinian guerrillas were doing what Massachusetts Minutemen had done during the American Revolution: fighting for national liberation.

Yes, that will do it.

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