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Passengers singled out for harassment for the crime of...
Flying while Arab

October 19, 2001 | Page 5

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on the wave of racist harassment against Arabs and Muslims.

"OUR POLICIES are very clear: People from different diverse ethnic backgrounds should be treated absolutely the same," says United Airlines spokesperson Andy Plews. But that message must not have made it to the crew on Mohammad Oweis' flight.

The Palestinian-American businessman has attended events at the White House and was part of a delegation that rode on Air Force Two during the Oslo peace talks. He recently appeared on the Arab TV news network Al Jazeera to condemn Osama bin Laden--and praise U.S. leaders for denouncing racial profiling against Arab Americans.

But two days after that appearance, Oweis became a target for profiling himself.

He boarded a United Airlines flight in Washington, D.C., and discovered that he had been assigned a coach seat, even though he'd paid for business class. When he tried to bring this to the attention of a flight attendant, a supervisor came aboard the plane--and told him, "This is all you're going to get. Do you have a problem with it?"

Oweis dropped it. "I started feeling like, should I stand my ground and defend my civil liberties?" he said.

Oweis is among the dozens--if not hundreds--of Arab American airline passengers reporting harassment and humiliating treatment since the September 11 attacks. Others have been pulled off planes or not allowed to board, then forced to endure long interviews with FBI and local officials.

When Northwest Airlines refused to board three Iraqi-born men, an employee explained that "the crew and passengers refused to go if you go."

The editor of Socialist Worker's sister magazine International Socialist Review, Ahmed Shawki, experienced the same treatment before a recent flight. He was questioned for 15 minutes and the plane delayed for an hour.

"This is the kind of thing that's going on in city after city, to people from all types of backgrounds, from the Middle East and others, who are simply getting picked out and refused their right to travel without harassment," Shawki said.

Passengers are regularly selected for interrogation simply because their names are Middle Eastern. It's as if, as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing, Ryder Truck started calling the FBI every time a white male named Timothy came in.

George W. Bush's public appeals against discrimination of Arab Americans might make for good sound bites. But actions speak louder than words.

With many airports patrolled by National Guard troops and the faces of 22 Arabs posted on a "Most Wanted" list, it's no wonder that airline employees and passengers are paranoid. Plus, fighter jets have been assigned to escort commercial flights--and are authorized, in case of terrorist attacks, to shoot down planes.

All these measures add up to more hysteria, more racial profiling--and more racist brutality. According to California's attorney general, an average of 10 anti-Arab hate crimes take place every day just in the state's six biggest cities.

We have to draw the line.

"During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, what was right was right, and what was wrong was wrong." Rania Masri, a national board member of Peace Action, told Socialist Worker. "I have zero tolerance for racism. I don't care what cloak it chooses to wrap itself around, even a cloak of security. Racism is racism. I don't care if it's in the shape of a pilot or our president."

"Will they single us out from now on?"

LAST MONTH, Vahid Tony Zohrehvandi, a software developer originally from Iran, was pulled off a flight after an American Airlines employee decided he "looked suspicious." After being detained and interrogated for almost two hours, he was finally allowed to board another plane. Zohrehvandi spoke with Socialist Worker about his ordeal.

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I WAS flying from an assignment in Seattle back to my family. I came to the airport two hours before my flight and went through security--no problem.

I was in my seat on the airplane, and someone came up, pointed to my name on the passenger manifest, and said, "Grab your belongings and come with me." I found out later that another gentleman of Middle Eastern descent, in first class, was pulled off also.

I explained that I was an Advantage Gold member, a frequent flyer and a professional. None of it mattered. I was told that the pilot "didn't like the way I looked"--his exact words. That's something that I can't change.

Even worse, they took me to detention. After the police and FBI questioned me and did a background check, they found out that nothing was wrong--same with the other man.

I've been in this country for 22 years. I'm a U.S. citizen. And none of it mattered. Individuals are taking the law into their own hands and judging people by the way they look.

I've asked my company not to make me fly. I went to my doctor, and he gave me prescription medication to calm me down. It's been very traumatic.

My God, I'm so glad that there was nothing in my background and nothing that I was carrying, because they can keep you indefinitely.

When I became a citizen and said my pledge of allegiance, I said liberty and justice for all--not just for white, blond and blue eyes. It shatters your dream. Is it going to be like this from now one--every time some idiot takes an action against the U.S., are we going to be singled out again?

We'll organize to defend our civil rights

THE OTHER target of the politicians' domestic "war against terrorism" is obvious: the left.

"Harassment is taking place on two fronts: People of color--especially Arab Americans--are getting attacked or pinpointed by institutions, and secondly, all organizations on the left who are working to change the status quo," said Rania Masri of Peace Action. "The climate of repression isn't simply affecting people of color, but every progressive community, under the cloak of 'security.'"

The witch-hunt atmosphere is growing. For example, the FBI has threatened Women in Black, an international network of women's peace groups, with a grand jury investigation. The reason? Women in Black publicly says that Israel's military occupation of Palestinian land is illegal.

"In the hysterical atmosphere of the early Cold War, anyone who had signed a peace petition, who had joined an organization opposing violence or racism...who had openly advocated what was not popular at the time, was fair game," said Ronnie Gilbert, a member of Women in Black. "Today, in the wake of the worst hate crime of the millennium, a dragnet is out for 'terrorists,' and we're told that certain civil liberties may have to be curtailed for our own security…Haven't I been here before?"

And the worst may be yet to come. Under the new Uniting and Strengthening America (USA) Act passed by the House last week, the attorney general and secretary of state would have the power to designate domestic groups as "terrorist organizations"--and block non-citizens who belong to them from entering the country.

If you're an immigrant and pay dues to an organization that makes the list, you could be deported. If you're a U.S. citizen, you could be jailed.

But though the USA Act hasn't been signed into law yet, it looks like Bush and Co. are trying to get a jump-start on some of the nastier provisions. On October 9, a member of the School of the Americas (SOA) Watch--the group that organizes against the Army's training camp for Latin American dictators and thugs--was denied entry into the U.S. and threatened with deportation after Canadian officials barred him from their country.

Hendrick Voss's detention was met by a storm of protest. The German consulate was flooded with phone calls. And when authorities transported Voss to an INS detention facility, activists held solidarity vigils outside of every jail along the route.

Under growing pressure, the authorities released Voss.

The episode showed the importance of organizing to defend our civil liberties. As SOA Watch wrote in a statement, "In these times, it's more important than ever for us to continue to speak out."

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