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Harassed and humiliated for "traveling while Arab"
Arabs and Muslims face a climate of hate

By Nicole Colson | September 1, 2006 | Page 16

ARABS AND Muslims across the U.S. are finding themselves the targets of a racist backlash in the wake of the hype surrounding the supposed "terror plot" by a group of British Muslims to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners.

In case after case, people have been subjected to humiliating and repressive measures for no other reason than their religion and ancestry. And the climate of hate is continuing--whipped up by fear-mongering politicians and the media.

In one incident, two men were forced off a plane traveling from the tourist destination of Malaga, Spain, to Manchester, England, after passengers overheard the men speaking what they believed to be Arabic and labeled them suspicious for wearing sweaters. "When people see brown skin, they get scared," said one of the men, Sohail Ashraf, who was born in Britain, but is of Pakistani descent.

Days later, 12 Muslim men were taken into custody by Dutch officials when their Northwest Airlines flight to Mumbai, India, made an emergency landing in Denmark because of their "suspicious behavior." What was that "behavior"? Switching seats among themselves and showing their cell phones to one another. All 12 were later released.

"These are times of suspicion and distrust, and we Muslims have to bear the brunt," Abdul Kadir Kolsiwala, father of Ayub Kolsiwala, one of those arrested, told Reuters.

In the U.S., more and more cases of racial profiling are coming to light.

On August 17, the Tri-State Airport in West Virginia was shut down after security detained Rima Qayyum, a 28-year-old Muslim woman who was scheduled to fly to her parents' home in Michigan. Qayyum was detained for hours for having face creams and a bottle of water in her carry-on luggage--after a bomb-sniffing dog falsely identified the presence of explosives, according to officials.

"The whole incident had its basis in racial profiling," Qayyum said in a statement. "All they had to do was make me throw away these items, as [was] being done to other passengers; as it is being done at all the airports in the country today."

Likewise, a group of Muslims say they were detained for more than five hours at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport when they returned home to the U.S. from a vacation in Jordan.

"[A]fter we went through customs and the man looked at our passports, we were told to step aside for additional questioning, rather than claiming our baggage," Arwa Ibrahim, a U.S. citizen and student at Rutgers University, told Democracy Now! "We arrived in a small blocked-off area, and we looked around, and we saw 200 other Arabs, South Asians and Muslims with us...

"They asked us about specifics of where we worked, what school I went to, what I majored in. And they also asked us about some of our political views. They asked my sister whether she felt that Iraq was better now or under Saddam's rule, and they were recording everything they asked us."

According to Ibrahim, security officials repeatedly screamed at the family, threatened to detain them longer if they complained about the delay and did not provide them with food or water.

"JFK is saying that they're not racially profiling, that what they're doing is they're just asking further questions of people who are coming from the Middle East," said Ibrahim. "But actually that's not true, because we had many white passengers on our flight from Dubai who were not further questioned, who were allowed to claim their baggage. So it was very obvious that it was racial profiling."

Omar Mohammedi, the president of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who is representing the family, agrees. "I would say this is common, actually," Mohammedi told Democracy Now! "Even if you are a family with children, you will be stopped, just because of who you are--because you are Muslim, you're South Asian, or you're an Arab."

And it's not just discrimination at airports, either. At least two groups of Muslim men have been arrested in the past two weeks for buying cell phones--"crimes" that authorities initially tried to link to terrorism, but have since been forced to admit were simply for business purposes.

In an even more frightening turn of events, the Abuubakar As-Sadique Islamic Center mosque in Southern Minneapolis was set on fire last week in what City Council member Gary Schiff and others are calling a racist attack--and which many believe was prompted by the most recent wave of anti-Muslim racism. "There's no doubt [that] this was clearly a hate crime," Schiff told reporters outside the mosque.

The latest scapegoating and violence follows the claim by British security officials in mid-August that they uncovered an al-Qaeda plot involving as many as two dozen British Muslims to board planes for the U.S. and blow them up using liquid or gel explosives.

British Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson declared that the plan to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" was "imminent"--even though none of those arrested in a series of London raids had purchased plane tickets, and some didn't even have passports.

The case against the British suspects is full of holes. For example, it would be nearly impossible to create a sufficient amount of liquid explosives quickly and with limited supplies while on a plane--as the suspects are accused of planning to do. What's more, at least some of the "evidence" of the plan was obtained through the interrogation of a suspect in Pakistan, likely using torture. Several of those arrested have been quietly let go with no charges.

The stage for this latest wave of racism against Arabs and Muslims was set by politicians and the media.

Immediately after news of the supposed British "terror plot" broke, the Bush administration began using this to bolster the "war on terror," with Bush himself claiming that the U.S. was involved in a fight against "Islamic fascism."

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called for increased security checks on people of "Middle Eastern and South Asian" descent, declaring, "If the threat is coming from a particular group, I can understand why it would make sense to single them out for further questioning."

Wisconsin congressional candidate Paul Nelson explained in a radio interview how to "spot" a Muslim: "Well, you know, if he comes in wearing a turban and his name is Mohammed, that's a good start."

Don't count the Democrats out of the hysteria, either.

Days prior to the revelations of the supposed British plot, Georgia Democratic congressional candidate Hank Johnson, in a televised debate against Rep. Cynthia McKinney, said, "An abundant number of contributors to Mrs. McKinney's campaign have Palestinian and Arab surnames--now I could accuse her of being under the control of terrorists." Johnson won the runoff primary for McKinney's congressional seat.

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker also called for racial profiling, sneering that "critics of profiling insist that focusing on one group will distract us from other possible terrorists--presumably all those Baptist grandmothers recently converted to Islam. They also invariably point to Timothy McVeigh, our own homegrown terrorist who blew up a federal office building in Oklahoma City. As if one white-bred misfit--or the occasional Caucasian Muslim--cancels out 35 years of Middle Eastern terrorists invoking Muhammad."

This rhetoric is contributing to a climate in which Arwa Ibrahim was "made to feel like an outsider in my own country," as she told Democracy Now!

"I'm a U.S. citizen," she said. "I consider myself American...I don't understand why I was made to feel like a criminal, like a terrorist. It really does show you the direction that we're heading in, and I think that's why it's so important to speak out against it."

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