Profiling in Disguise

By Christina Abraham

Recently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been urging Arab and Muslim Americans to register with them in order to distinguish travelers from people whose names, or close variations thereof, appear on US no-fly or selected lists compiled by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  This is done under the guise of building positive relationships with the Arab and Muslim communities. Registering, says DHS, will help make travel easier for many Muslims in the U.S.

However, Muslims should be careful if asked to voluntarily register their information by the government, particularly non-citizens.  The call for registration echoes the attempt of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to register individuals from specified countries after 9-11.  The countries specified were primarily Muslim countries or countries that have significant Muslim populations. The registration project implemented by USCIS, although cancelled, led to the detainment, interrogation, and deportation of countless Muslims who later encountered problems with their immigration status.  Volunteering information where it is not specifically requested gives the government information that may later be used against the individuals registering.

Certain things should be known by Muslims before they go through the registration process with the Transportation and Security Administration (TSA), whether they are U.S. citizens or on some type of visa.

First, once on any security list, an individual cannot be removed from the list. The most that can happen after registering is to be placed on a safe list, and therefore differentiated from others who are on the list but have not yet been safe-listed.

Second, registering, and even being safe-listed, does not necessarily mean that the individual will not experience delays, detainments, or even harsh interrogations by security officers.  When an individual’s name is scanned in the system, a program used by TSA will turn up any names that sound like the name that has been scanned.  For example, a name such as “Tariq Mohammed” will turn up the various spelling variations of the name in addition to names that sound like it, such as “Shariq”, “Rafique” or “Mahmoud”.  As long as the system of sound-matching names – in addition to the actual search of the name continues to be used – an individual may experience delays and detainments regardless of whether they have gone through the registration process and have been safe-listed.

Such was the experience of Akif Rahman, on whose behalf the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU-IL) has filed a suit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Rahman, a U.S. citizen, was detained four times in a fifteen month period, each for two or more hours, including a six-hour detention in which he was shackled to a chair for three hours; all this despite having been placed on a safe list.  Others have also reported long detainments and mistreatment by officers despite having gone through the registration process.

This is not to say that Arabs and Muslims that know they are on a watch list should not go through the process of being safe-listed.  However, Arabs and Muslims should be aware that being safe-listed may not solve the problem, and they should be careful to volunteer information that could later be used against them.  Instead, they should first determine whether they are indeed on any of these watch lists, and then go through the procedure of registration.

The unreasonable detainment of Arabs and Muslims in the name of security is not, as Daniel Sutherland of DHS put it, the “peaks and valleys to this [U.S.-Arab/Muslim] relationship.”  This is systematized racial profiling on a national level.

If the government were truly concerned with building a positive relationship between it and the Arab and Muslim community, then more measures would be taken to prevent the unreasonable targeting, and more policies and procedures would be set in place to respect the rights of Arabs and Muslims who are traveling.

Detaining citizens for hours, subjecting them to interrogations and shackling them to chairs for hours at a time while their families are made to watch or wait in uncomfortable conditions is not acceptable. Law abiding Arabs and Muslims should not have to experience detainment and delays unnecessarily. A security officer should not be allowed to detain citizens unless there is probable cause – those are the rights that are supposed to be guaranteed to citizens of the U.S.  Unless the U.S. government takes an initiative in dealing with these major civil rights violations, Arabs and Muslims have no reason to believe that the government seeks to build a positive relationship with their communities.

Broad generalizations are dangerous such as those from proponents of racial profiling, who contend that if terrorists are coming from Muslim countries then it should be okay to target individuals from those countries for security purposes. This type of oversimplification creates the bigoted and flagrant abuses of human and civil rights such as the internment of the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi encampment, and the years of segregation, lynching, and abuse experienced by the African American community. Those egregious human and civil rights violations are now looked back upon with shame, yet the argument that was used to support those actions mirrors the argument being used now to justify the targeting of Arabs and Muslims today.  American society will not move forward simply by shifting the target of their bigotry.

The “us versus them” perception is not merely coming from the Arab and Muslim communities, as Mr. Sutherland stated, but a perception that has consumed the discourse of mainstream society.  So long as Arab and Muslim communities are treated in this manner, there is a line between “us” and “them”, and that line cannot be erased until certain issues are addressed and rights are enforced.  The Arab and Muslim community must work first and foremost to protect their civil liberties, especially when they are being threatened by the government entrusted to preserve them.

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