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18 November 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

I’m a Muslim but I can still fly

Arabs and Asians complain of racial profiling. But the widely travelled Sarfraz Mansoor finds US air

By Sarfraz Mansoor

Some people have a fear of flying; I am afraid of airports. It starts even before landing; 30,000 feet above the ground, as we start the approach to the runway, my stomach will start to tighten and my palms will begin to sweat. It gets worse. At the airport terminal, as I join the snake of new arrivals waiting to be processed by US immigration, I will practise smiling, work hard at not looking suspicious, ensure I have my return ticket easily to hand. I may be a 31-year-old Muslim male travelling alone but, I will remind myself, that is not, as yet, a crime in itself. As I reach the end of the line, I usually pop a mint into my mouth and my eyes will scan across the half-dozen men and women who are inspecting the passports. Who looks friendly? Who looks as if they head the local chapter of the Aryan Nation? A married couple will be sharing a joke with one; a pretty girl will be flirting with another, her passport stamped after a few cursory questions. A wave of the arm and it’s my turn. I breathe deeply, walk deliberately and try to remember to look relaxed.

If you didn’t know better, you might think that racial profiling began at American airports on 12 September 2001. But as a Muslim male who has visited the US countless times, I know from experience that going through US immigration can be an intimidating experience. The hard stares and stern questioning routinely make me tongue-tied and flustered like some guilty schoolboy. Last summer, I had to go to New York to review a rock concert. Having passed immigration control at JFK airport I was stopped by two uniformed officers. They asked me what my job was and when I told them I was a writer they began searching through my baggage. “If you’re a writer, where’s your laptop?” one of them wanted to know. I muttered that I tended to write on paper when on the road and type up my notes on returning home. Since then, I always pack some of my articles so I can prove I really am a writer. Another time I was returning to London from Seattle when I was stopped as I was about to board. An airport official snatched my passport and boarding card and bellowed in my ear: “Do you speak English?” “I live in London and I’m British so it’d be odd if I didn’t,” I snapped sarcastically. He was looking for illegal immigrants, and once he was happy that the passport I carried was mine he waved me on to the plane.

Today, airlines are concerned less about illegal immigrants than about inadvertently allowing suicide-bombers aboard. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, there was a palpable increase in fear among passengers and a related increase in airline security; everyone felt it, but Muslims felt it most. There were stories of decent men refused airline seats because other passengers felt uncomfortable flying with anyone with dark skin. Even a bodyguard to George Bush – Walied Shater, American but of Arab decent – was prevented from boarding by a suspicious pilot. Richard Reid’s attempts last December to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe revealed how lax security remained on domestic flights, prompting further demands that airports take more care with passenger safety. Those measures have included racial profiling, where anyone who might pose a risk may be required to submit to extra searches of body and baggage. It was these new measures that recently prompted the author Rohinton Mistry – Canadian, but born in India – to cancel the second part of an American book tour as a protest at such profiling. Mistry’s publicist has complained that he was “stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way – to the point where the humiliation for both he and his wife has become unbearable”.

But is Mistry’s stance right? I feel sympathy, I do not recognise the portrait he paints of travelling to and around the States. This summer, I travelled to the US for the first time since 11 September. In the fear-filled days following the felling of the twin towers, I seriously questioned whether America as a destination was still available to me. I was sad and angry with the terrorists who shared my religion but whose hatred of America cast a suspicious light upon all Muslims.

Having initially cancelled a trip to New York planned for soon after 11 September, it was not until this May that I returned to the US. To my surprise, the whole process was smooth and free of incident. Indeed, when I mentioned to one official at Los Angeles International Airport that I worked for Uncut magazine – and showed him my work – he revealed himself to be a big fan of the magazine.

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On the ten domestic flights I took, we all had to go through one level of security, but some were chosen for an extra search just before boarding. I was selected seven times. During one trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles I was not stopped either time, but my white female friend was stopped both times.

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The extra security is upsetting. Everyone is walking on to the plane when you have to remove your shoes and raise your hands as the metal detector checks every part of your body. There is a voice inside you that would love to shout: “I am not a criminal; don’t treat me as if I am!” There is also the more practical downside. By the time the inspectors have finished with you, the other passengers are already seated. There is therefore the embarrassment and hassle of trying to find an empty seat and finding a free luggage compartment to store your hold-all. It might seem petty, but when it happens all the time it can get tiresome.

Why, then, do I not harbour the same resentment that Mistry does? Why am I still keenly looking forward to my next transatlantic crossing? The reason is that every official I met, from Los Angeles to New York, was polite and courteous, a significant proportion of those who conducted the searches were them-selves non-white and it was not only people of colour who were subjected to these extra searches. In a perfect world, the criteria for selecting who undergoes security checks would be completely colour-blind; but in a perfect world 11 September would not have happened. After it did, it was inevitable that greater attention would be given to visitors who might pose some sort of threat.

Given these sad new realities, it seems absurd to suggest that airlines should not be extra-vigilant in monitoring the ethnicity of who boards their planes. Given the horrific nature of the events that prompted the security measures, and given that all the terrorists were from the same ethnicity, it seems to me that the airport authorities ought to be congratulated for dealing with the harsh new concerns without malice. I was not surprised at the number of times I was stopped; I was surprised at the number of times I was not. It was also reassuring to see that young white guys in baseball caps and tattoos were stopped; as were middle-aged white women.

In the rush to condemn illiberal attacks on civil rights, many are eager to portray all airports as mini-fascistic states where Muslims and other brown-skinned visitors are manacled, having been branded with an ID number. It becomes easy to forget the young woman at Las Vegas airport who smiled broadly as I nervously handed her my passport and told me she loved my hair. It becomes easy to forget the immigration officials at Newark Airport last August who greeted me like a long-lost brother because I had told them I had flown over to see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

This is not a competition between good and bad anecdotes. The immigration process is a singular experience: we face it alone and it is easy to convince ourselves that we alone are being given a hard time. Although I still get nervous before landing, experience has taught me that the fear is often worse than the reality. The truth is that the couple who look as if they are sharing a joke with the immigration official are probably being asked which hotel they are staying at and how long they are staying there. The pretty girl who is flirting with the man is probably convinced he is asking her more questions than is strictly necessary. I don’t doubt that more attention is devoted to Muslims or Arab-looking travellers than others, but I suspect that there are plenty of white men and women who are equally certain that they are being picked on.

In the aftermath of last year’s attacks, the people of New York City were urged to go about their lives because to do anything other would be to give the impression that the terrorists had won. By cancelling his book tour, Mistry risks giving aid and comfort to the extremists – right-wing politicians and religious fundamentalists alike – who would prefer to see only white faces passing through America’s gateways.

A final thought. My most unpleasant airport experience took place when I had flown to Los Angeles while still a university student. I had passed through passport control when I was stopped by a sour-looking man who looked me up and down and asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. He seemed to be looking for some inconsistency in my answers and when he could find none he had a final query for me. “So how did you afford to fly to Los Angeles?” he demanded. That took place at Heathrow airport, London.