Rough road as U.S. Muslims travel

In `double whammy,' they fear al-Qaida and are suspected of ties to it

June 01, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN FRANCISCO --Azhar Usman, a burly American-born Muslim with a heavy black beard, says he elicits an almost universal reaction when he boards an airplane at any U.S. airport: Conversations stop in mid-sentence, and the look in the eyes of his fellow passengers says, "We're all going to die!"

For Ahmed Ahmed, a comedian, it is even worse. His double-barreled name matches an occasional alias used by a henchman of Osama bin Laden. "It's a bad time to be named Ahmed right now," he riffs in his stand-up routine before describing being hauled through the Las Vegas airport in handcuffs.

Taleb Salhab and his wife say they, too, were dragged away in handcuffs at the border crossing in Port Huron, Mich., as their two preschool daughters wailed in the back seat of their car. The Salhabs were discharged after four hours of questioning, with no explanation from customs officers.

Getting through U.S. airports and border crossings has grown more difficult for everyone since the attacks of Sept. 11. But Muslim Americans say they are having a harder time than most, sometimes facing an intimidating maze of barriers, if not outright discrimination.

Advocacy groups have taken to labeling their predicament "traveling while Muslim," and they accuse the government of ignoring a serious erosion of civil rights. Next month, the American Civil Liberties Union will go back to court to broaden a suit on behalf of Muslims and Arab Americans who are demanding that the U.S. government come up with a better system for screening travelers.

The delays, humiliation and periodic roughing up has prompted some American Muslims to avoid traveling as much as possible. Some even skip meeting anyone at the airport for fear of a nasty encounter with a law enforcement officer. Those who do venture forth say they are always nervous.

"I find myself enunciating English like never before, totally over-enunciating just because I want the guy to know that I am an American," says Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-born, Berkeley-educated actor. "Middle Easterners are just as scared of al-Qaida as everybody else, but we also have to be worried about being profiled as al-Qaida. It's a double whammy."

Many Muslim Americans fault the Department of Homeland Security and its various agencies, chiefly the Transportation Security Administration, as failing to develop an efficient system to screen travelers. In particular, they deplore the lack of a workable means for those mistakenly on the federal watch list - or those whose names match that of someone on the list - to get themselves off.

Salhab, 36, says his family remains shaken by their treatment at the border. Officers, their hands on their guns, swarmed around his vehicle, barking at him to get out as alarm bells clanged, he said.

"If I had sneezed or looked the wrong way, who knows what would have happened," Salhab said in a telephone interview. "I feared for my life."

A complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security in January got Salhab a form letter saying the government was looking into the situation. There has been no further response.

A number of American Muslims similarly upset by how federal agents treated them and their families are seeking relief through the courts. About eight men with Muslim or Arab roots are joining a suit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union branch in Illinois demanding that the government improve its treatment of returning American citizens.

But similar suits have made little headway. In general, the Constitution protects all Americans against unreasonable search and seizure. But much more aggressive searches have been deemed reasonable at airports and at the border than elsewhere. Just how elastic that standard can be is what the lawsuits are addressing.

The Department of Homeland Security denies engaging in racial profiling. Agents should not base their decisions on a face or a name, said Daniel Sutherland, head of the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Sutherland said the department was aware of problems with the watch list, but he argued that many Muslim Americans traveled without encountering difficulties.

Still, traveling makes many Muslim Americans feel like second-class citizens. Ahmed, the comedian, often travels wearing a T-shirt that says, "Got rights?"

"I'm a taxpayer and I'm an American, and I want to be treated like one," he said.

Most of those wrongly placed on the watch list seethe with frustration and anger, finding it unbelievable that a technologically advanced country like the United States has been unable to develop a list that can distinguish between a lurking terrorist and a harmless citizen with a Muslim name.

Dr. Sam Hamade, 33, was born in Lebanon and carries a Canadian passport but is a permanent U.S. resident and is seeking citizenship. A senior resident at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., Hamade legally changed his name from Osama to Sam to make his patients more comfortable.

In the past two years, driving back from Canada after visiting relatives or his fiancee, Hamade said, he has been detained at least six times. He has found himself weeping with frustration, he said, because the same thing happens every time - he is photographed, fingerprinted and his body groped - and every time the border police say that they are just following procedures.

Hamade was handed a "Fact Sheet" instructing him to write to the Border Patrol's "Customer Satisfaction Unit" in Washington. He wrote, but has received no answer. A complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security in April has also elicited no response.

"It's a nightmare," Hamade said.

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