Muslims Disproportionate Victims of Flawed Terrorist Watch List

May 09

The Huffington Post, May 8, 2009

The Justice Department has now found that the FBI’s terrorist watch list is flawed. Not only does the list consist of a mind-boggling 1.1 million names of 400,000 people, the Justice Department has also found that the FBI was “sometimes dangerously slow to add suspects to the nation’s terrorist watch list, and even slower to remove those cleared of suspicion.” As many as 24,000 people have been incorrectly kept on that list.

I have firsthand experience with the inefficacy of this list. Every time I travel overseas, I am subjected to extensive searches and wasteful questioning. This is a waste of scarce government resources. Let me illustrate a typical encounter at the border.

About a year and a half ago, my wife and I (both U.S. citizens) were returning home after my Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon landing at New York’s JFK airport, we were met by two DHS officers who stood at the end of the jet way scanning the passport of every passenger who stepped off that airplane. Along with several other returning pilgrims, we were escorted into a special room where I found over two dozen other people awaiting questioning. When my turn came, the officer asked me to explain why I was being stopped for additional questioning. I answered that since I did not stop myself to be questioned, how am I supposed to know why was I singled out? I added that one reason for my special treatment is perhaps the fact that I am a Muslim. Such profiling is supposed to be illegal and the officer dutifully pointed that out. However, overwhelming numbers of people waiting additional questioning were visibly Muslims, most of them American citizens returning from Hajj.

Not only is the fact that I will be stopped entirely predictable (it happened again this Sunday as I was returning from a trip to Egypt) but the questions are exactly the same every time. The officers will ask me questions like where I work, why I traveled abroad, and who I met while abroad. Then they look through my baggage much like a Customs officer will be looking for items like food or seeds (that are illegal to bring in) but unlike a typical Customs stop the DHS/CBP officers seem curious about the books and magazines they find in my hand carry bags. That appears to me an intrusion into my first amendment rights.

An April 2009 report titled, Unreasonable Intrusions: Investigating the Politics, Faith & Finances of Americans Returning Home shows, “that U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Customs & Border Protection (“CBP”) agents have systematically questioned individuals about their political beliefs, religious practices, and charities they support. Questions include “What is your religion?,” “What mosque do you attend?,” “What do you think of the war in Iraq?,” and “What charities do you contribute to?” Agents have also sought to review and copy business cards, credit cards, and data on laptops, digital cameras and cell phones. These interrogations and searches – which appear to be targeting Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim — are taking place without evidence that the travelers have engaged in wrongdoing.”

Eight years into the so called war on terror, profiling of Muslims remain quite in vogue. Prejudices against Muslims remain real and progressively worsening. A recent ABC News/Post Poll finds that “Americans by 48-41 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of Islam — its highest unfavorable rating in ABC/Post polls since 2001. And 29 percent express the belief that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims — down slightly from its peak, but double what it was early in 2002.”

Once again a vulnerable minority in America is being treated with unwarranted suspicion. Such suspicion only provides illusions of security because they yield no suspects plotting to harm Americans. Moreover, they alienate an entire community whose cooperation is critical in keeping our homeland safe and upholding our image as a nation respecting due process. It is time for America to reclaim its true legal tradition of judging a person by their actions, not on the basis of their color or practices of their faith or merely on the basis of their names.

A Muslim advocacy group, Muslim Advocates has asked the Obama administration to make sure that U.S. citizens are not detained and interrogated, or threatened with detention for failure to answer questions that go beyond establishing their legal status to enter the U.S. or whether they are carrying contraband. Also DHS should share data about travelers they are stopping, searching and questioning to demonstrate to the public that they are not engaging in discriminatory profiling of travelers.

The Justice department’s report pointing out the deficiencies in the watch list is a good start but more needs to be done. A congressional hearing on this matter can greatly aid in restoring trust and confidence in a border entry process that appears flawed and discriminatory.

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