Consenting Muslims in America

The scholar recounts his brief detention and interrogation at JFK airport.

Getting through US borders has become more difficult for American Muslims [Getty Images]
Getting through US borders has become more difficult for American Muslims [Getty Images]

On the evening of November 13, I flew back from Gwangju, South Korea – where I was invited to participate in Gwangju Biennale – to JFK airport in New York. Upon exiting the airplane I was met by two CBP (US Customs and Border Protection) agents who collected my passport and escorted me to their headquarters at the airport. I was then asked to empty all my pockets, and my small handbag was thoroughly searched. The agent in charge then picked a number of items in my possession – including my credit card receipts, driver’s license, Columbia University ID, iPhone, iPad, and a handbook in which I write my various notes.

“Have you ever been with us,” one of the two officers asked me at the airplane door. No sir, I said. They had come all the way to the very door of the plane, and were looking at people’s passports until they reached me and the instant they had me, they let the others pass unhindered. They were obviously looking for me. This was no random search. This was a deliberate and targeted search for me. 

I was made to sit down while the CBP officers filled out forms for which they asked me detailed questions including my parents’ names, my height, weight, the colour of my hair and eyes, my home address, etc. Then photocopies of the items the officers had taken from me were made – including a full photocopy of my notebook in which I write anything from the daily chores I need to do, to the outline of a lecture I have to give to my class, the outline of my columns for Al Jazeera or other venues, and the outlines of arguments for more extended essays or even books. It is the closest thing a writer has to a Catholic confessional box – I pray, I play, and I think in the notebook. 

He was a federal officer, standing over my tired bones and heavily jetlagged body with a gun and a handcuff and the full authority to do with me what he pleased. I was homo sacer incarnate, reduced to my zoë, full of fear and loathing – how could I grant or deny him ‘consent?’

After almost three hours, I was given back these items, was escorted to the exit, and was told by the accompanying officer that this was perhaps a case of mistaken identity. He also gave me a Homeland Security brochure which informed me as to how I might request a redress of the procedure to which I had just been subjected. 

Travelling while Muslim

I make a note of this event because I am not the only Muslim being thus harassed when travelling from and to the US – a country I have called “home” for more decades than the entire lifetime of the officers who were interrogating me – as I told them so, and as they did, in fact, acknowledge. “Getting through United States airports and border crossings,” according to a recent New York Times report, “has grown more difficult for everyone since the terrorist attacks of September 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 labelling their predicament ‘travelling while Muslim’, and accuse the government of ignoring a serious erosion of civil rights”.

Against these discriminatory behaviours, Muslims are taking collective action through various civil liberty venues. But I believe public awareness is the single most important course of action for us – and sharing the moral and psychological damages we and our families have to endure every time we face such ordeals.  

Public awareness is our only haven 

As soon as I came home, I sent out an email informing a number of my friends, family, and colleagues of this incident – Kafkaesque incarnate – and the following day, I posted a note on my Facebook page and shared the incident with the wider world.   

I have no idea what might have triggered this incident. Over the past almost 40 years that I have lived in the US, nothing like this has happened to me. I have no reason to believe or disbelieve the officer’s assertion that this might be a case of mistaken identity. The officer who was copying my notebook and who happened to be Muslim, asked me if I were critical of Israel – for, he said, he had “seen this happening before”. 

Perhaps a warning of what was about to happen, or perhaps not, was when I received my boarding pass from Korea Air at JFK, I was given a “SSSS” designation, which I understand stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection”, and meant an intrusive and far tighter screening by the security officers before I entered the gate areas. The same thing happened to me on my way back from Seoul to JFK. Initially, I thought that this was perhaps a random designation by the airline’s computer, but for sure, the agents at the aeroplane’s door could not have been from the airline. 

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire incident was when the officer who had escorted me from the plane informed me, with an air of indifference, that he needed my “consent” to photocopy the items he had collected from me. I just looked at him in incredulity. “Consent?” How could I give or deny him consent? He was a federal officer, standing over my tired bones and heavily jetlagged body with a gun and a handcuff and the full authority to do with me what he pleased. I was homo sacer incarnate, reduced to my zoë, full of fear and loathing – how could I grant or deny him “consent”? 

Apothecary box of my mind 

When I came home I looked at the notebook they had copied. It is typical of all my notebooks – of which I have many. On one page there were my colourful drawings of flowers for my little children; on the next, a line of Rumi’s ghazals to practice my Persian calligraphy. On the next page, a rant in Persian, against former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, as to why he dismissed Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize as irrelevant and insignificant. On the following page, I had the outline of a lecture I gave to my class on Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and linked it to the “liberation theology” of Bartolomé de las Casas in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

On the page after that I thought through an argument as to why US President Barack Obama initially thought to attack Syria and then changed his mind. Turning to the next page, there is a comparison of Kurasawa, Lean, and Ford’s epic cinema – before coming upon pages in which, after reading sections of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, I had written extensively on her strength and blind spots. What would a Homeland Security bureaucrat make of all these pages, will he or she think me mad, insane, or will she think these were the coded content of some grand conspiracy? 

Nothing, not my laptop, my iPhone, my iPad, etc, is as innate to me and to my thinking and who and what I am, as these notebooks, they are my inner sanctums – where I fear, where I tremble, where I think, where I hope, where I dream and dread. 

Only a few days ago I wrote on my Facebook page: “I have always thought of myself as a potter – and what I do (writing) as pottery – and of publishing just putting on my window one of the pots I have made and think it ready for display – when a pot is done and dried and on display, I scarcely look at or think about it – my heart, hand and soul are always in the clay I am moulding now.”

These notebooks open and read like my crowded workshop, where I write and reason myself through the earth and water of my thinking. They are the varied corners of my pottery shop. At one point, the officer who was copying it, turned to his colleague and not knowing I was watching, said, “I have to copy this whole sh*t.” “Sir”, I inadvertently shouted, “those are my thoughts – please don’t call them sh*t!” He apologised. I was not in a position to accept or reject his apology.    

It is the anonymity of your accusers and the total power “it” or “they” have over your being that is the most frightful part of this entire ordeal. Nobody tells you what you have done or not have done. “Someone has spotted you,” the first officer who picked me up from the airplane told me, “and I must do certain things,” he added, almost apologetically but dutifully. 

“Why, I don’t know,” he added. And he kept saying he was tired and wanted to go home. Soon, after he was done with me, he did leave the office without saying goodbye to me, or even looking at me, and left me in the hands of another officer who finished copying all he had from me and then let me go. 

Why, by what authority, and for what reasons? I have no clue. I am reading Kafka’s Before the Law and it scares me even more. 

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author most recently of Shi’ism:  A Religion of Protest (Harvard University Press, 2011).  

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