Civil liberties: Better safe than free?

All eyes are on you

The prescient journalist and satirist HL Mencken once wrote, “People would rather feel safe than be free.” After witnessing the unjustified removal of nearly 10 American Muslims from an AirTran flight due to “security” concerns, it seem some Americans would readily jettison their fellow citizens’ civil liberties in exchange for a temporary and false sense of safety and comfort. Atif Irfan, a Muslim American tax attorney, was removed from an airplane along with 8 family members and a friend after fellow paranoid passengers misunderstood their benign conversation regarding the safest place to sit on the plane.

An FBI agent entered shortly thereafter, escorted the family off the plane, and questioned Irfan regarding the incident. Even though the FBI cleared them of any suspicious activity, the airline refused to fly the American Muslim family. “The FBI agents actually cleared our names,” said Inayet Sahin, Irfan’s sister-in-law. “They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, ‘There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,’ and they still refused.”

For many Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Arab Americans, this episode highlights the increasing frustration and discrimination experienced when “FWB”: Flying While Brown. Just last year, six respected imams were unconstitutionally arrested and kicked off an U.S. Airways plane after a fellow passenger complained about their violent, horrifically suspicious activity of pre-flight prayers.

I tell my friends that anytime I’m depressed or lonely, I decide to go to the airport where instantly I’m lavished with meticulous attention and treated like a Hollywood celebrity. Rarely, have I and other ethnic undesirables been afforded such a loving reception. What’s not to love about the multiple TSA agents who “randomly” select you for special inspection? Or their curious, unbridled interest in asking you what mosque you frequent? Their desire to express their hospitality and love is so uncontainable that you’re treated to several physical pat downs covering every inch of your body. This includes the thin, inner sewed linings of my pants, which I was told could potentially conceal bombs. Although my adolescent sense of humor prompted an immature comment upon hearing this, I thankfully exercised restraint.

We are currently engaged in a “war on terror” and have certainly experienced terrorism and tragedy in the form of airline hijackings on 9-11. This, however, does not give a democratic and free country license to be overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear of its own Muslim and Middle Eastern citizens, many of whom are our own peers and neighbors. If we kill our own freedoms at home, then what exactly are we fighting for abroad?

Even though many TSA [Transportation Security Administration] regulations after 9-11 have ensured a strengthened defense program, prejudicial measures specifically targeting “brown” Americans not only placate and inflame our basest paranoid fears, they are also ineffective and inefficient. What was the ultimate result of interrogating Irfan’s family based on a fellow passenger’s unwarranted fear? The flight was delayed two hours.

Perhaps we’ve grown more afraid of water than Muslims, since water bottles are no longer allowed on airplanes. The result of such a brilliantly effective security measure? Federal inspectors placed a fake bomb in the same bag as a bottle of water, but when the TSA opened the bag, they took the water…and let the bomb on the plane. Inspectors were able to slip a bomb past the TSA 5 out of 7 times.

Ultimately, this sort of prejudicial treatment of Muslim and Middle Eastern American citizens must be confronted as unbridled and unchecked racism and fear mongering. The level of ignorance regarding Islam and Muslims is so pervasive that 13% of Americans believed Obama was Muslim simply due to this Arabic name, and thereafter immediately harbored suspicions about his loyalty and true intentions. The authors of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on the largest Gallup poll conducted of its kind, surveyed Americans in 2002, asking what they knew about the beliefs and opinions of Muslims around the world. Fifty-four percent said they “knew nothing or not much.” When asked the same question in 2007, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and non-stop media coverage on Islam and the Middle East, 57 percent Americans said they “knew nothing or not much.”

Due to this ignorance and lack of authentic understanding of Muslims and Islam, many Americans incorrectly correlate their Muslim American neighbors with al Qaeda, the Taliban, potential ticking time bombs, terrorists, and anti American radicals. Colin Powell of all people, an architect of two major wars against Iraq, denounced this poisonous rhetoric when he said, “What if [Obama] is [a Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be president?”

Yet, sadly, some American airplane passengers do believe something is wrong with being Muslim aboard a plane in America. If only the majority experienced the humiliation of being publicly inspected like a dangerous, wild mammal in front of hundreds of strangers, or forcibly removed from airplanes based simply on their last name or their physical features, they would empathize with the thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans who have routinely been afforded such “random” treatment.

Ultimately, such behavior is not only wrong but also fundamentally un-American, and we must take pause to ensure we never allow our collective fear and anger to cloud our sense of fairness and justice. Let us recall a shameful episode from American history: Executive Order 9066, which allowed the forcible relocation and internment of nearly 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during WW2. Innocent men, women and children – citizens of the United States – were removed to “War Relocation Centers,” mistrusted, maligned and viewed as potential security threats simply because we were fighting Japan at that time.

Although Muslims and Arabs are the Morlocks and Boo Radleys of the day, perhaps Obama’s new generation of hope can make the ultimate, beneficial change in finally seeing them as fellow Americans. Or, at the very least, maybe allow them to fly on airplanes like everyone else.

Associate editor Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at This piece was originally published in The Guardian.

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