The dangers of traveling while Muslim

I have written repeatedly about the fact that it is when you are entering the US that you have the least rights and that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which operates as part of the Orwellian-sounding Department of Homeland Security, abuses people with impunity by detaining them for long periods of time, harassing them, keeping them under harsh conditions, taking their property, humiliating and degrading them, and renditioning them to other countries to be tortured, all without giving them any reasons. Other countries also abuse their border powers, as what happened to David Miranda at Heathrow airport shows.

Another egregious case is that of Sarah Abdurrahman, a producer for the show On The Media that I listen to on occasion on NPR. Earlier this month she and her family and friends were driving home from Toronto, Canada after attending a wedding there. At the Niagara Falls border they were detained for six hours and experienced first-hand all but the last of the abuses listed above . Later when she tried to investigate what the CBP policies were and what rights travelers had at the border, she was stonewalled by the government. But it became pretty clear that the main offense they were guilty of was of simply being Muslim.

The host of OTM Brooke Gladstone talked with Abdurrahman about the events and her subsequent investigation of CBP and DHS practices and the 20-minute clip is well-worth listening to because it is both gripping and infuriating. One of the men detained said that the CBP officers acted like frat boys hazing a new pledge, taking delight and snickering in the indignities and humiliations they were heaping on their victims.

(You can also read the transcript here. The comments where others tell their stories of border harassment are also worth reading.)

But it is not just Muslims or adults who get this kind of treatment. Abdurrahman and ACLU attorney James Lyle recount the treatment meted out to a four-year old child.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Lyle told me the story of four-year-old Emily Ruiz who was detained for 20 hours at Dulles Airport.

JAMES LYLE: She was crying hysterically, and agents refused to let her speak with her parents for over 14 hours. They kept her in a cold room, with no bed, blanket or pillow and didn’t give her anything to eat, other than a cookie and some soda.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Even though she was a US citizen, CBP ultimately deported the little girl. She returned to the US three weeks later and was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder.

Apparently keeping people in a cold room for a long time is part of the treatment and it was done to some members of Abdurrahman’s party as well. Although almost all of them were released after six hours, one of them was handcuffed in front of his children and told that he was not free to go and that he was being kept to be handed over to other authorities. This naturally alarmed them, thinking that the FBI was being brought in. But it turned out that the reason he was being held was because he had an unpaid ticket from 2006 for a crooked license plate and so the CBP at Niagara Falls called the Michigan State Police to come and pick him up.

The experience of Abdurrahman and the rest of her group make a mockery of the defense of authoritarianism trotted out by its apologists that “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.

Glenn Greenwald describes other cases where the British and American governments are continuing to abuse their border control powers to silence and punish those who bring their abuses to light.

A well-known and highly respected Yemeni anti-drone activist was detained yesterday by UK officials under that country’s “anti-terrorism” law at Gatwick Airport, where he had traveled to speak at an event. Baraa Shiban, the project co-ordinator for the London-based legal charity Reprieve, was held for an hour and a half and repeatedly questioned about his anti-drone work and political views regarding human rights abuses in Yemen.

When he objected that his political views had no relevance to security concerns, UK law enforcement officials threatened to detain him for the full nine hours allowed by the Terrorism Act of 2000, the same statute that was abused by UK officials last month to detain my partner, David Miranda, for nine hours.

Shiban tells his story today, here, in the Guardian, and recounts how the UK official told him “he had detained me not merely because I was from Yemen, but also because of Reprieve’s work investigating and criticising the efficacy of US drone strikes in my country.”

Also yesterday, the Obama administration yesterday once again denied a visa to a Pakistani lawyer working with Reprieve, Shahzad Akbar, who represents family members of victims killed by US drones and is suing the US government, alleging that the drone kills are illegal.

As Reprieve put it, by denying Akbar a visa, the Obama administration succeeded in “preventing him from speaking in congress on the CIA drone programme next week”, to which he had been invited by House members to testify. Reprieve added: “Before 2010 Mr Akbar travelled regularly to the US. It was not until 2011, when he began representing victims of CIA drone strikes, that Mr Akbar began having significant difficulty getting a US visa.”

Also yesterday, the Libyan-American rapper Khaled Ahmed, better known by his stage name “Khaled M”, was removed from an airplane in the US without any explanation. During the civil war in Libya, he was hailed in US media circles for using his music to protest against the Ghadaffi regime. As his Twitter feed makes clear, this was part of ongoing harassment he experiences when flying at the hands of his own government.

Greenwald adds,

Top secret US government documents obtained by the Guardian from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden characterize even the most basic political and legal opposition to drone attacks as part of “propaganda campaigns” from America’s “adversaries”.

In other words, criticize the actions of the US and UK governments, and they will consider you to be a collaborator of their perceived enemies and will treat you as such and give you a hard time.

Interestingly, I too am driving to Toronto to visit my cousins this coming weekend. Of course, since I am not a Muslim, the chances of me being treated like a third-class citizen on my return are considerably reduced. But not eliminated completely since I have brown skin, a foreign-sounding name, and my passport says that I was born in Sri Lanka which, given the dismal knowledge of world affairs and geography in the US, may well be thought of as an obscure Muslim-majority country. After all, we recently saw how Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh, was beaten up by a mob in New York City who thought that his turban and beard meant that he was a Muslim.

Of course, the solution is not for people like Prabhjot Singh or others who might also be mistaken for Muslims to go around with signs saying, “I am not a Muslim”. What is needed is for Muslims to have the same rights as other people and not have to fear being singled out for harsh treatment by the government or the public.


  1. mnb0 says

    Yeah, the USA is the land of the free.
    Regarding the UK: there was time that Kart Marx found asylum there.

  2. colnago80 says

    Nothing new about this, consider how Orientals believed to be Japanese were treated during WW2. As Sherman said, war is hell and can’t be civilized. Unfortunately, the US and the West is at war with elements of the Muslim world at the present time (Al Qaeda) and, in wars, civil niceties ofter go out the window. However, there is no excuse for border guards behaving boorishly.

  3. says

    if I might recommend, Prof, if you’re not already doing so, consider crossing at Fort Erie. I’ve crossed many, many times, and the worst experiences have been consistently at Detroit or Port Huron, while the Peace Bridge/Fort Erie has been the least troubling.

    Avoid Lewiston/Queenston, as it’s where the outlet malls are, and especially with school re-started and Hallowe’en coming, the crossing is likely to be measured in hours in either direction.

    Also, there’s a toll-free number you can call ahead to find out how long the crossing is taking at any of the Niagara Pensinula gates. I can find it for you, if you’d like.

    And good luck. I’ve seen way, WAY too many people of colour stopped compared to white people, in both directions. Although of course, the rule of law still applies to Canadian-side border agents, so it’s a lot less likely to be hideous, more inconvenient, if they get stupid.

  4. trucreep says

    Something needs to be done about our government treating ports as these lawless zones where they can do whatever they want. Any reasonable person would tell you that is NOT okay. This is what the government does, they will stretch and stretch the law to the point of breaking, wait for someone to challenge it, and if by some miracle they are unable to prevent it from being challenged, they’ll tone it down a bit, change their tactics, and continue on. It’s a disgrace.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Whenever I have gone to Canada I usually go over the Peace Bridge, simply because it is less crowded.

  6. sailor1031 says

    Ha! whenever I go back to Ste Julie I cross at Rouses Point, NY at a small border post on a secondary road leading into rural Quebec. It’s far less crowded than going by I-87 and crossing at Lacolle which can take hours in either direction. Last time I was asked why I was crossing at this little border post – like if you’re smart enough to avoid an hours long wait you’re suspect.

  7. says

    Absolutely. The level of suspicion is off the charts. Sadly, there are no dry small crossings here, although if you get a Nexus card, one of the Niagara crossings is now Nexus-only.

    I don’t get a Nexus card because my fingerprints (from my military days) are on file under my old name, and I’m not interested in making that name a) linked to my own, b) by the US government, c) given I write online and am frequently critical of said government.

    So…mischief managed, DHS.

  8. says

    Apologies for telling you what you knew; I wasn’t sure how often you went to visit, or otherwise came up. I hope it goes well for you!

    And I’m not kidding, memorize someone’s phone number. The BP don’t have to give you access to your phone, even to find the number, if you’re detained; that happened to a friend of mine, they asked “what number?”, she didn’t know because who memorizes phone numbers anymore?, so they kept her for three days without being able to access counsel, while they ‘checked her out’. They’ve completely changed the rules on what your rights are during detention, because it’s apparently not officially “arrested in the US”, or something. Not sure how it all works, but it ain’t good. 🙁

  9. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Kart Marx eh? Y’mean Karl?

    Yeah, how did that work out again? In hindsight, not such a good idea.

  10. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    It’s cute how you’ve stopped even pretending to be anything but a right wing reactionary.

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