Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks almost two decades ago, Muslims have joined African-Americans and Latinos as targets of profiling. “Traveling while Muslim” has been added to the long-entrenched phenomenon of “Driving while Black”, a law enforcement technique that aims to ferret out criminals by race and religion, instead of actual criminal history or other markers of illegal activity.
More recently, President Donald Trump rolled out a Muslim Travel Ban in early 2018 which aims at blocking entry of Muslims from six specific countries. This was just the latest and to date, most egregious example of profiling Muslims via travel. It has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
This led to the creation of a new resource for travelers caught in the ban, the Travelers’ Assistance Project.
Profiling is here to stay. While fighting it is a noble cause, learning to deal with it is a daily requirement. There are countless examples of Muslims being kicked off flights because someone, a passenger or a pilot, was “uncomfortable” with their appearance, or they said something seemingly benign that was construed as dangerous. The same has happened on trains and buses.
It is not just the necessary security cautions which we all must appreciate, but also a little tyranny and insanity which some human beings in authority display that you need to worry about. For over a decade, I have been personally discriminated against on many occasions at airports. Once, I was threatened with arrest when I was catching my breath before responding to the old standard security question "has anyone unknown packed your bags...".
Palestinian Muslim Ann Mustafa of Chicago had all charges against her dismissed an American court for challenging discrimination she faced at O'Hare airport when trying to leave for the Middle East to attend her father's funeral. However, she was first arrested, harassed, and ended up missing father's funeral because of this tyrannical behavior by some security personnel.
Although Muslims certainly are watched and harassed more while traveling, there are non-Muslim, white folks who are also subjected to this tyrannical treatment if they dare to be a bit defiant. Some of them have very horrible stories to tell.
The solution is not to allow ourselves to become prisoners of prejudice. We must struggle to change these laws. In the meantime, we need to be street smart and vigilant when we travel, whether that is within the United States or abroad.
Here are some tips to keep in mind to better prepare for "traveling while Muslim":
1. Connect with the Powerful
Connect with your Lord. Gather extra energy as you follow the advice of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, while traveling. Recite the Duas (supplications) of travel and ask that He makes your trip easy for you and protects you from all kinds of harm. These prayers will also help you focus on the purpose of your travel and how to make the best use of it.
2. Apply for a Redress Number from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
If you travel often and regularly face problems, the Department of Homeland Security does have a process to take your name off of those lists. Apply here to get a redress number. This complaint process has worked for many people I know. So do try the process instead of just complaining about it. If the government clears you off of their list, they will mail you a redress number which you should put in or give whenever you are booking your flight. This will let them recognize that you are not the person they are looking for.
3. File your complaint
Before I start sharing my tips, I must request that you must always make notes of who is dealing with you and how you are being treated. Filing a complaint is a process of correcting wrongs and reforming the system. By not doing so, you are allowing the wrongs of the system to continue.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, only 41 percent of hate crimes are reported. Of those that are, only 10 percent are then confirmed by law enforcement investigators as hate crimes.
If you notice officials have definitely discriminated against you, then note down all of the information on the spot with names, badge numbers, times, the location, and if there were any witnesses. From there, lodge a complaint against the airlines with the
Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division. You can also call them at (202) 366-2220 or file an online complaint,. In addition, you can send detailed complaint letters to them at the following address:
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
As well, if you have a concern about aviation security (passenger screening, the “no-fly” list, the baggage screening process, and related issues), call the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) toll-free at 1-866-289-9673 or email TSA at TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.
Finally, you must also contact organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), where you can fill out an incident report, as well as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), where you can do the same. It is also important to request an ACLU affiliate for legal help.
4. Traveling with phones and laptops abroad
If you decide you must travel with your phone and laptop, be ready to have all of their contents copied or your machine confiscated without explanation while entering the U.S. You should refuse permission to let them out of your site. They may install a software or copy the hard drive. I would also suggest deleting your browsing history, just in case an article you were reading, especially if it relates to terrorism, wars, etc. gets you in trouble. While you have nothing to hide, something innocent may be used against you or others in your relations.
5. Delete your contacts list from your phone if crossing a border
Save them elsewhere. You may not be the problem, but perhaps one of your contacts will be for whatever reason (e.g. they have the same name as someone on the no-fly list). Keep only the numbers you will need while you travel. You also don’t want your innocent family members and friends to be targeted.
A Canadian-born Muslim of Scottish/Irish background had his entire journal and phone book photocopied by U.S. immigration officials after he was refused entry to the United States. He had previously traveled many times across the border with no problems. When the brother protested this violation of his privacy, the immigration officer said: "you have no rights here."
6. Clean out your purse/wallet of anything you do not immediately need
That means keep the credit cards, driver's license/state ID, etc. Leave behind any business cards you have collected over the years, especially if they are of Muslim businesses or individuals. With profiling, guilt by association and suspicion are solid techniques that have been used consistently to make innocent people suffer.
7. Avoid the controversial body scanning X-ray machine
Opt for a pat down if you are asked to go through an X-ray machine. This way, you spare yourself and others from seeing you in your birthday suit. You should ask for a private area with the same gender officer patting you down. He or she must pat you down from the back of his or her palm while going through the private areas.
8. If you are traveling as a family
Choose one person to represent your unit and role play how you will respond to questions you will be asked (e.g. where are you going, for how long, etc.). This allows for clearer, safer communication. It is also a Sunnah of the Prophet to choose one person as leader when traveling in a group.
9. Make sure other family members or friends know the details of your travel plans
This is so they can take action on your behalf should you be detained, harassed, etc.
10. Your American passport is not enough
A number of Muslim U.S. citizens have had the legitimacy of their American passports questioned. Even if you are a citizen, keep several forms of photo identification with you.
Recently, at least four citizens were detained at different U.S. borders, and at least one was arrested. In one case, U.S. border officials asked for ID other than a passport, although this American Muslim regularly travels outside the country. They asked for his driver's license, which he didn't have, although his passport should have been enough to allow him reentry into the U.S. After several hours, the officials agreed to call his boss to verify his employment and identity. After this was done, he was let go without any apology or explanation.
In another case, three Muslim friends, all U.S. citizens, were detained for more than 10 hours while their backgrounds were checked by border officials through all agencies. When they were finally free to go, they were offered neither an apology nor an explanation.
11. Plan to take an earlier flight
If you have a connecting flight, or a tight appointment, don't take chances by opting for the last flight. Most of the time, when a Muslim is stopped for an extra check, the FBI is called in for further interrogation and he or she normally ends up missing the flight. That may mean a lot if you have a tight connection. A disabled Bosnian-American Muslim programmer ended up missing his flight in the fall of 2001 when his wheelchair was sent for examination to the FBI. He got clearance but was too late. All flights to his destination were gone.
Many Muslims with the last name Khan have reported missing flights because of their last name. While there has been no hijacker in history with the last name Khan, you don't want to miss your appointment because of your choice of flight. So if your appointment is at 11 a.m., arrive an evening earlier.
12. Make sure all photo IDs carry your most recent photo
One Muslim doctor who is a US citizen recently returned from Umra sporting a beard, which he did not have on his passport photo. For U.S. immigration officials this was a problem. He had to almost volunteer to shave his beard so they could see him without it. Thankfully, he cleared immigration without having to do that.
13. Show up to the airport early
Travelers who are flying are being advised to arrive early to the airport. For domestic flights, they are asked to show up two hours before. For international flights, it's three hours. Although those following this rule normally end up wasting a lot of time at the airport waiting for their flight, if you are a visible Muslim, it is very possible that you will be subject to much more scrutiny by security officers than other passengers.
Those traveling by bus or train should arrive no later than one hour to one-hour-and-a-half before departure.
14. Items you should not carry
Since the 911 terrorist attacks, there have been a number of items added to the list of things which passengers are not allowed to bring with them when they travel, especially by air. There are also restrictions on how many items travelers can take with them.
Make sure to call the airlines, train, or bus you will be traveling with or go to their website to get this list of approved or disapproved items. Pack your bags accordingly so that you have no problems if and when you are asked to undergo a baggage check.
If you are traveling in your personal car, avoid packing anything that might arouse suspicion (i.e. sharp objects, etc.) in case you are stopped by local police for any reason. It might actually be a good idea to follow the guidelines for air travelers in this regard.
15. Don't pack anything you wouldn't want the public to see
You could have your luggage searched, due to the heightened security measures. That's why you need to not only pack light, but also avoid packing any personal items you would not want a stranger to see. Even books, photos, and magazines which discuss Palestine and Afghanistan are a cause of concern if seen by someone who is suspicious of you for no reason.
16. Try understanding the question first
Although most of the security staff's accent is comprehensible, you may come across someone whose style of talking may be difficult to understand. In this case, be careful in comprehending the question first.
17. Avoid wearing a buckle
One Muslim woman ended up having to show her belly while struggling to unbuckle. Born and raised in America, this excellent author has promised herself to travel by train only after this incident. Her father being a top insurance executive in the US and donating $50 million dollars to a university, as well as her not observing Hijab, did not protect her from being profiled.
18. Don't use stickers to show the extension of your driver's license
Being a good driver, having received no traffic ticket for the past eight years, I received a sticker from the state of Illinois. I stuck it on the back of my driver's license to renew it for another four years without having to make a trip to the Secretary of State's office.
Bad idea. It was a nightmare to use it. Because of profiling Muslims have been subjected to, most people who asked to see the ID assumed I was using an expired license. Forget convenience. Get a renewed licensed which looks new and has all the correct dates, etc.
19. Don’t allow your t-shirt to speak for you
Slogans and phrases about Islam on the t-shirts of some young Muslims have been used to harass them while traveling. So unless being stopped and questioned is your idea of fun, avoid wearing such t- shirts while traveling.
20. Keep your Green Card (proof of Permanent Residency) with you
It is required by law for you to have your green card with you if you are a permanent resident. It has not been in enforced in the past but do not take chances. You can always keep photocopies of your documents at multiple locations.
21. Keep all identification cards updated and consistent
"Karim Abdul Jabbar" can be written as "Karim Jabbar" or "Abdul Jabbar Karim" by mistake or for the purpose of abbreviation. Many offices routinely make mistakes in writing non-English names. Please make sure that all of your IDs have the correct spelling of your name and are consistent with each other.
Small spelling mistakes in the past were tolerated by agents with common sense while traveling. Now, there are more people checking things without common sense or courtesy. So make sure that everything is in order before you travel. A highly respected Imam in New York has one ID with middle name fully written and another with just initial. He was refused the flight despite being cleared by the TSA because of this discrepancy while he has traveled in the past with the same IDs. Ironically, he was traveling for an Imams’ conference on Islamophobia.
Also, make sure that all of your IDs have the same name. Avoid carrying or keeping IDs with aliases or your nickname.
22. Keep at least two photo IDs with you
Be sure to carry two forms of identification at all times. If you are a green card or visa holder, be sure to carry these documents with you when you travel, along with an up-to-date passport. Even while traveling by car, carry at least one other picture ID with you apart from your license, such as a state ID.
Make sure that all forms of ID that you are using have not expired, especially passports, visas, and green cards.
23. Where are you going?
This is a normal question which a police officer asks while stopping you on the road. Even at the airport security counter, the purpose of your travel will be asked about. Based on how you respond, the agent will start thinking about you. I know a Muslim who spent time in lockup and had the FBI called to investigate him because he did not give a proper answer. Make sure you have a clear, precise idea. Trying to be friendly and volunteering information which is not being asked may be used against you. Young persons sporting a beard and wearing Hijab are likely to be stopped more often. In New York, according to a Columbia University report, 29 percent of Muslim students in public school have been stopped by police because of profiling.
We recommend that you have some documentation of where you are going. For example, if you are going to a convention, you can keep the program, invitation, or advertisement about it with you. A written address of a location or printout of directions can help as well.
24. What will you be doing?
This is another question immigration officials may ask. Avoid being vague and give a very precise answer. To do this, you need to prepare before you get to the immigration counter. If you are planning to visit a relative or friend, for example, call them before you travel and confirm with them your plans to visit, along with the dates you will be there. That way, if officers want to call your relative or friend to double check your story, there will be no inconsistencies.
25. Look at your boarding pass
If it's got several funny markings or stars on it, it means you have been selected for extra security checks before you board your flight. That's why you should not waste too much time browsing at the airport's stores or in its restaurants before getting on the plane. Allow yourself more time and be ready.
26. Avoid crossing the border unless you have a good reason
It was at the U.S.-Mexico border that a friend of mine was asked by U.S. marshals to come and pick up his stolen car. He went with friends. After picking up the car they were hungry and since the only restaurant was across the border in Mexico, they crossed it to eat. When they returned to enter the US, they were detained for eight hours and questioned, despite the fact that they had all of their IDs in place and their purpose of visit was clear and documented. When asked why they had to go through the hassle, all they got was a sheepish look and they were told "you were at the wrong place at the wrong time". They did not mention the "Muslim Name" and "Asian Skin" of these American citizens as a reason.
It is no longer enough that you are legitimate and legal in traveling with your documents.
27. Be careful when visiting Canada
Forget the good old days of easy travel between the U.S. and Canada border. Based on our information, we strongly urge that if you can be profiled because of your looks, religion or origin, travel with all relevant documents. That means a passport if you are a citizen, a green card if you are a permanent resident, and a passport with your valid U.S. visa if you are in any other immigration category.
28. Don’t confront while being profiled
Don't be offended if you are singled out. Remain calm and allow yourself to be subject to more scrutiny than other passengers, especially if you look obviously Muslim because of a Hijab, beard, the color of you skin, etc. Questioning why you are being singled out publicly may not be a good idea. It will only make people more suspicious of you, since they may think you have something to hide. Even worse, it may give the impression you are trying to break the law or resist arrest.
Ann Mustafa, a leading Arab Muslim activist, was leaving Chicago to attend her father’s funeral in the Middle East. When she confronted the security officers for their excessive and invasive checking, she was arrested. When she said she was going to miss her father’s funeral, the officer told her he wanted to dance on her father's dead body. Nothing happened to the officer, although she has been cleared of all charges.
Our recommendation is that you cooperate, be patient, and take detailed notes of what has happened, as well as the names of those involved. But avoid confrontation.
29. Dress appropriately
Sometimes, cultural differences confuse officers without cultural sensitivity training. Before 9/11, I, along with a few friends, was stopped while rushing to St. Louis, Missouri for a funeral. The state troopers surrounded the car from three sides with hands on their guns. When I told them that I was going to a funeral they became more suspicious. When all documents were checked and they allowed us to go, I asked the officer why we were stopped. I thought they were traffic cops. He did not answer me but said that while we were going to a funeral, we were dressed casually and there were no other clothes in the trunk of the car. I tried to explain that in our culture, we do not dress up for funerals. It was no time for him to learn, however. He was polite and professional, despite all the profiling. That same weekend an African-American sister was also stopped on the interstate driving while in Hijab.
Also, for sisters who wear Hijab, wear lighter colors versus black, in particular. Dark colors, especially if you are traveling in the summer, are often perceived as repressive.
30. Do NOT try to be funny if you fit the profile
Jokes about bombs are taken seriously even if you do not fit the profile. However, if you fit the profile, and you're trying to lighten up the atmosphere, the airport, bus, or train station are the wrong places to be funny. In fact, wisecracks about any topics are a wrong idea. If you are stopped in your car for speeding or some other traffic infringement, do not joke with the officer about any topics either. Just wait patiently until comedians eventually start making jokes about profiling in America.
31. Stay calm and do not start looking in your purse or pockets
This is of course easier said than done. But if you are stopped by an officer while driving do not do anything until the officer approaches you. Then, do what he or she is asking you to. Do not reach out to your glove compartment, purse, pocket, the backseat, or for your cell phone. Remember that in 1999, a brother by the name of Ahmed Diallo was shot 41 times by New York police officers who were searching for a criminal in his apartment building. Br. Ahmed was in the building at the time, and when the police stopped him, he was reaching into his pocket to show his identification cards to them when he was killed. A nervous officer who is profiling you may assume that you are trying to reach for a weapon. So please allow an officer to approach your car and tell you what to do before you make any sudden movements.
32. Avoid being too courteous
Being too courteous while being Muslim may actually get you kicked off a flight. That is exactly what happened to some young Muslims who were traveling from Chicago to New York to catch a flight for their trip to Makkah a few years ago. During a stopover in Philadelphia, a group of women boarded and wanted to sit together. These nice Muslim kids offered to switch their seats with them, but when they got up to do this, the pilot profiled them because of their religion (they had white, brown and black skin colors) and kicked them off the plane. Other passengers tried to explain to the pilot that they were trying to be courteous. Apparently, the pilot was afraid of what these Muslims were planning to do. The nice young people had to drive to New York to catch their flight to Makkah.
So save your courtesy for the right time and right location.
33. Travel in a group
If possible, travel with at least two other people for not only safety and companionship, but also so that you have witnesses who can testify on your behalf if you are subjected to discrimination or other problems. This is also a recommendation of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
34. Write about what happens to you and share your experience
It is important for us to write and preserve these experiences. It is not just about terrorism, it is about tyranny. Today, it is Muslims and brown-skinned men who are targets. Tomorrow, it will be someone else. Connect and become part of the ACLU, Amnesty International, and other organizations fighting for human rights and civil liberties.
35. Think of other Americans while traveling
While you are traveling and facing profiling, please think of your neighbors who are fearful of travel because of terrorism. Terrorism is real and its fear is real as well. We are still traveling while Muslim in America despite all of the profiling and harassment. But think of our neighbors who are not traveling to Muslim countries because of fear for their lives as some terrorists have announced their intention to kill any American they can get their hands on. Although they are few in number, they have shown their evil actions. They do not represent the majority of Muslims who are known for their hospitality, but unless the majority checks these fringe groups of terrorists, we can protest our profiling but cannot stop it completely. The world has changed.
36. And don't forget to collect your receipts
To document your trip you must have heard of many Muslims accused of doing wrong who were saved because they had some parking lot or gas station receipt to prove they were not involved in wrongdoing at a certain time. In today's world, where Muslims are found guilty by association, it is important to be extremely vigilant. Collect your receipts no matter how useless they may seem. That may go a long way in your defense in case somebody who is profiling you because of your Muslim name or brown or black skin may decide to charge you with something you know nothing about. Following this advice saved me great pain at the Paris Airport when the officers became suspicious because of my one-way ticket from Paris. I had gone there on a short notice from London where my round trip ticket from Chicago was.
37. Dedicate yourself to change the world
How long will the world live in this fear? We and our neighbors are both fearful of the unknown. Dedicate yourself to any cause which may help humanity and the world to reach a higher level. With each evidence, with each experience of discrimination, you should only grow in your resolve to change the world for the better. You haven't faced anything compared to what the Prophet Muhammad, Moses and Jesus went through. God’s peace and blessings be upon them.