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"Arabs say airport checks single them out"


 
Saturday, September 2, 2000

Arabs say airport checks single them out
FAA to study profiling in searches
By Cindy Rodriguez
The Boston (MA) Globe


At an airline counter at Logan International Airport, a clerk asked Samir
Hamdan and his 15-year-old son, Tarik, to step into a private room. A
security guard needed to check his bags.

''I asked her why. She told me, `You've been selected randomly by the
computer.''' Hamdan was miffed, but complied. It was random, after all.

But on his way back from Beirut, a clerk at Heathrow International Airport
in London told him he'd been picked again.

This time, he was shocked at what he saw in the security room. ''Almost all
the people were either black or had tannish skin,'' said Hamdan, a
chiropractor who lives in Northborough. ''I don't think it was a
coincidence.''

Hamdan says he was singled out because he's an Arab Muslim and fits the
stereotype of a terrorist. Count him among the growing number of Muslims who
say they are victims of TWA, or ''Traveling While Arab.'' And Arab-Americans
are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to stop what they believe
is a form of racial profiling.

Now, even as Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore promises to end police
profiling of black motorists, the FAA is quietly preparing a $1.5 million
study to determine whether Arab-Americans are being similarly targeted at
airports.

Arab-American advocates say the targeting is so pervasive that some
Arab-Americans alter their behavior to avoid being searched. Some don't
bring carry-on bags. Men shave their facial hair. Others arrive early,
believing they're more likely to be questioned, frisked, detained.

But what they can't change is the color of their skin, their Muslim names,
the Middle Eastern countries stamped on their passports, or, for women, the
traditional hijab headdress - any of which make them stand out.

''We have a running joke, that there's a hijab alert button under the table
at airport security checkpoints,'' said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the
Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic advocacy group based in
Washington, D.C.

Complaints have risen since 1997, Arab-American organizations say, when the
FAA began using the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, which
alerts airline clerks to search certain individuals.

Rebecca Trexler, an FAA spokeswoman, said she is not allowed to disclose
what information the screening system looks for, but she said it doesn't use
religious or ethnic identifiers such as name. She said it does use
information relating to travel patterns, but she declined to elaborate.

But as Arab-Americans increasingly complain, the FAA has been forced to act.
It is preparing a pilot study that will be conducted in Detroit, which has
the largest Arab-American population in the United States.

''We want to know if the selection criteria has disproportionately chosen
people of particular minority groups,'' said FAA spokesman Bill Mosley.

Muslims say they have been linked with terrorism owing to high-profile cases
such as the World Trade Center bombing in New York in 1993. It is Muslims of
the Middle East, rather than Muslims from Africa, who are more likely to be
targeted, they say. Arabs, regardless of whether they are Muslim or
Christian, say they are targeted because of their national origin.

''This is out-and-out discrimination, which is rooted in the stereotype that
all Arabs are terrorists,'' said Merrie Najimy, president of the Boston
chapter of the national American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. ''It's
unjust because anyone with a Western or Anglican name would never have to
worry about this.''

Just ask Faisal Saleh, 48, president of BeneSoft Inc., a software company in
Bethany, Conn. Three years ago, while purchasing a ticket to fly from San
Diego to Portland, Ore., a clerk told him he'd been chosen by the computer
for a search.

''I asked her what that meant. She said, `We will have to search all your
bags and you have to empty your pockets.' I was flabbergasted,'' Saleh said.

He told her to cancel the ticket.

''I refused to go along. It's humiliating and degrading. If I let them
search me it's like saying I agree with your practices. I ended up taking a
flight on a different airline.''

Though the federal Department of Transportation keeps statistics on
complaints, many people don't complain to the DOT. They either don't know
which department to call within the vast bureaucracy, or they don't trust
that anything will be done. That explains why so far this year the DOT has
received just six complaints in general, while the American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee has received 69.

''The profile is absolutely discriminatory and constitutes racial profiling
of Arabs,'' said Hussein Ibish, committee spokesman.

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