Racially profiling Al Gore and Abdullah
NEW YORK - When former US Vice-President Al Gore, who lost the presidency to George W. Bush in a disputed vote count in the state of Florida, arrived from an overseas trip recently he was routinely frisked -- an all-too-common practice at US airports these days.

The joke circulating in town, however, is that when airport security scrupulously checked Gore's name against a list of suspected "Muslim terrorists", a high-pitched alarm went off signifying potential danger.

The overzealous security officer scanned the airport computer, looked up at the former vice president, and said he was to be detained for security reasons.The crime: "Al Gore" sounds too much like "Al-Qaeda and Al-Jazeera." If it quacks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it has to be a duck. But, of course, they were dead wrong.

The story may be apocryphal but it illustrates the morbid paranoia sweeping across the United States since the terrorist attacks on September 2001. There is even a "no-fly list" against which all Muslim names are double-checked for potential terrorists entering or leaving the US.

If your name matches one on the blacklist, no airline will fly you until and unless there is security clearance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The New York Times recently spotlighted the case of Aquil Abdullah, a 29-year-old African-American and member of the prestigious US national rowing team, who has been twice harassed at airports because his Muslim name matches with a similar name on the "no-fly list".
At the Newark international airport, which borders New York, he was told to step aside by the airline reservations clerk who said: "I have to call a police officer."

"What this means," the police officer told Abdullah, "is that anyone with a common Muslim name has to be checked out, to see if it's an alias, to see if he's on a terrorist list." Abdullah, the only black American to win a national single sculls rowing championship, is livid at what he calls "name profiling" at airports.

The "all-American rowing champion" is now being described as "an all-American suspect" purely because he carries a Muslim name. But the punch line in the story is yet to come.

Abdullah was born Aquilibn Michael X Shumate, and when his father converted to Islam, he changed the son's last name to Abdullah. At the end of the interview, the New York Times reporter asked him what mosque he attends. And Abdullah shot back: "I'm not a member of any mosque. I'm Catholic, actually."

The whole episode -- of a Catholic being hounded by security officers because of his Muslim name -- reveals the irony of the stepped-up security measures currently in force in the country. With an average of over 23 million visitors arriving in the US every year, the administration no doubt has a legitimate right to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country.

But the tragedy of the new laws and regulations is that Arabs, Muslims and Arab-Americans are being routinely stigmatised. Currently, visitors from 25 predominantly Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Iran, Syria and Libya, are fingerprinted and photographed at airports.

The new procedures have generated protests for singling out Muslims as part of a policy of "religious profiling." The Pakistani government, which is a close US ally in the war against terrorism, unsuccessfully sought to have the country removed from the Justice Department list. "We understand American concerns regarding security, but Pakistan cannot be equated with other countries.

That's what we are telling the United States," Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri told reporters in January during a visit to Washington DC. But his efforts failed to convince the Justice Department that Pakistan should be a cut above the rest. The Pakistani president, after all, is to be a guest at Camp David shortly: a rare honour which very few heads of state have enjoyed during visits to the US.

Still, Pakistanis who comprise the largest single group of Muslims visiting the US or temporarily residing here, have also been victimised by US authorities looking either for illegal aliens or visitors and students living here on expired visas.

Following strong objections by Muslim groups and human rights organisations, however, the Bush administration has decided to go one better: extend the new rules to include all visa-holding foreigners arriving in the country beginning January next year.
This time, the profiling will cover all foreigners, not just Muslims.

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