Posted on February 17, 1997 in Washington Watch

Along with increased security at U.S. airports, there are increased reports of discriminatory treatment of Arab and Muslim passengers—including U.S. citizens.

Washington’s Arab American and American Muslim organizations have received numerous credible complaints from their members establishing a convincing pattern of abuse by some airlines and some airport security personnel.

In most instances the complainants report that they were singled out for special searches or questioning before they were allowed to board their aircraft. And in each instance it appears that only persons with Arabic appearances, Arabic names, or women with hijab or men with beards were the targets of such treatment.

I devoted my weekly call-in television program, “A Capital View” (broadcast on ANA Arab-Net) to this subject this week and invited callers to report instances of such discriminatory treatment. My guest on the show was attorney Greg Nojeim, the Washington Legislative Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, an U.S. organization that defends the constitutional rights of all in the U.S.

Mr. Nojeim and I were both deeply troubled by what we heard. Doctors, professionals, women in their sixties, young pregnant mothers—all told stories of being singled out by airport personnel for searches (that often times left their belongings in a pile on the floor) and questioning that was, oftentimes, demeaningly. And all of the individuals who reported these procedures had one thing in common—Arab ancestry.

It was precisely this discriminatory behavior that brought Arab American and American Muslim organizations together to present a strong case before the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. The Commission was founded in August of 1996 by President Clinton in the aftermath of the tragic explosion that brought down TWA flight #800. Headed by Vice President Gore, the Commission was created in order to make recommendations to the President designed to improve the security and safety of air transportation.

Our groups, of course, shared this goal of air safety. Our communities travel on the average more than most Americans principally because of our visits to the Middle East. While we want to be secure, we do not want to become the victims or targets of enhanced safety procedures.

We, in fact, support most of the improvements that are currently being recommended to improve safety. Proposals to: make mandatory matching of baggage to each passenger; increase the number of bomb sniffing dogs; increase security personnel at work in U.S. airports; improve training for airport personnel; conduct security assessments of all U.S. airports and increase federal funds to provide for new hi-tech security equipment where necessary—all those are important and desirable.

Where Arab Americans and American Muslims groups have a concern is with the practice of “profiling” currently in use in some U.S. airports. “Profiling” means the creation by security personnel of a stereotypical security threat. Once the profile is established, security personnel screen out all individuals who match the characteristics of that profile for special searches and interrogation.

By definition this form of profiling is discriminatory. When a profile of young black males driving expensive cars was used by police departments to search for drugs, it was correctly condemned as racist. When Jews who worked in the government were a suspect profile after the Pollard affair, that was justifiably criticized as discriminatory. And now when Arabs and Muslims are the profile used in airport security searches, we feel right to condemn the practice and demand that it be stopped.

Four groups participated in this effort. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) participated in the civil liberties panel formed to advise the White House Commission. The Arab American Institute (AAI), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the American Muslim Council (AMC) met with the Commission staff and presented specific cases of discrimination.

I was also able to secure an opportunity for AAI and ADC to testify and make recommendations before the full Commission. In our testimony we told stories of how Arabs and Muslims had their rights violated in U.S. airports. We concluded by asking the Commission to insist that profiling not be based on any ethnic, religious, or racial characteristics. We also asked that an independent panel be created to hear complaints from passengers whose rights were violated so that it can be determined which airlines and airports were engaged in discriminatory practices. We received many favorable responses from the Commissioners present and when the Commission’s final recommendations were made to the President this week, our concerns and those of the civil liberties groups were reflected in their report.

While accepting the practice of profiling, the Commission recommended that: “no profile should contain or be based on . . . national origin, racial, ethnic, religious, or gender characteristics.”

While the Commission did not accept our recommendation for an independent panel to monitor these practices they did “recommend at a minimum that the Department of Justice . . . periodically review the profiling structures and create an outside panel should that . . . be necessary.”

With the force of the President’s Commission behind us, our groups will now continue our efforts to ensure that no airport or airline operates in a rogue manner outside the Commissions guidelines.

The use of ethnic and religious stereotypes in profiling at U.S. airports must now be ended. We will continue to monitor the situation, record offenses as they occur. ADC may file a law suit if necessary and we will continue to press the Administration and Congress to create the review panel that will be needed to officially record and eliminate any discrimination at U.S. airports.

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