Harun Khan shares his experiences with religious profiling in western airports and the anxiety it can bring before, during and after travelling
Religious profiling is a common topic of conversation before any trip amongst British Muslim communities – especially amongst those of colour. Pre-travel topics tossed around often concern personal safety, religious dress, racism and the impacts of profiling on minority communities.
Given examples of high-profileMuslim celebrities who have been profiled at airports such as Muhammad Ali Jr , Shahrukh Khan and Sir Mohamed “Mo” Farah , as well as cases of Muslims being forcefully removed from airplanes for speaking their native Arabic or reading books about Syria, it is understandable that Muslims have been made to feel alienated when exercising their freedom of movement in the West. This culture of fear is deeply rooted in Islamophobia and presents a realm where anything related to one’s perceived Islamic identity may be viewed as suspicious and hence reportable.
Judging by our media depiction alone, it is arguable that black/brown male Muslims are one of the “more suspicious” demographics within Western society – even having Muslim members of parliament supporting enhanced security measures solely for young Muslim males like myself. And, from personal experience, it is highly evident that policies like this are in full force across Western airports.
Despite being equipped with many social privileges; my maroon British passport, native English tongue and London-trained doctor-status, I have also been stopped pre-departure a total of four times, out of five international flights over the last 3 years. All encounters varied in duration, level of intimidation and psychological turmoil.
My stories centre around my travel to “the land of the free”, more commonly known as, the United States of America. During medical school, I was honored to present my medical research but despite this academic achievement, my experiences were very much marred by the way I was treated at the airport.
In 2015, I was awarded two prizes for my research at university and was granted a place at a prestigious international conference hosted in San Francisco. This was my first international conference to stamp on my CV and coming from a low-income community, I had not had the pleasure to travel frequently as a young adult.
I shared the plane with what seemed like hundreds of surgeons, medical doctors and research scientists. My excitement came to halt at San Francisco International Airport . Here, I became increasingly anxious when all, bar one, of the passengers ahead me in the arrivals queue were asked to turn right and I was asked to turn left.
As I followed the line on the floor, I eventually turned a corner and was asked to place my passport on the counter and take a seat; here other people of colour joined me. Within 15 minutes, I was taken to a lone room with at least 3 white men for questioning – one taking the lead and the other two drifting in and out of the interrogation.
“Why are you here? “Are you actually a medical student?” “Wait … you were born in the UK?” “Why were you born in the UK?” “Where have you travelled? “You’ve travelled to Morocco before – how close is that to [insert terrorist hotspot]?” “Do you use social media?” “Can I google you [whilst he fake-types]?”
They made notes on everything I said and questioned me on every detail of my answers – “Wait, if you’re medical school is …” I was eventually forced to hand them my ID from Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, London, so they believed me.
I was then left to stand in line for 20 minutes – in a line that only consisted of me – for my suitcase to be turned upside down whilst airport agents chatted and laughed amongst themselves only a few feet in front of me. Ironically, the man who tore open my suitcase was not white and wore a thick accent. Disappointed, I watched him continue to question my identity. “So, where are you from?” He wanted me to say Pakistan. Not England.
In 2016, when I attended another conference in LA, things were slightly different. Moments after I set foot into London Heathrow, the speaker-phone called for a “passenger Mr Khan going to Los Angeles.” That, coupled with the Secondary Security Screening Selection (or “SSSS”) code that was already printed on my ticket online, led my gut feeling to drag me towards the desk.
“Come this way, Mr Khan”. They opened the entrance rope only for me and two others – Mohammed, who was black, and an unnamed South Asian gentleman wearing a suit.
We were taken into a room one-by-one. I was asked to take off my belt and empty my pockets. I was asked to open all my bags. After speaking with me briefly, the team leader – an elderly South Asian woman – learned that I was at medical school after I asked what I did for a living. If you know anything about elderly South Asians, or our culture, this fact instantly grabbed her attention and she subsequently became friendlier. When her male colleague left, I explained my frustration as to why I felt singled out. Now more trusting of me, she went onto explain:
“This will happen to you every time you come to the US. Your name was sent to us from the Department of Security. You can appeal the decision though,” she smiled. “Take a picture of this website – just login and fill out the form.”
She was the first person to admit that this was not random. Nonetheless, I was too fearful to take a picture of anything on my phone, so I pretended to take a picture and soon left after the ordeal was over. As I left the airport, and entered the sea of people on the ground, my anxiety improved.
Experiences like this have made me more aware of how my identity is politicised. Traveling, a leisurely experience for white passengers, in an anxiety-ridden one for Muslims. We have had to learn to navigate these unsafe spaces.
With the rise in social media to document such instances, many US-based civil rights groups have heavily criticised acts of racial and religious profiling in North American airports – often pursuing legal action on behalf of American Muslims. In Europe, no country has acknowledged that such profiling exists and out of fear of detention, it is difficult to speak up against perceived acts of injustice in person.
That’s what makes it important to document and share our experiences – so that in future our pre-travel discussions can be more about what clothes to pack and not about how to look ‘less Muslim’.
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Harun Khan is currently working as a junior doctor in the NHS and is passionate about issues relating to global health and social inequalities. He aims to use his clinical work, public health research and writing as a means of supporting the most marginalised communities worldwide. In summer 2017, he launched a non-profit, journey2uni.co.uk that aims to support students from low-income communities pursue higher education within the UK.
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