“Your Name is Common”: Racial Profiling in the US

One of the draconian consequences of 9/11 is racial profiling. Bollywood Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan became the latest victim of what some call “flying while a Muslim” after he was singled out by US airport authorities allegedly because of his Muslim surname “Khan”. “I was really hassled at the American airport because my name is Khan,” he said. The other recent Indian victim was former president of India. On April 24, 2009 in a clear violation of protocol, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, was frisked by the staff of American airliner Continental Airlines.

Shah Rukh Khan was detained at the Newark airport on August 14, 2009 for about two hours, and released only after the Indian consulate intervened and vouched for him. Later he said that instead of doing a routine finger scan, the immigration authorities kept telling him that his name was “common”. He said: “They kept telling me your name is common…And I was too polite to ask ‘common to what’.”1 Ironically, his new film “My Name is Khan” is on racial profiling, and revolves around a Muslim character, mistaken for a terrorist, and his experiences in a post 9/11 America.

What happened to Shah Rukh Khan is not an isolated incident. Since September 11, 2001 there has been a widely reported increase in racial profiling at US airports, particularly as it applies to passengers with darker complexion, “foreign sounding names,” and/or Middle Eastern or South Asian appearance. They are either forced to disembark or refused entry to a plane or detained. Their skin color, names, language and country of origin attract security personnel. Not because they are all criminals. Their “foreign marks” make them suspects. A 50-page report of the Amnesty International “Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States,” released on September 13, 2004, asserts that racial profiling in the US is pervasive and the law enforcement uses race, religion, country of origin, or ethnic and religious appearance as a proxy for criminal suspicion. “Prior to 9/11, racial profiling was frequently referred to as ‘driving while black,’” the report noted. “Now, the practice can be more accurately characterized as driving, flying, walking, worshipping, shopping or staying at home while Black, Brown, Red, Yellow, Muslim or of Middle-Eastern appearance.”

According to the newly released government data, more than 2000 immigrants from Muslim-majority nations were singled out as possible national security threats and questioned in the fall of 2004. After being questioned about their views on the United States and what was preached in their mosques, none of those interrogated were charged with national security offenses. Of course, security personnel should interrogate individuals who arouse suspicion, but to question only members of one religious or ethnic community is unethical, humiliating and ineffective. It is naïve to imagine that all terrorists are Muslim and Middle Eastern descent.

In 2007 the Los Angeles Police Department has launched an extensive mapping program to identify Muslim enclaves across the city. LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing told the Los Angeles Times: “We want to know where the Pakistanis, Iranians and Chechens are so we can reach out to those communities.”2 But the mapping program has sparked outrage from some Islamic groups and civil libertarians. The American Civil Liberties Union said that the program was nothing short of racial profiling.

Racial profiling at the US airports has intensified after 9/11. On a flight air marshals and Airline crew can force a passenger to leave a plane, or even arrest him/her merely because a fellow passenger or airline personnel feels uncomfortable with his/her presence in the plane. Inevitably, the passengers affected are those with darker skin, and/or Middle Eastern and South Asian appearance. In November 2006 six Muslim imams were led away in handcuffs from a US Airways flight after passengers complained that they were praying in the terminal before boarding the plane. After their release, it is alleged, the airline denied them passage in any of its other flights and also refused to help them get tickets for other airlines. In another incident, in August 2007 at the San Diego airport an American airlines flight to Chicago was delayed because a passenger was scared of several Arabic speaking men on board. They were, in fact, Iraqi-Americans, who went to San Diego to train US Marines at Camp Pendleton. The men were detained and questioned before being released. Later the flight was cancelled!

Azhar Usman, a burly American-born Muslim with a heavy black beard, says that he elicits an almost universal reaction when he boards an airplane at any United States airport: conversations stop in midsentence and the look in the eyes of his fellow passengers says, “We’re all going to die!”3 Ahmed Ahmed, a comedian who was hauled through the Las Vegas airport in handcuffs, says: “It’s a bad time to be named Ahmed now,” as his name is a “common” name and could match a member of a terrorist group.

Racial profiling affected those with “foreign marks” at the cross-border also. Zakariya Muhammad Reed, who served for 20 years in the National Guard, and eleven years as a firefighter, was detained four times in six months in 2007 at the Canada-US boarder after he and his family visited his wife’s family in Ontario, Canada, and were returning to the US. In the first encounter, he says, the guards engaged in some nasty banter. “You know, we’re really too good to these detainees,” one of the guards said, according to Reed. “We should treat them like we do in the desert. We should put a bag over their heads and zip tie their hands together.” After about three hours, Reed says, they took his photo and fingerprints, and made him wait a half hour longer before giving him his passport back and telling he could go. “Our car was completely trashed,” he says. “My son’s portable DVD player was broken, and I have a decorative Koran on the dashboard that was thrown on the floor.” Later he was told by Dan Foote, aide to Representative Marcy Kaptur, that the trouble was “no doubt because you probably changed your name to a Muslim name.”4

Reed’s letter to the Interagency Border Inspection System, sent on February 2, 2007, expresses his agonizing ordeal. “Nobody will give me any information as to why I am being detained,” he wrote. “I would like to know exactly what I am being accused of and why is it that I am having so much trouble reentering the home of my birth…My entire life has revolved around the service of American citizens and suddenly I am being treated like a criminal because there ‘is a problem with my name,’ to quote one of the border officers…What do I have to do to get my name from this list?…I have been treated like a criminal and my wife and children have been mistreated and disrespected in the name of Homeland Security. All we want is to go on with our lives as before. I have never taken part in any subversive activity to cause harm to this land or its people. I have never done anything criminal in my life.”4

US has been caught up with Islamophobia. This is fuelled by several self-interests groups. Media played its role in stoking up Islamophobia. Radio host Mike Gallagher suggested “Muslim-only” line for the airports. On November 14, 2006 CNN host Glenn Beck asked the first-ever Muslim congressman Keith Ellison: “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ I am not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.” Some politicians played their part in supporting racial profiling. After terrorist attacks in London, a New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat, said that he would introduce legislation to allow police to zero in on Middle Easterners when they conduct terrorism prevention searches in subways or other local transport systems.5 In 2008 during US presidential elections, 28 million copies of a DVD titled Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West have been distributed within a few weeks in key battleground states. This film features graphic, violent images and makes comparisons of Islam to Nazism.6

Islamophobia in the US is clearly reflected by the question of John McCain’s supporter: “I got to ask you a question. I donot believe in…I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not…he’s not…he is an Arab. He is not….”6

Not only is racial profiling unfair and unequal, but it also implements a system of racial moral superiority. While it is true that some members of Muslim community and Middle Eastern descent were responsible for terrorist attacks in the US, so have “white” men like Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombings, and Richard Reid, the British shoe bomber. Adam Gadahn, an al-Qaida spokesperson, is a “white” American from a mixed Jewish and Christian heritage and hails from California. John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban”, is a Roman Catholic. These individuals do not fit the profile used by programs like the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) and US-VISIT that target Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Terrorists are multinational, multiethnic and multireligious. Focusing solely upon a particular race, ethnicity, national origin and religion in deciding who to investigate and detain deflects attention from the actual terrorists.

In March 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a strongly worded critique of the United States’ record on racial discrimination and urged the government to make sweeping reforms to policies affecting racial and ethnic minorities, women, immigrants and indigenous populations in the US. Among its recommendations, the Committee called on the US to pass the federal End Racial Profiling Act or similar legislation and combat widespread ethnic and racial profiling practices by law enforcement, especially against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.


Racial Profiling and the Global War on Terror

Racial profiling in the US has been not only to stoke hatred towards Muslims, but also to fuel the already rampant ethnic and religious scapegoating. The power of “scapegoat mechanism” lies in its deception and concealment. On the one hand, it deceives by depicting those who established “scapegoat mechanism” as righteous and innocent, and the “other” as cause of violence. Thus, it legitimizes all forms of violence (violence as violation of one’s human dignity, value and rights) against the “other”, and portrays this violence as a “sacred” act. On the other hand, it conceals the innocence and plight of the “other,” and the violence of those who scapegoated the “other.” It transforms the violence against the “other” as “good violence.” Thus, the cycle of scapegoating the weak and vulnerable continues.

Racial profiling has, in a way, secured support of majority of Americans for the US’ global war on terror. Moreover, Muslims are perceived by many in the US as “the other”, a perception that allows them to be treated inhumanely without mass protest. It is similar to what US did during World War II to Japanese, leaving out those of German or Italian heritage.
With the overwhelming public support US, along with its allies, launched global war on terror, disguising its real economic and political agenda. Racial profiling, with its skewed up morality, perverted the integrity of human conscience, head and heart. It has helped to deflect not only sympathy from the victims of US’ genocidal violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but also public focus from “normalized” US’ human rights violations in those countries. American public is benumbed to the US’ atrocities and plunder, incarceration of hundreds of Muslims, destruction of life and property in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan and other secret prisons, and extraordinary renditions.

Robert Fisk said:

Do we in fact really understand the extent of injustice in the Middle East? When I finished writing my new book, I realized how amazed I was that after the past 90 years of injustice, betrayal, slaughter, terror, torture, secret policemen and dictators, how restrained Muslims had been, I realized, towards the West, because I don’t think we Westerners care about Muslims. I don’t think we care about Muslim Arabs. You only have to look at the reporting of Iraq. Every time an American or British soldier is killed, we know his name, his age, whether he was married, the names of his children. But 500,000-600,000 Iraqis, how many of their names have found their way onto our television programs, our radio shows, our newspapers? They are just numbers, and we don’t even know the statistic.7

Moreover, the American public has failed to acknowledge that US’ unlawful use of force against people and property in Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve its political and economic objectives is nothing but terrorism. According to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff publication, terrorism is defined as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against people or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives.”8

Americans have also ignored US’ past terrorism history. Pointing out the US behavior, in July 2006 Edward Peck, former US Ambassador to Iraq and Deputy Director of Reagan’s Task Force on Terrorism, said:

In 1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us – this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group – they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.9

Again in July 2006 Peck said:

U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331[1], and read the U.S. definition of terrorism. And one of them in here says • one of the terms, “international terrorism,” means “activities that,” I quote, “appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping”…Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them.10

A concerned Peck in an interview on CNN Crossfire on October 8, 2001 retorted, “Why it is that all of these people hate us. It’s not because of freedom…They hate us because of things they see us doing to their part of the world that they definitely do not like.”11

Very rightly Shah Rukh Khan said that America needed to understand that “it’s not an isolated parallel universe existence for this country…There is a whole world which makes all the good and bad that is happening. So if you are scared of violence, terrorism, all of us are responsible for it. It is not that the rest of the world is and America is not.”12

  1. America Needs to offer More ‘Warmth’: Shah Rukh,” Outlook India (August 19, 2009). []
  2. LAPD Starts Mapping Muslim Enclaves across Los Angeles,” on DemocracyNow.org (November 12, 2007). []
  3. Terror Fears Hamper U.S. Muslims Travel,” New York Times (June 1, 2006). []
  4. Matthew Rothschild, “Muslim American Grilled at Border over Religion, Letter to the Editor,” The Progressive (May 10, 2007). [] []
  5. Edward Epstein, “Calls for Racial, Ethnic Profiling Renewed after Transit Attacks,” ADC.org (August 10, 2005). []
  6. Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation,” Democracy Now! (October 17, 2008). [] []
  7. Robert Fisk, “I Don’t Think We Westerners Care about Muslims,” Keynote Address delivered at MPAC Convention. []
  8. Ghali Hassan, “Iraq’s Occupation: A Form of Terrorism,” Countercurrents (May 29, 2008). []
  9. NATIONAL EXCLUSIVE: Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah Talks with Former US Diplomats on Israel, Prisoners and Hezbollah’s Founding,” Democracy Now! (July 28, 2006). []
  10. NATIONAL EXCLUSIVE: Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah Talks with Former US Diplomats on Israel, Prisoners and Hezbollah’s Founding,” Democracy Now! (July 28, 2006). []
  11. CNN CROSSFIRE: America Strikes Back: Should the U.S. Target Iraq?” Aired at 19.30 ET on October 8, 2001. []
  12. “America Needs to offer More ‘Warmth’: Shah Rukh.” []

Kamalakar Duvvuru teaches the New Testament in India with an objective of promoting peace, justice, unity and love. He can be reached at: kamalakar.duvvur@gmail.com. Read other articles by Kamalakar, or visit Kamalakar's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Michael Kenny said on August 23rd, 2009 at 6:29am #

    Two amusing asides: Kahn, as distinct from Khan, is not a Muslim name, i.e Herman Kahn, the philosopher, born in Bayonne, NJ and Jewish! There used to be all kinds of jokes about Herman Kahn and Emmanuel Kant!
    Also, re the Japanese in WWII. The general sent to fight the Germans was named … Eisenhower (Italian-Americans didn’t get to be generals in those days!).

  2. B99 said on August 23rd, 2009 at 7:34am #

    Well, Kahn is a different name than Khan. Khan came to Islam from the Mongol invasions of the Middle and Far East. We have all heard of Genghis and Kublai Khan. Khan is now a common name in Pakistan. Kahn, on the other hand is Jewish – and often spelled Cahn. Then, of course, there’s the Irish name Conn – exemplified by the old boxer, Billy Conn. Couldn’t quite get to the finish with Joe Louis – but his name and color would help get him through airport security.

  3. David said on August 23rd, 2009 at 8:01am #

    Life isn’t perfect and the people doing the airport screenings of passengers are not the sharpest pencils in the box.

    Imagine what would happen if a person of Middle Eastern origin got into the country undetected but showed up on airport video tapes after wiping out a kindergarten class in Iowa.

    The next president of this great land of ours might be named Palin or Limbaugh or one of the other fascist morons.

  4. B99 said on August 23rd, 2009 at 8:59am #

    David – But imagine if the person who blew up the kindergarten in Iowa (or Oklahoma City) was an Anglo who passed undetected because Anglos don’t blow up buildings, do they?

  5. David said on August 24th, 2009 at 8:15am #

    Good one, B99.

    It’s true. The real mass murderers seem to pass undetected all the way to Congress and the presidency.

  6. beth said on September 5th, 2009 at 4:12pm #

    Though John Walker Lindh was raised in a Roman Catholic family, at the age of 15 he converted to Islam. His family supported his conversion and continue to support him as he lives his Muslim faith.

  7. Ethnic Person said on November 2nd, 2009 at 5:09pm #

    I worked hard for 2 weeks , going thru several interviews, and in my final interview , when I was flying in to meet CEO, COO and Project Managers.

    I was not allowed to fly to my interview , I missed my interview and lost 80,000 USD or so worth of income.

    15 days later when I got another job , I was again denied entry in time and my flight flew out with out me , I went ack in line , for 1 hour flight was at airport from 4 am in morning to 3 pm in airports.

    When passing the screen check I was scrutnized.

    I was asked to take off my belt my shows , stand on side, and lift sole of my feet , and go thru embrasment of lady searcher out her hand and lift my front pant part up , I was dress in a full professional suit

    When I got pissed off their jack ass – ethnic clown pupet came in to cool things down … telling me how I should not retaliate and accept it because we are muslims – or something …

    Why should I not retaliate ?? Due to teh stupid delays my 1 hour flight turns up to be 7 hour journeys , I can’t get potential jobs – because ppl are not giving me preference since I can’t make it to morning meetings

    When I came home , I opened my luggage I had a note from TSA , saying they searched my bag , I had a damaged on my bad of course they stated they will not pay for any damages ???? I big cuting gash on my bag .. I was like man come on .. I did not even had a lock on my bag why did you had to damage my bag ?

    Is that fair ??? When I was in flight due to stress and truma I felt small pain in my chest – I am a young guy but it break my heart to go thru these screen every time I fly –

    I came home now , and I am just trumatized with whole ordeal and anger

    If I am wearing a 400-500USD suit and professionally dressed – and yet I get treated like shit – it just turns my opinion form a moderate to a more right sided view – perhaps my open mindedness has no value -