I fly frequently-across the United States, across the Atlantic. Over the last few years, I have flown from New York to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to London, from London to Beirut countless times. I have never worried or felt fear.
But this time was different. The man and his son had sparked suspicion in me. I found myself listening to their conversation. Something troubled me, but I wasn't sure what-so I decided to monitor them. I understand Arabic. If something was up, I would know.
Maybe it was the harrowing details of the September 11 Commission Report released before my departure. Reading transcripts of passengers' conversations with loved ones during the last minutes of the hijacked planes had made my stomach turn. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a graduate student in New York City. I had seen the smoke billowing from the two towers that I had used as my compass in the city--and I saw them collapse.
Or maybe it was the security alerts issued in the days before I left Los Angeles-we're at a yellow alert, orange alert. No, wait-we're back at yellow. No, orange. Or the incessant talk of an "imminent attack."
Soon after take-off, the older man got up and took out a cell phone. My heart started beating faster. Strange behavior?
I paused, then turned around and spoke to them. "Cell phones aren't allowed in the middle of the flights," I told him in Arabic.
He was surprised. Maybe I was the one who was acting strange. After all, I had been watching them through the corner of my eye, listening to them over the whispers or passengers and announcements over the loud speaker.
"Yes, I know. We are not using them. Where are you from?"
"I am originally Syrian," I said.
He replied with a smile.
We spoke briefly. By then, I was calm, but troubled. I--an American Muslim, an Arab-American, a Syrian-American--had felt suspicious of my own people. Was I guilty of profiling- of accusing innocents of "Flying While Arab"?
We all understand because we know the perpetrators of 9/11 came from among us. Yet as an Arab and Muslim-American who lives at the moment in the Arab world, I see growing anti-Americanism not only among extremists, but also among ordinary people, among moderates.
I know why Arabs and Muslims are angry-all you have to do is read the newspapers and watch the news unfolding every day in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. In the eyes of the Arabs and Muslims, America speaks of freedom and democracy, but disregards justice in the Arab world. Our support of Israel and Ariel Sharon, a man equated in Arabs' minds with the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian camps in 1982, alienates many in the Arab world. We invaded Iraq, a sovereign country, on a false premise of weapons of mass destruction. Under U.S. occupation and in the name of freedom, we then subjected Iraqis to torture in the Abu Ghraib prison.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, the vague threat of "imminent attacks" makes Americans all the more paranoid. We hear about threats to specific cities, even buildings. But all we can do is wait to see what will happen next. We are in the dark.
So the fear is natural. But what level of profiling is reasonable in responding to that fear? And how do we protect the narrow gulf between realistic profiling and dangerous stereotyping?
Many Arab-American and Muslim-Americans are torn about profiling. I know I am. On one hand, I don't think profiling that simply takes an extra hard look at Arab-looking travelers does enough to protect us. Muslims come in all colors-Arab, Asian, white, black. If the terrorists want to get us, they can find someone who does not fit the Arab, Muslim profile.
But while I fear our continuing vulnerability, what I fear most is the loss of our nation's civil liberties, of our freedoms. I am upset every time I meet an Arab in the Middle East who says he or she does not want to visit the United States anymore because of the stories they have heard about how Arabs are being treated, because of the Patriot Act. Most of all, I fear the huge rift that is forming between the United States and the Muslim world.
Recently, Annie Jacobsen raised eyebrows in a series of articles in WomensWallStreet.com about a group of Syrian musicians on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles entitled "Terror in the Skies, Again?" On a trip with her family, Jacobsen anxiously noted strange Arab men seated sporadically throughout the plane-in a pattern reminiscent of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 report. Her article described their attire: tracksuits with Arabic writing; how they congregated at the back of the plane; how they passed around a suspicious McDonalds bag; how they glared at each other and made eye contact with one another. She describes how seven men stood up suddenly at the end of the flight to use the bathroom, each spending four minutes inside. She describes seeing a handful of Syrian passports.
Jacobsen's fears led her to alert the cabin crew. The men were met at the gate by FBI agents and questioned. Other passengers and air marshalls aboard the plane were apparently also concerned because once Jacobsen's report appeared, they contacted her with their own concern. But the men turned out to be members of a Syrian band who were flying to perform outside San Diego and in Garden Grove, Calif.
I spoke with Ziad Mrayis, the leader of the band who was on the flight, on his return to Syria. He said he had no idea their flight had caused such a commotion. They had a McDonald's bag because they had eaten McDonalds at the airport. When one of the band members went to the bathroom to throw the bag away, he found a sign that said that only tissues were allowed in the trash.
"We didn't feel anything strange on the flight," Mrayis told me. "Someone would get up to wash his hands. We don't speak English-most of us had no idea that anything had really happened. We had no idea why were stopped and questioned. And then we were more surprised to hear about all the alarm when we got back here."
1. Arabs of all faiths tend to be loud and social. If flying in a group, they will congregate, stand, talk, eat, pass food around.
2. Whether or not the seat belt light is turned on, Arabs think it's fine to stand up. Systems in the Arab and Muslim world often work differently. On the ground, traffic signals are often ignored, and lines on the road do not mean much. So when the light is on during a flight, Arabs and Muslims often get up to use the bathroom or get something from the overhead bin.
3. Muslims generally try to pray five times a day. They will pray in their seats. And if they are in a group, they will most likely pray aloud together.
I understand Americans' fears, of course. I know that terrorists could likely resemble the ones on the flight, even though Muslims come in all colors. Remember the potential shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who in December 2001 tried to light an explosive embedded in the sole of his shoe? He wasn't an Arab. It was fine for Jacobsen to be scared--but it was not fine to be alarmist. Yet her article has been just that. It also further tarnished the image of the United States in Syria--confirming the notion on Syrian streets that Americans just hate Arabs.
I wondered what Jacobsen and others would have thought when the Egyptian man and the young boy behind me started to pray, in unison. The young boy led, the older man followed. It was the noon prayer-and they were doing their religious duty.
I can't claim to understand how terrorists work. I can understand their grievances, but what pushes one to go over the edge, to want to murder innocent people, is beyond me.
But these days, we'd all be smart to try to understand our fears. And what I understood on my flight from Los Angeles to London was the comforting Arabic rhythm of the Qur'an spoken during prayer by an Egyptian man and his son behind me. It turned out that those Arabic words were precisely what made me feel safer.