Freedom can be seen in many ways and often be taken for granted. Freedom of speech allows you to wear clothing with political messages and voice opinions regardless of what they might be. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been limitations on how much freedom travelers can exercise while flying, especially for Muslims.
After the terror scare in London this August, there was a ban put on liquids and gels, which was recently partially lifted in the United States. Extra security screenings, administered at every airport in the U.S. since 1999 by a system called Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, check passengers who are deemed to be a higher security risk. Sometimes certain passengers have to endure more security checks after passing the CAPPS.
Muslims are the ones who have been affected the most by the heightened security levels since Sept. 11, which has led to many of them showing up earlier to the airport as a result of having to endure more scrutiny before boarding.
For Abdul Rehman Arain, senior biology major, being pulled over to the side for extra security checks has become the norm when flying. Arain is a frequent flyer who travels by plane two to three times a month within the U.S. and three to four times a year internationally. He said he has seen a difference in how he is treated while flying after Sept. 11 as compared to before.
“They got that so-called random profiling where they pull you out right before you board the plane or right after you go through the main security check. They will pull you out and put you through another security check,” he said.
Arain said he does not think the security checks at the airports are random, but that they are specifically targeting people who are Muslim.
“It’s not so random when you’re going three to four times per month and (airport security) is not pulling out your mother or your brother, but they are pulling me out because my name is Abdul Rehman,” he said.
Arain often travels with his family, who never has to go through special screenings. His brother’s name is Sean and his mother’s name is Maliha, which Arain thinks plays a part in them not being picked out for screenings.
Arain was born in New York, but his family comes from Pakistan and he said almost every time he flies he has to go through special screenings.
Before Sept. 11, Arain was never pulled aside because there were no extra security checkpoints, he said. He was not treated differently from other passengers.
At first, the extra screenings he has to go through when flying embarrassed him, but now he is so used to them that he expects to get pulled to the side before boarding his flight. It still annoys him, though.
Arain said flying from the U.S. is worse than flying to the U.S.
One time when Arain flew from Los Angeles to New York about nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was taken to a separate room where he was left by himself. He had to stay there for five minutes and was told not to move or touch anything.
“When the (security officer) came back he patted me down and searched my bags,” he said. “Afterwards he told me it was just a random screening.”
Ashar Ali, senior applied mathematics major, was also put in a similar situation with his family in 2002 when they were about to board a connecting flight in Paris to go back home to the U.S. Ali, his two brothers and his mother, who are all Pakistani, were detained more than 20 minutes.
“(Airport security) did a thorough search, including the carry-on luggage, and they opened it up and went through every single thing,” Ali said.
The whole situation infuriated Ali because the check was done between connecting flights after he and his family had been sitting at the gate for a couple of hours and there was plenty of time for airport security to conduct a search, he said.
“They chose to do this right when we were boarding the flight,” he said. “They pulled us to the side and we were like, ‘man, we are going to miss the flight and the ones after that are going to be all screwed up’.”
During the search the security officers would not let Ali and his family keep all the items in their hand luggage that they were bringing back from Pakistan. Objects such as batteries, key rings and other small gadgets were taken and thrown away, Ali said.
After finally being able to board the plane, they were met with suspicious looks by all the other passengers who already had been seated.
Ali said scenarios similar to this tend to happen more frequently at western airports. In Pakistan he does not have to go through any extra security screenings, he said.
“In Pakistan there’s no reason to single me out,” he said. “I’m just like everybody else on the plane.”
In the U.S. there is definitely racial profiling going on at the airports and there is no such thing as random security checks, Ali said.
“I have never seen a white person getting pulled aside for extra security checks,” he said. “They can say whatever they want to say, but it’s not random. That’s a childish thing to say.”
Because of all the hassle Ali has faced in the past while flying, he now shows up at the airport more than four hours before his flight departs “because you never know when you are going to be pulled aside,” he said.
Ali questions why the security measures are so high for air travel and so minimal for trains and busses. A terrorist could as easily, or even more easily, bring bombs with them onboard trains than on planes and do a significant amount of damage, as the world saw on March 11, 2004 in Madrid when 191 people died in a series of train bombs.
“You can argue that in the U.S. air travel is more common, but what about Europe?” Ali said.
He has heard many stories from his friends about how they were mistreated just because they are Muslims. In one particular incident, a friend of Ali’s was not allowed to board a plane at JFK airport in New York because he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “We will not be silent” in Arabic and with the English translation beneath. The shirt had received complaints from other passengers who were waiting to board and Ali’s friend ultimately had to put on another shirt that one of the flight attendants bought for him. He had refused to wear it at first, but he had to make his flight so he put it on, Ali said.
Fatima Billoo, sophomore sociology major, has traveled twice since Sept. 11 and also experienced being singled out for extra security screenings. She said when she flew to London this summer with a friend she was patted down by security even after passing through a metal detector without any alarm going off. Her friend, however, who is also Muslim, was not patted down.
Throughout her trip, she kept getting pulled to the side for extra screenings.
“Most people in our line were minorities and all the women wearing veils were pulled aside, so I don’t know how random (the screenings are),” said Billoo, who is the vice president of the Muslim Student Association at CSUN.
In Europe it is not uncommon to see groups of Muslims gathering at the airports for one of their five daily prayers while waiting for their flights. It is an option for Muslims who are not flying with Middle Eastern airlines, which usually have a designated prayer room where people can go during their flight to pray undisturbed, said Billoo, who also has her roots in Pakistan.
When praying in an airport terminal they attract a lot of attention.
“People walk by slower when you pray,” Billoo said.
Aliya Choudhery, sophomore psychology major, has not traveled anywhere by plane after Sept. 11. She said part of the reason is because she does not want to have to go through what some of her family and friends have had to endure when flying.
“I wouldn’t want to put up with it,” Choudhery said.
She said she always hears their complaints, especially from the older people who tend to exaggerate their stories, she said. Some
times the stories can even be shocking, such as when her mother’s friend’s 10-year-old son had to go through an extra security screening.
Choudhery said a lot of people justify singling Muslims out in screenings because as of late, Muslim fundamentalists have done a lot of terror acts, but it is still hard for her to accept.
” If you are coming from a Muslim background it’s hard to justify that,” she said.
Arain said he does not know how to change the way security screenings are done, but something has to change.
“I can’t come up with the perfect solution because I’m not a politician,” he said. “But it’s not American in any way and it only creates hatred and anger towards your own country.”