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Muslims Against Homeland Security By: Frank James
Chicago Tribune | Wednesday, February 02, 2005


WASHINGTON -- Software salesman Shadab Aziz of Houston was preparing recently to catch the first flight on his long journey to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca expected at least once in a lifetime of all able Muslims. But his mind was partly on what could happen when he returned to the United States.

A U.S. citizen, Aziz wondered if American border officials would make him provide his fingerprints before allowing him to re-enter the country. That had been the case weeks earlier for a group of Muslim-Americans returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto.

"My concern is that I be treated like any other citizen of this country and that I'm not discriminated unfairly against because of my religion," said Aziz, 27. "If an Anglo-Saxon male or female who's coming back into the country doesn't have to be fingerprinted, I see no reason why I have to be treated any differently."

U.S. citizens typically are not fingerprinted on their return from abroad. That usually is reserved for visiting foreigners as part of the US-VISIT program that went into full effect last year.

But when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, demanded fingerprints from about three dozen Muslim-Americans returning from Toronto, photographing some as well, it set off alarm bells throughout the Muslim community. Officials said the additional screening was intended to prevent terrorists from entering the country.

With an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 American Muslims having gone on the hajj this year, and with many returning this week, a lot of the pilgrims fear they will face the same treatment before being allowed to re-enter the United States.

Muslim-Americans say it would be another case of their rights being trampled on, more collateral damage in the war on terrorism. Specifically, many contend that their constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and assembly, due process and security from unreasonable searches and seizures have been violated.

Different rules at border

Constitutional law experts, however, say courts have held repeatedly that citizens at U.S. border crossings should have a lower expectation of privacy than they would in their homes.

"When you're at the border, things like this happen: People are strip-searched and body-cavity-searched," said John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The Supreme Court has said, well, the rules are different" at the border because the government's interest in protecting the nation is greatest at the borders, Burkoff said. Inside the country, the balance shifts toward the individual.

"For you to be strip-searched inside the country, they're going to need probable cause, not that you committed a crime, but that you have something on your person," Burkoff said. But at the border, "all the prior justification requirements are lessened."

That's no comfort to Muslim-Americans and their advocates, who worry that the hajj will give U.S. border control officials yet another chance to practice what Muslims see as discrimination.

"We're obviously concerned that American citizens on hajj, which is sort of the Mecca of all Islamic conferences, might garner more of this scrutiny upon their return," said Arsalan Iftikhar, the national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The council has written to the Homeland Security Department and the Customs and Border Protection agency, Iftikhar said, to ask what permitted them--in the case of the Muslims returning from Canada--to "detain and fingerprint American citizens with threats of arrest for non-compliance."

"Does mere attendance at an Islamic conference or religious acts of worship constitute probable cause for a criminal act that justifies this sort of attention?" he asked.

The federal government has yet to officially respond, Iftikhar said.

A Customs and Border Protection official denied that the agency was targeting Muslims.

"Their religious belief had nothing to do with why they were asked to verify their U.S. citizenship," said Kristi Clemens, an assistant commissioner for public affairs at the agency. "It's definitely not profiling, absolutely not."

Instead, it was their attendance at the "Reviving the Islamic Spirit" conference over Christmas weekend that invited scrutiny, she said.

"We are aware that the vast majority of participants at this conference and others are legitimate, going for the right reasons," Clemens said. "But we have credible, ongoing information that these types of conferences have been used and are being used by terrorist organizations to not only transport fraudulent documents but to mask travel by terrorists.

"They think that in a large group we're going to be less restrictive and try to expedite the processing," she said.

If that was the government's rationale, Muslim-Americans say, it would make even more sense for border agents to demand fingerprints from U.S. citizens returning from Saudi Arabia because there will be thousands of them.

Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, as is Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda has many sympathizers there among the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, and American Muslims will be mixing with Muslims from across the globe.

However, Clemens said it would be wrong to assume that the returning pilgrims would be fingerprinted like those Americans who returned from Canada.

"The ongoing information we had [regarding the Canadian conference] ... was specific," she said. "That same information is not applying to the hajj. They are separate instances."

Fingerprints taken

The fingerprints taken at the U.S.-Canada border were compared with criminal and terrorist watch list databases, then disposed of, Clemens said. None of the prints matched those of known criminals or terrorists, she said.

Muslims are skeptical about the government's position that it was the event, not religion, that prompted the scrutiny.

"It's like saying we're only stopping people coming from the hajj, not the Muslims," said Omar Ahmad, a California software industry executive and chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But only Muslims go to hajj. Yes, that's profiling."

Ahmad is among those making the pilgrimage and is concerned about being asked for fingerprints on his return.

At least he knows what could happen. Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa says she was caught completely by surprise. An orthodontist from Amherst, N.Y., near Buffalo and the Canadian border, she was one of about 40 Muslim-Americans stopped as they returned to the U.S. from Toronto, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. (Clemens put the number at 34.)

Tabbaa attended the conference with her four children, ages 3 to 18. On their return to the U.S border about 2 a.m., an officer said Tabbaa was randomly selected for more scrutiny.

When she entered the U.S. border station, she was stunned. Dozens of other Muslim-Americans from the Buffalo-area who also had attended the conference had been pulled aside for greater scrutiny. There was no one in the room who hadn't been at the conference.

The orthodontist recalls angrily and repeatedly asking the officers why she and the others had been selected. It became a standoff. The agents refused to answer. She refused to give her fingerprints. Eventually she was taken, accompanied by her toddler daughter, to a rear room.

Several armed guards were there. One grabbed her hand and fingerprinted her as she cried from humiliation, Tabbaa said. She protested that they were taking her fingerprints without her consent.

"Is this the land of the free?" Tabbaa, a U.S. citizen from Syria, recalls asking the guards.

"I could never imagine in my whole life that there would ever be a day that I'd be fingerprinted," she said. "This was something I thought was only for criminals. All my life I had good moral character, a hard worker, an honest person, and here I am standing in a government building with my fingerprints being taken against my will."

Frank James writes for the Washington Bureau of the Chicago Tribune.


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