Vol. 3    Issue 05   16-31 July 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Witnessing Islamophobia a la Harun Al-Rashid

By Katrin Bennhold

PARIS: When I walked into Washington's Dulles International Airport with two suitcases and a ticket to Paris, I was satisfied that I looked like a Muslim woman. A hijab left only the oval of my face exposed - my blond hair was covered, pulled back in a tight bun -and I was wearing an ankle-length skirt. For good measure, a copy of the Koran stuck out of my handbag.

The idea to slip into the skin of a Muslim on a trans-Atlantic flight had come to me after interviewing dozens of young Muslims in Chicago about their post-9/11 experiences. One had given me a Koran. Returning to Washington from Chicago, when I flipped open my suitcase at check-in to find my passport, the Koran came into view. The United Airlines agent became visibly uncomfortable. I was searched, and on arrival in Washington, my checked bag had a security notice inside informing me that it, too, had been checked.

Many of the people I interviewed in Chicago had spoken of airports.

"Muslims on planes are like black people driving late at night," one young man said. "They are guilty until proven innocent." After several Islamic scholars assured me that it would not be offensive for me, a non-Muslim, to dress as one, I decided to wear the hijab back to Europe.

I arrived at Dulles last Saturday covered in black, not knowing what to expect. But nobody turned to stare as I made my way through the departure hall to the Air France check-in desk for flight AF039. People just went about their business.

The young man examining passports at the check-inline looked Middle Eastern. "Passport and ticket please," he said. I pulled out my passport and explained that I had an e-ticket. "Don't you have a print-out?" he asked. I shook my head. He looked at my handbag. "Can you swear on the Koran that you're getting on the 5 p.m. flight?" he quipped. I assured him that was the right flight, and he waved me through with a broad smile. "This is not so bad," I thought to myself.

Minutes later I changed my mind. When a friend who accompanied me to the airport pulled out a camera to take my picture, the middle-aged man behind me turned to his wife and said, in German, "Now she is taking her martyr photos."

"Shhh," his wife replied and giggled.

They didn't know I was German. When I turned to look at them and then asked my friend a question in German, their embarrassment was plain. The remark had been a joke. But it spoke loudly about how Islam and terrorism have become intertwined in the collective subconscious.

Check-in went smoothly, but I was feeling self-conscious. Waiting in the securityline, I tried to read people's thoughts: some antipathy, it seemed, mainly from older people, and a lot of curiosity, especially from young women. At one point I met the eyes of an Indian-looking woman with a headscarf. She nodded and smiled. "We're in the same boat," her look seemed to say.

A woman security guard walked along the snaking line asking people to discard their drinks. When she came to me she said: "I take it you have no drinks - it's Ramadan, isn't it? Any other liquids?" I shook my head, impressed by her knowledge of the Muslim fast.

One man in theline struck up a conversation. "Are you Turkish?" he asked, pointing at my German passport. "No, German," I answered.

"Half-Turkish?" "No, just German," I smiled. He clearly had trouble categorizing me. The vast majority of Muslims in Germany are descendants of Turkish "guest workers" who came in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the line edged forward, I started chatting with a black man near me. He said that he was not Muslim but that two of his African-American friends were. "But people don't think of Muslims when they see black people," he said.

"It's kind of funny," he mused, shaking his head after I told him about the German incident at check-in. "People are happy now when a black man sits down next to them on the plane. Why? Because he is not an Arab."

At the X-ray machine I placed my handbag, shoes and jacket on the conveyer belt and walked through the metal detector. I half expected to be pulled aside for a search, but nothing happened. I put my shoes and jacket back on. Then just as I walked away, I heard a polite but determined voice: "Ma'am. Please step this way, you have been selected for a search."

"Why me?" I asked. "It's random, Ma'am," he answered, indicating half a dozen others who were being searched then: old, young, white, black, Latino. I was the only "Muslim."

As they searched my bag, the word transported me back to a recent conversation with an imam in Bridgeview, a Chicago suburb with a large Palestinian community.

"When you have been searched 10 times in a row, it does not feel so random anymore," he said.

Many of the young Muslims I met said they dressed in Western styles when they traveled to avoid being picked out for screening. Amjad Quadri, a 31-year-old computer scientist who recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, said he had worn baggy jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, hoping to look like an American tourist. "I even wore a baseball cap," he said, instead of his usual kufi, a traditional Muslim hat.

On my way to gate B-41, I caught my reflection in the window and saw what other people see. I was no longer just a woman, no longer a German, a journalist, or a person of a particular color or shape. I was a Muslim. The hijab defined me.

On boarding, fellow passengers went out of their way to be helpful, offering to lift my bag into the overhead compartment and making room when I passed.I finally sank into my seat, the Koran on my knees. A young British woman on my right, reading a gossip magazine with close-ups of celebrities in bikinis, avoided eye contact. The Brazilian man on my left apologized every time his arm or knee brushed against mine.

Thankfully we were flying east, so shortly after takeoff the sun was gone and I was able to eat and drink without blowing my cover. I remembered not to order any pork and to forego my habitual glass of red wine.

Halfway over the Atlantic I got up for a stretch and a glass of water, taking my notebook with me. A Frenchwoman nodded at the pad and asked: "Are you a student?" I told her I was a journalist; she looked surprised. "Ah. And who do you work for?" Al Jazeera? Some Muslim newsletter? her eyes seemed to ask. "The International Herald Tribune," I replied.More surprise. "Ah. And what do you cover?" Religion? "French politics."

Maybe she was not actually thinking those things. I noticed during the trip that I was constantly reading between the lines. "As a Muslim you feel you can never have a bad day," Asma Akhras, a Syrian-American math teacher, had told me. "When you get cranky in traffic or in the shop you feel you can't show it because you fear that people won't just think 'cranky woman,' they'll think 'cranky Muslim.' It's tiring."

We landed on time at Charles de Gaulle International in Paris. It was 6:30 a.m. and a cluster of tired travelers flocked to passport control. One line stopped moving when an Arab-looking man presented his passport; it took nearly 10 minutes for him to be waved through. When a new window was opened, my line forked and a woman behind me nudged her husband: "Come, it will be quicker here." As it happened, the officer barely glanced at me, waving me through in less than a minute.

I picked up my suitcases from the baggage claim and took a taxi home. At Dulles, most of the drivers had seemed to be Pakistani and Indian Muslims. Here, my driver was a Frenchman of Algerian descent. "One day none of us will make a difference between Muslims and Christians and Jews anymore," he said. "Inshallah."

Courtesy: International Herald Tribune, October 19, 2006

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