Sunday, March 7, 2010

Studying Islam: Initiation through Interrogation

Everyone is by now aware of the issues surrounding security interrogations of Muslims post-9/11. The Iraqi-Canadian hip hop artist, The Narcicyst, has a relatively recent song and youtube video about this issue (PHATWA).

Also, organizations such as CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) document civil rights abuses against Muslims, and scholars such as Katherine Ewing and Moustafa Bayoumi have published books on this and other related issues.

So, before bombarding the blog with news headlines and commentary, let me introduce myself by way of an anecdote. Although I am not Muslim, my academic study of the religion has often confused security agents due either to my appearance or objects in my possession.

I finished my bachelor's degree in the winter of 2001 and studied intensive Arabic in Morocco in 2002. Oddly enough, I had decided to grow a beard in June 2001 while I was living in the mountainous region of northern Arizona, as I was really into hiking and being the outdoors type. After 9/11 I decided that I should keep the beard as an experiment in gauging people's reactions.

As I left the US for Morocco I was briefly detained and interrogated by a FBI agent regarding my destination, funding, and reasons for studying Arabic. But he was mostly trying to see if I became nervous in response to his rapid-fire questions. When I arrived in Morocco word on the street was that anyone with a beard was under government surveillance. I never noticed anyone following me or the like, but many people did believe that home wire-tapping was common.

Upon leaving Morocco in the summer of 2002 I was surprised that the military airport security guard did not search my carry-on bags simply because he was impressed with my Arabic as we exchanged polite conversation. However, the customs agent was very suspicious of my beard, combined with my choice to wear the traditional Moroccan jalaba robe. He interrogated me for about half an hour about my residence in the religious capital of Morocco (Fes), my contacts, funding, reasons for studying, etc. Finally, the customs agent asked me why I had a chrome hookah piece in my bag because good Muslims should not smoke. I quickly stated that although I respected Islam and Muslims I was not a Muslim myself, but only a student. He looked very puzzled and then sent me on my way as he no longer viewed me as a possible security threat. Yet, when I boarded the KLM flight to Amsterdam a flight attendant literally ran up behind me and tugged on my bag. She said that my chrome hooka piece was a potential weapon and that I must check it in, which I found to be a direct correlation between the assumption that my Muslim appearance and carrying a metal object could equal a security threat.

FYI, I am simply repeating the events and I can actually see where they were coming from despite my views on the issue.

This happened again in Austin, TX in 2008 when I missed my flight because airport security was suspicious of a metal scroll that my brother (former Army tank mechanic) had welded for me with our last name transliterated into Arabic. After explaining the story I was released with my Arabic metal scroll, but then had to wait a few hours before the next available flight.

But none of those experiences came close to a 2004 summer run-in with the police of Mathis, TX on hwy 666: bad omen anyone? I no longer had the beard, but I was taking a Mexican citizen friend to the border as he was preparing to return home with a load a vehicles he sells in southern Mexico. When we were pulled over with no explanation the chief of police searched the truck and found an Arabic book in the console. His demeanor immediately hardened and you could see the connection forming in his mind that he had found the first case of a Muslim terrorist near the Tex-Mex border, which was truly a major concern among federal politicians and law enforcement agents at the time.

After much debate I finally quoted this line from the book: sharibna 'ala dhikr il-habib mudamatan, sakkirna biha min qabla an khuliqa al-karmu (we drank to the memory of the beloved constantly, we were intoxicated with her before the creation of wine's vine). I finally got his attention and convinced him that the book was not a terrorist manual, but a centuries old collection of Sufi mystical poetry. But instead of backing off he then chose to accuse us of stealing property to sell in Mexico, and he then went so far as to accuse me of being a coyote (border smuggler). What he did not realize was that my friend was in the US legally and since the chicano police officer couldn't speak Spanish that well I ended up having to correct his understanding on several key points and ultimately translated for him. He did not even know that most other countries reverse the month and day on passports, which is what caused his confusion about the legal visa status of my friend. After disproving all of his attempts to make us out to be national security threats, he finally settled on giving me a speeding ticket.

Lesson learned: confusion often leads to heightened anxiety among security professionals, and if you can't be pinned down as a security threat then you just might get fined for the time they mistakenly wasted on you.

Well, that's my interrogation initiation story related to my ventures in the study of Islam.

Up next: world news headlines and blog commentaries.


  1. Excellent Blog Garrison! How do you think route 666 incident would have ended had you not been able to speak/read Arabic and/or Spanish?

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