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Lori Saroya

She writes about life as a American Muslim woman.

Islamophobia vs. the clamor of the good people

Mohammad Zafar was walking down the street minding his own business when he heard it. An angry, fierce voice yelled something he had heard many times before: “Go back to your country!” He instinctively looked around, wondering who they were talking to. Surely, he would come to that person’s defense and offer any help he could. But there was no one else. They were talking to Mohammad.

The comment is nonsensical because most American Muslims don’t have a country to “go back to.” This is their country. Despite that, American Muslims are regularly subjected to hateful comments -- especially Muslim women in hijab or Muslim men, like Mohammad Zafar, that have a long beard.

It’s disturbing that a young man walking down the street in Minnesota would be regularly subjected to hate for no reason. It’s even more disturbing that he was targeted solely based on his race and religion. However, what makes Mohammad’s case so egregious is that he is a former United States Marine.

Not only is this Mohammad’s country, but he proudly and honorably served it. He risked his life for it.

Mohammad is a recipient of the prestigious Minnesota Veterans Voices Award, presented to veterans who have made “exceptional contributions to the community.” His full-time job involves working with returning veterans, assisting them with the Minnesota GI bill at a local university. Earlier this month, he was featured by Twin Cities Public Television for promoting fitness in his neighborhood.

I wasn’t the only one outraged by the stranger's comments. The outpouring of support on Mohammad’s Facebook post, where he shared the incident, was overwhelming. He jokingly responded, “Which home? Eaganistan? Saint Paulistan? or Bunrsvilistan? After a while I just stop saying things. If my kids were with me, then I would talk to them so they don't feel afraid.”

Whether friends, neighbors, interfaith leaders, educators or government officials, people refuse to be silent. Sometimes it’s only one or two brave individuals, other times entire communities band together against hate. These are people of courage.

Columbia Heights, which is home to one of the first mosques in Minnesota, recently demonstrated that courage when faced with Islamophobia. On September 9, school board member Grant Nichols allegedly posted a comment on Facebook calling Muslims “unsanitary.” The community response was tremendous and immediate.

The school board held a special meeting to remove Nichols from the board, failing by just one vote. You can see in the media interviews how visibly upset the students and others were as a result of the decision. The following day, nearly 1000 Columbia Heights high school students organized a walk out, joined by the principal and faculty.

Even Governor Mark Dayton got involved, visiting the school and taking a bold position. He said, “I think he [Nichols] should resign or be forced to resign. There’s no place for that anywhere in Minnesota, but certainly not for the leader of a school district.”

At the September 22 school board meeting, Columbia Heights teachers organized a demonstration. Hundreds of community members returned to protest and stand in solidarity with Muslim students. Five Columbia Heights principals asked for a resolution, introduced by school board chairman John Larkin, that urged Nichols to resign.

Despite his refusal to formally resign, Nichols is essentially done leading the Columbia Heights community. Calls for his resignation will continue but the community has already spoken. They have sent a strong message in support of religious freedom.

Islamophobia is real and it’s ugly. But love, community and solidarity follow. As we watched a Muslim kid in Texas get handcuffed and arrested for bringing a clock to school, we also saw the outpouring of support on social media, from invitations to the White House to college offers and scholarships.

Ultimately, it comes down to defining ourselves. Who speaks for our community? We cannot allow a few vocal individuals to speak for us and allow hate and bigotry to define who we are as Americans.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The clamor of the good people, the people of courage, must prevail.

Your Voices: Flying while Muslim at MSP

The 4-year-old boy stood as still as he could. His knees were shaking. His arms were raised up high; “hands up, don’t shoot”-style. His eyes were shut tight. The lady with the purple gloves patted his head. Then she moved her hands down to his neck and shoulders. She patted his tummy and worked her way down. She touched him everywhere. There was a momentary pause when the little boy’s father threatened a lawsuit (he later told me that he knew there wasn’t a case). A fourth police officer was called. They were officially a scene. They were the Minnesota Muslim family traveling to Washington, D.C., to visit the Lincoln Memorial and the Natural History Museum.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is a hotbed for religious profiling. Some Minnesota Muslims would rather drive 7 hours and fly out of Chicago than endure the profiling, humiliation and degradation they are often subjected to at MSP. I can relate.

From January to April 2015, I took five domestic trips and one international trip. My visibly Muslim family and I were “randomly selected” for extra screenings every single time we flew out of MSP. It’s not random.

Sometimes the TSA agents are ignorant and rude. Like the agent who started patting my hijab after I was cleared by the full-body scanner. She had to “make sure there aren’t any explosives” inside it, she said.

Or the agent who wouldn’t let me pass security unless I removed both layers of my hijab and showed her my hair.

We all want to be safe while traveling. I fly frequently. I use carefully crafted language with my family before every trip, making a special point of saying how much I love them. I’m scared just like everyone else.

But profiling people based on their religious dress and religious names does not make us any safer. While TSA agents are fixated on hijabs, beards and Arabic names, they overlook concerning behavior that requires scrutiny.

I once stood in a long TSA security line next to a man whose face had turned bright red. He was on his phone, discussing a nasty divorce and yelling obscenities, completely oblivious to the people around him. When the person hung up on him, he called right back, leaving a vile phone message laced with threats and more obscenities. The second time he was hung up on, he mumbled to himself and violently slammed his phone into his bag. Everyone around him was visibly shaken by the outburst, including me.

When we finally approached the TSA agents and handed them our boarding passes, I was sent for additional “random” screening while Mr. Outburst was cleared for travel. He was not even asked about his disturbing, erratic and unstable behavior moments earlier.

“After all, if terrorism is the use of fear and violence to influence and change societies, then all of the rules after 9/11 that allowed and encouraged racial profiling are a validation of Al Qaeda's evil tactics. The continued policy of racial profiling isn't just disrespectful to Arab Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Muslims, it's also a slap in the face to veterans who fought for our freedoms and those who have died in the War on Terrorism. We should never change ourselves or our belief in human equality out of fear. We should never let Al Qaeda or any other group turn Americans against each other. By treating Arabs and Muslims different we are also giving aid and comfort to extremist viewpoints that America is at war with Islam, rather than just with the radical groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.”

Why Racial Profiling at Airports Is Surrender to Terrorism

I worked on a case where a Muslim man was added to the no-fly list over a spelling error. He was eventually cleared and the U.S. Attorney’s office touted the case as an example of “progress.”

I don’t celebrate that case. To me, it represents the highest level of incompetency and problems with the system, where an innocent man can end up on the no-fly list because the government can’t spell his name correctly.

While focusing on one positive outcome, we undermine the hundreds of other cases involving Minnesota Muslims who have been, and continue to be, profiled simply because of who they are. Many people in the Minnesota Muslim community -- as well as individuals who are perceived to be Muslim -- have an airport story. Here are some of the people I have met:

- A 6-month-old baby ended up on the federal watch list, likely due to his Muslim name. Every time he traveled with his parents, TSA agents would do a full body search of the baby, including undressing him and opening his diaper.

- A Muslim man went for the hajj pilgrimage and was not allowed back into the country for a month. He lost an entire month’s of pay and nearly lost his job.

- A Muslim family that had lived in Minnesota for 30 years had guns drawn at them by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) every time they drove to Minnesota from Canada. The last time, agents handcuffed and detained both the father and his teenage son.

- Several individuals said that when they follow the proper procedures and fill out the TRIP Redress to avoid problems at the airport, the FBI uses it as an opportunity to visit their home uninvited.

-A family was asked discriminatory questions by CBP agents, such as how many times they pray, which mosques they attend, or what books they use at Sunday School.

-A woman’s suitcase was opened and searched by CBP and she was asked, “Do you have any religious items in your suitcase?”

Airport Profiling: A Familiar Story for Muslims

How a Fulbright Grant Landed Us on a TSA Watchlist

Minnesota Muslims continue to face humiliation and second-class treatment at the airport. And there is no better way to disenfranchise and alienate an entire community.

When the Washington, D.C.-bound 4-year-old Muslim boy’s intrusive full-body pat down was completed, the TSA agent smiled and extended her hand. She held a sticker. The little boy turned to her and said, “I don’t want it.”

He wanted to get as far away from her as he could.