No-fly list discriminates against Muslim travelers

Syed Rizvi

Many Longhorns will take this summer break as an opportunity to study or travel abroad. Most students will board their planes without a second thought. However, some students will have to worry about possible discrimination based on appearance or religious affiliation by which they could be unfairly chosen for frisking or even denied boarding on a plane. As a Muslim, I often fear that I will be discriminated against when traveling. As a productive, law-abiding citizen, I have no reason to be denied boarding. But even a squeaky clean background cannot prevent racial profiling. 

Imagine going through all of the extensive security measures that have been implemented at airports in the United States only to be denied the ability to board a plane because you are on the no-fly list. This list is compiled by the Terrorist Screening Center, an entity of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and is maintained by the Transportation Security Administration. In addition to the technical problems that lead to individuals’ being placed on the list without warrant, the process by which someone is placed on the no-fly list is not-so-subtly discriminatory toward Muslim travelers. 

Neurobiology graduate Taha Ahmed is a perfect example of a good citizen who has been placed on a pre-boarding screening list. A Houston native, Ahmed is an active participant at his local mosque. As charity is one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam, he has volunteered with the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity, and Ahmed has no criminal record. Yet, he has been ‘randomly selected’ for invasive and extra searches at the airport almost every time he has traveled. He has often received a “Secondary Security Screening Selection” stamp on his boarding pass, which signifies that the flyer is on the selectee list. The selectee list is not as severe as the no-fly list, but still requires additional and invasive search procedures. The selection process for this list is obscure and has been criticized for being ineffective, discriminatory, profiling and having false positives

In June 2010, a group of American citizens — four were veterans — and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal challenge to their placement on the no-fly list in the case of Latif v. Holder. They had been put on the list without any knowledge as to why, and were not given a fair opportunity to be removed from the list. The court ordered the FBI to declassify documents concerning the no-fly list per the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. Of the 325 pages that were reviewed only 94 pages were released, yet still many of these pages had information redacted. Thus we still know very little of how these lists are compiled and the qualifications necessary to be placed on the list. 

Nina Kraut, general counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Foundation, highlighted the organization’s position and concerns with the no-fly list and the selectee list. The first problem is discrimination. CAIR believes that these lists are created based on profiling. People who have names that sound "Arab" or who wear traditional Muslim dress are often placed on the list without any valid reason. 

Although it may sound like something out of a James Bond movie, the FBI recruits Muslim informants at local mosques who then relay to the bureau people who should placed on the list in exchange for protection against being unfairly placed on the no-fly list. Failure to comply with the FBI’s request, however, can have serious consequences. Naveed Shinwair, an American citizen with no criminal background, has not been able to see his wife who lives in Afghanistan in 26 months. He suspects it’s because he refused to become an informant for the FBI. He and three other men are bringing suit against the FBI and Homeland Security in what is a part of a broad wave of cases challenging these secretive lists. His case would not be the first. In the case of Ibrahim v. Department of Homeland Security, a California appellate court found that Rahinah Ibrahim had been wrongly placed on the no-fly list by an FBI agent who acted without scrutiny. Shinwair explains in an interview with National Public Radio how, on his way back from marrying his wife in Afghanistan, an FBI agent asked if he had met any “bad guys” and then told him that if he became an informant for the FBI, they would remove him from the no-fly list. He refused and was subsequently punished by being put on the list. 

The second major problem articulated by Kraut is a lack of awareness. CAIR receives numerous calls and reports on the issue of being wrongfully placed on the no-fly list, but many people do not even know how to report it. That is why having statistics on this issue is near impossible — no one knows who is on the list, meaning you can be on the list without knowing it until you try to board a plane.

Too many students have been caught up in the dragnet of the no-fly list and the selectee list. If we are serious about ending discrimination against Muslims, we must protect them from being subjected to humiliating screening processes when they've done nothing wrong.

Rizvi is a government senior from Chicago.