A slap in the face

I was blessed to go on the Hajj in 2003, and it was the most powerful and beautiful spiritual experience of my life. It completely transformed my heart and spirituality, and not a day passes in which I do not recall, tearfully at times, the ecstasy of my stay there. Moreover, I developed a deep friendship with the Lord while in Mecca, and that friendship has proven to be indispensable to me in the months and years after I came back. As a result of my experiences, my eyes always light up with joy when friends or family tell me they are planning to go on the Hajj. In fact, several of my friends–as well as my brother-in-law–were blessed to go this year, and my heart was filled with joy for them.

I know that they will experience the awesome power of the Almighty Lord exuding from every stone and corner of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I know that they will be filled with humility for the Lord as they walk toward the Ka’ba, the main shrine in Mecca. I also know that–after being humbled by God–they will soon experience His soothing mercy, the cool touch of His Hand, and the peace of mind and heart that touch will bring. I know that they will truly feel at home in the Sacred Precincts, and after they leave, Mecca will always call to them each and every day. Yet, Mecca is not home to them, as it was not to me. The United States is home, and I am truly blessed to be an American Muslim. I am sure they will feel, as I did, a deep-seated happiness at walking on American soil and rejoining their family, their friends, and their country.

Thus, I can only imagine their pain and frustration at having to be held up at the border and asked to be photographed and fingerprinted before being allowed back into their country. I can only imagine the hurt they would feel at having their loyalty, their citizenship, and their integrity questioned at the borders of this great land. I can only imagine their anger at being singled-out seemingly for no other reason than they profess the Muslim faith.

I mean, are Irish-Americans photographed and fingerprinted at the borders when they come back from Ireland? Are Italian-Americans held up to extra scrutiny after they come back from a trip to Italy? If a devout Catholic were to go on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, would he be asked to give his fingerprints when he comes back home? Not likely. So, why is it different with American Muslims?

Now, I am not talking about non-citizen Muslims. I am talking about American Muslim citizens, with bona fide American passports, being fingerprinted and photographed as they return home. Most recently, about 40 American Muslims were subjected to such treatment after returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto, Canada. If it happens again after Hajj, it is very concerning. I mean, to even get to go on the Hajj, the pilgrim has to send his or her passport to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. for a special visa. Furthermore, when he or she leaves the U.S. to go the Hajj, their date of departure is logged by U.S. Customs agents, so theoretically, the government should know who is leaving when and why. Therefore, what need is there to fingerprint these self-same American Muslims as they return home?

Yet, my feelings are mixed on this issue. Did not the 19 hijackers who murdered so many on September 11 call themselves Muslims? Was not the”Millennium Terror Plot” suspect a Muslim? Did not Osama bin Laden declare that all Americans, civilian or military, are legitimate targets in his “jihad”? Did not the very same Customs Department allow some of the September 11 hijackers into the country, accidentally no doubt, even though they were on terrorist watch lists? Is not the government charged with protecting America from all external and internal threats? Absolutely.

So, then, people will ask American Muslims, what’s all the fuss? If you have done nothing wrong, people will ask American Muslims, why object to having to wait 30 seconds to get your finger dirty? If you have nothing to hide, people will ask American Muslims, why are you raising such an outcry? Good questions. They highlight the inherent tension between liberty and security: how much does one have to be compromised to strengthen the other?

Why not, therefore, fingerprint every single entrant to the country? Why not check every person against databases and watch lists? Would not this further enhance our national security? What if we apprehend a drug lord? Or a corporate thief? Or a kidnapper? Or a pedophile predator? Would not our neighborhoods and communities be safer with these people, in addition to terrorists, off our streets?

Officials may object that fingerprinting and photographing everybody is too expensive, cumbersome, and inconvenient. Yet, how much is our national security worth? If we are willing to pay over $280 billion to”enhance” our national security by invading Iraq, why are we so stingy to pay for fingerprinting everybody who comes to the U.S., citizen and non-citizen alike, and checking them against terror databases? This approach not only makes sense, but also does not smack of racial and religious profiling.

American Muslims understand that our national security is of utmost importance. I don’t mind being asked to take off my shoes at the airport. I don’t mind being asked for my ID three times before I board the plane. I even don’t mind being “wanded” by TSA officials. It is part of my duty to help in the protection of my country and her people. Yet, if both John Smith and I are returning from Saudi Arabia at the same time on the same flight–he on business and I on the Hajj–and I am asked to be fingerprinted and photographed, yet John continues unmolested to greet his family in the terminal, then something is very wrong indeed. It is a slap in the face, completely unfair, and utterly un-American.


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