As Americans, we have a lot to be thankful for. In the hustle of everyday life, we might take for granted the little things that we have grown accustomed to, such as the ability to speak freely and defend our own rights, or the ability to travel freely whether on business, for leisure, or visiting loved ones. Yet even when we’re accustomed to these everyday liberties, it’s always good to pause and put things in perspective.
What happens when those liberties start to be taken away?
Imagine you’re on a road trip with your family, and as you cross from Canada or Mexico at a U.S. border checkpoint, you’re signaled to pull your car to the side of the road. Imagine you’re asked to step out of your car and are put into a holding room — and held for up to 10 hours.
Imagine an unidentified government agent comes in and begins aggressively interrogating you, asking personal questions like: How many times a day do you pray? What do you pray for? What mosque do you go to? Do you believe in the Qur’an?
Now imagine that your personal belongings such as your wallet, purse, cell phone, and laptop are confiscated and held by the government, possibly for several months.
What if this begins to happen every time you travel? Highways and airports would become barriers rather than facilitators to moving freely.
These scenarios that I’ve described are not hypothetical: they are happening as we speak, on an alarmingly frequent basis, to Muslims travelling in North America and abroad.
Suddenly, travelling has become a nightmarish experience for many ordinary Americans whose names that raise a flag in a clearly imperfect system.
Some of these people believe they’ve been placed on a government watch list, but even if they wanted to appeal that placement, there’s no reliable path to have your name cleared from those lists. Many in the American Muslim community are now finding themselves lost in a seemingly endless maze of secrecy, red-tape and frustration. From an advocacy and activism standpoint, we must stand up and help find a resolution for these issues.
A few weeks ago, staff and board members from CAIR chapters across the country sought to find a solution to this situation as we participated in Muslim advocacy days on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. This has become a yearly tradition that enables us to meet face-to-face with our elected officials and their staff. Each year, our reach increases; this year we met with 168 congressional offices.
I come from the border state of Arizona, and this issue hits especially close to home for me, as the number of reported instances of religious questioning and lengthy detainments at the borders is on the rise. The same is true for states along the northern border with Canada. CAIR offices in these states have been handling these religious questioning cases for years and have filed inquiries with DHS.
We might assume that our elected officials are aware of such cases of religious questioning or improper behavior by law enforcement, but most of the time they’re not. It is our job to educate them on these issues — as the Rev. Al Sharpton said during CAIR’s national banquet last year, we need to “bring light to dark places.”
When we sat down and described these issues that many of their constituents are facing, the congressional offices responded with surprise and a great deal of support and concern about this trend. By bringing forth such stories, we are able to ask these members of Congress to support letters of inquiry or other possible legislative routes that could eventually bring about a resolution. The members of our community who have been unfairly targeted by these egregious practices deserve nothing less.
As we move forward from these productive meetings, we must continue to do our part to bring these issues to light. I hope we all realize that even though these types of intrusive tactics are happening to a targeted segment of the population, it is vital to always stand up for the inalienable rights of all Americans.
We live in times where civil liberties are slowly eroding for the population at large; therefore, issues such as this should be of grave concern to all. The liberties that we should all be thankful for are in jeopardy; our choice is to stand up and defend them or face an uncertain road ahead.
Imraan Siddiqi is a board member for CAIR-Arizona.