Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
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Mistaken identities, part X

By Tarek Atia

Two US-based Saudi Arabian doctoral students last week found themselves mistakenly accused of being terrorists, and subjected to eight hours of detention. Their crime: accidentally trying to open the cockpit door of the plane they were on, thinking it was the bathroom, and asking suspicious questions such as, "When will we be arriving in Washington DC?"

Arab and Muslim-American lobby groups are up in arms about the incident, which followed all too closely on the heels of the widespread media speculation that the co-pilot of EgyptAir 990 downed the flight intentionally, just because he was recorded shortly before the accident occurred saying "I put my faith in God."

In both cases, a common thread can be identified: fear of the unknown. That unknown happens to be anything related to Islam or the Middle East. Slurs against Islam are common in America. One man, the so-called "journalist" Steven Emerson, has even turned denigrating Islam into a full-time job.

Emerson is the man behind an infamous TV documentary titled "Jihad in America", widely considered to be one of the primary roots of the Islamophobia currently sweeping the States. Immediately following both the Oklahoma City bombing and the TWA Flight 800 tragedy, he was quick to point the finger at terrorists from the Middle East. But even after suffering the very public humiliation of being dead wrong on both counts, Emerson has still not given up. Last week, speaking on Canadian radio about the EgyptAir flight, he informed listeners that "the shahada, a major tenet of Islam [is] said before you commit an act of terrorism..."

But Emerson, who has been ousted even by the pro-Israeli Washington Post as a "pro-Israel researcher and author", is just one of the more fanatical elements making up a Western media corps that has bought into, and subsequently mirrored, the stereotypes of the Middle East quicker than you can say "The Siege".

islamism Two innocent Saudi Arabian doctoral candidates studying in American universities unjustly subjected to police brutality in US airports (photo: AP)

Groups like the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC) certainly have their work cut out for them. But although the attacks seem to be on the increase, these and other groups have also recently shown they can be effective in combating them. The "suspicious Saudis" incident is a clear example of the growing power and respect accrued by these groups. Whereas in the past, media outlets and major companies have slandered and/or discriminated against Arabs and Muslims with impunity, recently the efforts of CAIR have helped keep people on their toes.

CAIR has been able to place Muslim women who were fired because of their hijab back in the workplace, and helped them obtain lost pay as well. In the case of the two innocent Saudi Arabian doctoral students, CAIR immediately sprang into action, sending out an action alert and calling a press conference, which was widely covered in the American press. The airline on which the two students were travelling, America West, has clearly emerged as the loser, and may face civil charges, as well as a Muslim boycott.

The internet has certainly helped groups like CAIR spread the word. Earlier this year, Muslims around the world were rapidly and successfully mobilised in a boycott against Burger King, after that restaurant had allowed a franchise to open in the illegally Israeli occupied Palestinian territories. Faced with the potential economic impact of a worldwide Muslim boycott, the burger giant quickly backed down. CAIR has also successfully lobbied to have a Nike logo that Muslims found offensive changed, and now counts the global sneaker giant as one of its sponsors and allies.

But back to the "suspicious Saudis". Imagine for a moment that you are on a plane. You have woken up late and forgotten to shave. You are tired and need to go the lavatory. The plane is small and it is unclear where the bathroom is. You try one of the doors at the front of the plane with no luck, then successfully open another that turns out to be the right one. A few minutes later you are back in your seat, relaxed, when it becomes clear that something is wrong. During a transit stop, the passengers are being evacuated. Police officers are coming on board. They are coming for you. The rest of the passengers look on in horror and hatred. "That's the man who jiggled the cockpit door!".

As ludicrous as it seems, that's what happened to Mohamed Alqudhai'een and Hamdan Al-Shalawi. The two friends were on their way to a dinner for Saudi Arabian students studying in the United States at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington when they endured what they have described as the most humiliating experience of their lives.

"I want them [America West] to call everyone who was on that plane and tell them that we did nothing wrong and that this was all a mistake by the airline,'' Alqudhai'een said.

"Americans are programmed to think of Arabs as terrorists,'' commented Andy Amid, former president of Arab Americans of Central Ohio.

Ahmad Al-Akhras, president of the CAIR Ohio chapter, said that both the government and the airline industry appear to be profiling Arabs and Muslims. "It seems like they single out some individuals because of their name, the way they look or their national origin,'' Al-Akhras said.

A woman from Washington who sat across the aisle from the two said she saw nothing in their actions that would make her suspect that they were terrorists. "They were unhappy with the food and they changed seats,'' the woman told the Columbus Dispatch. Meanwhile Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, told United Press International that "the hysteria around [the crash of] EgyptAir [Flight 990] has created a negative atmosphere that leads to such incidents."

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