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If You Study Islam, Be Careful in the U.S.

If you’re studying Islam and you’re going to America, you had better have a squeaky clean record – and even then, you still might get questioned more than a bit aggressively. This is the story of one man who went into the field of Islamic Studies for his PhD, and went through an ordeal that for no reason ended up with him having a permanent record. He was just a regular PhD student from McGill University, and the fact that he had dual American and French citizenship didn’t seem to matter – he was suspicious. Evidently, there’s something wrong with learning more about Islam in America, even when it’s done in Canada.

We’ve seen an absurd amount of uproar over the “Innocence of Muslims” video this past week; and it’s clear that in order to understand the people who have officially labelled themselves as America’s enemies, there must be people willing to learn about each other’s sociocultural differences. Pascal Abidor is just another of the many North Americans learning about Islam, but the story that began two years ago is just a reminder of how many issues America has with Islam. The McGill Daily (MD) reports:

On May 1, 2010, Pascal Abidor was riding an Amtrak train from Montreal to New York. His parents live in Brooklyn, and he was on his way to visit them. The school year at McGill had just ended, and he felt relieved and calm as the train rolled south towards America.

At about 11 a.m., the train arrived at the U.S. border and made a routine stop. A team of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers boarded the train and advanced through each car, questioning passengers. Pascal had made this trip countless times before, so when a customs officer approached him, he didn’t give it a second thought.

But Pascal had never met Officer Tulip.

After looking over Pascal’s U.S. passport and customs declaration, Officer Tulip asked two simple questions: Where do you live, and why?

Pascal answered that he lived in Canada. He lived in Canada because that’s where he was pursuing a PhD in Islamic Studies.

Next, she asked him where he had traveled in the previous year, and he answered Jordan and Lebanon. He showed her his French passport (he’s a dual citizen) with the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” stamp, and the Lebanese stamp with the little cedar tree on top.

That didn’t help. Officer Tulip immediately told him to grab his things and follow her to the train’s cafe car. Pascal gathered his luggage, but Officer Tulip carried the bag containing his laptop. At the time, he thought she was just being helpful.

In the cafe car, they were joined by five or six more CBP officers. Pascal sat across from Officer Tulip as she took out his laptop, turned it on, and asked him to enter his password, which he did.

As she scrolled through the contents of his computer, Pascal could only see her reaction. Officer Tulip signaled to her colleagues and pointed at something on the screen. She then turned to Pascal and demanded an explanation.

Pascal was now surrounded by half a dozen suspicious American border police, staring at photos – on his laptop – of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies.

Where had he gotten “this stuff,” Officer Tulip asked. Pascal explained that his PhD research is on the Shiites of modern Lebanon. This was not, in her books, a good answer. Finally, the officers told Pascal that he would have to leave the train with them.

“Take me off the train, I’ll walk back to Montreal,” Pascal offered. Given what he would go through in the next few hours, Pascal might well have preferred the walk.

Instead, he was frisked, with particular vigor around his genitals. Then he was handcuffed. Pascal winced.

As they led him off the train, the officers draped a coat over his bound wrists. They claimed it was to spare him the embarrassment of a perp walk. But as Pascal walked past the train’s windows, he tried to show the passengers that he was cuffed. He hadn’t done anything wrong, and he wanted witnesses.

Pascal Abidor

That’s right. Abidor was arrested that day. When he was put in jail, he was told to wait, as officers randomly came in to ask him questions for an hour or so. “I thought I was going to throw up,” said Abidor. “I thought I was going to be sent to Guantanamo Bay.”

He was sent to an interrogation room where they played Good Cop, Bad Cop until they finally let him go after three hours. Most likely, they were running searches on him during the time he was incarcerated, eventually finding that he didn’t lie about a single detail. But the way MD describes it shows the level of paranoia among the American officers.

“They thought I was straight-up dangerous,” Pascal said.

Then the real interrogation began, an hour and a half of intensive questioning. Where was he born? Where were his parents born? What religion was he raised with? Had he ever been to a rally in the Middle East? Had he heard any anti-American statements in the Middle East? Had he ever seen an American flag burned? Had he ever been to a mosque? But the questions always came back to the same point – why Islamic Studies?

“I want to be an academic – this is just what I happen to be an academic in,” Pascal told them. His answers seemed to fall on deaf ears. The interrogation continued. It was the same questions, over and over. They were looking for him to make a mistake.

[. . .] They claimed Pascal’s dual citizenship made him untraceable. They suggested he was attractive “to both sides.” Pascal was baffled. Both sides of what?

Finally, after about three hours in detention, he was released. But there was a catch – the CBP was keeping his laptop and hard drive.

After an angry objection to Officer Tulip, an FBI agent came to him to offer an apology, but he cut him off “I don’t want to hear your apology.” He was given back his camera and two cell phones, one of which had a scratch on it which indicated that someone tried to open it.

He finally arrived in New York at midnight, and he was quick to write (i.e., the next morning) an 11-paged report of what happened to him, and gave it to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They said that this incident was a blatant violation of his rights. Two days later, he was in a room with a team of lawyers who were on a mission to retrieve his laptop. The mission itself was a success, because they got the laptop, but it was not how he expected to receive it.

When the laptop arrived in the mail, the seam between the keyboard and the outer case that led to the internal hard drive appeared to have widened. The warranty seal on his external hard drive had been broken open, too. The government had already searched, and, they later conceded, made copies of Pascal’s electronic life.

Pascal and the ACLU were incensed. His laptop contained intimate personal information: chat logs with his girlfriend, university transcripts, his tax returns.

The problem was, everything Homeland Security had done was completely by the book.

For a quick run-down on the security laws, MD noted the following:

In August 2009, the Department of Homeland Security enacted a policy that allows for the search and seizure of electronic devices at the border without reasonable suspicion. Under the policy, the DHS can detain any electronic device indefinitely, and copy and share the information it contains. Between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, more than 6,500 people had their electronic devices searched at U.S. border stops.

It was under this policy that Pascal’s laptop and hard drive were searched and detained.

Upon the enactment of the policy, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano stated that, “keeping Americans safe in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully screen materials entering the United States. The new directives announced today strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travelers, while ensuring DHS can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders.”

The policy makes a point of specifying that, “at no point during a border search of electronic devices is it necessary to ask the traveler for consent to search.”

So they can search your items without your consent, and without a warrant. This led ACLU to sue Janet Napolitano, which they did in September of 2010. They argued that the actions against Abidor had violated his First and Fourth Amendment Rights (i.e., free speech and protection from unreasonable search and seizure). To put it briefly, the government said that for matters of national security, such actions are necessary, and therefore legal.

It’s true that all travelers are subject to a routine search at the border, whether or not there’s suspicion of wrongdoing. But while the U.S. government argues that the search of laptops should be considered a part of these routine searches, the ACLU says these searches are more invasive and therefore must be held to a higher standard.

“It is different to go through someone’s shoes and contact solution, than to go through all the documents on their computer,” said Catherine Crump, one of Pascal’s ACLU lawyers.

Last July, Pascal and his ACLU lawyers went to a courtroom in Brooklyn to argue against throwing out their case. The judge has still not come to a decision.

Meanwhile, the DHS policy remains on the books. Laptops and cell phones continue to be detained and searched without reasonable suspicion at the U.S. border.

Sadly, this isn’t even the worst part of the story, in my opinion.

Pascal, for his part, hasn’t had a normal border-crossing since that May 1 morning. “Now, every time I cross the border, I get harassed,” he said.

In December 2010, he was crossing the border with his father. The border guards began interrogating him in unusual ways. “They refused to believe my dad was my dad,” he said. “If you saw my dad, you could not believe we were not related.”

The guards then searched the car top to bottom, and made the Abidors wait at the checkpoint for two hours.

“This is about lowering the threshold of what is acceptable to us,” Pascal said of his treatment at the hands of the CBP. “You can’t have rights and then selectively apply them.”

So despite the admission that they were wrong, the Abidor apparently has a record on which it states some sort of suspicion of threat. This is completely unfair, and I’m shocked that they have punished him for doing nothing more than cooperating and telling the truth.

This sends a very bad message; namely to those who want to learn about Islam. I too have recently been interested in learning more about Islam. But after reading this story – entitled “Why you shouldn’t tell American border guards you’re in Islamic Studies” – I think if I’m ever caught with an Islamic e-book or an open website on Islam while in America, I’ll just have to lie. Because they clearly can’t handle the truth.

[January 31, 2013 update: The Young Turks reported on a story that shows the problem of religious hypocrisy.]


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