Thursday, June 24, 2010

Vacationers Beware

You might want to think again if you were planning on traveling overseas this summer to visit family or enjoy a relaxing getaway.

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." And in article 13 we are guaranteed "the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, and the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." Increasingly though, American Muslims have found themselves trapped in foreign countries because, unbeknownst to them, their names appear on the "No Fly List" and are therefore unable to return home to the United States after traveling abroad.

Here are some things you might not know about the No Fly List. First of all, the list is not made public, nor are people on the list notified that their name has been added. There is no way of knowing if you've been put on the list until after your ticket has already been purchased and you're stopped at the airport. The list really is just a list; a list of names not linked with descriptors such as date of birth, ethnicity, height, weight or any other form of identification. So basically, if you have the same name as someone who may have legitimately earned their place on the list, tough luck. There is, however, an appeals process for individuals who believe they've been misidentified. The problem is, you're not notified as to whether or not your name has been removed. How do you find out if your appeal has been successful? You buy another ticket and cross your fingers hoping to make it through security next time around. One can be placed on the list if they "may" be a "risk" to civil aviation. What's the criteria for that? No one knows.

It also makes no difference whether you're an American born citizen or not. Recently, American citizens have found that traveling to foreign countries is easy enough, but when it's time to return, their names appear on the list.

The number of names on the No Fly List has sharply increased since last December when Umar Farouk Abdumutallab attempted to detonate an underwear bomb on a Detroit-bound plane. Though the No Fly List has been around since 2001 following the attacks on September 11, the would-be terrorist's name did not appear on the list. Even after beefing the list up since December, Faisal Shahzad was able to board a plane just 2 days after he attempted to explode a car bomb in Times Square. To me, these two instances would be indications that the list has no effectual use. But in lieu in innovative solutions to better protect our country, Homeland Security continues to add more and more names to a list that doesn't seem to work.

There are several examples of American citizens with no real link to terrorism who have been and who currently are trapped in foreign countries because they have funny sounding names. Raymond Earl Knaeble IV is a convert to Islam who studied Arabic in Yemen. When he tried returning to the U.S. from Bogota, Colombia he was notified about being on the No Fly List and had his passport confiscated. He was then taken to the U.S. embassy where he was questioned about his views on Jihad and whether or not he knew the underwear bomber or the Fort Hood shooter. Living in limbo in a hotel in Colombia with only the $500 given to him by the FBI, Knaeble lost his job which he was intending to start upon his return to the United States. The Muslim American Society (MAS) has noted a 50% increase in similar cases since last December, amounting to about 16 per month.

CAIR has also seen a rise in these types of cases and recently wrote a letter to Attorney General Holder to put an end to the practice of barring U.S. citizens from returning home. The letter also highlighted in particular the case of Yahya Weheli of Fairfax, Virginia. Wehelie is a Muslim of Somali descent who, like Knaeble, studied Arabic in Yemen for a year and half before attempting to board a plane back to the United States from Egypt. It was in Egypt that he learned his name was on the No Fly List and found he wouldn't be returning to Virginia again any time soon. Instead, his passport was promptly confiscated, and though he committed no crime, he was subject to over eight interrogations, polygraph tests, and was asked to spy on the American Muslim community in exchange for his freedom. He was eventually cleared to travel to the U.S., however, not by plane.

These are just two examples of this ugly new reality. Innocent people, innocent Americans none-the-less are being exiled from their country of birth and are in many cases being interrogated and intimdated under the banner of the American flag with the cooperation of officials from countries whom we often publicly condemn for their lack of freedom; this is hypocrisy. It seems that at least in these few instances, the U.S. has forgotten what it means to be a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This may seem harsh, and it kind of is. When I've talked to different people about these issues critically they say things to me like "well, it's a whole lot worse in countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia." And to that I say, "really?" Do we really want to compare ourselves to Egypt or Saudi Arabia? No, we're better than that... or at least we should be. This is precisely why our mothers and fathers moved here from those countries to begin with.

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