Skip to content


Flying while Muslim after the travel ban

It had been decided long ago that in the middle of February, I would travel from the United States to Norway for a literary festival. It was not known then that the trip would fall in the crevice between one travel ban, its corrosive effect held off by a judge’s order, and the anticipation of another. For days before my February 15 departure, I had been consuming, like all other Muslim Americans, dystopic tales of discrimination and derision: the interrogations of grandmothers, the confiscation of phones, the demands for passwords and security codes. Even as America and its brave protestors paused, believing the discrimination at the border was held in abeyance by the judicial intervention, the rest of us, marked and Muslim, knew that it persists even now in legally permissible forms. 

And so I spent the morning before this trip, imagined and arranged when a Muslim ban was but a potentiality, undertaking a practice that is likely to become familiar to Muslims in the Trump years. “De-Muslimization,” as I call it, refers to the act of removing from my person and belongings all those bits and pieces of Muslim identity, innocuous in a faith-fair world but impermissible, even criminal, in the American present.

I had learned from the articles circulating on Muslim American websites and listservs tips and techniques to look non-threatening.

It is not that I have not had some practice; before rabid rallies rang out in the heart of rural America, the impact of being Muslim while flying was already felt. Some had been kicked off planes for speaking Arabic on a cell phone, others removed to assuage the suspicions of white and Christian and hence “real” Americans. I had learned to not wear jewelry with Islamic inscriptions, to not read books about Muslim lands, to not speak in Urdu or Arabic in the tense (for Muslims) moments as a plane boards and doors are closed. I had learned from the articles circulating on Muslim American websites and listservs tips and techniques to look non-threatening. I was to smile a lot, to make small talk so that my proficiency in English was audible, and never, ever, not after sitting on a tarmac runway for three hours or being shunned by a ticket agent after an hour in line, get visibly upset, discernibly disgruntled. Like most Muslim Americans, I know that the architecture of discrimination began to be put into place soon after 9/11, and was padded and polished through the Bush and Obama Administrations. But it was over election season, in an America that was almost Trump’s America, that “terrorist” became emblazoned in invisible ink across every Muslim forehead.

In Trump’s America, that “terrorist” label is cast in indelible ink. The previous precautions would not suffice, I realized. It was not just what was visible, but everything that was searchable that was now at play. A reversal had taken place. If before my possessions could confirm my guilt, now they must prove my innocence. It is a macabre realization, particularly if one is, like me, a lawyer with a U.S. passport trained in constitutional law. The law doesn’t always help, let alone reassure; in this case I knew that that I could be detained (although not deported) and asked to provide access to computers and phones. If I choose not to do so, I could be detained for hours until I either acquiesced or the items were confiscated to be sent for further forensic analysis.

I am not only a lawyer; I am also a writer. I write about terrorism, law, extremism, and Islam. I write on my computer, its clouds and drives crowded with “radical” and “Islamic” and “terrorism.” Under the scrutiny of a Customs and Border Security official, the material of my work could spell my doom and detention as the ever higher-up bosses were contacted and hushed conferences were held as I sweated it out in a windowless hell. It was plausible and terrifying, and so off I went to purchase a new “travel” computer. I couldn’t stop there: I removed the Arabic and Urdu apps from my iPhone; I looked through messages and waded through a half-decade of contacts, which I deleted and saved elsewhere; I sent my flight itinerary to five different people. I had done this when traveling to war zones, but I had never done it before coming home. 

If before my possessions could confirm my guilt, now they must prove my innocence.

I flew out and spent days in various cities and then it was time to return, or to attempt to return. On the train to the airport, I watched a befuddled Swedish official try to make sense of Trump’s reference to a terrorist attack on a television monitor. The Norwegians seated across the aisle from me snickered. Leaving Oslo was uneventful; in Paris, where the flight to the United States was to board, a long line stood. Passports had been checked once; they would be checked twice more. Homeland Security agents had set up a folding table just past the second checkpoint. The white and real Americans in line laughed and shuffled, their diffidence a show of belonging and privilege. The others, Muslim or marginal in some other way, did not. Waiting, I opened up the international edition of the New York Times. An article titled “What Are Your Rights if Border Agents Want to Search Your Phone?” stared back at me.

Checkpoints expose the crudest truths about humanity, official imprimaturs of who is deserving of deference and who of disdain. The swarthy and bearded rocket scientist and the fifteen-year-old girl speaking English with an American accent have Muslim names and so are simply Muslim and legitimately suspect. At the checkpoint, before one can take a plane to America, only one dimension of identity matters. So it was at this one: a Middle-Eastern man was made to nearly strip, remove a sweater vest, a jacket, scarf, shoes, and socks as the long line watched and he blushed. Others walked past the tables, unafraid and unselfconscious. A woman with a headscarf stood directly in front of me; she did not wait to be stopped; she stepped up to the table and offered herself and her purse up to being searched. I could not decide if there was dignity in this or defeat.

I removed the Arabic and Urdu apps from my iPhone.

I was not searched a second time in Paris. For most of the flight, I read Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness a book about Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, who was tried and convicted of killing 900,000 Jews during the Holocaust. He insisted, like Eichmann before him, that he was simply following orders. After landing in Boston, I put away my book and took out my customs form and my passport, my courage and my patience. As our herd of hopeful entrants was separated—as it always is between U.S. passport holders and Legal Permanent Residents, and the lesser “everyone else”—I reminded myself that I was the less vulnerable. The white and real American couple in front of me considered their dinner options. I sweated and deleted all the texts from my family members, every one of them having a Muslim name. I was not detained; my phone and computer were not confiscated. I was asked if I was Muslim and what I did and where I lived. When I said I was a writer, I was asked if I was going “to write about this process?” I answered, “Maybe I will.”

What actually happened was not the worst that could have happened. I was lucky, I told myself, as I dragged my bag off the gurney at baggage claim. I did not, however, feel lucky. Nor did I feel the relief that accompanies arrival and a return to familiarity. I felt dirty, a lesser person somehow than when I had left a week before. The burden of trying to “pass,” of trying to erase an aspect of oneself, is not rendered null by the success of evasion. Instead, it makes imposters out of the innocent, forcing on them an inauthenticity and a duplicity that is lacking in justice, rife with cruelty. After the immediate hurdles and checkpoints have been crossed, the bags unpacked and the clothes tossed in the laundry, the stain of shame, of having pretended to be someone else, of having disguised a crucial part of oneself, is left behind. It is that part, raw and bleeding, that hurts. It is not simply those who are actually stopped who are maimed, but all those like them forced into pretense by legal injustice.