The first in my family to fly after September 11th, 2001 was my wheelchair-bound, arthritic grandmother. An international traveler of many years, she had carried the same pair of small, sturdy nail clippers in her purse for nearly two decades. They were duly confiscated. We laughed it off nervously. What else could we do? We didn’t laugh when we heard about people being detained indefinitely, guilty-until-proven-innocent treatment of terrorism suspects, names on No Fly lists, and secretly-planted FBI agents (initially dismissed as paranoia, later vindicated at my liberal hometown mosque).

The first time I flew after 9-11, I was fourteen years old. My father was waved through but my mother and I, in our headscarves, were pulled aside. As the TSA agents unzipped my suitcase and snapped on their blue gloves, I started to feel nervous. Their search meant casually making hay of my belongings and I was afraid that their disruption of my tightly-packed items would make it so that the bag wouldn’t close again.

a female TSA agent with blue gloves on searching a bag

I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized that they would be going through everything. Carefully hiding my underwear and maxipads under my pajamas had been for naught. These two men were thoughtlessly rooting through what I, as an adolescent girl, felt were my most private possessions. It would have been mortifying for any other teenage girl to have her undergarments and sanitary supplies thoroughly searched by anyone, let alone a pair of older men. It was especially mortifying given how my teenage-girl shyness was enhanced by Islamic gender and modesty laws.

The search ended with the sealing of my bag with a zip-tie, which later proved hilariously problematic, in a Catch-22 sort of way, given that we were staying at a hotel afterwards and weren’t allowed to fly with scissors.

Despite my deconversion from Islam, my caution when it comes to airports persists. My head might be bare and my name not “Muslim”-sounding, but I am often mistaken for an Arab, which is synonymous with “Muslim” to many. I also hail from a Muslim background, have visited Pakistan, love and spend time with my Muslim relatives, and sometimes carry Islamic books with me. People like Sam Harris believe that I ought to be profiled based on those factors — and I am hyper-aware of this fact when I move through airports. I am the most efficient, overly cautious version of myself when flying and do things in that context to which I am far from proud to admit. I’ve viciously snapped at my partner for briefly mentioning the dubious merits of TSA security theater. I’ve stood as far away from other “Muslim”-looking or -seeming folks so as to avoid any perception of collusion or affiliation. When on the phone, I avoid the usual “salaam” greetings I otherwise use with family members. I carry both my passport and my driver’s license with me when I travel even just domestically, “just in case,” as I say.

people waiting in line at airport security

Given all that, I have absolutely no sympathy for someone who is angry about being subjected to appropriate actions when he violated TSA regulations. I might even feel angry about it when it’s someone prone to sarcastically belittling others’ problems by comparing them to problems he personally believes are worse. Even worse is when it comes from someone who promotes the narrow view of Muslims and Islam that make my life difficult in the first place.

I could go the cheap route and say that from this ex-Muslima’s point of view, my problems as a traveler are far worse than those of Dawkins and therefore he should shut up and never complain about his problems ever again. Instead, I will do him a far greater courtesy than he does to others and admit that his pain is not only real, but also indicative of a greater matter.

Almost everyone agrees that at least some of the TSA guidelines are irrational. It’s not a controversial thing to point out that they are. If only Dawkins had noticed and called out said issues in the full dozen years that they have existed, in the time span of over a decade in which they have adversely affected others. But I guess a community that doesn’t produce enough Nobel Prize winners for Richard Dawkins’s satisfaction shouldn’t expect men like him to care for the rights of its members. They’ll only notice when their sweets are taken away from them.

Update: Dawkins has responded on The Guardian. In his piece, he manages to denigrate those tweeting at him while dubbing his tweet “campaigning” against unfair TSA rules.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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9 Comments

  1. Profile photo of delphi_ote
    November 5, 2013 at 11:45 am —

    Yes! Here’s hoping this post gets a bit of attention.

  2. Profile photo of flewellyn
    November 5, 2013 at 2:08 pm —

    And she SLAMS it out of the park!

  3. Profile photo of Will
    November 5, 2013 at 11:28 pm —

    Nice response, Heina. Thanks for writing this!

  4. Profile photo of Giuliano Taverna
    November 6, 2013 at 7:59 am —

    I don’t agree with Sam Harris’s contention that we should profile people based on their perceived religious affiliation because as you stated for many people Arab means Muslim and anyone darker than a band-aide could be put in that category by some mouth breathing TSA agent. But in his defense I have to point out he specifically stated that this should not be the case, citing Islams universality and the fact that many ethnic groups practice it. his own comments here, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/in-defense-of-profiling

    I think its naive bordering on dangerous for him to entertain the thought that this could ever be implemented as anything other than racial profiling but that is his contention, he’s not actually expressing racism or even xenophobia, just opposition to Islam, something I imagine you share as an ex Muslim. I myself am an ex catholic and I am fairly terrified by and hostile to the religion I left, and I wouldn’t blame a non ex catholic for expressing the same sentiment.

    • Profile photo of mrmisconception
      November 6, 2013 at 10:20 am —

      I truly understand your want to defend Harris, but by so callously lumping all Muslims together he is indeed expressing racism and othering. And it would not matter if he was expressing positive attributes, grouping all of a group as diverse as Muslims is ridiculous and very dangerous. Replace Muslim in his post with black or gay or female and see if you can’t see how it came across.

      I don’t feel you hold any malice in your defense of him, but when it was pointed out to him that what he had said was at the very least naive and came across as far more malicious he responded with equivalent of “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

      As an ex-Catholic do you like it when people say that all Catholics are pedophiles? Unless it is made clear that it is only rhetorically “all Catholics” I would say it should offend you and it should be seen as bigoted and overly simplistic by reasonable people.

      Harris may not be a racist, but he did publish a racist opinion and refused to back off of that position when challenged. Please excuse us if we treat the person who does racist things as if he is a racist until his behavior changes.

    • Profile photo of marilove
      November 6, 2013 at 11:40 am —

      Harris said racist things and refuses to take those racist things back so yep. He’s racist.

      If it quakcs like a duck…it’s a fucking duck. A racist duck.

    • Profile photo of Phillip Hallam-Baker
      November 6, 2013 at 11:54 am —

      I am a security professional. In fact I am currently in Vancouver for the ‘Save the Internet from the NSA meeting’. Just saw Bruce Schneier outside, he is the guy who coined the term ‘security theater’.

      Profiling does not work because almost none of the attacks of the past 20 years meet the criteria that are usually associated with ‘terrorism’, that is an organized group with tens of members at the least and a common commitment to an ideological program. Profiling can provide some leverage against threats by a specific group such as Al Qaeda or the Red Army Faction or the Provisional IRA. If there is specific intelligence that an attack is planned by a particular group then you obviously profile to that group. Otherwise a profile is almost certain to be counter productive.

      Before 9/11 the highest number of deaths in terrorist attacks were the Oklahoma City bombing and the Bologna Railway bombing. Both were committed by right wing groups who styled themselves as uber-patriots.

      Where generic profiling does work it is profiling on methods rather than people. The most practical way to kill large numbers of people is to use either bullets or bombs. People who obsess about weapons are by far the most likely to be a threat. I make no apologies for profiling NRA members as more likely to be terrorists.

      • Profile photo of Jack99
        November 6, 2013 at 2:45 pm —

        Actually, in support of your overall point, I remember reading somewhere that by far the greatest number of terrorist attacks on a worldwide basis were carried out in India by Tamil Tigers from Sri Lanka.
        More recently there has also been a rise of fascist groups in places like Spain and Greece, but do any of these pose a terrorist threat?

    • Profile photo of delphi_ote
      November 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm —

      “To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.”

      Get real. Ethnicity is in his own list of traits that should be used to sort out people’s beliefs. The asshole was obviously talking out of both sides of his mouth.

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