When I first spotted him in line in front of me at the Queen Alia Airport in Amman, I was fascinated by his pants, which at first I thought were a pinstripe, Wahhabi-style (i.e. high-water) thobe. Then I realized they were extra-wide pants with an elastic waistband. I couldn’t stop scrutinizing them from every angle, because I’d never seen anything like them (and I am my mother’s daughter). Then I was struck by his long, Islamic cleric beard (I love how they stick out just like a pharoah’s prosthetic) and how it contrasted with the rest of his head, which was shaved to mere millimeters. There was something oddly serene about the guy.
It wasn’t until we were in the bus out to the airplane, he speaking in French on his phone with a plastic bag full of jumbo-sized Qur’aan at his feet, that the more ignominious thought crept in: “This is the kind of strikingly devout Muslim Arab we’re supposed to be afraid of.” And it was like the French philosopher’s white horse. (Man could fly if he could just not think of a white horse.) Once the thought was in my head, despite my best intentions and years of getting to know Muslims of all stripes, both the devout and the more casual, I couldn’t stop labeling him as a potential threat. He turned out to be sitting across the aisle from me, and every time he opened his Qur’aan or went to the bathroom, I thought, “This is the part in the movie where he turns out to be a terrorist!” Even knowing how ridiculous it was, I couldn’t stop an edge of apprehension.
Imagine, then, what it must be like to work for the Transportation and Safety Administration. We spend a lot of time ridiculing and vilifying them for their post-9/11 paranoia, for all the things you have to unpack and take off to go through airport security today, for their alleged racial profiling. And there is something definitively Kafka-esque about the TSA. It’s really pretty ludicrous to continue calling it “random selection” when every Arab or Muslim I know gets pulled aside for additional questioning every time they fly! It’s our job as democrats and citizens to keep an eye on things, keep things from getting too Orwellian.
Still, if this were your job, day in and day out, to be suspicious of everyone, to be constantly under the pressure of preventing another shoe bomber, another liquid explosives ring, God forbid another hijacking…! If this were your job, wouldn’t you be watching that devout young Muslim very carefully? Even with the best of intentions, with every reason to know that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people who love their families and their neighbors, I couldn’t keep the doubt from creeping in. Imagine if doubting were my daily bread and butter!