Friday, September 3, 2010

Culture: Islamophobia, Act 1?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On 16 September 2001, I made my way to Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts to catch one of the first trans-Atlantic flights after the "9/11 Attacks" in order to make a business meeting in Europe. The trip was memorable on a number of levels, from being driven to a nearly-deserted Terminal A (since demolished) in a Corvette and being dropped off right at the door to flying right above Ground Zero as it was still burning in order to catch a connecting flight from Newark, New Jersey.

As Islamophobia has clearly taken over the United States, another memory from that day has come back. In that nearly-deserted terminal at Logan, as I awaited my commuter flight to New Jersey, there was a young man hanging out in a corner of the waiting area, alone. Looking extremely nervous, he was bearded and appeared to be of middle eastern origin, despite wearing stylish western clothes. He was younger than me, probably college age. Even if he wasn't from the middle east, he was likely facing suspicion wherever he turned around the airport. Nobody went near him that I noticed. He really looked like he was suffering.

In retrospect, I wonder if he was one of the elites from Saudi Arabia or other middle eastern regimes with strong ties with the United States that was being evacuated to his home country. Some royal family members allegedly moved on military aircraft, but others moved on commercial aircraft as soon as they started operating, and it seems entirely possible that he was in this category.

I didn't approach him to find out, not because I feared him or didn't want to be associated with someone that "looked like a terrorist," but because I was exhausted at the time. When I went to work that day, I didn't have a plane ticket and wasn't expecting to get one, so it was a mad scramble to head home, pack, and make it to the airport in time to catch my flight. I simply didn't have any social energy at the time.

The man was on my flight to Newark, and I remember him in the boarding area for the trans-Atlantic flight to Zurich. By that time, I was so engrossed by the radio coverage of the recovery efforts on WNYC that I paid attention to little else. I don't remember seeing him when we left the plane in Zurich.

I wish I had spoken with him. Perhaps he wouldn't have wanted to talk. Perhaps my suspicions now are completely incorrect, and he was actually a young banker heading back to a home base in Zurich, or some other equally mundane story. Regardless, I bet he would have had a interesting perspective to offer on traveling when everyone was wary of you.

Now, it's not just young Islamic-looking men traveling on airplanes that are viewed with suspicion. Now, it seems to be that any Islamic person in any role in the United States is viewed with suspicion. Looking at how miserable the man at the airport seemed to be, I can hardly imagine what it must be like to deal with that all the time. If the man was heading to his home country, it was unfortunately a very wise move. Islamophobia may not have instantly gripped the United States as some had feared, but it would rise, and this year, we have learned just how widespread it has become.

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