Culture | Islamophobia & Co.

The othering of an entire culture

I have not shaved my beard since May of last year. I trim it, yes, but I have taken an oath not to completely shave it off my face. I am a huge fan of beards – it’s often the topic of jokes in my close of group of friends – but no one actually knows why. I used to put up a fight with my teachers every time they told me to shave it off for school (which I understand – it was a policy at my strict private Catholic school) but ever since moving here, it’s been a matter of cultural symbolism than simple pride.

As a Middle Eastern man, I am blessed (or cursed) with bushy eyebrows, a thick beard, and basically the whole hairy package (which I will not be addressing in this article). The fact that I am a bearded person with a Lebanese passport, apparently, has a whole different meaning to North American customs officials. It’s always the same conversation with my parents before I travel anywhere in the industrialized West: “shave your beard off, they might detain you!” It’s a simple joke with deep cultural resonance. There is no justifiable reason why I should have to shave in order to pass as more “white-looking” to please customs officials every time I travel to Canada or the United States. This is racial profiling. That I am being singled out because I am ‘Muslim-looking,’ (Muslim, of course, a prerequisite for being a terrorist according to the West) is completely unethical, and speaks volumes about the terror-driven, Islamophobic society the West has become. My initial reaction to a recent bus bombing in Bulgaria, which killed seven people, was “please don’t let the bomber be an Arab.” We can’t get a break.

A 2010 CBS poll showed that 51 per cent of Americans agree with racial profiling as a way of assessing whether someone is or isn’t a national security threat (as opposed to 59 per cent of Canadians who disagree with racial profiling as a tactic, and 79 per cent of Canadians who agree that racial profiling goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to a recent poll conducted by the Canadian Department of Justice). Racial profiling has graced the pages of The Daily more than once, and why not? As long as this issue stands as a major social problem, someone has to write about it. The reality is that, while I am not Muslim, if I even look ‘Muslim’ to customs officials or border officers, there is always the possibility and the fear that I will be detained, I will be searched, I will be interrogated – a possibility that will exist for as long as I hold a Middle Eastern passport. And while I understand that this problem does not only plague one ethnic or racial group, Middle Eastern travelers are often most visibly plagued. Recently, on a train to New York, I was taken aside (along with all other non-American, non-Canadian passport holders) to fill out an entry document to the United States. While I was waiting, I was listening in on a conversation between a U.S. customs agent and a Korean man – not much older than me, which was happening nearby. He had been selected for a “randomized search.” The officer consoled him with sentences like “this happens all the time” or “it’s standard procedure, don’t worry” while going through his personal belongings and delicates with gloved hands. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen anyone other than a person who is a visible minority person be taken aside for questioning.

When my mother first told me to shave before going to New York City for Reading Week, I bristled, telling her I wasn’t going to just because I would put off the customs officers, but I eventually relented. “Is my beard short enough?” I asked. She nodded, and that was that. I was now set for travel. For me, it’s not just that simple fact of having to consider this every time I travel. There are cultural implications surrounding this simple act of cutting something off my face. It doesn’t only symbolize hormones or puberty or “masculinity.” I also see it as a signifier of Arab identity. To shave my beard is to let go of part of my identity, my culture, where I’m from. It is my way of continuity with my past, continuity I genuinely do not want to lose.

And it’s not just the facial features, looking “too Arab,” or “too Muslim.” It’s also a dress code. According to the United States’ Transportation Security Administration (TSA), “the new standard procedures subject all persons wearing head coverings to the possibility of additional security screening, which may include a pat-down search of the head covering.” They also say that although you are permitted to wear “loose fitting or religious garments” while going through security, it could lead to an extra screening, which is apparently done to ensure the safety of the travelling public. Doesn’t the ‘travelling public’ include people in headscarves and “loose fitting religious” clothing? How do airport and customs officials get away with these searches, and brush them off as being “random” and for ‘the good of the community?’ Is it okay to justify strip searches, intense cavity searches (to which my best friend was subjected at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York), three-hour interrogations (my father suffered one of these, at one of the several Vermont U.S. border security stations) on the ludicrous basis that the traveller has a Middle Eastern passport or that they look Middle Eastern or ‘Muslim’?

Has America, operating through institutions like the TSA, completely disregarded that terrorism and violence might not just come from foreign lands? What happens when the threat of violence comes from within? A recent shooting at a Sikh temple (it’s worth noting, for those who don’t know, that Sikhism is a religion entirely separate from Islam) in Wisconsin that left seven dead – and was labelled by Attorney General Eric Holder as “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime,” – left question marks about whether the American government is doing enough to combat domestic terrorism in a post-9/11 era. The shooter was an Army veteran, who killed himself shortly after the incident. The shooter was not wearing “loose fitting religious garments,” and the shooter was indeed not a foreigner. According to an article published on edition.cnn.com, “Sikhs in America have been targeted by revenge-seekers who apparently have mistaken them for Muslims, perhaps due to the traditional turbans they wear and their dark skin.” I sense a pattern.


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