Travelling While Muslim: 30 Tips

By Abdul Malik Mujahid

African-Americans have long suffered from profiling."Driving while black" is a known phenomenon. Now, Muslims have joined African-Americans, as "travelling while Muslim" is the latest challenge in the post-911 world. Profiling is here to stay. While fighting it is a noble cause, learning to deal with it is a daily requirement.

It is not just the profiling law and necessary security cautions which we all must appreciate, but also a little tyranny and insanity which some human beings in authority display that you need to worry about. In the last ten years, I have been personally discriminated against on many occasions at airports. Once, I was threatened with arrest when I was catching my breath before responding to the standard security question "has anyone unknown packed your bags...".

Palestinian Muslim Ann Mustafa of Chicago had all charges against her dismissed by the court for challenging discrimination she faced at O'Hare airport when trying to leave for the Middle East to attend her father's funeral. However, she was first arrested, harassed, and ended up missing father's funeral because of this tyrannical behaviour by some security personnel.

Although Muslims certainly are watched and harassed more while travelling, there are non-Muslim, white folks who are also subjected to this tyrannical treatment if they dare to be a bit defiant. Some of them have very horrible stories to tell. Read what happened to this member of the American film industry and his pregnant wife.

A lot of brown-skinned people also face harassment. The case of the famous Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry who cancelled his promotional tour in the US, is one example. Also, read the horror story of a brown-skinned doctor who was arrested by US marshals for watching an incident on a plane "too closely".

As Hajjis return from the pilgrimage of a lifetime, and Muslims continue to travel for both business and pleasure, reports of discrimination, harassment, racism, detainment, etc. are coming to the surface. The solution is not to allow ourselves to become prisoners of the prejudice. Rather, it is to become street smart and vigilant when we travel, whether that is within the United States or abroad.

Here are some tips to keep in mind to better prepare for "travelling while Muslim":

1. Connect with the Powerful

Connect with your Lord. Gather extra energy as you follow the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him's, advice while travelling. Recite the Dua's (supplications) of travel and ask that He makes your trip easy for you and protects you from all kinds of harm. These prayers will also help you focus on the purpose of your travel and how to make the best use of it.

2. You're American passport is not enough

A number of Muslim US citizens have had the legitimacy of their American passports questioned. Even if you are a citizen, keep several forms of photo identification with you.

Recently, at least four citizens were detained at different US borders, and at least one was arrested. In one case, US border officials asked for ID other than a passport, although this American Muslim regularly travels outside the country. They asked for his driver's license, which he didn't have, although his passport should have been enough to allow him re-entry into the US. After several hours, the officials agreed to call his boss to verify his employment and identity. After this was done, he was let go without any apology or explanation. In another case, three Muslim friends, all US citizens, were detained for more than 10 hours while their backgrounds were checked by US border officials through all agencies. When they were finally free to go, they were offered neither an apology nor an explanation.

3. Plan to take an earlier flight

If you have a connecting flight, or a tight appointment, don't take chances by opting for the last flight. Most of the time, when a Muslim is stopped for an extra check, the FBI is called in, or some pilot declares his discomfort with the looks of a passenger, he or she normally ends up missing the flight. That may mean a lot if you have a tight connection. A disabled Bosnian-American Muslim programmer ended up missing his flight when his wheelchair was sent for examination to the FBI. He got clearance but was too late. All flights to his destination were gone.

Many Muslims with the last name Khan have reported missing flights because of their last name. While there has been no hijacker in history with the last name Khan, you don't want to miss your appointment because of your choice of flight. So if your appointment is at 11 a.m., arrive an evening earlier.

4, Make sure all photo IDs carry your most recent photo

One Muslim doctor who is a US citizen recently returned from Umra sporting a beard, which he did not have on his passport photo. For US immigration officials this was a problem. He had to almost volunteer to shave his beard so they could see him without it. Thankfully, he cleared immigration without having to do that.

5. Leave your phone book and diary at home

Don't keep your personal phone book or diary with you while travelling. Keep only the numbers you will need while you travel. Also, avoid carrying your collection of business cards.

Recently, a Canadian born Muslim of Scottish/Irish background had his entire journal and phone book photocopied by US immigration officials after he was refused entry to the US. He had previously travelled many times across the border with no problems. When the brother protested this violation of his privacy, the immigration officer said: "you have no rights here."

While you are not doing anything wrong by carrying these personal items with you, in this time of heightened fear and paranoia, it is important not to jeopardize the lives of other innocent people who could be harassed for being included in somebody's phone book.

6. Show up to the airport early

Travellers who are flying are being advised to arrive early to the airport. For domestic flights, they are asked to show up two hours before. For international flights, it's three hours. Although those following this rule normally end up wasting a lot of time at the airport waiting for their flight, if you are a visible Muslim, it is very possible that you will be subject to much more scrutiny by security officers than other passengers.

Those travelling by bus or train should arrive no later than one hour to one-hour-and-a-half before departure.

7. Items you should not carry

Since the 911 terrorist attacks, there have been a number of items added to the list of things which passengers are not allowed to bring with them when they travel, especially by air. There are also restrictions on how many items travellers can take with them.

Make sure to call the airlines, train or bus you will be travelling with or go to their website to get this list of approved or disapproved items. Pack your bags accordingly so that you have no problems if and when you are asked to undergo a baggage check.

If you are travelling in your personal car, avoid packing anything that might arouse suspicion (i.e. sharp objects, etc.) if you are stopped by local police for any reason. It might actually be a good idea to follow the guidelines for air travellers in this regard.

8. Don't pack anything you wouldn't want the public to see

You could have your luggage searched, due to the heightened security measures. That's why you need to not only pack light, but also avoid packing any personal items you would not want a stranger to see. Even books, photos, and magazines which discuss Palestine and Afghanistan are a cause of concern if seen by someone who is suspicious of you for no reason.

9. Try understanding the question first

The check-in staff at airports usually asks you two quick, routine questions. They sometimes change the phrase, so make sure you understand whether that question requires a Yes or a No answer. I was shouted at and threatened when I misheard a United Airlines employee where I have accumulated several hundred thousand miles.

Although most of the security staff's accent is comprehensible, you may come across someone whose style of talking may be difficult to understand. In this case, be careful in comprehending the question first.

10. Avoid wearing a buckle

If you do wear one, then be ready to unbuckle. When I first encountered this request, I could not understand the command of the immigrant security officer. After repeating it a third time, he unbuckled himself to tell me what he wanted me to do. I was scared to death thinking he wanted me to drop my pants.

One Muslim woman ended up having to show her belly while struggling to unbuckle. Born and raised in America, this excellent author has promised herself to travel by train only after this incident. Her father being a top insurance executive in the US and donating $50 million dollars to a university, as well as her not observing Hijab, did not protect her from being profiled.

If you encounter this situation, please note that the security officer is asking you to turn your buckle around so he can see what is behind it. I want to dress in a way that doesn't require a buckle. Any suggestions?

11. Don't use stickers to show the extension of your driver's license.

Being a good driver, having received no traffic ticket for the past eight years, I received a sticker from the state of Illinois. I stuck it on the back of my driver's license to renew it for another four years without having to make a trip to the Secretary of State's office.

Bad idea. It was a nightmare to use it. Because of profiling Muslims have been subjected to even before 9/11, most people who asked to see the ID assumed I was using an expired license. Forget convenience. Get a renewed licensed which looks new and has all the correct dates,etc.

12. Don’t allow your t-shirt to speak for you

Slogans and phrases about Islam on the t-shirts of some young Muslims have been used to harass them while travelling. So unless being stopped and questioned is your idea of fun, avoid wearing such t- shirts while travelling.

13. Keep Your Green Card with you

It is required by law for you to have your green card with you if you are an alien resident. It has not been in enforced in the past but do not take chances. You can always keep photocopies of your documents at multiple locations.

14. Keep all identification cards updated and consistent

"Karim Abdul Jabbar" can be written as "Karim Jabbar" or "Abdul Jabbar Karim" by mistake or for the purpose of abbreviation. Many offices routinely make mistakes in writing non-English names. Please make sure that all of your IDs have the correct spelling of your name and are consistent with each other. Small spelling mistakes in the past were tolerated by agents with common sense while travelling. Now, there are more people checking things without common sense or courtesy. So make sure that everything is in order before you travel.

Also, make sure that all of your IDs have the same name. Avoid carrying or keeping IDs with aliases or your nickname.

15. Keep at least two photo IDs with you

Be sure to carry two forms of identification at all times. If you are a green card or visa holder, be sure to carry these documents with you when you travel, along with an up-to-date passport. Even while travelling by car, carry at least one other picture ID with you apart from your license, such as a state ID.

Make sure that all forms of ID that you are using have not expired, especially passports, visas, and green cards.

16. Where are you going?

This is a normal question which a cop asks while stopping you on the road. Even at the airport security counter, the purpose of your travel will be asked about. Based on how you respond, the agent will start thinking about you. I know a Muslim who spent time in lockup and had the FBI called to investigate him because he did not give a proper answer. Make sure you have a clear, precise idea. Trying to be friendly and volunteering information which is not being asked may be used against you. Young persons sporting a beard and wearing Hijab are likely to be stopped more often.

We recommend that you have some documentation of where you are going. For example, if you are going to a convention, you can keep the program, invitation, or advertisement about it with you. A written address of a location of printout of directions can help as well.

17. What will you be doing?

This is another question immigration officials may ask. Avoid being vague and give a very precise answer. To do this, you need to prepare before you get to the immigration counter. If you are planning to visit a relative or friend, for example, call them before you travel and confirm with them your plans to visit, along with the dates you will be there. That way, if officers want to call your relative or friend to double check your story, there will be no inconsistencies.

18. Look at your boarding pass

If it's got several funny markings or stars on it, it means you have been selected for extra security checks before you board your flight. That's why you should not waste too much time browsing at the airport's stores or in its restaurants before getting on the plane. Allow yourself more time and be ready.

19. Avoid crossing the borders unless you have a good reason

It was at the US-Mexico border that a friend of mine was asked by US marshals to come and pick up his stolen car. He went with friends. After picking up the car they were hungry and since the only restaurant was across the border in Mexico, they crossed it to eat. When they returned to enter the US, they were detained for eight hours and questioned, despite the fact they had all of their IDs in place and their purpose of visit was clear and documented. When asked why they had to go through the hassle, all they got was a sheepish look and they were told "you were at the wrong place at the wrong time". They did not mention the "Muslim Name" and "Asian Skin" of these American citizens as a reason.

It is no longer enough that you are legitimate and legal in travelling with your documents.

20. Be careful when visiting Canada

Forget the good old days of easy travel between the US and Canada border to say Salam to Niagara Falls and come back with hardly any need for documentation. Based on our information, we strongly urge that if you can be profiled because of your looks, religion or origin, travel with all relevant documents. That means a passport if you are citizen, green card if you are a resident alien and passport with visa if you are in any other capacity. Don’t rely on anything else like a birth certificate, etc.

21. Don’t confront while being profiled

Don't be offended if you are singled out. Remain calm and allow yourself to be subject to more scrutiny than other passengers, especially if you look obviously Muslim because of a Hijab, beard, the colour of you skin, etc. Questioning why you are being singled out publicly may not be a good idea. It will only make people more suspicious of you, since they may think you have something to hide. Even worse, it may give the impression you are trying to break the law or resist arrest.

Ann Mustafa, a leading Arab Muslim activist, was leaving Chicago to attend her father’s funeral in the Middle East. When she confronted the security officers for their excessive and invasive checking, she was arrested. When she said she was going to miss her father’s funeral, the officer told her he wanted to dance on her father's dead body. Nothing happened to the officer, although she has been cleared of all charges.

Our recommendation is that you cooperate, be patient, and take detailed notes of what has happened, as well as the names of those involved. But avoid confrontation.

22. File your complaint

If you notice officials have definitely discriminated against you, then note down all of the information on the spot with names, times, the location, and if there were any witnesses. From there, lodge a complaint against the airlines with the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division. You can also call them at (202) 366-2220 or send an e-mail to air In addition, you can send detailed complaint letters to them at the following address:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590

You should also contact organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), where you can also fill out an incident report, as well as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) Legal Department to report your incident and consult with an attorney.

23. Dress Appropriately

Sometimes, cultural differences confuse officers without cultural sensitivity training. Before 9/11, I, along with a few friends, was stopped while rushing to St. Louis for a funeral. The state troopers surrounded the car from three sides with hands on their guns. When I told them that I was going to a funeral they became more suspicious. When all documents were checked and they allowed us to go, I asked the officer why we were stopped. I thought they were traffic cops. He did not answer me but said that while we were going to a funeral, we were dressed casually and there were no other clothes in the trunk of the car. I tried to explain that in our culture, we do not dress up for funerals. It was no time for him to learn, however. He was polite and professional, despite all the profiling. That same weekend an African-American sister was also stopped on the interstate driving while in Hijab.

24. Do NOT try to be funny if you fit the profile

Jokes about bombs are taken seriously even if you do not fit the profile. However, if you fit the profile, and you're trying to lighten up the atmosphere, the airport, bus or train station are the wrong places to be funny. In fact, wisecracks about any topics are a wrong idea. If you are stopped in your car for speeding or some other traffic infringement, do not joke with the officer about any topics either. Just wait patiently until comedians eventually start making jokes about profiling in America.

25. Stay calm and do not start looking in your purse

This is of course easier said than done. But if you are stopped by an officer while driving do not do anything until the officer approaches you. Then, do what he or she is asking you to. Do not reach out to your glove compartment, purse, pocket, the backseat, or for your cell phone. Remember that in 1999, a brother by the name of Ahmed Diallo was shot 41 times by New York police who were searching for a criminal in his apartment building. Br. Ahmed was in the building at the time, and when the police stopped him, he was reaching into his pocket to show his identification cards to them when he was killed. A nervous officer who is profiling you may assume that you are trying to reach for a weapon. So please allow an officer to approach your car and tell you what to do before you make any sudden movements.

26. Avoid being too courteous

Being too courteous while being Muslim may actually get you kicked off a flight. That is exactly what happened to some young Muslims who were travelling from Chicago to New York to catch a flight for their trip to Makkah. During a stopover in Philadelphia, a group of women boarded and wanted to sit together. These nice Muslim kids offered to switch their seats with them, but when they got up to do this, the pilot who profiled them because of their religion (they had white, brown and black skin colours) kicked them off the plane. Other passengers tried to explain to the pilot that they were trying to be courteous. Apparently, the pilot was afraid of what these Muslims were planning to do. The nice young people had to drive to New York to catch their flight to Makkah.

So save your courtesy for the right time and right location.

27. Travel in a group

If possible, travel with at least two other people for not only safety and companionship, but also so that you have witnesses who can testify on your behalf if you are subjected to discrimination or other problems. This is also a recommendation of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.

28. Select a leader if travelling together

This is also a recommendation of our Prophet, to select one person as leader while travelling together.

29. Write about what happens to you and share your experience

So far, I have come across only with three Muslims who have written their stories of discrimination while travelling. It is important for us to write and preserve these experiences. It is not just about terrorism, it is about tyranny. Today, it is Muslims and brown-skinned men who are targets. Tomorrow, it will be someone else. Connect and become part of the ACLU, Amnesty International and other organizations fighting for human rights and civil liberties.

30. Think of other Americans while travelling

While you are travelling and facing profiling, please think of your neighbours who are fearful of travel because of terrorism. Terrorism is real and its fear is real as well. We are still travelling while Muslims in America despite all the profiling and harassment. But think of our neighbours who are not travelling to Muslim countries because of fear for their life as some terrorists have announced their intention to kill any American they can get their hands on. Although they are few in numbers, they have shown their evil actions. They do not represent the majority of Muslims who are known for their hospitality, but unless the majority checks these fringe groups of terrorists, we can protest our profiling but cannot stop it completely. The world has changed.

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