Flying While Muslim and the Four SSSS on a Boarding Pass!

By: Prof. Hatem Bazian, MLFA Chairman

February 3, 2022


Muslims traveling on flights to and from the US and European airports are often subject to secondary screening and the appearance of SSSS on their boarding passes. Now, let me be a little more precise on the SSSS imprint and how it functions for Muslim travelers.

It is not an error of four extra S letters since these are the airlines and DHS code for individuals to face the gauntlet of security apparatus, profiling at the airport, total public embarrassment at the counter, the boarding gate, not to mention total invasion of privacy.

I am writing this short piece because a few days ago news broke of a Swiss hacker known as maia arson crimew managed to download the US’ Government No Fly list by accessing CommuteAir servers that had not been properly secured. For Muslim American travelers, who have had first hand encounter with post 9/11 travel restrictions, including not being allowed to board flights back to the US, the breaking news of 1.5 million names comes as an affirmation of their collective experiences than a surprise.

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How did the No Fly list or extra security monitoring occurs is an important question to explore?

Muslim American travelers were always “comforted” by security officers, Justice Department Officials and others that this process is random and no “religious” or “racial” profiling lurks in the background. The reality and the multiple reports indicate otherwise and traveling while Muslim is a unique experience for many.

Your predicament as a Muslim who is on the government and airlines list begins much earlier than the printed boarding pass. The first clue that you are “randomly selected” is that you are unable to check-in into your flight on your phone, at home or the hotel-not because of any technical issues as these might happen but you are asked to appear at the airline counter to get your boarding pass. For the Muslim, who is a frequent-traveler, this is immediately understood that you have been “randomly selected” again for this secondary and more extensive VIP screening process.

If you have ever attend a Muslim conference in the US or Europe, the conversation among a sizable segment of the speakers and attendees will invariably veer into comparing notes on traveling while Muslim-it is your normal topic like asking about the weather while ordering coffee at a Donut shop. Having been alerted to the need to show-up at the counter, the general advice and experience calls upon the individual to head to the airport much earlier than 2–3 hours before the flight time and longer if it is an international destination outside the US.

Arriving at the airline counter is an event onto itself since you are the extra special security “VIP” person needing all the attention. The regular counter staff can’t handle your case and immediately have to call for the supervisor at hand while informing them that it is “one of those” or this one need special handling. You are asked to step aside while the on duty supervisor calls the security desk and you wait for them to appear so they can walk you from the counter to the special screening location or sometime a small room.

You wait until they show-up, which in a busy airport means it takes longer to get the security team to escort you than the smaller ones. You are special and it is never one person alone that comes to take care of you but two and sometimes three walking with and around you in the airport. You do get people staring at you walking in the middle of this heightened security escort and many wonder whether you have done something wrong.

Your luggage get opened by hand, throughly checked, every piece examined, bomb swipes are taken from the inside, your hands, phone and computer. You are also asked to turn your phone and computer on so as to make sure they don’t contain any bombs or substances that can be made into one. At some busy airports, the security search with two or three agents is undertaken within the eye sight of other passengers going through the security line and all are looking at the “possible” suspect being searched. On the occasion of flying back to the US, the security process takes place at the airport abroad and again once you land at the port of entry.

You are questioned about everything that you have in your possession including books, reading materials, pieces of paper in your wallet, business and note cards or anything the security officers put their hands on during the process. Once this is done then the officers walk you to your gate while at times they might let you walk on your own to the gate. You are still extra-special and we can’t let you go easy like that-it would be insulting for sure. At times and just as you are about to get on the flight, the gate attendant calls your special and beautiful Arabic name outloud and another security check by a new group of officers before boarding and they go through your luggage again. In the case that you are a person with a frequent traveller status that gives early boarding, then you need to altogether forget about getting early boarding since most often you are lucky to even make the flight.

Sometimes, the process of scanning your boarding pass at the gate is eventful and the red alarm sound blast from the machine and everyone behind steps back. You have been caught by the machine and you are unable to board until the security agents arrive back again to the gate. Knowing also how dysfunctional the communication systems between TSA, airline counters and the gate staff adds its own layer of difficulty. The gate staff might be alerted initially to your impending arrival at the gate but for whatever reason they have not managed to keep things in order so your name gets called to the gate counter for security check-not once, twice but few times while you are still walking from the security check at the enterance. As you arrive at the gate then the same procedure that took place on the outside counter night be repeated but everyone waiting at the gate to board the flight is looking at you and again wondering if they should be on the same flight with you. “See Something, say Something” is in full effect at the gate and everyone wants to say they are fearful to fly with you at this point.

A number of Muslims who I know personally can testify under oath of their experience traveling while Muslim and the times they missed their flight because of this extra-special treatment at the airport despite arriving more than 3 hours before travel time.

In a rather funny and absurd circumstances, but also sad, some Muslim leaders who participated in the Department of State Office of Public Diplomacy visits to the Muslim world faced this SSSS treatment and secondary screening upon returning from conducting “official business” on behalf of the US. Just get this right, the Department of State sent Muslim leaders to talk to Muslims in other countries on how great is the United States of America for Muslims then upon their return to be put under this type of security violation to their basic civil rights and treated as being “guilty” or belonging to a suspect group-but they are assured it was random and not intentional!

I am not done yet because when you land in US airports arriving from abroad then you face another set of questioning, searches and embarrassments. You are extra-special, so as the plane lands the flight attendant calls on everyone to stay seated because some agents need to come on board before anyone can disembark. For Muslim Americans, who are frequent travelers and have the SSSS on their boarding passes, they already know that it is them that everyone is being held back for. Here, no matter the attempts the person makes to get the attention of the flight attendant and informing them that it is him/her, they go ahead and call your name for everyone to hear or the security agents come on board and walk up and down the aisle to have a visual recognition of the photo and information they have in their hand matches your face and travel document.

At least you are the first to get out of the plane with security agents escorting you as a “VIP” might be treated in a different context. You are taken to the secondary screening room to go through another period of wait, then search of the luggage, search of your electronic devices and questions about your travel, who did you meet, talked to, hotel you stayed at, and your opinion concerning certain matters. At times, the agent will have a softball discussion about Islam, sufism and how the agent interrogating you is interested or have read something about it before shifting to Taliban, ISIS, Hamas, Jihad or other topics depending on the individual and the location of their recent travels. The after landing process sometimes takes 2–3 hours if not more depending on the individual and what is lurking behind the “random” security flagging.

In few cases, Muslim American citizens and green card holders were prevented from boarding a flight back to the US and altogether denied entry to their country. Such instances required legal intervention, massive community mobilization, Congress and Senate members getting involved to urge the Department of Homeland Security to allow a US citizen who happens to be Muslim to return to their country of citizenship. Such cases are few but they did occur and are well-documented by civil rights organizations and are referenced in Congressional hearings.

The leaked No Fly list produced outrage from US government officials, mind you not for the existence of the list or the violation of civil and constitutional rights but anger directed at the hackers that obtained the data. What did Washington politician do in response? Congress launched an investigation to determine the extent of the data breach of the CommuterAir server or US No Fly List and who to hold responsible for it. Also, the Swiss authorities, being neutral on such security matters, are working with the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate and track the hacker.

Muslims are subject to constant and multi-layered surveillance structures and violations of their fundamental civil and constitutional rights do not produce the needed reactions. The basic fact is the following: We live in an Islamophobic socio-political-cultural “panopticon” where the Muslim subject is constantly observed while the surveillance structure and the power behind is made invisible. We are all existing in the surveillance panopitcon as function as Western civil society prisoners- “Visible the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow …”