SAN ANTONIO — Commercial air travel for Arab Americans has become, at best, an awkward, uncomfortable proposition. Travelers wearing turbans say they are followed by hard, suspicious stares as they move through terminals, and even those in business attire feel a sense of being measured as potential sources of menace.
Since the terrorist hijackings, several passengers have been pulled off flights because they looked Middle Eastern or have names similar to those on an FBI terrorist "associates" list--only to be subsequently cleared.
On Monday night, Ashraf Khan, a 32-year-old San Antonio businessman, was settled in his first-class seat, sipping ice water as he waited to depart from here on the first leg of a two-day journey to his native Pakistan and his brother's wedding. Then there came an announcement from the cockpit: The flight would be delayed for a moment. Khan thought nothing of it.
"After a few minutes," he recalled later, "the pilot came up to me. . . . He told me that he's not safe with me flying to Dallas."
"What do you have against me?" the incredulous passenger asked.
"He just said, 'I'm not going to take you. Myself and my crew are not safe flying with you. They don't feel safe.' "
Khan--an 11-year resident of Texas, dressed for travel in slacks, dress shoes and a T-shirt promoting his cellular telephone business--was handed his carry-on bag and escorted back to the terminal. Humiliated and confused, he declined a ticket agent's offer to search for a seat on another airline. Instead, he called for a ride home. His brother will be married on Friday without him.
"I'm really, really embarrassed," Khan said in an interview from his business. "I can't even work or anything. I don't know what to do."
Officials with Delta Air Lines, the carrier involved, did not return calls from a reporter.
While sympathetic to flight crew fears and the need to round up anyone culpable in the attacks, some Arab American leaders see the extra scrutiny at airports as part of a broader backlash--one that, in coarser forms, has produced scattered attacks on mosques, physical assaults and threats.
They complain that the several million Arab Americans and traditionally garbed Muslims in this country have become targets of ad hoc profiling. Indeed, the phrase "Flying While Arab" has begun to seep into the national dialogue, an echo of the long-standing African American complaint of being stopped merely for "Driving While Black."
Given the added tensions, many Arab Americans simply have decided to give up on air travel for now.
"In this atmosphere and climate," said Michel Shehadeh, West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, "I don't dare go to the airport. It's easier to drive than go into a situation where everybody looks at you as if you have a disease."
Sheik Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, said the Washington-based organization has received about 50 reports from Arab Americans and Muslims complaining of harassment while attempting to travel by air.
"What can we do?" he said the callers ask. "We are afraid to go to the airport."
Kabbani attended the memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where, he said, he was among those who prayed privately with President Bush. After the service, he said, federal intelligence officers advised him to drive back to Detroit.
"They said don't take planes, don't fly," recalled Kabbani, who wears a long flowing beard, robe and headdress. "They said there are naive people at the airport who don't know what they are doing, and you might be harassed."
So he drove. Somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he said, other motorists began to make threatening gestures, to glower and curse at him. Before long, his car was stopped by a state trooper, he said. The officer, according to Kabbani, said he had been dispatched to check out "something fishy." After handing over license and auto registration, Kabbani waited for about 10 minutes and then was told he could resume his trip.
Given the circumstances of the hijackings, some law enforcement officials and security experts maintain that extra scrutiny of Arab-looking passengers, in particular young males, must be expected. This is especially true, they said, given FBI concerns that there might be more terrorist teams still at large, waiting for a chance to strike.
"We're going to have to look at people from that part of the world with a much more intense magnifying glass than anyone else," said Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and chief executive of GlobalOptions, an international risk-management firm, and the author of several books on terrorism. "If we were looking for little old Swedish ladies, I'd say we should be spending more time looking at them. We're not."