Nine military officials from Pakistan were held for questioning at Dulles Airport,Washington D.C. on September 1. The officials were on route to the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida for an important meeting. But things didn’t go according to plan. The officials were separated, their green passports disregarded, they weren’t allowed to make phone calls to their one-star general in Pakistan and their official letter of invitation which also stated the purpose of their trip…well, that wasn’t even glanced at or considered. Although the US has apologised for the treatment meted to the officials, it is too late to undo the damage.
But that’s not the first time such an incident has occurred; security checks that are meant to be random but target Muslims and long interrogation processes at airports across the US have become commonplace. September 11changed the political, and even the religious, landscape in the US as well as the world over. Nothing was the same anymore, people were categorised by their religion, ethnicity and the colour of their skin. Men with beards and women in hijab are held back at security counters, the contents of their bags rifled through, and questioned at length about their itinerary, their current job, family ties and so on before being allowed to board the flight.
In March 2010, lawmakers from Fata cut short their 15-dy trip to the US when they were asked to undergo a full body scan. These scanners have been introduced at various airports across the world as part of increased security measures. According to news reports and organisations lobbying against such scanners, these provide a detailed image of the passengers and are tantamount to “virtual strip-searches.”
There are stories that do the rounds at dinner table conversations in Pakistan. A friend of a friend who, despite becoming a naturalised citizen of the US just last year, was held at customs for interrogation for well over two hours; an uncle who’s actually a Canadian national, was held at the US-Canada border by the custom officials for a few hours; and a friend of your dad’s who had applied for a US visit visa over two years ago and is still awaiting security clearance from the embassy. Although these stories may sound far-fetched but unfortunately, these are real people who have had such experiences.
Traveling with a green passport has become tiresome. Visa applications that initially took a week or so, now take months to process. People submitting their visa documents often have the same worried look on their faces, glancing at each other furtively, wondering if they’ll be able to visit their loved ones abroad, whether they will be able to make it to their daughter’s graduation in time and whether the new grandparents will be allowed a two-week visit to see their grandchild. Painful, tedious and not to mention nerve-wrecking, are the words to describe this arduous process that every Pakistani must partake in each time he/she decides to travel.
None of the hijackers involved in 9/11 were Pakistanis and nor were they funded by Pakistanis, yet it is articles like these which are read by thousands who know nothing about Pakistan, except that the country is on the front line in the war against terror. A critique of the op-ed piece has been talked about in great length here. Every article on Pakistan published in the foreign media outlets, be it fashion, the sudden literary boom in the country or even the floods – Islamist militants and the Taliban are always present.
This isn’t to say that Pakistanis have been entirely innocent; the most recent instance being Faisal Shehzad, but to associate Pakistan and 9/11 is incorrect. At the same time, one needs to look at the bigger picture: the way Pakistan is intricately associated with terrorism and for harbouring al Qaeda associates, al Qaeda has roots in the anti-Soviet war in which the ‘mujahideen’ were substantially financed by the CIA and the ISI.
Growing up, I spent each summer in the hot, humid weather of Brooklyn, New York. The city became my second home; I knew the subway routes, the nearest laundromat, the Key Foods where we got our weekly groceries and the corner pizza place which served the best and the greasiest pizza pie I have ever tasted. The visa process took just a couple of weeks and those long, long flights to the US were always hassle-free, with little or no lines at the customs and immigration counters. Yes, we did have to explain where Pakistan was located on the map to a lot of foreigners but in retrospect, it was better than being known as the country that harbours suicide bombers and which allegedly financed the attack on the World Trade Centre.
Amna Khalique is the Features Editor at Dawn.com