NEW YORK, N.Y. — Rehman Al-Syed was supposed to fly next week to Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding. He bought his plane ticket a few months ago and planned to take two-days off from school. But with the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks just around the corner, the 28-year-old Arab graduate student at Columbia University had a change of heart. He decided to cancel the trip, fearing his name and nationality would subject him to a rigorous security check, or even an interrogation from an edgy TSA officer.
“I’m not on a ‘no-fly list.’ I’m a good guy,” he said, cracking a smile. “But it’s too risky. If an airport officer questions me and I get nervous and give the wrong answer, then things may get too complicated.”
Al-Syed isn’t alone. Ten years removed from the attacks, many Muslims are still wary of traveling in or out of the United States during the week leading up to the anniversary. For them, staying home in early September has become a common precautionary practice.
“I know some families who don’t even drive or allow their children to go to school. They feel that the best way to stay out of trouble is to stay at home,” said Abdullah Ali, 35, an Iraqi who sought asylum in the United States five years ago. “Because of ignorance, September 11 gives some people a reason to hurt members of the Muslim community.”
While he thinks that hostility against Muslims has abated — especially in major cities like New York — compared to the years immediately following the attack, Ali laments that mistreatment and hate crimes against Muslims are still widespread in smaller states and suburban areas of the country.
“It’s still a sensitive issue,” he said. “My friend in Tennessee wore an overcoat to hide his white garment, to pray during the celebrations of Eid (a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan) last Wednesday. Of course, he was scared.”
Earlier this week, several days ahead of the September 11 anniversary, the U.S. government issued a worldwide travel alert, calling on Americans living and traveling abroad to be on the lookout for signs of potential terrorist activities, even though the State Department claimed it has not identified any specific threats or possible terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Sophie A., 27, is not worried.
“If I would have [had] plans to go somewhere else this week, nothing [would] stop me from flying because of 9-11. There’s risk, but I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m not scared,” said Sophie, who splits time as an intern at the United Nations and working at an investment company on Wall Street.
Sophie, however, knows what it’s like to be singled out and interrogated. While at an airport waiting for her flight from Italy to the United States, she was led by immigration officers to a closed-door room, where she was questioned at length.
“They asked me why I travel frequently to Italy and who funded my trip. That was the worst situation. I waited for hours before they let me go,” recounted Sophie, who is a Jordanian citizen. “It’s really sad that Muslims like me have to go through it.”
In a phone interview, Greg Soule, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), said: "TSA's policy is to in no way discriminate or profile based on ethnicity or religion."
As long as the passenger, he added, can present a valid government-issued ID and a boarding pass, he or she will be able to proceed through airport screening accordingly.
"TSA works closely with religious groups -- including Muslims -- to ensure they're educated about our policies and procedures," Soule said.
Mohammad Razvi, executive director and founder of New York City-based Council of Peoples Organizations, a nonprofit that serves the South Asian community, said that in one sense, September 11 has strengthened and united Muslims in the United States.
“Because of its impact on the community, Muslims are now more integrated into mainstream America. They do their best to build relationships with their neighbors. And more importantly, they have been supportive of federal agencies,” he said.
Still, for Al-Syed, September 11 is now an unofficial “day of rest” for Muslims. This year, he plans to hole up the entire day in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I won’t even turn on the television,” Al-Syed said. “I’m afraid I might see something there or hear someone on a show who will have an offensive comment about my Islamic faith.”
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