On September 17 last, I was booked on a Caribbean Airlines flight bound for North America, when a most disturbing at the same time revealing incident took place at the Piarco International Airport. I believe readers will find it both instructive and informative.
It seems to be the policy that all passengers from Guyana with connecting flights, in my case to North America, have to pass through the local security again. As a matter of fact, this much was actually said when some passengers asked why another security check was necessary. In these days of heightened airport security and the claims of drug infiltration from Guyana, this seemed a reasonable, though an inconvenient exercise, yet one was happy to comply. Of course, you have no choice.
The problem I encountered was with the security personnel at the Caribbean Airlines boarding gate. I was subjected to a second security examination, an unusually intense and meticulous one. The only thing that was left to be done it seemed to me at that time was to have my carry-on case torn apart.
All my books, including my copy of the Bhagavad Gita, were leafed through with the most detailed scrutiny. I was ordered to switch on my laptop computer. My cell phone was removed from the carry-on and details on it including my list of contacts checked.
Never have I been subjected to such an intense security search, not even in North America or Europe. But I realized that all this was necessary and felt that my selection for scrutiny was quite random. Though it did bother me after all my personal belongings were unceremoniously dumped in the carry-on by an uncouth and ill-trained security person, I took it all in stride and began making my way into the aircraft when the same staffer asked me a question that led to a confrontation and threatened to have me not being able to travel.
Imagine my utter consternation and shock when at the end of this unbelievably intense and meticulous security check, the staff member asked me if I was a Muslim. I was for a moment utterly speechless and humiliated. In an instant I had a first-hand insight into what profiling is. Of course, I not only refused to answer the question but asked the individual instead what the security check had to do with whether I was believed to be a Muslim or not.
I was asked the question again and again refused, adding that I was quite prepared to be taken off the flight if it came to that but I was not going to answer that question, even if it meant simply saying yes or no, as was demanded. When it became evident that I was not going to cooperate, the same security person called out another traveller from the line of passengers who were in the meantime boarding the plane leaving me standing nearby rather sheepishly without telling me whether or not I was free to go. On my own, I decided to board the plane, half expecting to hear alarms going off. Nothing happened.
Upon entering the aircraft, I promptly reported the matter to the first attendant I met. She could not understand why I was asked whether I was a Muslim, but promised to have a supervisor come on board and speak with me on the matter. It goes without saying that the flight departed with no supervisor in sight. To her credit, the attendant did advise me, in her words, to “put pen on paper,” though I doubt whether she meant a letter to the editor of a newspaper.
It is known that Muslims on the whole are subjected to profiling at airports in many parts of the world. Given the times in which we live, this too does not seem surprising. What did take my breath away was the awareness that the profiling seemed to be happening right here at home, in our own region. I am confident that I was subjected to that overzealous interrogation and scrutiny because of the mode of my dress and because I was believed to be a Muslim.
The cultural ignorance and illiteracy of the security personnel, a problem in and of itself, is not the issue here. The issue is whether or not Caribbean Airlines does have a policy of profiling Muslims and whether it too believes that every Muslim is assumed to be a terrorist unless proven otherwise, as the passenger next to me said with absolute omniscience when I related the incident after he enquired of me as to the reason for the hold up.
We are sending a copy of this letter to Caribbean Airlines for any comment they might wish to make.