The ring at my doorbell that Sunday afternoon was innocent enough. I set aside my laptop computer and my half-eaten Chicken McNuggets and went to the door. When I first peered out and saw two sharply dressed men in business suits and dark sunglasses, I thought I was being visited by a pair of friendly Jehovah's Witnesses. As I opened the door, however, it struck me that these men were a bit older than the young men of faith who usually canvassed the neighborhood. Any lingering doubt about their identities was immediately erased, however, when the two men flashed their badges and announced--in true X-Files fashion--that they were with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" I asked. My initial puzzled reaction turned to concern when they explained that they wanted to speak with me "about the events of last Tuesday", obviously referring to the horrible terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
What I do not appreciate is being singled out for questioning merely because of my faith, my ethnicity, or my legitimate political activism.
I told them that I would be happy to speak with them if they made an appointment to meet me later at the local office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), where I served as a member of the Board of Directors. Although the agents were somewhat taken aback by my request, they ultimately agreed. An appointment was made for the following evening, but the agents never appeared to interview me, nor did they call to reschedule the meeting. The next morning, I awoke ill and asked that my clinic patients be rescheduled before stepping out to pick up some over-the-counter medication. During this time, two other agents visited both my home and work place. When the agents did not find me, they warned my wife ominously that they "would keep coming back." I was finally able to reach one of the agents by cellular phone, and I made an appointment to meet him and his partner at a local coffee shop.
What ensued can best be described as a combination of a "fishing expedition" and a scene from a straight-to-video B-movie. Holding a thin folder stamped "SECRET" in front of them, the agents initially queried me about my background. One of them stopped in mid-sentence to change a question from "When did you come to the US?" to "Where were you born?" They appeared somewhat surprised when I mentioned I was born in Santa Monica, California, and had lived in Southern California my entire life. I was then quizzed about my political views with such vague questions as "Are we the bad guys in this thing?" I told the agents in no uncertain terms that there could be no justification whatsoever for the horrible terrorist attacks that had taken place. Further, I informed them that my political views are widely known because I frequently write commentaries that are published in newspapers around the country. In fact, in the days following the terrorist attacks, my commentaries condemning the assaults and expressing the shared grief and outrage of American Muslims had appeared in newspapers in California, Texas, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Madrid, Spain.
The agents subsequently inquired about my numerous affiliations with several prominent and widely respected American Muslim advocacy and relief organizations. At no time was I asked about any specific individual, nor was I asked to identify any suspects in photographs. The interview's low point came when I asked why the agents had gone to my clinic, when I had provided them with a cellular telephone number at which I could be reached. Their answer spoke volumes about the aimlessness of this investigation: "When we learned that you were out sick, we thought that our worst fears had been realized--that you had fled the country!" I could no longer restrain my laughter. "Give me a break!" I exclaimed incredulously. To where would I flee? I am an American. I do not possess nor do I desire any other citizenship.
By the end of the 75-minute ordeal, I was convinced that the agents were not acting on any specific information but were instead groping wildly for straws in the dark. I found this quite disheartening. I harbor no ill will toward those agents who interviewed me. I realize that they were just "following orders". Like other Americans who are Muslims or of Arabic ethnicity, I earnestly support the FBI's attempts to vigorously investigate this heinous terrorist act and bring those responsible to justice. What I do not appreciate is being singled out for questioning merely because of my faith, my ethnicity, or my legitimate political activism. As noted in a Christian Science Monitor editorial this week, "to have FBI agents with no preparatory contact knocking on the doors of Arab or Muslim citizens with no clear ties to acts of crime is a sure way to instill fear right where cooperation is most needed." In legal parlance, this is referred to as "profiling". In my book, it's just plain racism. And it has no place in my country.
Riad Abdelkarim is a Los Angeles area physician and Western region communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.