CAIRO — Some years ago, I was invited to a literary festival in London whose slogan was “change the world.” I had some festival brochures in my hand as I went through the usual entry process at Heathrow Airport. But before I reached the exit, I was surprised to be stopped by a police officer. He examined my passport and leafed through the brochures. Then he asked, “How do you wish to change the world?”
His demeanor was apprehensive, so I took the question seriously and started explaining, in simple terms, that I was an author invited to the festival, that I had not personally chosen the slogan but it implied changing the way people think by means of writing. He seemed persuaded but, all the same, took my passport and I had to wait half an hour before it was returned.
I could provide scores of similar anecdotes. My literary works have been translated into 35 languages, and so I have traveled to various countries for numerous seminars and book signings. Despite the amicable way I am treated by people in the book world, in airports I am just another Arab, a potential terrorist.
I have no complaint about security measures because they have obviously been instituted for my protection as a passenger. Most security personnel perform their duties in a polite and exemplary manner, but some use the procedures to slight you or to make you understand that you are unwelcome or inferior.
The purpose of customs officers at airports is to catch smugglers, but if you look Arabic, or if you are black, or if you are a woman in a head scarf, they make a beeline for you and ask you a series of provocative questions that I doubt have anything to do with smuggling.
“How many cartons of cigarettes have you got with you?” asked an officer, before she opened my suitcase. I replied that I had a single carton. “Are you sure about that?” she responded with a smirk, implying that I was lying.
I cope with these irritations by considering them part of the hassles of my work, but sometimes it becomes too much. Once, at John F. Kennedy International Airport, I was held for two hours because I objected to the officer’s attitude; another time, at Nice, in France, an officer summoned me by curling his index finger, a gesture I find disrespectful. He examined my passport and instead of asking me the purpose of my trip, simply demanded, “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to buy some cows,” I told him, in earnest. He looked confused: “Cows? But your passport gives your profession as ‘dentist!”’
“There are some dentists,” I explained (for that is my professional occupation), “whose hobby is collecting cows, and I’m one of them.”
We stood there exchanging sidelong glances until, finally, he returned the passport and let me proceed.
A French police officer of Tunisian origin named Sihem Souid, who worked at Orly Airport in Paris, objected to the racist treatment of Arab and African travelers. She and seven of her colleagues complained about the behavior of other police officers, but nothing was done. Ms. Sihem went on to publish a book, “Omerta dans la police,” that exposed the racist practices at Orly, including the story of an African woman whom an officer referred to as a “filthy black,” and who was strip-searched and photographed, while the officer looked on, laughing.
Clay Routledge, an associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, argues that some people crave control, and discriminate against others in order to gratify that desire and boost their self-esteem; for others, racism might provide a stark worldview in which “good” whites and Christians were ranged against “evil” blacks and Muslims. According to the scholar Edward W. Said, in his 1981 book “Covering Islam,” Arabs and Muslims were generally portrayed in the Western media as either oil sheikhs or likely terrorists, while Islam itself was presented as a poorly defined and misunderstood abstraction.
It is true, of course, that terrifying and barbarous crimes committed by terrorists in the name of Islam have cast a shadow over the image of all Muslims. But the most basic rule of justice is that criminal responsibility lies with the individual, and not “by association” with a group that happens to share the same religious or ethnic identity. Can all Americans be held responsible for the torture of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison?
In fact, the number of Arab and Muslim victims of Islamic extremist terrorism far exceeds the number of Western victims. In the last two years alone, terrorists in Egypt have killed more than 400 Egyptian police officers and soldiers.
Christianity has had its phases of persecution of so-called heretics, sects, Jews and Muslims, as well as its wars of religion, its inquisitions and crusades. Over centuries, such crimes were carried out in the name of a faith that today preaches love and tolerance. No one religion is more bloodthirsty than another, or has a monopoly on violent extremism. Just as Islam can be followed as a humane religion that urges tolerance, so, too, can it be twisted by some into a belief system that justifies terrorism.
If we want to make this world a better place for our children, we have to teach them that, different as we may be in color, sex, culture or religion, we are all human beings who feel and think and suffer in the same way. We must put aside our prejudices and deal with one another on the basis of equality and individual responsibility. Only then will a black or Arab traveler in a Western airport be treated just like anybody else.
Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the novel “The Yacoubian Building” and other books. This article was translated by Russell Harris from t