To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.
Imam Abdirahman Aden Kariye was buckled into his airplane seat Sunday ready to fly home when federal authorities ordered him off a plane parked in Seattle. He was scheduled to deliver a prayer at the Dar Al Farooq mosque in Bloomington to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
That delay cost him the chance to lead Monday’s Eid prayer at Dar Al Farooq, and has become an all-too-familiar aspect of flying while Muslim, the imam said. He missed the last direct flight to Minneapolis after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) pulled him off a flight at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“I had buckled up, gotten very comfortable in my seat, and the flight wasn’t taking off,” Imam Abdirahman told Sahan Journal. “It was on the tarmac for about 30 minutes. Nothing was happening. Suddenly, the Delta agent comes and says, ‘Sir, I need you to grab all your stuff.’ I asked why, and she says, ‘I just need you to grab all your stuff. You have to speak with TSA for a second.’ ”
Imam Abdirahman gathered his belongings and walked back to the gate. It quickly became clear that he wasn’t getting back onboard.
“The door was closed, and I was told that, ‘This flight is going to leave you and you’re not going to be able to board,’” he said.
Years of scrutiny
Imam Abdirahman said he has been targeted for years with heightened security measures while traveling domestically and internationally. In a federal lawsuit filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he raised concerns about the nature of questioning he has received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The frequency and intensity of those security measures has made domestic travel a challenge, Imam Abdirahman said. So he wasn’t surprised Sunday when he arrived at the airport in Seattle and a Delta Air Lines agent handed him a boarding pass with the letters “SSSS” on it, indicating that he had been identified for secondary security screening selection.
He said he was patted down as he went through security. His electronics were powered on by TSA agents, his bags were opened and searched, and his hands were swabbed for residue before he was finally allowed to pass through security. He was again searched at the gate before being allowed to board the plane.
TSA and CBP screening and interviews have caused Imam Abdirahman to miss flights before. But Sunday’s incident was particularly difficult: it was the last day of Ramadan. He tried to make his situation clear to TSA officials to no avail.
Back at the gate after his removal, TSA agents told Imam Abdirahman that he would have to go through security a second time if he wanted to board another flight. With no direct flights to Minneapolis remaining that day, he ultimately decided to leave the airport.
“I tried to talk to a supervisor,” Imam Abdirahman said. “No one gave me any explanation whatsoever as to what happened, why I was removed. I kept telling them, ‘It’s Ramadan; it’s the last day. I’m traveling for Eid,’ and they kept saying, ‘We don’t know.’ ”
TSA Press Secretary R. Carter Langston wrote in a statement to Sahan Journal that “we take all traveler allegations about our security checkpoint screening processes seriously” and that travelers with concerns about the screening process can ask to speak with a supervisor.
“TSA headquarters has launched a review of the incident and will not comment on this specific event until the review is completed,” Langston wrote. “Depending on the situation, the internal review may lead to additional training or changes to screening processes.”
Imam Abdirahman didn’t want to travel on Eid itself, and chose to spend Monday with family in his hometown of Seattle. He called Dar Al Farooq in Bloomington and said he couldn’t be there—thankful only that he was not stranded in a city without family.
“Me not being present with them—they felt it,” Imam Abdirahman said of the mosque. “And it was hurtful, because we had fasted and had an experience in Ramadan together, and we didn’t get to celebrate it together because of all this security stuff.”
Imam Abdirahman said experiences like this have become more routine in the last two years, motivating him to speak out against what he and the ACLU see as the illegitimate targeting of Muslim travelers at U.S. airports.
The ACLU lawsuit details five occasions during which CBP officers allegedly asked Imam Abdirahman about his religious beliefs and practices, including how often he prays, charities and sports leagues he has been involved in, and whether he is Sunni or Shi’a.
According to the suit, the interrogations mainly took place in small, windowless rooms. During one detention at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in August 2020, a CBP officer said that if Imam Abdirahman did not cooperate, CBP “would make things harder for him.”
The ACLU claims that the government’s actions violated the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom and the right to due process, respectively.
ACLU attorney Ashley Gorski, who is representing Imam Abdirahman and two other plaintiffs in the suit, said that she believes the imam has been placed on a government watch list, though neither she nor Imam Abdirahman can confirm that.
“The problem with the watch list system is not only does the government not confirm or deny whether you’re on a watch list, but you don’t know why you’re placed on the watchlist,” Gorski said. “It’s a really opaque, Kafkaesque system.”
The ACLU suit is not challenging its clients’ possible place on government watch lists. Imam Abdirahman also understands that even if the suit is successful, it will unlikely alleviate all of the challenges he faces. But he said that it is nonetheless vital to challenge the Islamophobia he believes is embedded in the government’s conduct.
“When you are visibly a Muslim, either by your name or appearance, and you are subjected to additional questioning about how you practice your faith when you enter the country as a U.S. citizen, as an American, there is a feeling in my mind that the government hold Muslims to a greater suspicion,” Kariye said. “That somehow we are a threat to national security.”
The members of the Dar Al Farooq mosque are familiar with threats to their own security. Just last month, two men in Illinois were convicted for their role in the 2017 bombing of the mosque. The mosque was the target of scrutiny in 2015 after one of its members was linked to ISIS.
Efforts to ease concern
Imam Abdirahman tries to fly direct, particularly when returning to the U.S., because CBP interviews can cause him to miss connecting flights. He arrives at airports early, tries not to dress in identifiably Muslim clothing, and abstains from carrying religious texts or materials in Arabic.
When he does miss flights, the cost can quickly become exorbitant. He estimates that between rescheduled flights, taxi rides, hotel rooms, and food, he’s spent “thousands and thousands of dollars” to compensate for TSA and CBP interest in him.
But Imam Abdirahman is quick to point out that the cost is not primarily financial.
“They call [the screenings] random, but when you’re selected every single flight you get on … it’s not random anymore,” he said. “It’s targeted. It’s deliberate, it’s intentional, and it’s to dehumanize and humiliate me.”
For years, he kept his treatment at the hands of CBP and TSA officials silent–fearful of the stigma attached to being interrogated by government officials. Now, however, his stance has changed.
The board of the Bloomington mosque has been supportive, as have many others who understand all too well the anxiety Imam Abdirahman faces every time he steps into a U.S. airport.
“As long as there’s this unfair treatment that is happening and we don’t do anything about it, it’s going to keep happening,” Imam Abdirahman said. “I want to use my voice, my platform, my status as an imam and community leader, to speak about this experience. I don’t want Muslims to feel like we have to be silent.”