To Beard Or Not To Beard – That’s Not The Question

by Aziz Choudry, courtesy of Znet

Now that we’re all supposed to be Americans as the fight against “the evil ones” expands, a recent incident has reminded me that some of us, wherever we may live, are just, as George Bush said recently, “Pakis”.

What does a boy with a name like Abdul Aziz do these days to travel without being hassled by the authorities? Try and look meek when you are at the airport, advised a friend in Pakistan. Don’t wear your leather jacket into Hong Kong, said an Australian comrade, after a media beat-up there in anticipation of my participation in an anti-World Economic Forum East Asia Summit meeting in October.

As I checked in for a flight from Vancouver airport last October, an Algerian worker at the airline counter chatted with me about how it is going to get harder for people with names like ours to travel.

A New Zealand trade unionist friend rang me while I was vacillating about whether to go ahead with a trip to Canada, certain that had I been on one of the planes in the September 11 attacks, my name alone would have led to an assumption of being a “terrorist”.

Last October when we spoke at a panel session on globalisation and the criminalisation of dissent at an Ottawa teach-in, anti-imperialist anarchist activist, writer and friend, Jaggi Singh pointed out that both of us fitted the prevailing profile of the archetypical modern terrorist/hijacker: clean-shaven, brown-skinned males, between 25 and 35, with some higher education and a good command of English.

Funnily enough, without talking to each other about this, both of us had already begun to grow beards…

His beard didn’t stop Jaggi from being questioned, searched and held by US Immigration and Customs officers at the Canada/US border last November.

On January 14th, I left for Vietnam. After checking in and getting my boarding pass, I went to catch my Air New Zealand flight to Sydney for the first leg of travel before 6am at Christchurch Airport. But my beard and meek smile couldn’t save me from being stopped and detained. On presenting my (New Zealand) passport and departure card at customs and immigration, I was handed over to Aviation Security after the officer referred to a note on her desk, and maybe a computer entry.

My name, I was informed, matched that of a “potentially very nasty person” on a “list from London” provided by the airline, according to the Aviation Security Service officer who took my passport and boarding pass and escorted me over to an armed policeman. I had to be “checked out”. I was not under arrest – I do not know under what legal authority I was held. At least my bags were not searched – this time. In the circumstances, who knows what reactions my chocolate bars, New Zealand scenery calendars, let alone my Pakistan cricket team top and holey socks might have elicited?

So was this what my newly-attained “higher level of recognition” as an “Elite Gold” frequent flyer really meant. My initiation into “Elite Gold” status which promised a “new level of travel comfort and convenience” was to be treated as a terrorist suspect.

Having a Muslim name is obviously incriminating enough, even before September 11, especially in a country where most people’s understanding of the Muslim world is mediated by Hollywood depictions of foaming-at-the-mouth “Islamic terrorists” who are threatening to unleash weapons of mass destruction. Or the almost indistinguishable slop served up served up by CNN and the other global infotainment giants which passes for “world news” here.

But I am also an anti-imperialist organiser, writer and researcher with a strong commitment to supporting Indigenous Peoples struggles for sovereignty and other struggles for social and economic justice. Five years ago my home was broken into in probably the most embarrassing and spectacularly-botched “security intelligence” operations in New Zealand history. Meanwhile New Zealand’s Police “intelligence” service seems to have regarded me as an “extremist” worthy of its attention long before September 11.

I have to admit, I really cannot keep up with what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to judging appearances and male facial fashion in this “war against terror”.

For if we are to believe what we are shown through the lens of the corporate media the index of freedom, justice, liberty and civilisation for Afghani people right now is whether men have beards and women wear burqas, not whether they have the right to determine their own futures and to live in dignity. Not that the US administration really gives a damn about ordinary Afghanis any more than it cares about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, women and men it has murdered. And its allies in this crusade, bit players in the war like the New Zealand and Australian governments are little different.

Some may say that the world has changed since September 11, but we must ask what is new? Since the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies have constructed new security threats which justify surveillance of many migrant communities on the basis of their real or perceived ethnic and religious affiliations, while also spying on advocates for Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty, and opponents of corporate capitalism. Some of us, like Jaggi and myself fit into all three categories. Beard or no beard.

The policeman went away with my passport to talk to someone, came back, and disappeared again. Eventually – after doubting I would be going anywhere, I was allowed to board the flight, but neither the policeman nor the aviation security officer could or would throw any real light as to what was going on. I asked if it was just open season on Muslim males of a certain age and got a blank stare. I explained that if there was going to be a problem with me travelling then they had better make sure the Vietnamese government ministry which had sponsored my visa knew about it and that they would probably be unimpressed by my being held up. I was left none the wiser as to how – of if – it had been decided that I was not the “potentially very nasty” Abdul Aziz Choudry.

Air New Zealand staff at Sydney said there was nothing on their computer system about me and that it could not have been their airline that circulated my name. Blame New Zealand Customs, they said.

I cancelled my plans for Sydney and spent a frustrating time seeking answers from authorities in Christchurch by phone, before flying to Bangkok that evening. Aviation Security initially said that Customs had given them my name. Customs told me the opposite story.

Finally the Air New Zealand terminal manager called from Christchurch. A security intelligence organisation (he was “pretty sure” that it was an overseas one, not a New Zealand one) had circulated my name, and that this had been “routine checking”. The airline then sent the information to my primary point of departure. He categorically denied that his airline was profiling passengers, “assuring” me that it was on the basis of my name that I was stopped. He could not guarantee that I would not be stopped before my other flights – although fortunately I was not – this time.

I do not want to inflate the significance of what happened. Far, far worse things are happening to people with names like mine all over the world. From the bombed villages of Afghanistan to the hundreds of innocent “suspects” rounded up and imprisoned in the USA thanks to racial and religious profiling, to the privately-run detention centres – the concentration camps housing desperate asylumseekers in Australia. Our world increasingly resembles the set of a horrific B-movie, with all the same stereotypes and roles pre-ordained by a power-hungry director who never learnt how to chew his food properly, and a sycophantic filmcrew spread worldwide, desperate to please him. But this ain’t no movie.

Tariq Ali, after his detention and search by German police at Munich airport last October wrote: “I suppose that my experience was a dress rehearsal for what is yet to come. It was a tiny enough scratch, but, if untreated, these can lead to gangrene.” That gangrene has spread to every corner of the globe.

Meanwhile we are supposed to shrug, accept our fate, and take it all on the chin. It’s only “routine checking” after all. Yeah, right.

Aziz Choudry is an activist and writer who works for GATT Watchdog in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Aziz has written on GATT/WTO, APEC, the MAI, colonisation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ to self-determination, New Zealand’s neo-liberal reforms, workers’ rights, multilateral financial institutions, the politics of aid and “development”, biopiracy, the anti-globalisation movement, the post-Cold War role of security and intelligence agencies in monitoring and suppressing dissent, and other topics. His articles have been published in around 20 countries in Australasia, Asia and the Pacific, North America, and Europe, and translated into several languages. He can be reached at For related work, see the APEC Monitoring Group.

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