Not being a regular at Islamic conferences, Mahdi Abulaban was a tad annoyed by the proceedings on Dec. 25 and 26 in Toronto. Speakers at the Renewing the Islamic Spirit conference "were beating us upside the head, telling us to be good and live in tranquility and harmony," says Abulaban, 37, a Brookline computer programmer. He says he's all for tranquility and harmony, but the message amounted to "preaching to the choir."
A few hours after the conference ended, though, Abulaban struggled to maintain his tranquility. After he, his wife and child, and a Pittsburgh friend's family reached U.S. border control and handed over their American passports, he says, "All hell broke loose." They were fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. Their van was searched, their baggage emptied, his friend's laptop accessed. After about four hours, they were allowed to cross into this country, of which they're citizens. Says Abulaban, a Jordanian native: "In a way, it kind of reminded me of a Third World country."
Abulaban's was one of at least 34 vehicles returning from the conference that were given the fine-toothed-comb treatment at the border, according to press reports. "We had credible intelligence information that conferences such as the one which they were attending were being used by terrorist organizations" for information sharing and fund-raising, says Kristi Clemens, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman. Clemens says the border stops didn't result in any arrests. "We needed to ask these individuals questions to make sure they were who they said they were," she says.
Some American Muslims say those stops, and similar incidents at the Canadian and Mexican borders since, have sent a message: International travel isn't going to be easy for them. Their experiences may be a hint of what's to come for all Americans, as the Department of Homeland Security prepares to demand more documentation from travelers returning from Canada and Mexico.
Abulaban followed his older brother to the U.S. at age 16. He became a citizen after the Sept. 11 attacks. "I chose this life for me, for my children," he says. "I truly believe in this country and the system of equality it's based on."
Abulaban went to the conference because he'd seen one of the speakers on TV, and had been inspired by his message. "The focus at the conference was peace, how to share your knowledge and your culture, and how to come out of the shell we've been put in by circumstances since September 11," he says.
"There was nothing adversarial, us-against-them, or preaching hatred. It was completely the opposite," says Abulaban's traveling companion, a South Hills businessman who asked to be referred to as Mohammed.
Homeland Security apparently saw things differently. At the border crossing on the way home, Mohammed offered to agents that they'd visited the SkyDome, where the conference was held. That's when border agents turned surly, and ordered them to pull their van into a parking garage.
"[Agents] screamed, 'Get out of the car, now,'" says Abulaban. An agent noticed a brochure from the conference. "He came to me and said, 'Is this where you've been?'" says Abulaban.
"He was waving it around like it was the Al Qaeda training manual," says Mohammed.
Agents drove Abulaban's van away, and his and Mohammed's families endured four hours of questioning and waiting. "I felt fear," Mohammed says. "There are three or four armed officers with the power to handcuff you and put you away where you can't see your family for a long time."
Their laptops were examined. Mohammed says his laptop's file history shows that personal photos and other files were accessed. "My machine was in their possession for at least three hours," Mohammed says. "They could have downloaded everything." The men and their wives were fingerprinted. "I said, 'Why am I being fingerprinted?'" Mohammed recounts. "They said, 'It's to make sure you're not in the database.' Now I am in the database."
Clemens, of Homeland Security, says fingerprints that don't match known suspects are discarded. She says travelers' computers are often turned on and off at border crossings, but as for accessing personal photos, "That's the first I've heard of that."
Mohammed has seen some indication that his name now has an asterisk beside it, as far as the government is concerned. Egyptian-born, he's been an American resident for more than 30 years -- since he was 18 months old -- and became a citizen at age 18. But this year when he had occasion to fly, he was briefly delayed while an airline agent called in his information and waited for the OK.
"I wouldn't be surprised if my name is on [a government watch] list," says Abulaban. He occasionally travels to Jordan, and doesn't want to have trouble entering or leaving either country. He's also worried about the general climate in this country, where he's raising three children, ages 4 to 8. "I just wish, hope and pray that we get to a point where we do not judge one another, but live in understanding and hope," he says.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called for an investigation into the Dec. 26 border stops and subsequent, similar incidents at both the Canadian and Mexican borders, says Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR's national legal director. In the absence of any information on what Homeland Security learned from the stops, or did with the information, American Muslims aren't sure what to think, says Iftikhar. "Many people in our community believe their right to free association and free practice of religion is being chilled," he says.
Non-Muslims should be worried, too, Iftikhar argues. "Who's to say that tomorrow the average American on their family trip to Canada is not stopped, detained for seven hours, fingerprinted and given no explanation of what's happening to the data?"
On April 5, Homeland Security announced that it will soon require all Americans returning from Canada and Mexico to show passports, rather than the driver's licenses that currently suffice. Homeland Security expects to phase in the new requirement over the next three years. Travel-industry representatives have already expressed concerns that the new rule will create long lines at the borders and discourage school and family trips, since kids are less likely than adults to have passports.
When border agents ordered Abulaban's party out of the van, his 8-year-old daughter took it hardest, he says. "She was really terrified. She was crying when she came out of the [van]. She came running to me," he says. "I told her, 'Welcome to the United States.'"