Tuesday, August 15, 2006

the multiculturalist façade begins to crack

Drudge is currently highlighting this Times Online article (quoted in full lest the link go bad):

By Ben Webster, Transport Correspondent

THE Government is discussing with airport operators plans to introduce a screening system that allows security staff to focus on those passengers who pose the greatest risk.

The passenger-profiling technique involves selecting people who are behaving suspiciously, have an unusual travel pattern or, most controversially, have a certain ethnic or religious background.

The system would be much more sophisticated than simply picking out young men of Asian appearance. But it would cause outrage in the Muslim community because its members would be far more likely to be selected for extra checks.

Officials at the Department for Transport (DfT) have discussed the practicalities of introducing such a system with airport operators, including BAA. They believe that it would be more effective at identifying potential terrorists than the existing random searches.

They also say that it would greatly reduce queues at secur-ity gates, which caused lengthy delays at London airports yesterday for the fifth day running. Heathrow and Gatwick were worst affected, cancelling 69 and 27 flights respectively. BAA gave warning yesterday that the disruption would continue for the rest of the week.

Passengers are now allowed to take one small piece of hand luggage on board but security staff are still having to search 50 per cent of travellers. Airports have also been ordered to search twice as many hand luggage items as a week ago.

BAA was criticised yesterday for failing to commit itself to recruiting more security staff and for claiming that its existing 6,000 staff at seven airports would be able to handle the extra searches. Tony Douglas, the chief executive of Heathrow, said that X-ray screening of hand luggage would be much faster under the new rules on size and contents, leaving staff free to carry out more searches.

The new measures, which include a ban on taking any liquids through checkpoints, are expected to remain in place for months. A DfT source said it was difficult to see how the restrictions could be relaxed if terrorists now had the capabil-ity to make liquid bombs.

The DfT has been considering passenger profiling for a year but, until last week, the disadvantages were thought to outweigh the advantages. A senior aviation industry source said: “The DfT is ultra-sensitive about this and won’t say anything publicly because of political concerns about being accused of racial stereotyping.”

Three days before last week’s arrests, the highest-ranking Muslim police officer in Britain gave warning that profiling techniques based on physical appearance were already causing anger and mistrust among young Muslims. Tarique Ghaffur, an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said: “We must think long and hard about the causal factors of anger and resentment.

“There is a very real danger that the counter-terrorism label is also being used by other law-enforcement agencies to the effect that there is a real risk of criminalising minority communities.”

Sir Rod Eddington, former chief executive of British Airways, criticised the random nature of security searches. He said that it was irrational to subject a 75-year-old grandmother to the same checks as a 25-year-old man who had just paid for his ticket with cash.

Philip Baum, an aviation security consultant, said that profiling should focus on ruling out people who obviously posed no risk rather than picking out Asian or Arabs.

A DfT spokesman refused to make any comment or answer any questions on profiling.

  • British Airways plans to cancel forty short-haul and four long-haul flights from Heathrow today as well as eleven domestic flights from Gatwick. Other airlines expect to operate near-normal schedules.

  • All airports will allow passengers to carry one small piece of hand luggage, but no liquids are allowed through the security search point other than prescribed medicines and baby food.

  • I have mixed feelings about profiling. Profiling is, by definition, a form of discrimination. The word "discrimination" carries a negative connotation for many Americans, but we should be wary: discrimination, as a human act, is not inherently bad. We discriminate in how we make friends, how we select meals, how we select clothing. What's worrisome is the existence of certain types of discrimination-- racial discrimination, for example.

    But is racial discrimination inherently bad? Many white folks have mostly-white circles of friends. Many black folks have mostly-black circles of friends. Sunday worship has been routinely described as "the most segregated time of the week" in American culture. Are these forms of racial discrimination bad? Should we create a law that obliges black folks to make more white friends, and vice versa?

    Perhaps we should refine the issue further and note that things like friendship and worship involve a certain amount of self-selection: no government power is ordering the different races to their respective churches or friendship-circles. Not only is no power ordering such self-segregation, but the groups, once formed, remain open to the Other: white folks are (in my experience) perfectly welcome in black churches, and vice versa. Circles of friends are open to the possibility of cross-racial friendship. This type of self-segregation, then, is indeed racial or ethnic discrimination, but one would be hard-pressed to deem it pernicious.

    Granted: from a 21st-century American standpoint, some forms of discrimination are self-evidently bad: signs and billboards from the recent American past-- such as those saying "WHITES ONLY"-- are viewed as unambiguously bad by the majority of Americans who have tried to move beyond racism. I would say the same applies in most of Europe: such discrimination simply does not wash as a modern cultural value, this despite the Jean-Marie Le Pens of the Continent.

    But the issue is murkier when one begins to draw consistent statistical associations between certain demographics and certain behaviors, which brings us to terrorism, profiling, and Muslims.

    I'm sympathetic to the African-American contention that something is often amiss in law enforcement. I don't consider American police forces to be fundamentally racist, but to deny that racism plays any role in law enforcement stretches credibility. I'm not quite as sympathetic, however, when it comes to Muslim terrorism, because almost all international terrorism is committed by people who claim to be Muslim.

    It would be wrong, of course, to leap from this evidence to the conclusion that all Islam is inherently bad: the actual situation makes such a claim ridiculous. We do not, in fact, see 1.3 billion head-choppers and embassy-burners. Most Muslims are average Joes trying to eke out a daily existence-- to sell their wares, finish work at the office, go home and sit with their families. We don't hear from these normal Joes. They don't make the news.

    But one wonders about Muslim attitudes toward the West, toward 9/11, and so on. I just saw a post at The Korea Liberator that includes a survey of Muslim opinions about 9/11. The survey notes that Muslims in many countries-- in some cases, it would appear to be a majority of Muslims in those countries-- actually believe that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by the Jews and blamed on Muslims. This is, quite simply, insane. I wish I could put it more diplomatically, but such an attitude is nuts, and it complicates the question of who, exactly, counts as a "moderate" Muslim. That's why, on this blog, I have repeatedly said that "moderate" should be defined in Western terms: a Muslim whose convictions seem moderate from the Muslim point of view might not seem moderate from a Western, non-Muslim point of view.

    The news isn't filled with accounts of international terrorism by Jews, Hindus, Christians, Taoists, Zoroastrians, or Buddhists. It's Muslims, unfortunately, who make the news. Of course, most of these other religions cannot claim to be trouble-free today: there are Christian conflicts in Ireland, for example; there are Hindu/Buddhist conflicts in Sri Lanka. But none of these problems is global; all are local, confined to a given region. Masses of Hindus in India are not volunteering to cross the ocean to die on behalf of their Tamil Hindu brothers. American Catholics and Protestants are not lining up to settle scores in Northern Ireland. Only with Islam are we dealing with a truly global problem, and this cannot be papered over.

    The phrase "Islam's bloody borders" is commonly heard in two prominent circles: political science and religious studies.* It's something of an understatement to claim that, (1) where the Muslim demographic dominates, there is often violent conflict with other demographics, and (2) where a large Muslim community comes in contact with a non-Muslim community across a political or cultural border, there is violence. Nigeria is a painful case in point, but we could also cite India/Pakistan, Russia/Chechnya, and so on.

    Given the current level of friction, how should predominantly non-Muslim countries deal with the Muslims in their midst? Should they expel them all? Should they round them up and gas them? Should they tag all Muslims with a registration number? I've been reading the conservative blogs on this subject with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Some rightists seem to advocate stringent profiling; others advocate outright expulsion; some even go so far as to advocate the total eradication of Islam.**

    This rightist undercurrent in Western society seems at last to be breaking through the veneer of multiculturalism-- and in all places, it's happening in Britain, currently home to 1.6 million Muslims as of late 2001. France, home to about 3.8 to 6 million Muslims (roughly 6-10% of the French population; see here) has been dealing with its own Muslim issues, many related to antisemitism against France's 600,000 Jews.*** Yet it is the Brits who seem closest to implementing a large-scale profiling system.

    The fact that Britain is moving toward such drastic measures as racial/religious profiling is a sign, I think, of what's in store for Muslims in other countries. While I'm sympathetic to those Muslims who openly deplore terrorism, Wahhabist ideology, and those aspects of their own religion that pit them needlessly against people of other faiths and cultures, I think it is the duty of the "moderate" Muslims to do what they can to restore a sense of Islam's more positive aspects-- compassion, peacefulness, devotion, brotherhood, and so on. Some Muslims are doing so, in ways big and small (see this link, for example****).

    In the meantime, I see us all-- globally-- moving toward the culmination of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the West and Islam both sincerely subscribe to the "Islam/West" dichotomy, then such actions as those being contemplated by the British are unsurprising and perhaps inevitable. Other countries are likely to follow suit. Muslims will react negatively to this, which will in turn confirm that such measures as profiling are justified. The Great Polarization is well under way. What I haven't resolved in my own mind is whether this is, in the long term, a good thing.

    *Check out this Google search and note the entries that deal with the phrase in its political and religious sense; here is the same search, but in French; here, significantly, is a pictorial representation of Islam-related conflict.

    **We all see how effective persecution has been against Jews and Christians: Jews continue to exist despite millennia of persecution and Christianity is this planet's dominant religion.

    ***This link also notes that there are more Jews in the United States than in Israel.

    ****This site contains a link to a very interesting article about how we might best move forward if we insist on a democratization project. One thing the article notes regarding the rise of Hamas is similar to my own long-ago contention that the party rode in on a wave of emotion: "The example of Hamas' ascension in Gaza and the West Bank presents obvious difficulties. But it would be fallacious to assume that it was democracy that voted in Islamic extremism. More correctly, it was the years of corruption and abuse of power of the Fatah-led administration that voted Hamas into power. If the exercise of democracy is about venting the people's anger and dissatisfaction with the powers that be, then the outcome was a foregone conclusion." [emphasis added]


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