The Perils of Racial Profiling

By Farish A. Noor

Posted Dec 2, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Perils of Racial Profiling

By Farish A. Noor

These days, I dread the thought of taking a plane to go anywhere. No, its not that Im worried that my flight may be cut short by some lunatics who suddenly want to play amateur pilot for a thrill. And Im not afraid of ending up splattered in a million pieces on some CEOs desk on the 40th floor of some skyscraper either.

What bothers me the most is the thought that as soon as the plane touches the ground I will have to pick myself up and drag my sorry self to the immigration desk where yet another routinised experience of humiliation and abuse awaits me. It is odd, to say the least, that an academic-activist like myself who spends his time working on inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue should end up being racially-profiled by virtue of my religion and nationality; and that the pen-pushing bureaucrat across the immigration desk
should immediately assume that just because my name is Ahmad-Noor then I was born with a Kalashnikov in my hands.

Yet these are the realities of the times we live in, and the hegemonisation of the discourse of ґWar on Terror has made it even easier, even acceptable and justifiable, for entire communities to be blacklisted and treated with open, wanton contempt and suspicion in broad daylight. Muslims in particular have come to realise that we are Җ to borrow Yoko Onos phrase Җ the niggers of the worldђ these days. But before Muslims get on their respective high horses and bemoan their sad fate before the world, they ought to realise that such racial profiling is not new and that they are certainly not the only victims of it.

In the past, other communities were also similarly singled out and brought under the suspicious glare of the political microscope: The Jews of Europe were assumed to be Communists, anarchists, free-thinking cosmopolitans, landless and homeless urbanites, radical intellectuals, bankers bent on enriching themselves, etc.  sometimes all at once. Then came the bogus threat of the ֑Yellow Peril when Asians from China and Japan were thought to be a corrupting influence on the world, spreading the vice of drugs and
gambling wherever they went.

The painful realities of the past are hardly strangers to us in the present. If Muslims today feel that they are unfairly stigmatised and stereotyped, then they should be even more sensitive to the plight of other communities who suffer the same fate.

One such community happens to be foreigners in Malaysia, in particular those who happen to come from China. Over the past few weeks and months the Malaysian press has been inundated with reports about alleged abuses meted out upon tourists from China. While the Malaysian state and private sector have bent over backwards to accommodate and welcome tourists from the Arab countries Җ to the point of creating an Arab quarterђ in downtown Kuala Lumpur to make them feel at home the same red carpet treatment has been somewhat lacking in the case of the Chinese.

Chinese tourists to Malaysia have complained of routine abuse and harassment during their stay in the country. In one hotel it was alleged that Chinese tourists had their room tags and labels defaced with images of pigs drawn by anonymous Chinese-haters. Then came the claim that Chinese women in particular had been harassed, their passports taken, and bribes demanded of them by the Malaysian police force. The latest scandal involves the case of a short video clip, transmitted by MMS format on mobile phones, that shows the image of a woman ֖ apparently Chinese though not necessarily from China herself forced to strip naked and to perform exercises in front of a Malay-Muslim police woman.

The cumulative effect of this string of abuses has been to galvanise the Chinese press both in Malaysia and abroad to come to the defence of the Chinese tourists ֖ and by extension the Chinese minority community in Malaysia. Already it has had the devastating effect of bringing down the number of Chinese tourists to the country, at a time when Malaysia is busy promoting itself as a haven for tourism and a country that welcomes all races and creeds.

The question is: How are the Muslims of Malaysia to react to this? If Muslims are prepared to demand that their rights be restored to them when they feel themselves to be unfairly treated, are they prepared to do the same for others ֖ particularly when the instances of abuse are so regularly documented and debated in public?

Or are Muslims really a parochial lot and we are only prepared to raise our voices when one of usђ is the victim? Islam is a creed that recognises no colour. Its colour-blindness like its class-blindness and status-blindness ֖ is precisely what makes it a universal religion. But when the charity, sense of justice and fair-play of Muslims stop short at the frontiers of the Muslim ummah, then Islam ceases to be a global religion, and is reduced to a mere sectarian faith. The Chinese tourists who have been harassed in the
country are not aliens or strangers to ourselves. Underlying the apparent differences in colour, gender, language and culture between us all, there remains the fundamental Tauhidic truth of the unity of humankind. Even if the racist bigots and demagogues cant see that, we as Muslims, cannot choose to turn the other way.