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

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.

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”.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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