Thursday's Capitol Hill hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in the U.S. plays on the community's worst fears about stereotyping. It's those fears that were at the center of a recent landmark court case. It involved 40 Muslims from the Buffalo, N.Y., area who had crossed the border into Canada to attend an Islamic conference — and were detained upon return.
Five years ago, Dr. Khalid Qasi got a late-night phone call.
"When I picked up the phone, I was in deep sleep, but when I pick up the phone I have this Muslim woman, a dentist on the other side, crying, saying, 'Brother Khalid, what did we do, what did we do, we are here at the border for the last six hours,' " Qasi recalled.
Qasi is one of the leaders of the Muslim community in Buffalo. And the woman on the phone said 40 people from the local Muslim community were in a holding room at the U.S. border with Canada caught in a procedure called secondary screening.
"We arrived at the border around 11 or 12 p.m.," said Hassan Shibly, one of the people detained that night.
He said he and everyone in the group were carrying valid American identification.
"It was a long drive, very snowy, we were very tired," he said. "And they didn't ask us many questions. They just looked at our passports, asked where we went. We said we went to an Islamic conference in Toronto. And they said, 'All right we're going to pull you in for a random inspection.' "
Shibly's mother is the one who had made the late-night phone call to Qasi asking for help.
"My mom's like what does random mean?" he continued. "I just jokingly said it is probably because they saw your headscarf. I went into the secondary screening room and it was like the local mosque. ... There were about 40 individuals and each and every one of them Muslim, from the Muslim community."
Shibly said the treatment was rough. He said the agents took him into a separate room, put him up against a wall, forcefully searched him and forced him to provide fingerprints and pose for a photograph.
"Without any reason why," Shibly said.
The harsh treatment, it came out later, had to do with the Islamic conference Shibly and the others had attended.
Homeland Security said it had received a tip that people at that conference might have ties to terrorism. Government lawyers said in court papers filed later that because of that intelligence tip, anyone crossing into Buffalo from Toronto could receive the same treatment as a suspected terrorist. In other words, forced pat-downs, fingerprinting and detention.
The incident became the basis of a lawsuit called Tabbaa v. Chertoff.
"We do not just randomly send individuals into secondary; there have to be other reasons to detain people or put them into secondary," Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said of the case.
Could simply attending an Islamic conference spark a second look? He said it could.
"Some conferences, we would have an interest on who's there" and could question people more closely on the border on that basis, he said.
But in this case, the conference in Toronto was something Muslims from Buffalo had attended every year.
Michael Battle was the U.S. attorney in Buffalo at the time, and he said he was upset by what happened. "As U.S. attorney, of course, the first thing I wanted to know was why. I wanted to know if their detention indicated possibly criminal behavior," said Battle.
He said criminal behavior clearly wasn't an issue because everyone was eventually released and allowed to enter the United States. Battle had prosecuted a high-profile terrorism case in Buffalo known as the Lackawanna Six several years earlier, in 2002. He says the border case seemed like profiling.
"That kind of thing makes Muslims angry and it should make all Americans angry," he said. "Because again, this is just not what law enforcement should be used for ... something that amounts to, or looks like, nothing more than garden variety profiling."
Even so, the government won the lawsuit. A U.S. appeals court essentially said national security concerns can outweigh civil liberties.
Qasi, the man who took that late-night phone call, said he's never been satisfied with the explanation given for what happened at the border.
"If they had appropriate identification and they did not lie and they answered the questions, why did they need fingerprints? Nobody could answer that," he said.
The ACLU and a group called Muslim Advocates have tried a new legal tack. They filed a Freedom of Information Act request in hopes of getting U.S. Customs and Border Protection to spell out the guidelines for questioning people at the border. They have also written to the Department of Homeland Security asking its inspector general to investigate the treatment of U.S. Muslims at the borders.
The inspector general's office is looking into it but has yet to launch a formal investigation.
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