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Does US insecurity put liberty at risk?

By Kambiz Fattahi
BBC News, Washington

Georgetown University in Washington DC
Georgetown University prides itself on its international student body

The BBC Persian Service's Kambiz Fattahi recounts his own experience of being singled out on the basis of his appearance and asks whether fears of terrorism are undermining America's traditional values.

People often ask if I have ever experienced prejudice in the US because of my Iranian background.

Up to now, I have always replied in the negative.

The last place I ever expected to encounter ignorance and apparent discrimination was at my university, a place renowned for international studies.

But last week, at Georgetown University's graduation ceremony, I found myself in shock and awe.

In awe at the inspiring keynote speech about America's tradition of freedom made by Harvard historian Dr Bernard Bailyn.

In shock at one particular display of America's post-9/11 insecurities and hyper-vigilance.

Back to reality

The university is located in the well-to-do Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington DC.

It was disturbing to think that nothing more than my Middle Eastern appearance had aroused someone's suspicion

I was there to support a graduating classmate. Sitting in the front row among proud parents, family and friends of graduating students, I was captivated by the speaker's words.

"Nations and people do have dominant characteristics, and it's a good time, a necessary time, to think briefly about our own essential characteristics. What others think about us, how we see ourselves, and how we actually are, matters."

But, the sense of awe did not last long. Two portly university security guards brought me back to reality.

"Please come with us," one of them ordered. He caught me off guard. When I asked why, he told me, "You're making some people here nervous."

It was disturbing to think that nothing more than my Middle Eastern appearance had aroused someone's suspicion. More shocking was the blunt inquiry of one of the guards about my national origin.

I told him I was a US citizen. After showing forms of identification, including my card from the BBC Persian Service, he commented: "So, you're from Persia. Aren't Babylon and the Tigris River in Persia?"

Officials at Georgetown say they have strict policies prohibiting racial and ethnic profiling, and have begun an investigation into the matter.

"Pluralism in Action"

This prominent university boasts on its website of a student body representing over 130 countries, and requires its first-year students to complete a "Pluralism in Action" programme even before beginning their studies.

Given this, the guard's cultural insensitivity took me by surprise. But observers note that this kind of singling out has become pervasive in the US since the terror attacks of 9/11.

A quarter of Muslim Americans say that, in the past year, "people have acted as if they were suspicious" of them, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

But, as my case demonstrates, this phenomenon is by no means limited to the Muslim community.

"People who are perceived to be Muslims, that are Middle Eastern, are being disparately treated," says Arsalan Iftikhar, the legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"A Sikh, who is not a Muslim, gets attacked and gets told, 'terrorist go home'."

Arshiyar Ali Shirazi, a Christian Iranian-American who has lived in the US since the age of two, recognises this trend.

Most people see names like Ali, Mohammad, Abdul, Reza and automatically associate them with the Middle East and terrorism
Arshiyar Ali Shirazi

Having graduated from university and dreaming of landing a job with the government, he goes by a more "American" name, Al.

"I figured since the 'from' line in a recruiter's inbox is the first thing they see from you, why risk associating a strong resume and solid qualifications with a Middle Eastern-sounding name?

"Most people see names like Ali, Mohammad, Abdul, Reza and automatically associate them with the Middle East and terrorism."

The guards at Georgetown eventually let me go, too late to see my friend walk across the stage to collect her degree.

As I left the building - which nine months earlier had housed the Pluralism in Action programme - Georgetown's President John J DeGioia's remarks to the graduating class resonated in my head.

"You will face challenges - and enjoy opportunities - that previous generations of citizens and leaders, scientists and scholars could not even have imagined."

Apparently, one of these challenges will be how America can address its insecurities, compounded by 9/11 and the immigration debate, all the while preserving its ideals of "liberty and justice for all".

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