When I stepped into the country for the first time to start my college career as a freshman, I was armed only with two suitcases and many disturbing stories involving racism, mistaken identities, chloroform and body bags. The characters in these stories were always unshaven international students suspected — inevitably — of conspiring against the fabric of Western civilization.

The lead character would disappear, resurfacing after a year with his name cleared but his sanity lost after endless interrogations. No questions would be asked and no help given — the character had been a prime suspect, after all.

But in my excitement, I had never really thought those stories were anything but myths concocted by paranoid relatives bidding farewell to their departing sons. Apparently, I was wrong.

On Apr. 18, according to the British media outlet Telegraph, Muhammad Adil sat on a bench outside Liverpool John Moores University, chatting with a friend. There are any number of permutations of the conversation that would have been considered completely benign. At the end of the day, Adil probably would have retired to his apartment, pulled up his blanket and declared the ordinary day perfectly pleasant with lazy conviction.

But, unfortunately, that was not what was in store for the 27-year-old student from Pakistan pursuing a Masters of Business Administration degree. The boys’ conversation was interrupted — rather rudely, by anyone’s standards — by policemen holding submachine guns. Adil’s friend was shoved aside unceremoniously. The police, meanwhile, proceeded to arrest a bemused Adil.

Adil was one of twelve men of Pakistani origin to be apprehended as part of an anti-terror operation in England that aimed to stop, according to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “a very big terrorist plot,” as reported by The Los Angeles Times (Britain has freed 12 men arrested in anti-terrorism sweep, 04/23/2009).

What ensued as a result of the arrests was an overhyped critique of Britain’s visa procedures and debates on whether international students — particularly those from Pakistan — were all really terrorists in disguise. That is, until the students were declared not guilty and all charges against them were dropped. Authorities, however, still attempted to deport nine of the arrested men despite the lack of evidence linking them to terrorist groups. The subsequent diplomatic fallout saw Brown scurrying to meet his Pakistani counterpart. But the students’ futures remain uncertain.

It has become increasingly clear that the crackdown — dubbed “Operation Pathway” — was a drastic knee-jerk reaction to an intelligence mistake. Commandos with submachine guns arresting a student in front of the college library is a dreadfully excessive measure. It was equally appalling that apartments were ransacked, computers confiscated and cell phones taken apart by special agents determined to legitimize their slip-up. And to add insult to injury, the operation was conducted in full view of the students’ classmates. If Adil does escape deportation, he cannot possibly walk into a class with his head held high.

It is troubling that the Geneva Convention, like Adil’s friend, was sent tumbling out of the conversation when the inalienable right to due consular access was initially denied to the students. In addition, the accused, according to a lawyer they later obtained, were not fully informed of the charges against them.

And let’s examine the overarching implications of the operation for international students worldwide. It’s bound to heighten the underlying and unspoken fear that already exists for students from countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon. Many wouldn’t write about this for fear of drawing attention to themselves and would instead only undermine their fears by cracking nervous jokes about the subject in private.

Additionally, the readiness of the general public to leap to conclusions about international students merely on the basis of their country of origin was alarming. The Asian News reported that when asked why he thought he was arrested, one student said that it was because he had a beard (Terror arrest students launch bid to stay, 05/11/2009). It only reinforced largely unfounded racist stereotypes. The ramifications of this extend beyond the issue at hand. It instigates dangerous sentiments and buttresses already existing racism in many societies.

Finally, the assumption that these students were guilty until proved innocent sets a dangerous precedent for other nations and societies. Only the Pakistan High Commission and an umbrella group for British Muslims were willing to come to the students’ aid. Everyone else, it seems, was more than willing to accept the legitimacy of the raids at face value.

The question for us, then, is whether we too would stand aside silently with terrified glances while misinformed commandos sporting submachine guns forced an oblivious student to the ground in front of the UgLi? Let’s be honest. We probably would, relieved that a masquerading criminal has been removed from our midst. But most of us wouldn’t pause and contemplate his innocence. Of course not. Sadly, for many students, the fact that the student had a beard could, of course, mean only one thing.

Emad Ansari can be reached at heansari@umich.edu.

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