“Mr. Syed, what do you feel about being picked out of a crowd? Do you mind being profiled by the FBI? What”s your take on being a foreigner in this country?” Some of the questions put forth around 5:45 p.m. this Monday by a UPN-50 reporter. Right outside the Union. Perfect setting. Not a bad interview either, if anyone caught the 10 o”clock news.

Paul Wong
Waj Syed<br><br>Under the Flak

Soon after the reporter left, a friend and I remained outside the Union, smoking and catching up.

Then a man approached. He started to speak in gibberish, trying to mimic my friend and me speaking in Urdu and without reason, started to lash out. Thus came a salad of assault and intimidation. He called us Muslim pigs, throwing in the anti-Islamic aspect. He called us incestuous and gay, among other things, throwing in the sexual content. He kicked and punched us when we tried to walk away, thus adding physical-assault salt and pepper to the mix. And then he topped it all of with some real, non-fat nationalist dressing, saying that we didn”t belong: “Get out of my country, you fucking Iranians,” he said, amusingly so since one of his targets was a Pakistani, the other an American.

The man is being investigated for assault and ethnic intimidation. I wasn”t interested to pursue someone with fresh vomit on his parka and more of the same stuff in his mind. All that kept ringing in my head, even after punches, was the quaint timing of it all. I had just been interviewed about my views on racial profiling and racism. And I had just been subjected to them. Ten minutes had segregated reason from reality.

The FBI”s announcement last week that agents would be questioning more than 70 Arab Americans in the Ann Arbor area has stirred some opinion around town. Muslim students at the University, especially Arab males, fear they might be singled out as terrorists based on their ethnicity, gender and age. Meanwhile, the University does not seem to be on top of its game. Until yesterday, University officials said they were unaware of any students being sent letters by the U.S. Attorney to students on visas coming in for questioning. But a Daily report says that several members of the Muslim Student Association have received such letters and are waiting to schedule an interview with the feds while others believe they will soon be contacted because they fit the same profile as terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attack (“FBI questioning ignites tension,” 11/27/01).

So the punch-line of the day for the Feds: Profile anything Islamic, Muslim, or Terrorist.

And the punch-line of the day for the wino: Pick on anything that is Islamic, Muslim or terrorist.

Does anyone see a pattern?

I was hoping to make an impressive political analysis in this column. But right now, I”m biased. Intrinsically and overtly biased. I don”t know whether to defend or attack. Just blame.

Forget the kangaroo courts. Forget the 550 men in federal custody not being allowed bail. Forget the ominous interviewing and questioning. I”m in no mood to debate legalities.

What about the ground reality of prejudice? What about the terribly limited information people receive in this part of the world that add to that prejudice? But more than anything, what about ignorance?

America is ignorant. So are most Americans. And that too in a very important way: culturally.

Till now, I”ve made it seem that I”m upset about being attacked by a wino. I”m not. I”m upset about the entire evening. I”m upset about events that started a little earlier that night, and lasted till even after the wino episode

The reporter, one Meg Oliver from UPN-50, had arranged for us to meet outside the Union. When I arrived and the camera started rolling, she shot the first question.

Where are you from?


How does it feel to be an Arab student from the Middle East right now?

Strike One: The Coming of Ignorance. Pretty reporter girl thought Pakistan was in the Middle East, which for her then meant that I was an Arab.

I replied: Pakistan is in South Asia, not the Middle East, and by the way, being from the Middle East does not mean that you have to be an Arab. You guys should know that. That”s something which is really badly reported very often.

They never aired that comment. But let”s go on. After the interview and the wino, the cops came. An officer, one Joe Anderson, tried to calm me down, and asked me what the wino had called me.

Motherfucker. Muslim Pig. Iranian.

What did you say back?

That he was a motherfucker too. And that I was not Iranian.

OK. Where”re you from?


So you”re a Pakistanian.

Strike Two: Ignorance Strikes Back. The cop thought that every nationality hailing from the planet earth ends with an “an,” probably because Americans end their national pronunciation that way and that”s the way it should be. Kinda like Japanian. Or Iraqian. Or Icelandian.

No, I”m a Pakistani. Not a Pakistanian. There”s no such thing.

After the debacle was over and I was walking toward Angell Hall, this one guy who had testified (he had a been a bystander) to the cops about what had happened caught up with me.

Dude. You OK? That was some guy. Why was he hitting you?

I”m fine, thanks. He thought I was Iranian.

Really? Well, you kinda look the part, you know. Where”re you from?


Dude, he wasn”t even close with that one. It”s good that you”re OK.

Strike Three: Ignorance Strikes Back with a Vengeance. Nice-bystander-guy thinks that a) it”s understandable that I was targeted because I look Iranian, b) that looking Iranian means one should expect to be attacked, and c) that Pakistan is far, far away from Iran.

Time and space.

So then, what”s it going to be? Maybe I should have stuck to the analytic guns and pondered more over the increasingly praetorian attitude towards undesirable foreigners (and undesirable foreigner look-alikes) by the FBI. Maybe I should have mentioned General “Now I”m a real Commander-in-Chief” Bushaparte and his kangaroo courts, or his “You”re with us or the terrorists” dichotomy of world politics that is upsetting to nations that don”t want to be pulled into the quagmire. Or maybe I should have picked on the sheer inappropriateness of Donald Rumsfeld for saying “he”s wanted dead or alive, but I have my preferences,” when talking to soldiers, men of discipline and honor, about Osama bin Laden last week. Or maybe I should have considered the political about-face by Colin Powell, who is now urging the global community to help Afghans with food and money. Good for Colin. It must be nice to become a multi-lateralist overnight now that the Taliban are nearly gone, especially after two months of running a uni-lateral diplomatic campaign that was threatening to isolate potential allies if they didn”t put out (domestic problems or not) and a misinformed military campaign that was bombing, successively, Red Cross buildings and civilian apartments.

But I wanted to make this one personal: Racist winos, obtuse reporters, dim cops, idiotic bystanders they all make for a mean combo with some quasi-global community Coke and not-all-foreigners-are-bad fries, but I”m not enjoying it. Maybe its time to announce America is in a geo-strategic fallacy. That”s because it has the geo-part wrong. Obviously, that doesn”t leave much hope for the strategy bit.

As for Bush, Powell and Rumsfeld: God Save the King, the Queen and the Bishop.

Waj Syed can be reached via e-mail at wajsyed@umich.edu. “Under the Flak” is a series focused on the geo-political implications of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. It”s also meant to make clear that Pakistan has a contiguous border with Iran.

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